As a creative, if the pursuit of mastering your craft is to dedicate your life to it, then Phoenix are a band that are well on their way. They formed the band over 18 years ago as 12-year-olds with nothing better to occupy their time with in their hometown of Versailles. Music became a way of creating their own culture. And unlike so many bands that are catapulted to success with a storm of hype surrounding their first release, Phoenix have gradually accumulated more and more credibility with each release. Yet the band didn’t properly blow up until the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth studio album, which was co-produced by Philippe Zdar of Cassius.
We sat down with bassist Deck d’Arcy while Phoenix were in Berlin recently for their current tour to discuss their own definition of success, the limits and freedom of creativity, and the French style of touring.
How did the success of Wolfgang Amadeus influence the making of your fifth album Bankrupt! ?
It’s always hard to say; we’ve tried to keep success outside of the studio. Creativity shouldn’t be influenced by something as unreliable as success. The thing is, every album we’ve done we’ve felt were successful. When you do a first album each step is a success, I think we’ve learnt how to manage it throughout the years, because it’s something that we really don’t want to be influenced by.
When so many publications talk about the “success” of an album, I’m interested to know what your definition of “success” would be?
Actually, it’s more me who should be asking you, what do people think success is? Because for us success first and foremost is making the music that we want to with no compromise at all. It’s basically freedom. Freedom is the most important thing in the world. Not even for music but for everything – that’s obvious. So success can be an obstacle to freedom and that’s why it’s dangerous. The only focus when you create is to be free, you have to leave everything else aside that could make you not follow the way of freedom, and success is one of these.
As bands grow, there are certain things expected of them, tours being one of them. Phoenix are known for their extended tours – you toured for two years after the release of Wolfgang – what impact does it have on you creatively?
We need it. But it’s not two years everyday, it’s pretty French-paced you know: we basically tour two weeks and have two weeks off. It doesn’t affect our creativity; we don’t really create on tour. We use it as a time to gather emotions and feelings. It’s like a field. When you grow fruits or vegetables, every four years you have to not do anything on this field just to give the earth a break. For us it’s the same. We have to not do anything for a long time. We haven’t created anything for one year, so now we are thinking about it again. It’s like a pump. When we are on tour, we listen to a lot of things, we soak them up, but we don’t create. When we’re in the studio, we stop listening to a lot of music and start to create. It’s not something we plan, it’s just happened this way.
So when you’re all touring together, is that the time that you share music and inspiration?
Actually, we do more stuff individually when we’re on tour. And then once in the studio we share everything. But we’re always together, we’re on tour together, in the studio together, we grew up together, we’ve known each other since we were young kids.
And how is that dynamic?
The thing is we don’t know anything else. So it’s hard to say – it’s our life. So whether it’s good or bad is irrelevant. We’re satisfied with it because all this craziness is fun and I think if we were by ourselves I’m not sure it would be as fun.
Your lyrics aren’t typically English, you find an interesting way of playing with words. As English isn’t your native tongue, is this intentional?
We started singing in English because we started the band when we were twelve and what we were listening to when we were 12 wasn’t French. We thought most French music was just the most uncouth stuff. We wanted to be like our idols Iggy Pop or Lou Reed, so we had to sing in English. The language barrier is good in a way because as we aren’t English we put things together that aren’t traditionally meant to be. We find a more poetic way of writing in English than we would in our language. And in English we don’t know if it’s shit or not but we see something else.
We always saw ourselves as sailors. We always wanted to travel the world. When you’re like 15 you want to tour the world like your idols, this is what we wanted to do so obviously, yeah, English was natural. And all the record companies in France they didn’t want to sign us because we sang in English – “It’s good but do it in French!” – so it gave us reason to pursue our music careers outside of France.
The only focus when you create is to be free, you have to leave everything else aside that could make you not follow the way of freedom, and success is one of these.
You formed in Versailles, how did your hometown shape you?
It’s kind of an aristocratic city, it’s not a poor city, it’s not a very wealthy city. It’s very old school, very Christian, very traditional. And relatively empty of fun and culture for kids. So perhaps this lack of coolness shaped us, we wanted to escape it and so we created our own cool stuff. We feel lucky now, back then it seemed shit not having a lot to do, but it would have been a distraction really, instead we just focused on music. We had the chance to have a room to rehearse with instruments, that was the best way to do something that way. Versailles looks beautiful. It’s great to visit but to live there is a different story.
Living in Paris now, how does it inspire you?
We started traveling the world soon after we moved to Paris because we started pretty early on, in our early 20s. So Paris became more like a base than a place we would spend a lot of time. It’s hard to say how cities influence us – the cultural vibe, everything. We’ve worked in New York, LA, Berlin, a lot of different cities but it’s hard to translate the inspiration from cities into our music. You know people say, “I love being there, the city inspires me,” but we get inspired by the music we listen to or the movies we’re watching. It depends on so many more things, like the people you work with, the studio, the weather, so many factors.
So you would say your biggest influences were music and film?
Yes, of course. But we try not to analyze what is influencing us, it’s a fragile thing, inspiration. If you start trying to understand it, that’s the end of it. We leave everything blurry.
And is it ever a struggle to write your music?
Yeah, always. Two years to make an album so, yes. We jam a lot, we write a lot of music, but basically the first six months we don’t create anything, so it takes us six months to get anywhere. We do a lot of random things as much as possible, even as much as we would like even just to go, just to find new tricks, because predictability is boring. We try not to use our brain too much to create the raw material of melodies, we use our brain after. To create the stuff we try to roll the dice, not premeditate it.
Do you have a favorite track or record of yours?
No, it’s hard to say. I wouldn’t like to choose, we are proud of everything we put out. We know when we do our albums we really have to feel 100% sure about them. There are so many things that come out. If you’re not 100% sure then it’s not worth it. The artist has to be sure it’s good.
When you first started out, YouTube and a lot of other music platforms didn’t exist, do you recognize a difference in how you as a band now operate within the music industry?
I don’t judge it, it’s just this way. It’s like the flow of a river, it’s like that. You’re not gonna try to change it. In some ways it’s better, in some ways it’s worse. We are still really attached to the album format, we grew up with A-side and B-side records so that’s the only thing we want to stay attached to, because this is what moved us when we were kids. The rest is cool. We’re not going to start to try to move backwards, I’m not gonna say it was better before – even sound wise – that’s not even a debate. There are pros and cons in everything.