This year, more than ever before, America discovered Phoenix. In kind, the incredibly catchy, sneakily sophisticated Parisian pop band continues to discover these United States.
This year, more than ever before, America discovered Phoenix.
In kind, the incredibly catchy, sneakily sophisticated Parisian pop band continues to discover these United States. They've toured relentlessly in support of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth and finest collection of metropolitan pop songs. The seemingly endless jaunt brings them back to Columbus next Wednesday for the first time in three years.
Singer Thomas Mars, in particular, has had a window into America through his long-term relationship with director Sofia Coppola, with whom he fathered his three-year-old daughter, Romy. When I called him last week, Mars was in San Francisco getting ready to celebrate that most American of traditions, Thanksgiving.
"It's all new to me. It's like a bonus," Mars said. "I've had only two before, so I'm still not familiar. I know you eat as much as you can."
Mars has much to be thankful for this year. Besides the successful tour, Phoenix drew critical hosannas, got ever-elusive radio airplay, appeared on just about every conceivable late-night TV show and soundtracked a car commercial - you'd know the synth blurts, guitar jabs and lockstep beat of "1901" if you heard it.
And that's just in the U.S.; they've taken their victory lap around the world in 2009.
"What we like is that we are not huge anywhere, and we're big enough so that we can present our music the way we want and we can do shows with the vision we have," Mars said.
On Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, that vision was a combination of the yacht-ready guitar pop they mastered on 2006's It's Never Been Like That with the keyboard-heavy dance tracks of their first two records. Musical flourishes like the tunnel-dwelling krautrock excursion "Love Like a Sunset" and the woozy rush/gush of "Countdown" exist alongside the pure pleasure-center bliss of "Girlfriend" and "Lasso."
The record's light and airy pop songs are given gravity by lush production and lyrics that go deeper than you expect. Sometimes the effect is simple and direct, as in "Countdown," when Mars wonders, "Do you remember when 21 years was old?" On the other hand, "Lisztomania" wrings heady concepts from an erotic '70s musical about composer Franz Liszt.
"We didn't think it would be successful because it was such a selfish record," Mars said. "We made it in such a bubble that we didn't think anyone could relate to it."
The experience has been quite the opposite; Phoenix is more popular than ever. I figured this level of global success would make the band superstars in their native land, but Mars said their fame in France is about equal to anywhere else, in part because Phoenix sings in English.
"It's still a pretty national territory. It's almost like Japan," Mars said. "They really want people singing in French."
Mars is perfectly content to remain on the cusp between underground sensation and A-List star, though, if it means his band can keep making the music they want without compromising.
"It's almost like a secret society where you get all people that have things in common," Mars said. "It's more satisfying than just trying to get the world together and listening to the same thing."