How Phoenix Found Their Groove in the Louvre

Culture
The excellent new album ‘Alpha Zulu,’ recorded at night in the famous museum during lockdown, captures the chemistry of a band that’s defied rock ‘n’ roll cliche to stay best friends for 25 years.

Image may contain Human Person Laurent Brancowitz Thomas Mars Musical Instrument Guitar and Leisure Activities

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There are no bands like Phoenix, a miracle of French cool, melodic perfection, and genre-fudging experimentation whose career, now in its 25th year, feels increasingly singular. This is an anniversary that prompts reflection and appreciation. Listeners who’ve never known an election without Obama or Trump on the ballot may think of them as “the ‘1901’ band,” whose 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix created legions of well-dressed lanky boys with keyboards once scanning as that bygone signifier “indie.” But they’re much deeper than any one song or record: The band’s work, across seven albums in those 25 years, has always centered the pleasure principle, and understood music as a sort of social networking for friends and lovers. Few bands are better at conjuring a perfect party where the mood is right, the sweat is justified, and everyone is getting along until it’s time to go home.

Now, they’re back with Alpha Zulu, their first album in five years, which was recorded at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, inside the Louvre. (Yes, that Louvre, but more on that in a moment.) Just as impressive as those seven albums across 25 years and where they’ve chosen to make them is how Phoenix have done it as a harmonious four-man unit who’ve suffered no real discord, no fracturing crises. The members of Phoenix — singer Thomas Mars, guitarists (and brothers) Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai, and bassist/keyboardist Deck D’arcy — met as boys growing up in genteel and stately Versailles, where they bonded over their love of artists like Pixies and the Sex Pistols, which made them outsiders in a city built around the idea of venerating the very distant past. They started playing together as teenagers, when they had scant musical ability but already a surfeit of taste and attitude — very quickly, they were picking stage names to sound cooler. (Thomas’ real surname is Croquet, and you’ll agree that it’s no competition for “Mars.”) This incubated an “us vs. them” dynamic familiar to many teen bands, but it sustained them past young adulthood and into the adult world, where their laboring and insularity and utter Frenchness resulted in a sensual and propulsive sound born of consensus between four best friends who freely admit to being incapable of playing with other musicians.

Every Phoenix record is an attempt to synthesize this bond and translate it for the listening public, an act of communion whose ongoing transference feels worthy of contemplation. Like you, I’m not as close with my childhood friends as I used to be — life and all its vagaries have wedged a distance that only collapses at the occasional holiday hang. Listening to Phoenix makes me think about those friendships: how far we’ve come and how we’ve diverged, how this is nothing unique but still sad in the way many normal things that everyone has to go through are sad. This is partly what makes their music seem miraculous — that these decades together have resulted in a deepening connection, and a continuous refining of the sensibility that brought them together as teenagers, which anyone can hear for themselves by hitting play. A million bands tried to sound like Phoenix after Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and none of them succeeded, and 13 years later the originals are still here and making great records.

“As we are getting older and older, I don’t know if we’re getting better and better at music,” says Deck D’Arcy, over Zoom. “But we try to improve our way of life, and the way we tour. We try to enjoy it more.” He’s talking about the road, but it also speaks to the life approach that pushes the band forward. They try to enjoy it more. Why can’t you?


Alpha Zulu, out November 4, was made under unfamiliar conditions. The members had never spent more than a month apart since they were teenagers, but the pandemic put them on hiatus for nearly a year as Thomas Mars, who lives in New York City with his wife Sofia Coppola and their children, was prevented from joining everyone in Paris. “We had to find a new way of songwriting, because we always write as the four of us,” says Christian Mazzalai. “That’s one of our rules: We let something much more powerful than our brains happen, in the exchange of silence.”

The four members, who talk to me in pairs — Mazzalai and Darcy, Mars and Brancowitz — are elliptical about what this new way of songwriting entails; as far as I can tell, it basically means they worked on some music without Mars, since video chats were only so fruitful. (This is something that nearly every band and artist I’ve talked to in the last few years has pointed out: Trying to come up with something original and cool over Zoom really, really sucks.) But when the singer was able to come to Paris for three weeks near the beginning of 2021, the band suddenly kicked into overdrive. “We were crazy, we almost couldn’t stop,” Mazzalai says. “In this very fast period, we had 80% of the album.”

Phoenix are used to recording hours and hours of music for each record, raw material they polish and shape into a set of songs. Their last record, Ti Amo, was inspired by a fantasy of Italy; once that was in place, much of the work went toward sculpting their recorded music into something that sounded like gelato. (Get yourself a cone, put on the record, and go for a walk in the sun — it’ll snap into place.) Alpha Zulu, by contrast, was all over the place. Mars compares it to their 2000 debut United, which was “full of ideas that were really spread out and shouldn’t belong together,” because the band was so pent up under the circumstances of lockdown and the global pandemic that the music just had to come out, once they had a chance to be in the same place.

“This place of fear, and the fact that we were separated from Thomas — we didn’t need a theme because we were just trying to survive artistically,” Brancowitz says, with a weary laugh. “And when you play music, the beauty of it is that you instantly forget everything.”

