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Phoenix: TAS In Session 2013

Phoenix (photo courtesy of Press Here)

Phoenix (photo courtesy of Press Here)



Phoenix has been spending a lot of time in New York of late — far removed from decent Parisian croissants. They've been recording at Oscilloscope Laboratories, playing "Saturday Night Live" and "The Late Show with David Letterman," and doing loads of press for their new album, Bankrupt!, which is out now.

They'll also play a sold-out show at Harlem's Apollo Theater on Monday, May 13, with another date at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on October 2.

Earlier this spring, the quartet — Thomas Mars, Christian Mazzalai, Laurent Brancowitz and Deck d'Arcy — chatted with The Alternate Side's Alisa Ali about an array of eclectic inspirations, zigzagging from their eBay purchase of Michael Jackson's recording console to a tiny toy keyboard. Listen to The Alternate Side converastion with Phoenix, streaming below.

Check out Phoenix's additional session with WFUV's Rita Houston in the archives too.

Alisa Ali with Phoenix (transcript):

Alisa Ali: Are there any instruments that you tried out for the first time on this new record?

Deck d’Arcy: Always a lot of new instruments. This time it was very cheap ones. Toy keyboards that we used a lot. It was in a pawn shop.

Thomas Mars: Versailles. It was the first day of recording and we found it randomly. We saw the keyboard in this pawn shop and it shaped the sound of the album.

Alisa: You weren’t toy keyboard shopping?

Thomas: No, it came to us.

Alisa: Are you bringing the toy keyboard on tour?

Christian Mazzalai: In a way, yes. We sampled all the notes. Every key.

Alisa: Who has the possession of that toy keyboard now?

Christian: My brother [Laurent].

Alisa: Are there any sound techniques on this new album that didn’t work?

Christian: There are so many things that do not work. We are more statisticians than musicians. We know that .001 percent of everything that we’re going to try is going to work, so we just try a lot. We have ten songs in the end.

Alisa: Does that become frustrating?

Christian: We are used to it now but it’s a bit scary. You face a mirror and you see yourself very precisely.

Alisa: What was one of the moments, while recording, that you thought something worked.

Thomas: Flute. [Laurent] played a flute on a song called “Chloroform” on the album.

Alisa: When you finished touring for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, you went right back into the studio immediately?

Thomas: Yes, because we don’t write on tour. We have no choice but to go to work straight after. Also, we’re bad at holidays. Too much guilt involved, so we go back to the studio. It’s a nice feeling when you’ve been touring for a long time, you want to be in the studio again. And when you’ve been in the studio, you want to go back on tour, which is the mood we’re in now.

Alisa: You must have toured for a long time for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. I saw you two or three times on that tour in different States. None of you wanted to take a quick little vacation?

Laurent Brancowitz: Not really!

Alisa: I’m sure your wives and girlfriends love that about you.

Laurent: Not really!

Alisa: After you were done with the tour you came to New York and spent three months at a studio just experimenting?

Thomas: Yes, it’s true. At Oscilloscope Studio which is perfect for experimenting because it’s based around this philosophy that musicians are like scientists. So you have [labcoats]. It was perfect, a very sweet environment. Very welcoming.

Alisa: Did you already have ideas from being on tour?

Christian: We wanted to use a lot of harpsichord. But it didn’t happen. With the flute we needed five years.

Alisa: Was it really five years that you’ve been trying to put flute on a Phoenix record?

Christian: Maybe more.

Thomas: There is some harpsichord on “Bankrupt!”. The song.

Alisa: Bankrupt! is kind of an ironic title given that your last album did so well. I also know that you’re not trying to make any huge political statement with that title. But what was the thinking behind it?

Laurent: I guess the first reason was visual. The way the word sounds. All of those letters, they have a strong, poetic power of attraction for us. Then, when you’re looking for a title, you’re attracted by victory, triumph, beauty, elegance and after a while you’re bored with all of those. There’s no tension in victory, you know? There’s more interesting stuff happening in defeat. Also, with this record we knew we had a lot to lose. It was more a feeling of joy in knowing that you could fail, you know? It’s like being on a tightrope walking. You know that a big part of the fun is related to the fact that you can fall and die (laughs).

Alisa: I did hear that one of the titles you were thinking of was Alternate Thriller? True?

Laurent: That was more like a guideline we had. Thriller was probably the first album we bought as children. But it was a joke. Actually, when you think about this album it’s very mysterious. I thought about it for long hours and I don’t really know its secret.

Alisa: You don’t know this album and you made it?

Laurent: No, I’m thinking about [Thriller]. But you’re right. We don’t know the secret of our own music. That’s a key thing. We try not to understand what we are doing. Now I think we managed to do it. We have no idea what we’re doing.

Alisa: Is it difficult not to overanalyze things?

Laurent: It’s the most difficult thing. To forget about your brain. And to listen to your heart (laughs). It’s true! It’s like a joke.

Alisa: No, it’s sweet! Was it a rumor that you bought Michael Jackson’s mixer that he used for Thriller?

Laurent: Yes, it’s true. You know, when you’e a musician you’re always surrounded by things, equipment. A lot of it is very ugly. Especially nowadays. When you buy equipment, it’s good when they have an added value of something poetic surrounding them. When we saw this console was on sale, we thought we should get it. It had been on sale for a long time and the reason being because the guy who was selling it was a bit crazy and he really looked like a scam artist. But when we saw the ad on eBay it was so crazy that we thought the guy is either the worst scam artist in the world or he really possesses the thing and nobody believes him. Actually that was the case. He was acting so bizarrely that no one could believe he had this piece of equipment.

Alisa: How do you know it’s the real deal?

Laurent: We contacted the technician of the West Lake Studios where it happened to be. It was a surprise because we thought it was a crazy person.

Alisa: Thomas, do you live in Paris?

Thomas: I live here, but we record in Paris. The studio was in Paris so we went back and forth.

Alisa: I heard that you guys were homesick after being in New York for so long. What made you so homesick?

Laurent: It’s the first time … maybe I’m the only one. I was very homesick for some reason. We love New York but it’s very extreme. The weather is extreme. After a while you realize that there are some things, some charm, in your home country that you’ve never seen before. When we were younger, we only wanted to leave, we were attracted by distant oceans. But you know the cliché, after a while you notice that everything was very close to you. Homesickness.

Alisa: Thomas, do you feel that? You live in New York City.

Thomas: When you’re on tour, it’s a different setup. But I still like to go to new places. The modern world it’s easy now. You can reunite everywhere. It’s not like in the 1700s. I love New York City. When you’re [in a foreign city] you’re constantly trapped into thinking what’s better and what’s worse. And that can drive you nuts. So I hope to free myself from this.

Alisa: How does “embracing your Frenchness” manifest itself on this new record?

Laurent: I suddenly realize it sounds very cheesy. I think on this album there’s a lot of elements of music released when we were eight years old. A lot of it was very bad French songs that had a very good little element. It wasn’t something we thought about, but a lot of times we were attracted by sounds that would evoke this period. There was a moment of freedom in the ‘80s where people were free to do very stupid things. A lot of times the result was very bad, but there was an element that was very interesting. I guess that’s what I meant.