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After the Pandemic and Personal Loss, Phoenix Looks Ahead to a ‘Brighter Future’ on ‘Alpha Zulu’

The new album sees the French band celebrating its decades-long friendship and embracing joy during "the most creative time of our entire life."

It’s fitting that Phoenix’s live show, specifically on a temperate night at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 9, is buzzing with electric energy. After all, the lauded French band — consisting of members (and decades-long pals) Thomas Mars, Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz, Deck D’Arcy and Christian Mazzalai — had been waiting with bated breath and crossed fingers for this exact moment.

After a glittering showcase of the band’s beloved material — including the No. 6-charting Adult Alternative Airplay hit “Entertainment,” fan favorite “Too Young” from its self-titled debut LP and multiple cuts from the group’s Grammy-winning classic Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix — the quartet stripped things back for the live debut of “Winter Solstice,” a stark insight into Phoenix’s mindset amid a pandemic that left the members starving for connection. That outlook frames the band’s seventh studio album, Alpha Zulu, out now via Glassnote Records. 

To be clear, Phoenix “didn’t want to make a cliché pandemic album” with Alpha Zulu. But when France was under lockdown due to COVID-19 and Mars was separated from his friends, musical bits acted as the band’s letters to each other. On the other side of the world away from Branco, Mazzalai and Deck, Mars penned and recorded stream-of-consciousness lyrics that would later become “Winter Solstice” to speak to the isolation he felt amid the wildfires in northern California. Out of this bleakness, the light that would inspire the rest of Alpha Zulu started to shine through.

“It sounds corny, but music became the way to communicate when we were separated. It was our way of saying we knew everybody was okay, but on standby,” Mars explains of the brooding, synth-driven track over a four-way Zoom call, accompanied by his bandmates. “We wanted something to happen in our lives, but the only thing that could happen was a good song and the possibility of playing it live someday.”

The quartet didn’t want to steep in the sorrow for too long. “After we recorded ‘Winter Solstice,’ we wanted to escape and think about a brighter future,” Branco adds. As lockdown restrictions across countries began to ease, hope started to break through the clouds. In between pockets of travel for Mars — “he could come back to Paris, but no more than a week or 10 days and had to rush back because of new waves in other parts of the world,” according to D’Arcy — Phoenix was feverish with inspiration when they finally were able to reconvene.

Hunkered down for weeks in a storage room-turned-studio located at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs (“real studios are very boring,” says Branco), the musicians were immersed in both chaos and solitude, a combination that set their creativity aflame.

“We were surrounded by Napoleon’s throne and works from the medieval period and the second century. All this culture melting together in a sordid, empty museum with no one seeing us…it was a big mess!” Mazzalai explains with a certain glee. “But it was helpful to us. Very freeing and joyful, in a way.”

He further recalls, “We’ve never been that inspired, because Thomas was stuck in confinement during lockdown for many months in the United States. It was the first time we didn’t see Thomas for more than a month, so once he could travel to the studio after weeks of waiting, we produced more than ever. It was maybe the most creative time of our entire life.”

“The stillness made recording the album even more intense for us. The world was asleep, and that gave gravity to us and depth to the record,” Mars adds. 

The trying conditions resulted in some of Phoenix’s brightest and most ambitious work to date. “After Midnight,” a cut from the top half of Alpha Zulu, sees the group tapping into a euphoria that leaves its listener equal parts jittery and energized; “Season 2” calls back to Phoenix’s classic — and infectious — use of wordplay (“giddy up, I’m bored”), while “Artefact” highlights the band’s consistent, artful use of synthesizers and lyrical repetitions, also seen in the tongue twisters on the album’s title track, “Alpha Zulu.” 

For the first time, the band needed a friend to help bring one of its songs to life. On single “Tonight,” Phoenix enlists fellow indie pop heavyweight Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend to provide supporting vocals and a verse on the upbeat track. Marking the band’s first time collaborating with another artist, the band spent months cultivating a relationship with Koenig. At first, the uptempo track started off like any other Phoenix song, with the group jotting down lyric ideas on the makeshift studio’s whiteboard and assigning names to each of the song’s parts for easy swapping. But when the track’s second verse rolled around (“What if we last ’til it’s dawn like you promised me?/ Who let the boys spill their entrée?”), the band knew something — or rather, someone — was missing. 

“The playfulness of the track reminded us of Ezra, so we had to call him. We were intimate enough with him that we knew the song was safe,” Mars says. “If it wasn’t good, we wouldn’t have to put it out or he could say no if he didn’t like it. It’s rare that we know people well enough to do that.”

To be let into Phoenix’s circle is a privilege not afforded to many. The group — friends since elementary school who have been in a band together for the past 25 years — still manages to maintain an unwavering chemistry without resorting to breaking up or bringing in new members. So what’s the secret? “The lead singer is not one of the brothers. If you look at every band where the lead singer is one of the brothers, they’re totally collapsing and hating each other,” the frontman jokes. 

The true formula to Phoenix’s tight-knit nature resides in the most benign form of communism — each member of the band has a hand in all moving parts. “We share everything in four, in a very communist manner,” Branco explains. “Our music belongs to us because we control everything, from the publishing to the production, the four of us, equally. It’s the French motto ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality, fraternity).”

Whereas other bands might rely on the lead singer to craft lyrics or handle most of an album’s production, Branco insists It’s Never Been Like That for the French quartet: “There is not one of us that is more gifted than the other. There’s not that one genius songwriter and the others are just following. We are pretty average — or bad — when we are on our own, but when we add our forces, we produce a result that is better than the sum of our individual qualities. We know we need each other.”

The band’s unofficial member, Philippe Zdar, was also crucial to Phoenix’s friendship story. Alpha Zulu marks the first album the band has worked on without the guidance of the French music producer, who passed away in 2019 — the quartet touches on the producer’s passing in the LP’s stunning closer, “Identical.” The track, which also appears in Sofia Coppola’s (Mars’ wife) 2020 movie On the Rocks, serves double duty by shedding light on the band’s perception of life post-pandemic.

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Speaking of Zdar’s role in “Identical,” Mars says the track “was the best way to end the album because he was the main thing that was missing in us working together. The song has the light at the end of the tunnel, which fits the pandemic. That’s the strong identity of the album. We’re trying not to be in denial of what happened or to wash it away. It’s a reminder that every album is a Polaroid of its time.”

Whereas Phoenix’s previous studio effort, 2017’s Ti Amo, saw the band tapping into Italo disco sounds and nostalgia sweeter than scoops of melted gelato, Alpha Zulu has no set purpose. There’s no obvious takeaway, just the unbridled “joy of creating things as different as possible from each other.” 

The band’s message, however, has always remained the same — to infiltrate their listener’s most human senses to make them feel something at their core.

“The power of music…it’s like a charm or a spell. This magical trick that is so powerful that even us, the magicians, we don’t understand how it’s working,” says Branco. “That’s why we make music.”