Alpha Zulu was made in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a wing of the Louvre that houses thousands of decorative artifacts like clothing and furniture dating back to the Middle Ages, inside of which a private space was converted to a recording studio. The band was allowed privileged access to the museum — Mazzalai flashes a badge bearing his name, because even world famous musicians cannot just stroll freely within robbing distance of the Mona Lisa after hours. Sure, it sounds like a bit of a cliche — the most French band making a record in the most French art museum in human history — but it makes sense. Over time, Phoenix have expanded their emotional aperture beyond their home country to reflect a vision of European cosmopolitanism, a feeling reinforced by their surroundings. “Instead of gold records, you had Napoleon’s throne, and all of the great artifacts that France and Europe have produced,” says Mars. “We tend to suffocate in the walls of a professional studio, but for my experience we were more inspired by these things.”

Alpha Zulu earns its name from a harrowing experience where Mars was riding in the tail end of a small plane that was undergoing turbulence, and remembers the pilot shouting “Alpha Zulu!” over the radio in the storm. The words briefly appear on the title track, an aerodynamic and galloping track where Mars sings “alpha zulu” in the exact same way he sings “God or guru,” his phrasing smooshed together. The song sounds like both a warning and an exhortation to life, as Mars breaks into a demanding refrain: “Why choose your body over time?” He cites David Byrne, and some YouTubes he watched about how Byrne made the 1983 Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues by mumbling words and “trying to find the right sense of things.” This has always been how Phoenix erect their sonic vocabulary, as a French band who sing in English. “Being French is something we do by nature; we’re not forcing ourselves to do this,” Mars says, a funny thing for a French person to say. “You have to turn this into an advantage, otherwise that’s somehow our disadvantage. So creating our own language using all these references that are obscure and making them obvious, and making the album rotate around this, makes sense to us.”

Mars avoids a couple of attempts to ask what some of these songs are about. “Whenever you explain lyrics — not only am I really bad at this, but when [a lyric] raises more questions than giving answers, it doesn’t ruin the mystique. It’s just more interesting to me,” he says. The sound of the album, meanwhile, calls back to the crisp melodies and bounding energy of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, no more evident than on “Tonight,” a duet with Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig. It’s the first formal feature in the band’s history, which required some psychic reconfiguring; Brancowitz, in particular, needed to be convinced. “Tell me one song that is classic and a duet,” he recalls asking, to which Mars responded with the David Bowie and Cher TV-only performance of “Can You Hear Me?”

But it’s a perfect pairing of blogosphere legends, as Koenig’s wry yelp syncs naturally with Mars’ coy lilt. It was a righting of the ship — and perhaps the type of collaboration that should have come much earlier in the band’s work. “When we started making music, the record company was always pushing for remixes, which felt like the most unnatural way to make something interesting,” Mars says. “It’s hard to undo all these things that people pushed on us, but when we did it with Ezra, it was exactly what we had in mind — the satisfaction of having a vision for the whole song, and hearing it done even better than you thought.”

“To me, the song sounded like classic Phoenix, especially the pre-chorus, mixed with some of the Cars or the happy, fun side of 80s post-punk,” Koenig writes over email. “They seemed to like when I went into a bit of ‘anxious new wave’ territory with my voice.”

Even though the record avoids a single concept, Mazzalai gestures at how the recording environment influenced its general vibe: “We wanted to be in a museum at night. With the lockdown, this place was even more surreal because the museum was totally empty for one year.” That’s what I hear in the record, which feels like the closing moments of a long night spent at a glamorous party. The prismatic latticework of the synth and guitar work recalls the gleaming artifice of 2013’s Bankrupt!, but its sprinting tempos are underpinned by a dusky melancholy, a recognition of the wonderful feeling that’s steadily disappearing. In Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix!, a 2019 oral history of the band put together by the critic Laura Snapes, Brancowitz noted that “if Europe is kind of collapsing, I guess it has some kind of effect on us.” The last few years have not been stable for the continent, which has especially felt the effects of the climate crisis and the right-wing resurgence currently sweeping the world. (In the 2022 French general election, defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen won over 13 million votes — 3 million more than she received in 2017, which she also lost.)

Still, Brancowitz was explicit that Alpha Zulu isn’t a reaction to these conditions. “We could feel that we had to escape this narrative, because it would get boring,” he says. “It was so present that we had to aim for something else.” Nonetheless, the album still sounds like a bulwark against those rising tides, a preservation of the things held dear within polite society. For me, the song that captures this the most is “Winter Solstice,” which feels like standing on a moonlit and desolate beach, right in front of the water, with no sign of life for miles. “Now it’s hard to connect / But the world’s unchained,” Mars sings, before a wild and sad synth line shoots through a rising tide of noise.

