PHOENIX, WHO ARE ARGUABLY the hippest band in France these days, haven't exactly had to rise from the ashes. Their career has rocketed from success to success, from critical acclaim to intense fame, to actual iconographic status. If they're rising from anything, it is perhaps a shimmering flurry of gold dust.
Nevertheless, the quartet still sat down to write their newest album, Bankrupt! in a spirit of renewal. Lead singer and frontman Thomas Mars has said that the album was a critical response to the overwhelming fame that followed their 2009 album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
That album, their fourth, earned them international ubiquity and a Grammy award for best alternative album. Even the uninitiated will recognise the catchy, thrilling chords that open Lizstomania, and the album's pink cover, which was featured in iPod advertisements globally. The album reached gold status, a first for the band.
Wolfgang was a tough act to follow. For Bankrupt! the band vowed to put aside the fame and focus on the music. "We are always looking for something new when we're in the studio," Mars says ahead of the band's Hong Kong show on January 19. "We are obsessed. We're perfectionists in the way that when we make an album, we know it's going to last. It's important that it's how we want it to be."
The band members have been friends since childhood. Born and raised in Versailles, Mars, Laurent Brancowitz, Deck d'Arcy and Christian Mazzalai came together as a garage band in Mars' house in the early 1990s. In 2000, they released their precocious debut album, United, which drew acclaim for two singles, If I Ever Feel Better and Too Young, which was featured in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (Coppola later wed Mars).
In the following decade, Phoenix perfected a distinctive, emblematic sound and image. All the members share a slim, scruffy build topped off with skinny denim and floppy haircuts. Though their songs are often miraculously catchy, embracing lush hooks and happy melodies, they share a dissonant, atonal quality as well - it's hard to guess what note will come next. Their lyrics, always in English, are memorable but sometimes nonsensical.
It's not accidental. "Our process is about capturing something unfamiliar or awkward that our brains will eventually like, after getting used to it. We listen back a lot to make this happen," explains Mars. "I try to embrace the awkwardness of being a French guy singing in a foreign language. It's easier to find your own voice with these strange restrictions that come in the process of songwriting."
Bankrupt! incorporates all of Phoenix's signatures in a fun album filled with loveable, unintelligible lyrics. On Drakkar Noir, Mars sings, "It's a jingle jungle/ Jingle junkie-junkie jumble."
They chose the album title to undercut expectations as well. "It's a title that doesn't belong in a musical universe," says Mars. "There's a Warhol connotation. The exclamation point was really important to us; it sounds big, rough and ugly which is something we were looking for, instead of something elegant." The four-year process of producing the album was tough.
Mars says: "It was like Groundhog Day, only more stressful. But because we like each other's company we could still make this happen. We weren't really trying to express [a message], we were just trying to impress each other."
The band is setting off on a worldwide tour, and will stop off at Hong Kong, another first. "It is very exciting to be able to discover a new place especially after we've done five albums. What I love about audiences around the world is discovering what they have in common more than what sets them apart," says Mars.
Phoenix may be perfectionists in the studio, but on stage they let loose. This year, they headlined Coachella, in a raucous performance featuring a surprise visit from R. Kelly. Mars says, "We are control freaks in the studio, but once it is done, it is out of control and can go anywhere. You have to embrace it."
No surprises there. Phoenix's greatest asset is their democratic, exuberant embrace of life in all its senselessness. Phoenix loves the world, and the world loves them back.
Phoenix, Jan 19, 7pm, AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau, HK$680 (advance), HK$780, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2544 0477