Drinks With: Phoenix

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Phoenix soundcheck at the Tabernacle (Atlanta, GA)

Is everybody involved in the lyrics?

CM: No. The lyrics, we used to, but now it is too involved.

TM: Yeah, it’s me, now. It’s easier.

CM: Thomas is our spokesman. [Laughs]

Several journalists have commented on the lyrics, as being cryptic, or “disregarding narrative,” but I think sometimes there is often a very defined sense of description happening in your songs. It’s true that it is almost always without narrative – by “narrative” I mean, “I walked down the street. I bought a yogurt. I wanted to pass out…” But there are very specific descriptions and mystery which emerge in some of these songs —

TM: Yeah, yeah.

In ‘Rome’ for example, you’ve got a city that is beautiful at times in it’s history and then sort of perpetually decaying — and as the song progresses you realize it mirrors the kind of relationship you are describing through these glimpses. I know from songs like from “Playground Love” or “Love like a Sunset” that you all can be very direct with lyrics when you want to. How does lyric-writing work for you all on a record? Do you write what comes out naturally? Or is there a lot of editing?

TM: I mean it is just the idea that you have is a very small (pauses) — it’s basically a frame. You have all of these ideas that are very different and you want to put them together, but you need to find some sort of glue that holds them together — and that makes it interesting because you don’t have enough time to [within in the song] . So something that we really enjoy is to delete almost every “in-between” you know? All the things that make [the narrative make] sense. — That is something that is impossible to do in French, because every word carries the weight of time, space, you know. Every word has all of this in it toegther so you can’t do that. But in english you can erase what’s in between so it makes it easier. I guess maybe Hank Williams — Branco gave me a book of Hank Williams for my 18th birthday and I just loved how simple it is and how every word is independent so you can just mess with the whole thing. Suddenly, your “heart can be filled with tears” and so on…

His lyrics are very distilled.

TM: That’s something that is impossible to do in French. Because if you just said “My heart is filled with tears,” it would be, “My heart would have been filled with tears that I cried before…”

Maybe my favorite moment when we make a record is when you have a verse and you like the melody a lot, and you have the words for it, and you have too many verses. This rarely happens to us; I wish it happened more. You know when you hear a Bob Dylan song and he goes on forever and he has so many verses that are amazing—it doesn’t fit our music. It’s almost like helium in a gas tank or something where things are free and spread in a very dense environment. You have a lot of lines to put down but you have to make decisions. There are only going to be two or three verses so I have to use this or I can’t use that. And that’s why it’s very important that there are the four of us because I can’t decide on my own. You need input, you need to know which one will be the most like a trademark, or which one is the most unusual. And then, the repetition in every verse is very playful. Once you have the main structure it becomes this big playground where you come back to places. Whether it’s ideas that are the same or it’s just a place that is the same, when you come back to them [in the song] it takes you to a different place. I think my favorite is probably the beginning of the second verse. I don’t know why.

CM: We love the beginning of the second verse. It’s our favorite moment.

TM: ‘Cause it’s the moment where there is no impact. It’s the moment where you’re naked. It’s the most melancholic moment. You don’t have to claim anything. You’re really a friend to the person who is listening. And you can just say the most heartbreaking thing.

Paul McCartney used to hate to write the second verse of any song. I think he felt he’d already said everything that he wanted to say in the first verse and chorus.

TM: I think with Paul McCartney lyrics, it was like he was writing haikus to keep it as pure as possible. So whenever you have a second verse it is missing the clarity the purity of the thing. So I see how it can be upsetting for him. It’s just that the recipe is already there. You don;t want new ingredients or anything. You don’t want to mess with it.

Phoenix soundcheck in Atlanta April 2010

You’ve talked about how long it took to finish a song like “Love Like a Sunset.” Do you ever have songs that just arrive in 20 minutes?

TM: “Honeymoon,” maybe, off the first record.

CM: “1901”—75 percent came in five minutes, [but] we were missing the bridge and it took six months. We were so close but… [laughs]

The tones on this particular record are very well-defined. To me they almost evoke visual things. With “Love Like a Sunset” I have heard you all talk about your trying to imitate the rhytmmic and light experience of driving through the tunnels on the way from Versailles to Paris. When you are making a record, do you typically find yourself inspired by many visual artists?

TM: More than musical artists, actually, on this record. Like Dan Flavin, for example, and his neon lights. We try to steal from him. It’s just so good. You can’t do the same in a live show because it is made for a very industrial environment. I mean it’s a very specific thing.

I think that comes across in the layers on this record.

CM: And also movies. The guy who produced our record, we were all watching a lot of movies together. He talked more movies than music, you know.

TM: When we do a record, I can’t listen to any other music, or else it has to be totally different than any other kind of music because it’s messing up things… so anything that can be inspiring but is not music is…

CM: …is welcome.

What movies were you talking about during this time?

TM: For “Lizstomania,” I don’t know why, but the beginning of American Gigolo. That ride on the PCH, with the Mercedes and the wheels turning. I don’t know why but there was something in that that suited the keyboards.

