By Breanna Murphy on April 10, 2013
Way back in 2006, when the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was a single weekend, two-day affair (ah, the olden days!), the French foursome of bassist Deck d’Arcy, guitarist Laurent Brancowitz, vocalist Thomas Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai made Phoenix’s desert debut to a packed crowd inside the fest’s second-to-smallest tent. Supporting their then-impending album, It’s Never Been Like That, the hits were sparse but savvy and distinct: arguably “Long Distance Call,” that 2006 record’s jittery single, and “Too Young,” the flirtatious pop cut from their 2000 debut featured fondly and memorably in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 tour de force Lost In Translation.
Seven years, one Mars–Coppola knot-tie and a 2009 main stage stop in Indio (that time touting the soon-to-be critically adored Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix) later, and Phoenix have ascended to the festival slot previously reigned over by Jay-Z, Gorillaz, Arcade Fire, Kanye West and Radiohead. In addition to feeling the heat left by the others who’ve soaked up the Coachella Valley sun, Phoenix will be unveiling songs, many for the first time, from the band’s upcoming release, the slyly titled Bankrupt!, an album already weighted heavily by the buzz and expectation built from its brilliantly executed (and Grammy-winning, Platinum-selling) predecessor.
Here, the Guide talks to Mars about why the band’s highly anticipated follow-up is called “Bankrupt!” and not “Ludwig van Phoenix,” the strange elegance found in overindulgence and which Coachella performance “changed everything.”
Coming off of the huge successes of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was there anything specific or new that the band wanted to attempt or avoid on Bankrupt!?
Thomas Mars: We knew what we didn’t want to do, which was… “Ludwig van Phoenix”; more of the same. I think, for us, it’s always easier to know what we don’t want to do and sometimes it helps you find the direction. It took more pressure because we were trying to avoid things to default [to], you know? It took us a very long time to figure out. I think we never really knew what we wanted to do. When the album was done, we looked at it and thought, What have we done? and then it sort of revealed itself with time and playing it live. A lot of the writing process is very unconscious; there are a lot of thoughts, but it’s not a lot of active directing.
Speaking of European composers, there’s a classical, 18th century twinge on many of Bankrupt!’s songs. And those come right up against heavy, electronic synths and such. Where did that juxtaposition come from?
I’m not sure. The more we play music, the more we try to incorporate every influence that we had growing up. Whether it was [as] kids or teenagers, but it’s always through the prism of a weird angle or distance. Growing up in Versailles, so far from everything… You know, our record collections didn’t make any sense for teenagers, really, because we would just take anything we could. Any record would be welcome and it would be a potential influence; there was no rejecting of anything, there was no judgment. It’s the same with instruments, that we potentially like them all, but at the same time, they all go through some weird something that makes them sound like us, you know?
There’s something interesting about the themes of Bankrupt! and the song titles—this exploration of excess and extravagance. Can you speak to what attracted you to that concept?
The previous album had a lot of contradiction. I think for some reason we were attracted by even more contradiction; the fact that, you know, perfume should be distillation—it should be the best thing in the world. And then there’s a song called “Drakkar Noir,” which is the cheapest shit. We were interested about all these things that are not elegant, or beautiful. Things that are almost hostile or just mediocre sometimes. It felt like it was overindulgent territory that no one really talks about these things. It was too hard to say no.
Phoenix’s first appearance at Coachella was in 2006, in the Gobi Tent. Now, seven years later, to see your name at the top of the poster as headliners is pretty wild.
That  show was our worst show, one of the worst memories we’ve ever had. And the one in 2009 was the best one. That’s what we like about Coachella: it’s unpredictable. It leaves you with memories for your lifetime. You’re so nervous at Coachella, so many things can go wrong. I have nightmares about [this upcoming show]… It’s been like eight or nine months now, almost every night. So we’ll see how it turns out, but we feel extremely privileged that we get that much attention now.
Is there anyone you’re looking forward to seeing this year?
I want to see bands but I can’t. There’s sort of this—it’s not a rule, but you don’t allow yourself to watch a band before you play. But this time, we’ll be the last ones to play. I hope I get to see anything, there are so many bands playing that I would like to see at Coachella. New Order is one. I grew up listening to them.
Do you have any personal favorite performances that you’ve witnessed at Coachella?
Well, that first year in 2006, Daft Punk played that big show. That was the moment where… That’s sort of their “Coachella moment” because people are still talking about this.
People might never get over it.
Yeah, because it changed music—not only electronic music, but the aspect of a live light show, of a live performance. It changed everything. I think it was so strong that the first moment, the first year after that when they were still playing, people were in shock and still trying to process what you are hearing and seeing and the novelty of it. That’s very rare. I’ve very rarely experienced that many emotions, that variety, while watching a band. I remember watching the Loveless tour, My Bloody Valentine. I remember the physical…that you would feel the sound more than you would hear it. It was hitting you, and that’s something that I’ve never really experienced that much after that. The Daft Punk show was the same, in that way that you discover something new; that a light show could go in that territory.
Speaking of Daft Punk, people have come to expect something special—a surprise—from the headliners. Is there anything in store for this year’s Coachella audience from Phoenix?
[Laughs] Well, it’s called a surprise, so we won’t reveal anything. Right now we are only at the stage of trying to master our own songs, you know, you just try so hard that you’re [not] thinking about anything else that can happen. We’re just trying to play the new record live.
Realizing that you have been doing this for a while now, do you ever get nerves performing in front of tens of thousands of people at a festival?
Yeah, it’s something we’re [going to do] in front of Coachella that we’ve never done before. I personally have that fear… We don’t want to be a greatest hits [band]. The new songs are always the most important, it’s the thing we want to play the most, so I’m hoping that people understand that on this tour we are going to play mostly new things. That’s how you keep a band alive, that’s how we keep it interesting. That always makes us very nervous before we go on stage, [playing] those songs we’ve never played live before.
I would think the audience would want to hear these songs. A lot.
I don’t know, because they won’t know them, so I’m not sure what the reaction will be [laughs] but it’s a necessity. We have to do it that way. It’s the only interesting way. F
Phoenix headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturdays April 13 and 20.