“The weirder the better,” Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars says of his band’s music in his thick French accent from the other end of the phone. “If it doesn’t make sense, it’s sometimes better.” This philosophy has become somewhat of a motto for the French synth-pop quartet over the years. They construct their music almost like a painting: overwhelmingly appealing to the senses, but with deeper meanings that can take a little time to decipher.
The group is fresh off the release of their sixth record, June’s Ti Amo. Their first since 2013’s Bankrupt! and only their second since breaking out in the U.S. with 2009’s Grammy award-winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Wolfgang catapulted the band to a level of indie-band stardom they hadn’t yet experienced with hit singles like “1901” and “Lisztomania.” They went from the club scene to Madison Square Garden in the span of a year, but they’re still not entirely sure what it was about that particular record that was able to take them to another level.
“I don’t know what it was about that record and the truth is, I don’t want to know,” Mars said. “I think it’s sometimes the planets are aligned or it’s just a matter of luck. If I understood it, I’d want to recreate it, and I want to be as far away from it as possible. When we finish a record, we don’t really put one record on a pedestal. They’re all at the same level for us. They’re like photo albums, they represent who we were at a certain time. So I don’t judge them like other people do. But it’s true that somehow when the planets align success makes everything glossy, and it’s true that Wolfgang comes with a special glow that makes the songs resonate more with people.”
Rapid, unexpected success of a certain song or album can be polarizing for some artists and bands and they can grow to despise the work that made them famous, but Mars counts himself and the band lucky that hasn’t happened to them. “When I was a teenager I remember going to see a Beck show, and ‘Loser’ was his big hit, and he would play the song right off the bat and get rid of it. You could tell he hated it and he would move on after that. The luck we have is that the songs that people like the most, it’s not like they’re an awkward gem we did. It’s really true to who we are. So, the success wasn’t like ‘Fuck, we have to become someone else.’ I think having three records before Wolfgang helped us to see what was happening in a more cautious way.”
Since the highs that came with Wolfgang, the band has settled into a life of steady touring, regularly headlining festivals across the U.S. and Europe like Governors Ball and Hangout, as well as logging copious amounts of hours in the studio. A hallmark of the group is the time they take between albums. They don’t spit a new one out each year just for the sake of it, rather taking their time living in the music they’re creating before relinquishing it to the world, fine-tuning to meticulous perfection, typically leading to a tight set of 10 songs per album. Wolfgang’s follow up, Bankrupt! was released almost exactly four years later, and while it peaked at #4 on the Billboard 200 and produced superb singles like “Entertainment” and “Trying To Be Cool,” it didn’t quite reach the level of pop culture domination as Wolfgang. But more importantly, it saw the band grow from their success rather than go backwards. Their conscious decision to not repeat Wolfgang was a risker one, but one that showed a group refusing to limit themselves.
Their latest, Ti Amo, comes after another four-year gap and sees the group producing some of their most joyous and euphoric work to date, like the work that comes after a long inhale and release, which is surprising given the chaotic Paris environment it was recorded in. The album was put together at the site of a former opera house, the La Gaîté Lyrique complex, during some of the most devastating moments Paris has seen including the November 2015 terrorist attacks. “Because the place was in the heart of Paris, a lot of what was happening in Paris was right there,” Mars said. “During the multiple attacks, the whole city became a totally different environment. No one wanted to go out, and it became really gloomy and strange.”
In turn, the album that was becoming Ti Amo unintentionally became a response to what was going on around them, a seemingly guttural instinct attempt to bring something full of joy, happiness and romance into an uncertain and dangerous time. “We were looking for some kind of fantasy, something that was lighter and naive,” Mars said. “First we didn’t realize we were doing that and then it became clear.” And when it did, it all but became the center hallmark of the record.
In a note about the album entitled “Words About Ti Amo,” the band describes the record as “simple, pure emotions: love, desire, lust, and innocence. It’s also an album about our European, Latin roots, our fantasized version of Italy: a lost paradise made of eternal Roman summers (hyper-light, hyper-clarity, pistachio gelato), juke boxes on the beach, Monica Vitti and Marcello Mastroianni, fearless desire and antique marble statues.” The vision they’ve painted might sound like the ultimate-picturesque-Italian-summer-fantasy-concept record, but Mars is hesitant to call it a concept record. “The ‘concept album’ has been slaughtered over the years, so I wouldn’t say it is one, but we knew exactly how we wanted to present it,” Mars said. “We knew what the production to be. We knew what the videos would be. We knew the whole environment. It was very visual right from the start. So, to me, it’s very satisfying to see it all come together when we play shows.” In any sense, they’ve created a world many would die to live in even if just for a day.
The glossy set that sounds like a lost Duran Duran record bolsters such “1901” rivaling club ready tracks as “J-Boy,” “Fluer de Lys,” and “Goodbye Soleil.” “J-Boy,” in particular, is a dreamy, disco, synth-pop masterpiece worthy of the same recognition “1901” got.
“We know going in that we’re not going to make the same album as the previous one,” Mars said. “It’s crucial for us to make it different each time because that’s what keeps us entertained and interested. Making a record—just finding the right tools, the instruments, the color of it, that’s what we’re trying to make different each time. The technique and color palate will be different, and that’s a really fun moment for us. In the beginning of making a new record or song, is just finding out what it’s going to be, because it’s a world of possibility. It’s important to sort of learn how to rewrite a song. You have to forget how to do it and then you learn it again in a different way.”
Recording at La Gaîté Lyrique was also a much different approach for the group as they usually disconnect, holing themselves up in a secluded location and recording primarily at night. This time around, they recorded during typical daytime work hours, and allowed themselves to live and breathe the environment around them and to be exposed to art of all kinds. “This came as an unusual kind of place because it’s not that disconnected.” Mars said. “It’s a music studio that’s linked to a movie theater, arts center and concert venue. It was nice to be in a place where there was other music surrounding you.”
When it comes to the band’s longevity, at one time, Mars considered an endgame for the group, but isn’t married to that idea anymore. Instead just going where the music takes them. “I remember coming across an article about the tenth symphony of classical songwriters, that when you live in the classical music world, everyone tends to think the tenth work is supposed to be unachieved. So I was picturing us like ‘Yeah, we could make nine albums and try to do a tenth and it might never come to light.’ That seemed like a logical step from where we come from. But the reality is, the world is changing and I don’t think these rules apply anymore. The four of us, we have to keep making music. Making music becomes sort of a vital thing. The destination doesn’t really matter to us, it’s more the process that keeps us together and interested. We just try to enjoy that as much as we can.”
*A version of this interview first ran in the current print issue of Substream Magazine, on stands now and available through our online store!