It is probably not surprising that to the casual listener, French five-piece Phoenix appeared to emerge from nowhere with their 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenx. The album sold more than 20 times as many copies as its predecessor, It’s Never Been Like That, and catapulted the band from relative obscurity to playing the world’s biggest stages. But while Phoenix may have seemed an overnight sensation to the masses, the band was already a decade and three albums into its career before Wolfgang’s release.
As such, the band seemingly hit their stride with that fourth, now certified gold album. Their development seems almost old-fashioned, as their popularity grew organically in the way that, say, U2 and REM previously once grew their audiences. With fifth album Bankrupt!, released in April, the band has kept the quality level high without repeating itself. It bears the kind of grandiose pop built for stadium stages alongside quirks and creative touches that reveal the band’s collective smarts.
To promote the album, the band played the festival circuit this past summer as well as “small” shows of their own at venues like Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. That tour ends in California this week, but I spoke to bass player Deck d’Arcy in August, when the band was traveling between Colorado and San Francisco.
It seems like you guys have been doing a lot of festival shows. Does it seem intimate then when you play your own shows to just 8,000 people?
Deck d’Arcy: Well, yeah, it’s very different playing a festival from our own shows, but both are cool—as long as we are playing at nighttime, so we can keep the mystery of the show. We don’t like playing during the daytime, because we like the mystery of a dark stage.
When you are playing one of these festivals and you’re on one stage and another band is on another stage a football field away from you, do you feel competitive? Like tomorrow, are you going to be geared up to get more people to watch you than Nine Inch Nails?
DD: I guess it’s competitive, but it doesn’t really matter who’s playing as the same time as us. It’s annoying when we miss good bands that we’d like to see.
Having gone to a new level in terms of popularity with the last record, did that feel like a dramatic shift to you or did it seem natural having been a band for so many years?
DD: Surprisingly, it seemed natural. It’s been very progressive. We’ve always felt like nothing much has changed as it’s been building up slowly since we started. It’s true that now we headline festivals, but it’s been a slow progression, and we feel lucky for that. When we started touring 15 years ago, I don’t think we were ready for that. I’m glad that YouTube didn’t exist back then, because then there would have been some terrible moments that would have stayed on the internet forever.
Yesterday, we played a club [Boulder’s wonderful Fox Theatre] to about 400 people, and we loved that. That’s where we come from, and we still love playing tiny shows. The beauty of the tour is going from a massive festival to a tiny club. That’s what makes it fun for us.
Do you feel like your fans are aware of your history or do they think you started with Wolfgang?
DD: Yeah, many think we started with Wolfgang, and many think we are American or British. But it doesn’t really matter.
You guys are unique as a successful French rock band. Is there a French scene that doesn’t make it to America or is it just that people don’t play rock music over there?
DD: There is a language barrier, and most of the bands are singing in French. So that’s a problem. But the French seem more into electronic music, like Daft Punk or Justice or Air. I think the French scene is very eclectic.
You guys got together when you were teenagers, right?
DD: We met when we were six years old.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
DD: We would not change anything. We never followed the advice of people, so I would not give any advice. When you are a kid, you shouldn’t take any advice. Everyone wanted us to sing in French, and we didn’t. People wanted us to have music when we were doing punk rock. We always went the opposite way of what we were told to do in a very arrogant way. But that’s the way to behave when you start a band. It’s cool to be pretentious when you are 15. When you are older, it’s different, but when you are 15, it’s how you have to be.
Going into making Bankrupt, given the increase in your fanbase, did you feel more pressure making this record?
DD: Yeah, but as I told you, it’s always been the same. We had a lot of pressure after the first one, after the second one… it’s a pressure that comes from the band, more than from people outside. It’s been very progressive, so yeah, there was more pressure than the one before, but the pressure comes from ourselves to make something that we are proud of and want to put out. We never know if we are going to be able to finish an album. It is always kind of a gamble. The way we write is random and waiting for the right thing to come. We don’t really control what we do, so that makes you feel a bit of pressure. The outside world, not so much. We are in France. France is a little bubble on the international music scene. Our record company is far away, but we work with people who trust their artists. We were expecting them to bother us more and put more pressure on us, and they didn’t at all. We were kind of disappointed.
I read somewhere that you guys have taken years just to get one song right in certain instances. Was that the case with this record? It took four years to come out.
DD: Yeah, it’s always the case. We never write on tour, so we forget how to make songs. It’s annoying, because it’s a long process starting from scratch. But it’s always fresh, because we never go back to things we’ve done before, even the leftover stuff we didn’t use. We release stuff we didn’t use on the album. It’s more for ourselves than for the fans, so we can get rid of everything we did and start from scratch.
Did you have any specific goals going in?
DD: We have a framework when we start, but we drift away from it very soon. We know what we love, so we do a lot of things and then sleep on it until we are very sure it is something we are confident with. We didn’t want to do a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart album. We wanted to do something modern that we didn’t hear before.
I also heard that you usually use the first take.
DD: Yeah, usually one of the first takes.
Does that mean there is a lot of practicing first?
DD: No. People may not realize that everything we do is very basic. There are a few layers so maybe it seems complex, but each layer is very simple. We’ve never been impressed by technique in terms of performance. We’ve never had guitar heroes. We are more into ideas than performing.