And then also things that are very melancholic and have a teenage feel to it, and at the same time they have a lot of style… So every Brian De Palma movie or Koyaanisqatsi. It’s a movie scored by Philip Glass, and it’s basically a testimony of industrial life and mankind. So there is no storytelling. It is just an hour and a half of pictures put together in a kind of mind-blowing way. I am sure it influenced many, many people. When you see the Daft Punk show, or Kraftwerk, it has to connect with this.

drinks with Phoenix Thomas (L) Chris (R)

How much of the writing and recording is dependent on location? I know that you went to Berlin before this and you were kind of moving around to record Wolfgang?

CM: We don’t like comfort when we are in the writing process. We want a chair that is hard, because comfort is scary. Because when you are in a bad position, you have less pressure. And we don’t like candles, special lights. We are like, “What do we do now?”

DD: It’s a bit hard to define. It’s a bit weird, but we need an uncomfortable environment. Maybe it’s a psychological thing and we need this unbalanced situation, but we’ve always worked well in messy places.

LB: We need a hard chair, just a table…

DD: …No sofas, no video games. We tried a lot of different places for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. We tried a boat in Paris for three weeks—we did nothing there. We rented a hotel room in New York City for a few weeks too. Too nice. We hired a studio from a French painter. It was a very beautiful place. Once again, not one line, nothing. And we ended up in a studio under construction that was very dusty—no windows, no air-conditioning, nothing—pretty rough. We stayed there for almost two years. [Laughs]

LB: We know each other very well, and we are easily distracted. We can talk for weeks about everything. So if you add other distractions…

TM: Just the view is too distracting. Like right now, look out there. [Out the window from where we are sitting at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, there are three girls in tropical-colored prom dresses standing at an ATM.] [Sings] “Look at that the colors on that dress…” [Laughs] And I wish we could be inspired that other way but it doesn’t work.

Do you write very much when you are on the road, or do you keep that separate?

Thomas Mars | SouncheckTM: That’s one of the rules that we have. We just write ideas but we never try to find the melody on the road. We just wait so the ideas don’t have that pressure on them for now. Then we just wait until we want to record it. If we tried something out, in six months when we’re in the studio, it would be old for us. We’re very afraid of losing the first moment of pure magic. That’s why we have a voice recorder. We are just trying to capture the moment as a spectator. When you are not leading, and it’s something else that is leading. You are discovering, you are nothing. And this is the key moment of what we are translating. When you find something and you don’t know where it comes from, this is the best moment, the key moment of our writing.

One of my favorite records that seems to capture or revere that kind of moment is ‘Tonight’s the Night’ by Neil Young. It’s a funny example too because it’s an wonderfully spontaneous recording, straight through, and I think he sat on it for four years and listened to it and edited bits here and there, before he put it out. Because he had captured the initial thing and then he sort of sat on it for a while and worked with it…

TM: I love how great musicians, great minds in general are always contrary. I don’t think you can guess…they always say the opposite of what they do. If Orson Wells did “Citizen Cane” he will say ‘Oh, this was  just crap. I did nothing. This is my least favorite movie.’ Or I know Voltaire, a French writer, did all of these small novels, and he always said this was terrible because it was a way for him to bring all of the old material that wasn’t successful and say ‘This is what I love’  but he didn’t mean it. There is no way.  There is no way that Orson Wells didn’t like Citizen Cane.

CM: He said that?

TM: Yeah. He denies it.  There are so many people — and it is a great gift I guess — a way to find your freedom or something.  I guess if you try to  please everyone all the time it is a nightmare. So I guess when you are in denial of something when it is a big success — I can see how at some point you would be saying that this artwork is bad because you need to be free from it. You need to go somewhere else. It’s almost like a vital instinct. It’s just to exist.  But yeah, all of our favorite artists like Bob Dylan or Neil Young, when you read something about them you don’t know whether to believe them or not if it is true or anything. And that makes it even better.

Are there any lyricists that you really admire? You’ve primarily written in English, but is there anyone that you connected with earlier on?

TM: Yeah. Richard Brautigan in English. Or in French, Serge Gainsbourg. I guess with his lyrics, some artists are so great at something that it’s almost as if you are choked. It’s so great but they do the ultimate thing.

CM: It is not like in America. You have so many “kings” here—kings of music. But in France it is very rare. We have only one, and that’s Serge Gainsbourg. He destroyed everything—every possibility. It’s like a big sun. To me, that is one of the reasons that we chose to sing in English. In France, we are the only ones doing it.

TM: In France, it has been fifteen or twenty years of people copying him. And they are still copying him—but it’s just not as good.

(To Thomas) Do feel like your writing has changed after you have had kids?

TM: No. (pauses to think) No. Maybe. Or maybe you are more aware that life is the exception. That it is not normal so it makes things better. So you are just more sensitive. But it is the same as if something happens that is great or tragic..if you loose a friend or something. It just helps to remind you. It makes contrasts.  But no, I don’t think it changed much. Maybe the schedule more. (laughs)

Thanks again. This has been a lot of fun.

TM: Thank you. This is very cool. It’s so nice to talk about things you like.

CM: Can you all stay for the show?

Yeah we wouldn’t miss it – We were actually sorry to have missed you all in Nashville last night. We had a show ourselves and were traveling.

TM: Last night was fun. We played Vanderbilt — and then someone had the idea to go to a fraternity – because we had just watched animal house two days ago — and it was the most exotic thing I have ever seen. I’m glad I did it once. We don’t need to go anymore. (Laughs)


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