(Exclusive) Phoenix Interview with SFCritic: A Symphonic Play

10/04/2010

Photo by Victoria Smith

Wolfgang Amadeus might be written off as just a great pop album. It’s catchy. It has great singles like the foot shuffling “Lisztomania.” It received the Grammy for “Best Alternative Album.” But what a mistake if one came to this conclusion! In a great article by Andy Seifert of the AV Club, he highlights the complexity and layers of the album eliciting the historical comparisons with the titles’ of the album and songs like “Napolean Says” and “1901.”

Amongst these references is “Lisztomania,” a nod to the Hungarian pianist and composer of the 1800s, Franz Lizst. Lizst is described as one of the first “pop” performers in that he made women become hysterical for his dramatic style and handsome looks. Among many of his accomplishments, he’s known for creating the symphonic poem. A thematic structure consisting of three parts: 1) the music relates to outside sources 2) the poem shares or encapsulates multiple sections into a single central movement 3) the piece elevates to an aesthetic level which could be regarded as equivalent to or higher than an opera.

When SFCritic had the opportunity to interview brothers Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz of Phoenix at Outside Lands earlier this fall, to the brother’s chagrin, he explained his hope to transcribe their discussion into a “symphonic interview.” In light of Lizst’s structure, this piece showcases the brothers, our protagonists, telling their musical development and personal discovery.

The Outside Sources

Phoenix: “Lisztomania”
[audio: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/11598506/Phoenix%20Lisztomania.mp3]

SFCritic (SFC): What has been your experience so far at Outside Lands in San Francisco?

Christian Mazzalai (CM): We’ve enjoyed the European weather.

Laurent Brancowitz (LB): The smell reminds us of our childhood, particularly the smell of the trees. We have the same smell in some parts of Italy.

SFC: Where in Italy are you from?

LB: We are from France, but our father comes from northern Italy.

SFC: If you were to translate the smell or food into a sound or song that you’ve heard or done, what would it be? Why?

LB: The smell is Italian music. Adriana Celantano would be the soundtrack for us.

SFC: Why did you choose this artist?

LB: She is a sixty’s artist that summarizes the Italian charm for us.

The structure begins with the smell setting the tone for our symphonic interview. The source reminds our protagonists of a different period of time, relived through Italian pop artist Adriana Celantano. The brothers reflect on their father’s upbringing in Italy. Though the brothers were raised in France, their Italian ancestry is often overlooked.

The Multiple Sections

Phoenix: “If I Ever Feel Better”
[audio:http://dl.dropbox.com/u/11598506/Phoenix%20-%20If%20I%20Ever%20Feel%20Better.mp3]

During the creative period of Wolfgang Amadeus, Phoenix was heavily influenced by a tunnel ride they experienced in Australia. The group used this experience as muse for the album’s songs, “Love Like A Sunset Pts. 1 and 2.” The album opens with first sunset, and closes with the second.

SFC: I found it fascinating how your driving experience through some tunnels was the inspiration for “Love Like A Sunset Pts. 1 and 2.” Can you explain it a little?

LB: The first moment was in Australia. We were playing a concert near the opera. We have a friend who had directed two of our videos on the previous album. We were riding in his car, and he had a very powerful sound system with music by Steve Reich. This moment was really magical.

We wanted to repeat this experience we had in Australia for this particular tunnel that was very important for us because we had been through it thousand of times in our lives. We always came back very late at night and the reflection on the windshield was very influential. This was one of the hardest songs for us to do in our career. The first one we started with this album, and the last one we finished.

And here Wolfgang Amadeus was created. A moment in Australia sparks a creative experience in Paris where the brothers work to create the album. As Laurent Brancowitz explains to SFCritic, the two songs encapsulate the beginning and the end of their creation. As the album helps them soar to new levels of fame, and success, its completion marks the end of a creative cycle. Now as the interview builds, we find our protagonists contemplating the sections of time leading up to this album.

SFC: One of your first singles ever was “If I Ever Feel Better.” Do you feel better now?

CM: Actually no. We feel worst.

LB: We feel worst because we are growing. When you’re growing you feel less naïve. Artistically we feel better because we are successful. We have more cards in our hands. We control more of what we are doing and
that’s the key thing.

SFC: Compared to that single there is a huge sonic difference with Wolfgang Amadeus. What are some of the influences that affected this growth?

LB: The fact that we had done three albums. We knew we had nothing to prove anymore for ourselves. We just had to make music. When you’re doing your first record you want to do something that is in your dream. The second one you want to do better. The third is the end of a cycle. After that, for the first time we didn’t care at all about anything.

SFC: So are you starting a new cycle now?

LB: Yeah I think so.

SFC: Is that scary?

LB: No we’ve been through different phases while recording. For example, one year we didn’t record anything. We’ve been so down that anything could happen to us almost.

SFC: Do you feel like you’re on top now?

CM: Maybe we are on top from an outsider’s point of view. But we don’t feel that way.

LB: For us we are at the beginning.

The drama builds in this section. The brother’s start from scratch, as the cycle of their musical career repeats. Nine years after their first release, the group receives the Grammy award for “Best Alternative Album” for Wolfgang Amadeus. Yet, now we come full circle. They must ask themselves who’ve they become? What is next? As the band begins the new cycle there are so many unknowns.

SFC: After you received the Grammy, what happened next?

LB: When I received the Grammy it was one of the saddest moments of my life. Not the day of the celebration, that was one of the happiest. When I got it home I put it near my book, I saw it and I never felt so bad. I don’t know. I gave it to my mother because I don’t want to see it anymore. I don’t know it’s the end of something and I don’t want.

SFC: Are you being serious with me?

Phoenix

Equivalent Or Bigger Than Opera

Phoenix: “Love Like A Sunset Pt. 1″
[audio:http://dl.dropbox.com/u/11598506/Phoenix%20Love-Like-a-Sunset.mp3]

As we come to the end of our story, the brothers reach an epiphany. How they embrace their success will define their legacy. They must confront their fame, their name, and their awards so that it doesn’t become bigger than their music. Even as the protagonists remain grounded remorse sets in.

LB: I’m very serious. I accept it, but I’m sad when I see it.

SFC: I heard you were offered a French Legion of Honor, but declined it.

LB: It’s the same. The prize is something everyone in music knows doesn’t mean anything.

SFC: But why would you decline?

LB: The danger is to become a small, really closed institution. We really don’t want to be like that. The biggest danger for art is to become a type of institution.

As the interview concludes the sun sets and we hear “Sunset Part 2.” Life continues for our protagonists, as everyday smells, and life continue to translate into music. Having reached their desire for recognition, finishing a cycle of creativity with their third album, the group starts again. With the sunset life in turn brings a new sunrise—and Phoenix will rise again, bigger than the last opera.