The word that Thomas Mars sings the most on the new Phoenix album is "alone" (we stopped counting after 25 times!) It might seem strange that with such solitary subject matter, these four guys from the French suburbs are reaching the biggest audiences of their career.
“When you make an album, you have to be disconnected,” says Mars. “You have to make this for yourself. And then when you’re on tour, you feel something else suddenly. It’s distinctively different.”
To witness the band translating the songs from the April-released “Bankrupt!” to the masses, this distinct difference is striking. While Mars sings “I’d rather be alone” on the refrain of lead-off single “Entertainment,” he’s jumping into the audience and demonstrating that he’d actually rather connect on a universal note with people who have obviously felt the same way.
While the band looked quite comfortable headlining Coachella last month, playing for about 180,000 people over two weekends, this bigger stage show has not been without its growing pains.
“It’s a discovery for us,” says Mars. “When we started we weren’t sure of that possibility, to make those monster shows. And then at some point after a few experiments, we saw some sort of poetic value or some kind of Roman Empire quality to it: something grand, something bigger than music.”
But part of how Phoenix achieves this grand scale is by maintaining an intimacy. Mars says he has been going into the audience to sing since the band began before the new millennium.
“There have been a few shows I remember when we played, when there was not even a stage,” he says. “We were the same height as the crowd and you show that you’re really immersed into it. So I think that’s something that we miss and we try to always have that, even to this day.”
The past is always present
“Bankrupt!” feels very much like a summer album. Its dense layers provide new discoveries upon repeated listens, a sunshine soundtrack to make a mundane summer job less mundane, with melodies ready for group singing in the car with friends. The sound is decidedly more synth-based than the guitar-heavy tracks that put the band on the map with 2009’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.” There’s also a feel of the music of the band members’ youth, as they steal a drum sound directly from Prince. But this is definitely not retro music.
“There’s a lot of late ’70s analog keyboard and the digital keyboards from the ’80s and drum machines,” explains Mars. “And then there’s all the new stuff. But the thing is all this new stuff, they don’t really have color. They will all sound like something from 2010 or 2013 in a few years. But right now they don’t have any identity in a way.”
Daft Punk is not playing at my house, but R. Kelly is
Rumors ran rampant that Phoenix would include their childhood friends Daft Punk in their Coachella performances. But they had done that already, in 2010 at Madison Square Garden. The band didn’t want to give in to predictable expectations, but they also didn’t want to disappoint by not having a special guest. After last year’s Virtual 2Pac, they knew the bar had been set high for special guests. Their solution was to do exactly what nobody would ever consider: ask R. Kelly. Click here to hear Mars' account of what happened behind the scenes.