“Winter Solstice” was recorded during the lockdown, when Mars was still stuck in America. Mazzalai says the other members asked him to record his verses as quickly as he could, once he had an idea — “no beginning, no end, like a dream.” At the time, Mars was staying in Napa Valley during wildfire season; the sky was orange for a couple of days, before disappearing altogether. “It was a whole day that never showed up,” he says. He recorded his vocal in one take, singing from a fetal position so there would be no feedback from the microphone he was using, in what he calls “the most vulnerable, no-one-interact-with-me” state of mind. It’s a particular special song on the record, he says. “For us, it meant that if we can make a song like this being away from each other, when I’m looking at the world collapsing, and we’re all excited about it — there’s a nice feeling.”


It’s strange to ask a group of adult men how they’ve stayed so close. Question for the room: How do you avoid the petty and territorial conflicts that tend to dynamite most male friendships, or so articles would have us believe? Darcy, the group’s most reserved member, gets a little sassy when the subject comes up. “It’s weird,” he says with exaggeration, about how other people look at their friendship.

“Our own parents thought it was weird,” Mazzalai responds, graciously.

“It’s almost embarrassing, this topic, because we don’t really think about it,” Darcy concludes. “It’s just like this.”

Which sounds easy enough, but then you remember the entire history of bands: members leave, sue each other, write snippy lyrics about that time the other guy was a dick, air their shit in tell-all memoirs. Phoenix grew up wanting to be the Beatles, and we know how that ended. For Phoenix to have made it this far with their bromance still intact is a relative rarity in this industry, especially since they’ve never come close to making a bad record. Their children have grown up together; earlier this year, Mars and Mazzalai vacationed with both of their families in southern France, where they spent most of their time relaxing and playing the Italian card game Scopa. They even approach their tours like a vacation between friends, with Mars in charge of organizing their days off. For their upcoming international tour they’re planning to spend a day in Cleveland, which falls between shows in Chicago and New York, and as Mars and Brancowitz talk about this it’s funny to imagine the singer texting everyone about a really great bagel place he heard about in Ohio City. (They’re lacking ideas for what to do, though, so if you have one you should comment on their Instagram.)

“I don’t know any other band like that,” says Nicolas Godin of Air, who’s known Phoenix for decades — they grew up a few years apart in the same Versailles neighborhood, and when they became friendly as adults Phoenix was enlisted to serve as Air’s backing band for some Moon Safari promo shows. “All the bands that I know, there’s so much tension between human beings; when you go backstage, you can feel that most of the bands don’t really like each other. Phoenix never take a break from each other; when they stop working, they go on holiday together; if they want to make a decision, it has to be all four of them.” He recalls that when they toured together, the record label would give them four separate hotel rooms, but that Phoenix would jam all the beds into one room.

“I think they’re one of the best bands of the 21st century,” Koenig writes. “I stopped by their studio in the Decorative Arts Museum at the Louvre last year and it was kind of a dream: bunch of life-long friends sitting around a table working on music (an obvious but unusual configuration.) I’m lucky I get to do that with the VW crew but I was still inspired. Made me wanna get a table.”

Their world has changed in subtle but meaningful ways. Everyone is married. Rock music is less culturally popular than it used to be. Their French contemporaries have moved on: Daft Punk, with whom Brancowitz played in the short-lived band called Darlin’, formally disbanded in 2021; Air remain active here and there, but haven’t released a new album in over a decade. A few years ago, Mars’ parents sold their house in Versailles, where the band recorded the demos for United in the basement. They gathered to clear out the remaining equipment and artifacts they’d left behind, cueing up some ruminative feelings about how far the band has — and hasn’t — come.

“We still feel exactly the same as when we did our first album — even when we did our first four-track,” Mazzalai says. “Nothing between us has changed. Now, the thing that’s changed is we are beginning to lose friends and parents.” Longtime collaborator Philippe Zdar died in 2019, following an accidental fall. Zdar, who co-produced United and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was a particularly significant and forceful presence in the band’s cosmology, so it’s not surprising that Alpha Zulu recalls the Wolfgang sound, or that Mars compares it to United. “He led us through the album,” Mazzalai says, a bit sadly. “There’s way more Philippe than the one before it.”

Still, there’s no talk of winding down. The band thinks in the short-term about their life together, and as long as the friendship remains fertile and active, there’s no reason to stop. They’re ready to play live again; by the end of the Ti Amo tour, Mars felt they were running on autopilot, but the forced break of the pandemic has renewed their excitement about performing. “When the world is always at a standstill, it’s not very inspiring,” he says. “It’s a survival instinct, that we’re good at this thing.”

In conversation, Brancowitz comes off like the most playful member of the group. He’s always wearing a conspiratorial grin that suggests he’s having the time of his life, and he’ll sometimes let out a surprised laugh after making a remark — whether because he finds it funny or because he can’t believe he said it, it’s hard to tell. But he gets serious when talking about the last few years, and what’s changed for him. If he’s being honest, not much.

“You know, we’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “For me, it’s so much a part of my life that it’s hard for me to think about it. A lot of people ask us how it’s possible that we are still together, and I don’t have a clear answer.” He smiles a bit, because there’s nothing to say about the unimaginable. “I don’t have an answer. I don’t know what it would be like, you know?”


PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Kevin Buitrago
All clothing Talents’ Own
Hair by Sacha de Carteret
Skin by Elodie Barrat
Special thanks to Musée des Arts Décoratifs

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