Phoenix's Most Joyful Album Arrives Amidst Global Unrest: 'The Moral Compass is Broken'

Phoenix photographed on May 3rd at The VNYL in New York City.
Eric Ryan Anderson

Phoenix photographed on May 3rd at The VNYL in New York City.

What does a hit single mean to Phoenix? “It’s a curse,” says frontman Thomas Mars, while sitting next to guitarist Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz at Manhattan eatery Doma Na Rohu in the West Village on a cool spring morning. “We don’t chase hits,” continues Mars, “because a successful album can be a gift, but a hit is usually not.”

In the streaming era, where playlist-friendly singles are king and rock groups angle for a top 40 crossover to find casual listeners, Phoenix couldn't care less whether its new album, Ti Amo (out June 9), contains another charttopping hit like “1901.” The Paris-bred quartet of Mars, Brancowitz, guitarist Christian Mazzalai and bassist-keyboardist Deck D’Arcy -- uniformly warm and soft-spoken, and friends since forming as a garage band in 1996 -- spent its first decade as a darling of the ’00s indie blogosphere. With 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which featured the synth-rock anthems “1901” and “Lisztomania,” Phoenix rose to festival headliner status. “1901” landed in a Cadillac commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 and the track topped Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. “When it’s a very good song and hits No. 1? That almost never happens,” says Brancowitz, ruffling the dark hair above his black-rimmed glasses. “When it does, those moments are the most important. It’s almost like a page turning.” By the end of 2010, Phoenix was playing Madison Square Garden in New York and bringing out their pals Daft Punk as surprise guests.

The “curse” then of a song like “1901” is that the band likely will never replicate its ubiquity. The deliriously light Ti Amo is Phoenix’s second full-length since Wolfgang, and like 2013 album Bankrupt!, it does not have any smash hits (first single “J-Boy” has reached No. 24 on Alternative Songs). Yet Phoenix is unaffected by such expectations, as is longtime label Glassnote Records. “Phoenix are a romantic rock band whose inspirations come from experiences they have soaking up culture all over the word,” says Glassnote founder Daniel Glass. “I would be remiss to impose our beliefs on their process.”

For Ti Amo, the group stationed itself at La Gaîté Lyrique -- a complex in Paris that houses everything from tech startups to performance venues -- and crafted the album during regular working hours, after previously recording only at night. Built around dreamy sci-fi synths, the album also serves as a musical tour of Italy; there are lyrical nods to Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic film La Dolce Vita, fior de latte gelato and Via Veneto, which Mazzalai describes as “the most famous street in Rome.” Brancowitz says “my father is Italian, and we’ve spent a lot of time there,” but adds that the band treated the country as “a fantasy land -- an Italy that never really existed and is more like a safe harbor for our imaginations.”

Eric Ryan Anderson
Phoenix photographed on May 3rd at The VNYL in New York City.

Ti Amo’s sunnier sound also belies the climate in which it was created. During the recording process, which began in 2014 and wrapped last spring, violent attacks including both the Champs-Élysées street shooting in April and the November 2015 massacre at the Bataclan happened. The January 2015 terrorist attack at the Paris office of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo hit closest to home. “A lot of the cartoonists who were killed were people we [followed] when we were kids,” says Mars. “For us, it wasn’t just political -- it was people connected to our childhood and pure, innocent memories. It was very traumatizing.”

Mars, who married Sofia Coppola in 2011 and has two daughters with the director, says the group recognized that the cheeriness of Ti Amo conflicted with the world in which it was conceived. “What was strange is that we did feel we were making a record that was a total contradiction of what was going on,” he says. “We were disconnected, so we did feel a slight sense of guilt at first ... We just had to accept it. Our reaction was spontaneous, and it was like an antidote.”

Ti Amo will be released just weeks after the election of French president Emmanuel Macron over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, as well as the May 22 terrorist attack at Manchester Arena in England that left 23 dead. “You can feel that the moral compass is broken,” says Brancowitz. “I went to go see my dermatologist. She’s a very intelligent person; 10 years of study in college. Even she was conveying information that were fake Facebook posts.” Yet he also points out that “in dark times, there’s a tradition of happy music,” and the band, which members say is closer than ever, is ready to bring the positivity of Ti Amo to the masses. 

Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Governors Ball
Phoenix performs live onstage during 2017 Governors Ball Music Festival - Day 2 at Randall's Island on June 3, 2017 in New York City. 

After headlining spring festivals like Governors Ball and Hangout, the group will play large fests across Europe and likely tour throughout 2018. Phoenix is also enjoying the recent Cannes acclaim of Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, to which the group contributed new music. The band members don’t mind if they’re still headlining arenas years from now, or if they return to the clubs that Phoenix used to play pre-“1901.” Brancowitz likens an intimate club to a church: “You can look at everyone and stand there like a priest.”

“A club,” adds Mars, “is a sacred thing.” 

This story originally appeared in the June 17 issue of Billboard.