Phoenix on “Ti Amo”

Je T'Aime

Oct 03, 2017 Photography by Shervin Lainez (for Under the Radar) Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear
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Since the release of their 2013 album Bankrupt! Phoenix have toured the world multiple times, headlined Coachella, performed across nearly every show on the late-night TV circuit, won a Grammy, and even appeared in Bill Murray's screwball Netflix holiday special, A Very Murray Christmas (directed by frontman Thomas Mars' wife, Sofia Coppola). So in the words of every Super Bowl announcer ever, "What are you going to do now?" If you're Mars, Deck d'Arcy, Laurent Brancowitz, and Christian Mazzalai, you skip Disney World and make the admirable decision to head back into the studio the day after getting off tour.

"I think it's more pathetic, that's how I would describe it!" Brancowitz laughs, calling from his home in Paris. "But we really like to work. We like to be in the studio. Especially when we finish touring. But we don't really work during the tour. We are impatient to be back with the same instruments and working again on new songs."

Five albums deep into their career, Phoenix have achieved a sonic shorthand, their shined-up pop easily identifiable by its punchy synth lines, bouncy guitar solos, and strangely sentimental, inscrutably poetic lyrics. As Mars explains, even though the vibe is always being teased out in different directions, their widescreen indie identity is still intact across their newest effort, Ti Amo.

"I think that people who have been living for a long time, they tend to tell the same story," he muses from his home in New York. "For me, it doesn't really matter if you're telling the story again, as long as you tell it in a different way it's satisfying enough to me....  You don't have to reinvent the wheel each time you do something. You don't necessarily have to change everything. It's just everything you go through and with time you evolve. That's enough to tell the same story with a different angle each time. That's why we take time between records. Because we need that time to be able to reflect and feel and try to achieve that."

Over the band's multi-year work sessions in Paris (which Mars flew in to attend 10 days at a time, taking work back home with him), the city underwent a serious upheaval. Continued conflicts in Syria meant the city saw a significant influx of refugees. The headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were attacked. And in November 2015 an Eagles of Death Metal show at The Bataclan was targeted, with terrorists killing 130. It was the kind of unspeakable horror that made it difficult to think of anything else. Did the world even need another pop album right now? For the members of Phoenix, their joy came from doing whatever they could to confront the darkness. They continued working, watching the security around their Les Halles neighborhood opera house-turned studio grow on a near daily basis. 

"In the beginning, we felt a bit guilty," Mars recalls of the time when they chose to carry on working. "After a few months thinking about it, we realized often when the situation is a bit dark or confused, humans produce something joyful. It happened a lot of times in the past. We realized it was pretty common. So we surrendered and the guilt disappeared."

"It was the case for every Parisian," Brancowitz adds. "There was a feeling of being part of a community. It was a very common feeling we were all feeling. Everyone found their own way of dealing with it. Our way was to create very happy music."

Ti Amo, (Italian for "I Love You") is, as the name would suggest, a buoyant pop love-letter to life, leaning heavily on the band's memories of teenage summer vacation, Italian disco, andeven though the production is often buffed to a sheenthe nostalgia-inducing quality of listening to music in analogue formats. (Advice delivered from their producer Philippe Zdar during the process: "Don't touch anything, don't ruin it. It feels like I'm listening to some very cheap demos on an old cassette and you should keep that feeling.") Meditative spoken word passages ("Who's that guy you hang out with?" Mars wonders on "Telefono." "Is he a lead or just an extra?") are twisted together with reverb-heavy French lyrics, and thanks to a case of feng shui gone awry, less guitars and more synths than ever before. "Where instruments are in the studio, it has a huge impact on the final result," Brancowitz recalls with a verbal shrug. "My guitar, I realize it was maybe a few feet too far away for me and that's why I never used it on this record. I only play keyboards. That's the truth!"

"I think we were surprised about the hedonistic, light, joyful character of the music because of what's going on," says Mars. "Just the global atmosphere. But it didn't feel that disconnected. It felt like it was creating possibilities. It was creating another world. It didn't feel like escapism to us. It felt like a fantasy the same way you might write breakup songs when you're in love or happy songs when you're going through heartbreak."

Even though all of Ti Amo's musical tableaus seem to take place away from the confines of metropolitan Paris, the members of Phoenix all endorse the sincerity of their message. It's rooted in concrete feelings. Just because it's packaged in well-polished pop doesn't mean it should be called escapism, a word that makes both Mars and Brancowitz recoil when mentioned.

"I reject it the same way I reject irony in music," Mars says of the loaded term. "I just can't connect with it. I think it just doesn't exist to me. It's in contradiction to what art is to me, escapism. It should be this very wide landscape of possibility of all these alternate worlds and fantasies. To me, escapism would be entertainment, movies and cinema for instance."

Fair point. Making music has been the members of Phoenix's lives since, as Mars describes, they were kids in the Paris suburb of Versailles, smashing their chances of taking any other career path. Their writing process still starts with improvisation and a dash of serendipity, and ends with the desire to continue creating. As both Brancowitz and Mars explain, the only thing that has changed is their relationships. Lovethe force that gives Ti Amo its cross-cultural namehas taken on different, more important meanings as they've matured.

"You need to live the concept," Brancowitz muses. "When you grow a little older you have the humility to use those big words that when you're younger you feel that they're too much."

These days, it seems, no one in Phoenix is holding back when it comes to letting those around them know just how much they mean to them.

"When you grow a little bit older, suddenly you find the courage to say things that are very obvious," Brancowitz continues. "[The words] are cliché, but because they're very profound. I don't know if our vision of love has changed, but I know that now we are humble enough to use those words like 'ti amo' without feeling ashamed."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.wearephoenix.com

 

 

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