Top of the hit Liszt
Returning to Austin, Phoenix talks about striking a chord with 'weird and strange' 4th album.
This isn't French pop quartet Phoenix's first rodeo; childhood friends who grew up in the Paris suburb of Versailles, they've been active under their current name for 13 years and played together in various configurations for even longer. Across three albums of infectious pop - 2000's 'United,' 2004's 'Alphabetical' and 2006's daring and challenging 'It's Never Been Like That' - the quartet developed a reputation for penning songs that got stuck in your head.
But this year has brought the band a tidal wave of hype and adulation. Their fourth studio album, 'Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,' a collection of 10 fiendishly hook-heavy rockers, garnered universally glowing reviews and landed the band on seemingly every late-night talk show on network television. Guitarist Laurent Brancowitz spoke to us in October before the band's performance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival; Phoenix returns Thursday to Austin for the 101X holiday show at La Zona Rosa.
American-Statesman: From where you're sitting, have you noticed a shift in the kind of attention you're receiving?
Laurent Brancowitz: Yes, for sure. In New York, the reaction was so crazy, and of course there was 'Saturday Night Live' and all that. We've done a lot of shows on this tour and they were all packed and it was a really good feeling. We weren't expecting it so the surprise was even bigger. We really thought ('Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix') was weird and strange. When we were making it, we were talking about making it very French and very Parisian and having songs about Franz Liszt and being very futuristic in its sound and all that. We felt it was very complicated and all the songs were very complex. But actually it has been the album that has touched the most people, which is amazing.
You started out writing 'Wolfgang's' songs on a houseboat on the Seine River in Paris.
The idea was to find a place that had romantic qualities. Because when we are touring, we do not really write songs. We need a very long moment to just be in the right state of mind, and it was a good way to do that. We knew that we had to do the writing in France, and we wanted to do a very European album, so we went to the most French place ever, right under the Eiffel Tower, and we stayed there for two months. But some of us got seasick, so we could not stay. They were not very productive months necessarily, but it put us in the right state of mind. We did the rest of the writing in a hotel room in New York.
The first single and first song off the album, 'Lisztomania,' is named for Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt. He's a tremendously unlikely subject for a pop song, but it works very well. What was the idea behind selecting him as a song subject?
A lot of things made it feel very attractive, like a big magnet. We love the fact that Franz Liszt's story was very old European culture but felt very modern and connected to the things that happen in the present. It was too good to resist. The lyrics are about the loneliness of the person that's on stage. That was a thing we could relate to.
Phoenix, Air and Daft Punk all emerged from Versailles about the same time, and obviously all of you were associated and had played together. Was there something about the music scene in Versailles at the time that made it so fertile?
I think the key factor was that there wasn't anything for young people going on at that time. So this isolation, it created a very strong bond between musicians. And we spent so much time together and we shared the same records for so many years and got excited about the same music. I would say that it was really a matter of being so bored that there was nothing else to do, so we met each other and we worked very hard trying to create music that mirrored the music that we listened to, so that there would be something there for us.
Phoenix has always chosen to write its songs in English. How has that gone over with French audiences?
It was kind of difficult for us in the beginning. When we were looking for a record company, everybody told us it wouldn't be possible to sign a French band that sang in English. But all our favorite bands were from the U.S. or England and English is the universal language of popular music, like Latin was the musical language of the Middle Age. It's just a convention. But French people's sense of their language is very proud, and they think the songs on the radio should be in French. So it was rough in the beginning. But even then we've always had an audience in France, and now they are very warm toward us. We have managed to conquer the French heart, I guess.