Tales from the Cryptic: Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars in interview

As synth-powered new wave revivalists Phoenix prepare to take Balado, frontman Thomas Mars reflects on a career arc less ordinary

Feature by Ross Watson | 03 Jul 2013

Phoenix are not your typical success story. Formed almost fifteen years ago in Versailles, the French quartet released album after album with efficiency and consistency, but despite positive critical reception and the increased exposure of having a track featured on the score of a Hollywood flick (Too Young appeared on the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation in 2004), the band found it hard to make an initial mark on the public consciousness.

That all changed in 2009 with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a confident, approachable landmark frontloaded by their two most affecting singles to date: the bouncy, feel-good Lisztomania and the amped-up synth orgy that is 1901. The months preceding its release saw the band's popularity soar – four albums and ten years into their career – securing them the award for best alternative album at the 52nd Grammy awards.

A follow-up has since arrived in the form of Bankrupt! Four years in the making, the band continue to utilise the poppy, energetic qualities also present on Wolfgang, but with some notable differences. With its light, slick production, the album makes much more explicit references to 80s musical styles and synth-pop in general. Such was their commitment that guitarist Laurent Brancowitz even purchased the same model of recording console used on Michael Jackson's Thriller for the record, and the band purposefully sought out Prince's drum machine of choice.

Talking to The Skinny via telephone, frontman Thomas Mars speaks in a pleasant, heavily accented tone of voice, describing how he and his bandmates approached the writing and recording process. “We wanted something that wasn't trying to be perfect,” he admits. “It wasn't trying to communicate with the Gods. It was as if we were attempting to make something mediocre, something in the middle. Finding the beauty in this was our way of having high ambitions.”

"We take the longest route to explain the simplest things" – Thomas Mars

As for merging the old with the new, he explains their collective decision to echo the past whilst retaining their own signature sound: “To me, my favourite records are the ones that are always looking forward, but they have roots in some tradition. There's elements that trigger your brain somehow and tell you that there's a link. It's like a postmodern record for us. Whenever I hear that drum sound I could cry,” he says with a laugh.

With so much to live up to after blowing up in such a big way with their last LP, it's tempting to think of Bankrupt! as Phoenix's post-success record. The title suggests irony, as if it's a jokey reference to it all going wrong from here. Surprisingly, Mars didn't consider the band's process to be any different this time. “When we go back into the studio, we have to somehow learn to write a song again. We mostly try to impress each other – the four of us – and the more we make music, the harder that is to do. So I guess that's our quality control.”

As well as the band's newfound popularity, Mars' personal life has also taken a turn in the past couple of years, with his recent marriage to long-term partner Coppola, who he met whilst working on the soundtrack to her melancholy 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides. This is a man who once wrote songs about hooking up with girls at protest rallies; he finds the comparison amusing. “It's funny, because my wife gets that same question with her movie right now (The Bling Ring) which talks about celebrity culture and how the kids – how everybody is obsessed with celebrity and fame in general, and how fame has become something different. There's no content, there's nothing to hold onto. She gets that same question. I think in our music it's more of a candid way to see things, of not judging things but just witnessing them.”

The cover artwork for Bankrupt!, a plain background with a computer-generated image of a still life drawing, also observes the absurdity of wealth and currency. Like the music contained within, it nods towards tradition, but it's also taking influence from more modern forms of art. Inside the sleeve, scattered coins litter the grey canvas. “Around two years ago, a group of people discovered a giant treasure trove in India; it was worth like a billion dollars,” Mars explains. “One of the biggest treasures was a golden coconut. The fact that humanity could consider this a piece of treasure was fascinating to me.”

As a result, fame, wealth, celebrity culture and the fashion industry are dominant subject matter on the LP, most obviously on its title track, which pairs up phrases like “Caledonian rich and young” and “self-entitled rich portrait.” Mars' lyrics have taken a cryptic bent in recent years, as incoherent sentences flow into one another. It's a step away from his formative, more directly expressive days in the band. "Some stuff can seem pretty straightforward to me, but they don't seem straightforward to everybody else," he realises. "I think there's two kinds of bands; there are people who can be very direct and say simple things without shame, with complete honesty and truth. When I listen to an honest song, I get that. I think we're part of a different songwriting style. We're part of a group of people who are shy about things, who go on forever and take the longest route to explain the simplest things. I read somewhere that in Heart Shaped Box, the Nirvana song, that the line 'I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black' was a way of saying something as simple as 'I love you,' basically. It's this circling around things, and the more abstract the better. It's never something we choose; it just happens to be that way, and I'm very happy with it. There's something cryptic about it, and there's a certain beauty about that.”

One thing that Mars has always been good at is giving the most danceable, joyous songs a strong undercurrent of melancholy and emotion. Songs like Rome and Bourgeois drive that point home. He's certainly aware of this ability: “I think it's something very French. I know that Serge Gainsbourg would write his most joyful songs when he was in a sad state, and vice versa. The thing about songwriting is, even if a song is totally happy or totally sad, somehow in music – and in art in general – they are more and more together; they're not that distinct. When you create something beautiful you're scared that it's precious, so precious that you're going to lose it and it's not going to last.”

Phoenix promised a more experimental offering with Bankrupt! “We always get out of our comfort zone,” says Mars. “Because comfort and creativity, they are enemies – they don't get along. We rely more on things that are random. I don't think we were scared of not having inspiration; we were more scared of not highlighting the good things, editing the good things, and not choosing the right moment for a song.”

Recently, the frontman claimed that his favourite song to play live is  a new track called The Real Thing. “It's the most personal song on the album," he suggests, "I think it's the most ambitious song, too. We wanted to create our Purple Rain, to have this epic, overwhelming song that hits you like a big wave, something that's very dense and powerful. You can't really breathe throughout the song - it breathes for you.” He's audibly smiling: “It doesn't sound nice, but it's like one of those machines that helps you breathe. It's that kind of omnipresence, and when I play it live I can feel that strange dynamic, and that's really satisfying.” You can feel it for yourself when they roll into Balado in a few weeks time.

Phoenix play King Tut's Wah Wah Tent at T in the Park on 12 July. Bankrupt! is out now on Atlantic Records http://www.wearephoenix.com