In our age of overnight indie mega-stars, Phoenix are the last of a dying breed. The French quartet earned their success the hard way: gradually building an international fanbase over the course of a decade and expanding and refining their quirky, hook-driven pop from album to album. In 2009, Phoenix delivered their commercial breakthrough, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which remained a constant fixture on bar playlists and workout mixes well into the following year. It’s a punchy, synth-splattered crossover masterpiece, fueled by Thomas Mars’s pleading, tuneful yelp. Singles like “1901″ and “Listzomania” became ubiquitous car-commercial anthems, and the reviews across-the-board were glowing.
So it’s not a surprise that Phoenix took their sweet time crafting an encore. Four long years after Wolfgang, they’ve delivered, Bankrupt!, their fifth studio album that contains a slightly hazier, more impressionistic batch of songs that nonetheless maintains their genial approach and pack epic hooks.
eMusic’s Ryan Reed spoke with bassist Deck D’Arcy just before the group’s performance at Coachella, discussing their steady career trajectory and to unlock the eclectic influences behind Bankrupt!‘s standout tracks.
On the album’s slightly more experimental vibe:
[The experimentation] was not really conscious. We have a bit of a weird way to write songs — it’s a bit empirical. We basically record everything we are doing and listen to stuff afterward with fresh ears and make a very thorough selection of short bits of music that we then put together, trying to create cool stuff at random. It’s hard to consciously write a proper song from A to Z. What we find attractive at first is something quite predictable, so we kind of have to put together kind of random stuff, and sometimes it ends up being weird.
But what’s weird now is not going to be weird in two weeks or years or whatever. What’s weird is relative to the timeline — it’s not very absolute. It just depends on when you hear stuff. Most of my favorite albums, I didn’t care for on my first listen. I remember the first time I listened to [Beck's 1996 album] Odelay, I didn’t like it, and it ended up being my favorite album of all-time — or in the top three. So for us, this is how we see music anyway. We love “grower” albums.
On the pressures of following Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix:
The thing is we don’t really choose where we’re going, you know? We just make everything ready to capture our inspiration in the studio, but we don’t know where we’re going, and that’s the exciting part of it. If we knew where we were going, it wouldn’t be genuine. We don’t know what we want, but we know what is cool and not cool for us. We just generate as much music as possible and select what’s cool.
Shit, I lost my point [laughs]. The thing is, we did have quite crazy success on the last album from where we were before, but every album has been a relative success. The first album came out of nothing — we were just a Versailles band, and we released an album and ended up touring the world. The album wasn’t a worldwide success, but it was still kind of crazy. We felt like, “Wow, this is amazing!” With the second album, we had success in some other countries. We had an idea of what success is and an idea of how inconsistent it is. This time, [the success] was the U.S., so it had a bigger consequence, of course. But I really think we haven’t been influenced by the success of the previous album.
We did all of our albums in a very selfish way. The only goal is to impress the other band members, not really to impress the audience. We just decided to do it exactly the same way we did Wolfgang — not trying to impress anyone other than ourselves. When we finished Wolfgang, no one really liked it – like, [among] our friends. We had no record company then. We didn’t struggle with it, but it wasn’t easy. People were like, “Yeah, that’s cool, whatever.” It ended up being successful, but that wasn’t really obvious at the time. So we decided to apply exactly the same formula [with Bankrupt!].
“Trying to be Cool”
We found this little melody a long time ago in New York, and we left it aside for like a year. We re-listened to it a year after, and there was something too obvious in it. So we kind of left it. But I remember we started re-trying it a year after with different instruments, and it started to have a new vision. We changed the key and everything. At the time, we were listening to a lot of French artists from our childhood era — the mid ’70s to late ’70s. And we were really inspired by that. And we gave it another try, and it worked. I remember [producer] Phillipe Zdar coming to the studio, saying [uses harsh French accent] “Yeah, yeah, you have to finish that track right now! Just go for it!” It felt like an investigation creatively.
While working on “Drakkar Noir,” at some point, we started playing it at half-tempo, and it had this repetitive groove and vibe. “Chloroform” is a loop of “Drakkar Noir” but quite slower — which is a very easy trick — but the music came out of it. We liked the kind of hip-hop quality. We like to explore areas that are far-flung from what we usually do, and we thought this was interesting. It’s very random — it came out of little accidents from “Drakkar Noir.”
This song was inspired by another French artist from the same era — early ’80s, before the ’80s became cheesy, kind of French punk. Probably a bit obscure for you, but for us, it means a lot. His name is Jacno. We were really obsessed with this at some point. It wasn’t the easiest one to put together, with all the layers. This one has a lot of key changes, and we were really fascinated by key changes on this album. I think this is what you’re calling “weirdness.” We had to work a lot on that one — it was probably the one we worked the most on.
The very first stuff we recorded on the album is actually in that track — we did it in Australia. The beginning of the song with the marimba, it’s actually the first take we did for the album. And the very end, the last vocal take we did is on there. So this is the track that followed us throughout the whole process, and it’s a very meaningful track for us. This is neither an introduction nor an outro — it’s a very important part of the album, so that’s why we put it in the middle. Every album we do, we realize it’s not really on purpose, but there’s always an instrumental or maybe two. In the studio, we always do a lot of different things, and we felt like it was totally a part of the album. But it’s not a real instrumental because it’s sung at the end, but three-quarters of it is instrumental. We grew up listening to a lot of soundtracks and instrumental music, so I guess it’s in our DNA to make instrumental tracks as well. Actually, it’s cool live, as well. We’ve started playing it, and it’s really intense.
It’s funny because everyone thinks it sounds Asian. It’s true, but the original inspiration was the Éthiopiques compilations. They’re a bunch of compilations of Ethiopian music from the ’60s to the ’80s. We listened to a lot of this. Working with the Ethiopian key, which is a Pentatonic key, it’s very close to the Asian one. We found this melody at the beginning of “Entertainment,” and it ended up sounding very Asian, even though it’s really Ethiopian. Anyway, it’s the Pentatonic key, which has been around for centuries.
It’s the first track on the album because it’s the first track we finished. When we do a new album, we think it could have been made by a whole new band, but maybe this one is the closest to Wolfgang. I’d actually never thought about it, but it’s possible.
On the album’s track sequence:
That’s the specialty of Phillipe Zdar. He’s very good at it. I remember for awhile, we were having arguments, but on this one, he found the perfect order the first time. It took him like two days, and he came back with it, and everyone agreed. Which never happens in Phoenix — we have arguments about everything. But it was just perfect, or we felt it was perfect. Especially on this album, the sequence is quite important. We tried a lot, and we felt, “This is not right.” And Phillipe found a good one, so it’s thanks to him. We grew up with the LP — we are old now, so we’re used to the LP’s A-side, B-side vibe. It’s very important to us, the album format. So it’s something that has to be exactly right.