Concert preview: French foursome Phoenix continues to shake things up

By Columbus Alive
From the October 3, 2013 edition

Phoenix singer Thomas Mars, reached at his home in New York for a recent phone interview, compared his childhood in Versailles, France, to living in a museum.

“Growing up in Versailles it’s true that everything great happened in the past,” he said. “And they don’t want you to create something in the present because it could ruin this image.”

In a way then it’s possible to consider Phoenix’s entire existence an ongoing act of rebellion. The quartet refuses to adhere to expectations, altering its sound with each subsequent album and continually seeking out unexpected collaborations, including a recent dalliance with controversial R&B crooner R. Kelly, who performed with the band during its summer Coachella set and later appeared on a remix of its song “Trying to Be Cool.”

“We like challenging the world listening, in a way,” said Mars, who joins his bandmates for a show at the LC Pavilion on Thursday, Oct. 3. “Usually people want you not to change too many things; not to change your band logo or your musical style. But that goes against creativity.

“When I told it to a few friends [about working with R. Kelly] they had that look in their eyes where you sensed hesitation or fear, and that made it seem like it was the right thing to do.”

A similar urge has fueled recording sessions for each of the band’s albums. Coming off 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a taut, dance-rock-influenced effort that helped transform the band from relative unknowns to festival headliners, the easiest thing to do would have been to release Wolfgang: Part Deux. Instead, the band purged as much stored-up material as it could and started fresh — even making stems of old songs available to fans and potential remixers.

“I have friends that are musicians that will use the same samples and sample their own drum sounds, and I think at some point we thought we didn’t want to do that,” Mars said. “We always wanted to look forward to something new, and that became an obsession.”

This explains, in part, why Phoenix albums tend to arrive about as frequently as the Olympics. The group’s latest, Bankrupt!, for one, surfaced nearly four years after its predecessor — a veritable lifetime in the pop music sphere. As with previous recordings, its creation was fraught with uncertainty. Mars said each time around the bandmates “forget how to write a song,” so they’re starting from scratch each time they enter the studio.

“Usually it takes a year to write one song we all like, and after that the rest come more quickly,” he said. “I think we want to forget because each time we learn we want to learn in a new way.”

On its most recent album, according to Mars, the group learned to be less precious about where it found inspiration. To illustrate his point, he told the story of a king that loved food and continually sought out finer and finer fare until nothing satisfied his cravings, leaving him a depressed, broken shell of his former self. To avoid a similar fate, Mars and Co. looked to their daily lives for source material, finding inspiration in duty-free shops (“Drakkar Noir,” which the singer described as a celebration of mediocrity) and the difficulty of adapting to mainstream success (“Idols are boredom to everyone,” he sings on one tune).

“Once we allowed ourselves to turn anything we wanted into song it became a relief,” he said. “I guess it makes sense to do things that are unpredictable. It gets us excited, and hopefully what is good for us will be good for somebody out there. “