Phoenix: The Billboard Cover Story
The French group's last album made it a festival headliner. For a follow-up, the band is using that attention to bring its offbeat impulses to the masses.
On April 13, when Phoenix takes the stage to headline the first Saturday of Coachella, it will be the linchpin moment in the rollout of its new album, "Bankrupt!," a process that will have already encompassed a "Saturday Night Live" appearance and a truncated North American tour. Not bad for a quartet of mild-mannered French hipsters whose charged collision of dance energy, bright melodicism and indie-rock guitar sold 710,000 of their last album, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (according to Nielsen SoundScan), turning them into one of the biggest and freshest sounds on alternative radio.
But as big as that night in the California desert will be, it won't quite be Phoenix's crowning glory. That came almost two-and-a-half years ago, in October 2010, when the band capped its inaugural headlining performance at New York's Madison Square Garden with a surprise appearance by Daft Punk. A brief medley of DP's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and "Around the World" morphed into an electronically charged version of Phoenix's "1901," and the cameo ended with the French compatriots bowing arm-in-arm at the top of the stage as fans howled for more.
The collaboration was a surreal, wholly unexpected moment that came together rather easily: The members of Phoenix had known Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo since their formative years in France, and had watched the reclusive electronic duo become international stars in the early 2000s while they, in turn, made their hay at sweaty club shows. After running into the pair in Los Angeles in September 2010, the two groups decided to hole up in a decrepit New York studio that fall and cobble together a one-off live experience. "We thought, 'How does this work-humans and robots together? Do we dress up as robots?'" frontman Thomas Mars quips.
Talking with the band members about their music, and about the way "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" turned them into alt-rock stars capable of bringing Daft Punk onstage at MSG, one encounters a sly diffidence. They know their last album was a breakthrough, but can't explain why. "Our strategy was to always try and keep the same direction throughout all those years, and at some point, the wheel of fortune stopped at this position," guitarist/keyboardist Laurent Brancowitz says. "It's like playing the same number at the lottery again."
But Phoenix has indeed become a wholly unassuming icon within (and spilling out of) the indie-rock realm. There's a song on "Bankrupt!," its fifth studio album due April 23, titled "Trying to Be Cool" -- as if the disarmingly calm personalities, polished pop songs, anti-social-media mysteriousness, washed-out press photos, seductive French accents and celebrity connections (Mars' wife is "Lost in Translation" director Sofia Coppola) have yet to turn "trying to be" into "being." As guitar lines swirl into the ether beneath his voice, Mars sings with a pleading earnestness, "Tell me you want me/Tell me that you want it all."
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“Success in music does a weird thing where people don't want you to change your logo." - Thomas Mars
"Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" took Phoenix from relative unknown (the group's previous album, 2006's "It's Never Been Like That," has sold only 92,000 copies in the United States) to household -- or at least dorm room -- name. But when asked about "Trying to Be Cool," and if he and his bandmates feel "cooler" than they did before "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" raised their profile, Mars bristles. "The song is about the total opposite. It's about failing," he says. "When you're in a rock band, you transform yourself into a hero, a kind of god-like figure. But the really great artists are more clever than that … Being cool is boring."
That this topic is being discussed in an art gallery on Manhattan's West Side is slightly ironic. It's very cool here -- literally freezing. It's a February afternoon and the heat is turned off inside the David Zwirner art gallery. Mars, Brancowitz, Deck d'Arcy and Christian Mazzalai all have their parkas zipped up as they carefully pore over a series of light sculptures by New York minimalist Dan Flavin. Starting in the 1960s, Flavin used ordinary neon light fixtures to create sculptural pieces, and at the Zwirner gallery fluorescent squares shimmer off the gallery's empty white walls behind them. The foursome float from room to room, occasionally muttering passing thoughts to each other in French to break up the long, pensive silences.
One reason Phoenix is here at the Flavin exhibit is to gather ideas for its latest live show. The "Bankrupt!" tour will continue well into 2014, and the group now has the clout to ratchet up its new visual display. Mars keeps tailing off to a room that features a trio of untitled, 8-foot-tall glowing sculptures-nearly identical, except that their colors are listed as "cool white," "soft white" and "warm white," creating a subtly gorgeous contrast between each hollow polygon. With his eyes scanning the squares, Mars remarks that these three Flavin works -- all made from simple fluorescent lamps and created between 1966 and 1971 -- cannot shine forever. Eventually the bulbs will burn out, and that's it. "These pieces have a very short lifetime," Mars says, "which makes them even more precious."
