There’s not much you can fault Phoenix for. They’re epically talented, unflappably humble, and, according to many, responsible for one of the hands-down best albums of 2009. On Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the Versailles-born dance rockers manage to craft a 10-song collection that’s simultaneously upbeat, catchy, affecting, and sonically seamless. Singles like “1901” and “Lisztomania” bubble over with buoyant percussion, hooky guitars, and discreetly driving piano parts, all held together by frontman Thomas Mars’s call-to-arms-style deliveries. Elsewhere, on almost-instrumental numbers like “Love Like a Sunset,” the band takes listeners on a twisting and turning ride through mountains and valleys of synth and percussion, never managing to lose their momentum along the way.
This Sunday, Mars, bassist Deck D’Arcy, guitarist Christian Mazzalai, and guitarist Laurent Brancowitz bring Wolfgang to life onstage at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Mars recently phoned in to discuss song crafting, touring, and his newfound place atop the charts.
I’m curious to know a bit about the Phoenix writing process. It’s stupidly complementary. I think individually we’re pretty bad, actually, but when we’re all together, there’s something that happens that we all like. The only rule that we have when we write music is that if the four of us are happy with it, it makes it on the record. It’s something that’s almost unconscious because we can’t even remember who wrote what whenever. We get lost. Egos and ideals and bodies fall behind, and we get to this state where our fingers are coming up with it. It’s created by our brains, but there’s something else there. In that way, I think we avoid making something that would instantly please us. We do things that tend to get lost, but once you listen back to it, you like it.
With such a tight dynamic already in place, how did a producer fit into the picture? We didn’t really have a producer. We walked into our friend’s studio who happened to be a producer. Philippe Zdar is his name, and he had this whole record collection there, so he would come in often to pick up these records, but then he would come just hang out in the space. He became not really a producer—we knew he would mix the record—but he became someone who was just, you know, outside of our world. He had the keys to make this record happen way faster because he knew where we wanted to go, even if we were all in denial about it, or if we were procrastinating.
You guys have been all over the world in support of this record. How is touring going? We started in April, so it’s been almost a year and a half, yeah. I think it’s the same energy that drives you when you’re making a record. You think the next two months are always the last ones, you know? [Laughs.] With touring, back in January we thought we’d be done back in April. I think the concept of not having a plan doesn’t ruin it all. It makes you excited about it. We’re now touring places that are very different—for us it’s all different—so it doesn’t [feel old]. We’ve always wanted to create our own rules, to make music that makes you feel like you belong to some sort of tradition. It’s the best feeling when you play places that are so iconic, these old places that we’ve all heard of. That was all along something we really wanted to do.
At this point in the game, what’s keeping the live show interesting for you? I don’t know. It’s a very selfish thing. I feel pretty much disconnected when it comes to this because I’m not sure if people think it’s the same show, or they think it’s really different. I think that it’s always unpredictable, and that’s what makes it so addictive. Once on stage, we get lost; we lose track of space and time, or something. When it’s over, you don’t really remember anything specific from the show, but you know if it was good or bad. That’s the thing that makes it very addictive in the moment. It’s very organic, and that makes it unique.
Do you have a grasp on how big this record has gotten? Yes, but really recently. I mean, we were always pretty naïve because it’s a way to protect yourself and it’s a way to make another record. The self-reflection thing, it’s not something we are looking for. But when we played L.A., there were a few moments when it was overwhelming. You felt it. Then there are others, like the Coachella [Music & Arts] Festival. It was freaking me out.
Are you guys writing on the road now? What comes next? We have nothing. [Laughs.] We don’t know what to do. We only know how to write with the four of us in a very dark, dingy room—the opposite of touring. I wish we could do that, but we just don’t know how to. To be on tour and to do a big show every night and to be writing, it’s too much of our time and brain to write something else. We know we’re super nervous about the new record, and I think it’s in a good way.
Phoenix play the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) this Sunday, September 19, at 7 p.m. with opener Neon Indian. For tickets and information, call 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com.