Stepping into the Upper East Side offices of Glassnote Records, the first thing one sees is a trio of album awards. In the center is a plaque marking Mumford & Sons' 20120 debut, "Sigh No More," reaching double-platinum status (it's now at 2.9 million); on the left is a gold record for emo-pop auteur Secondhand Serenade's 2008 single "Fall for You"; and on the right is a plaque honoring "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" going gold in October 2010, 17 months after its release.
Glassnote scooped up Phoenix in March 2009 after the band had released its first three albums on Astralwerks. The aggressive promotional campaign for "Wolfgang" included a heavier focus on exposure in North America, with the group making its "SNL" and Bonnaroo debuts. Lead single "1901" was featured in a 2009 Cadillac TV spot -- the act's first major commercial look -- and was tirelessly pushed to alternative, college and triple A radio. Slowly but surely, the song became inescapable, and reached the peak of Billboard's Alternative chart in its 31st week, the second-longest climb to No. 1 in the tally's history.
Glassnote is an independent label that thrives on patience. Mumford & Sons watched its debut start at No. 127 on the Billboard 200 before growing to monster sales, and "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" racked up its nearly three-quarters of a million units sold without creeping above a No. 37 peak on the tally.
"Bankrupt!" is an album that may require even more equanimity. While songs like "Oblique City" and "S.O.S. in Bel Air" contain artful hooks, they're not as radio-ready as the Wolfgang standouts. And the first single, "Entertainment," is a manic synthesizer showcase that ends with Mars' wistful declaration, "I'd rather be alone."
"If ["Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"] was [Radiohead's] 'The Bends,' this is 'OK Computer,'" co-manager Simon White says. "I don't know if it's as immediate in quite the same way on a singles level, but to me, it's hands down the best thing they've ever done."
The accomplishments have been slowly piling up for Glassnote, with none more conspicuous than Mumford & Sons' recent leap to superstardom. Three years after Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" won the Grammy Award for best alternative music album, Mumford & Sons' sophomore set "Babel" earned the album of the year award in February, catapulting the set back to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Two months after Phoenix headlines Coachella, Mumford will top one night of the Bonnaroo festival, and then both bands will earn top billing at Lollapalooza in August. Meanwhile, the label's rising acts -- Scottish electro-pop trio Chvrches, EDM newcomer Robert DeLong, Irish folkies Little Green Cars -- have new projects to promote and live shows to play. Last year, Glassnote had a U.S. market share of 0.6%; so far this year, the number has grown to 1.1%.
Needless to say, label owner Daniel Glass is staggeringly busy, and often outside of his native New York. His main focus has turned to the release of Phoenix's "Bankrupt!," and fortunately, the much-discussed expiration of Glassnote's distribution deal with RED is no longer a distraction. On Feb. 25, the label announced that it had extended its deal with the Sony Music Entertainment-owned distributor, meaning that the most influential indie label in popular music was sticking with its winning formula ahead of its biggest 2013 release.
"We're very excited, but I'm glad this is behind us now," Glass says about the deal, which squashed rumors that an agreement with a major label was imminent. "Did [the extension] have something to do with Phoenix? In RED's mind and Universal's mind and Warner's mind, it had a lot to do with Phoenix -- nothing to do with it in my mind. We've made a good team, and we have the right team."
Glass is known for his hands-off approach to his artists' creative processes, but Phoenix probably wouldn't have taken any album notes anyway. After the "Wolfgang" tour wrapped at the end of 2010, the quartet holed up in the studio for exactly two years beginning in January 2011, first in New York and then in Paris. Aside from longtime co-producer Philippe Zdar, who was brought in intermittently to provide feedback from a distance, no one -- not the band members' wives and girlfriends, and certainly no one resembling an A&R rep -- heard the album until it was finished. Glass recalls hearing "an 18-second snippet once" on a trip to Paris, and questioned whether the sampling was actually from the album or a practical joke.
"They are very intelligent people," Mars says of the Glassnote team. "Stupid people don't let you do what you know how to do, and that happened a lot of times in the past."
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
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