French guitar pop group PHOENIX drop the guitars and buy ‘a shitty keyboard’ to make their sixth album Bankrupt!, but as LAURENT BRANCOWITZ tells ANDY HAZEL, it’s all about struggling for perfection.
Guitarist and quarter of one of the last decade’s most adored bands Phoenix, Brancowitz is amidst the early days of promoting their new synth-heavy album Bankrupt! and fresh from playing Saturday Night Live. “It was very exciting,” he explains, his strong French brogue accentuating his joy. “SNL is totally live so the excitement is at its peak, it makes everything more intense. We are happy with our performance because we did not fail, you know?” He laughs.
Though playing the songs almost daily, he hasn’t heard the album in months. “Actually, it’s good advice you’re giving me. A lot of time you play the songs and forget the original spirit. During [recording] I was very confident and happy, but right now I reach a level of fatigue. I have no idea if it’s good or bad, but that’s OK. I like this feeling of floating in the ocean and letting the stream do its job.”
Few bands break through with their fifth album, as Phoenix did with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Using the accrued wisdom of being in a stable band for ten years, they took a break and left their native Paris to record. Brancowitz explains that they knew the album would take some time to generate, so they went somewhere exciting. “When Adam Yauch from Beastie Boys offered us his studio - his small, cool studio in New York - it was just too good to say no to. For three months, we recorded there, then we finished in Paris, but the beginning was in New York. Some songs are really connected to this period, the vibe…the 80s East Village early Madonna vibe. I don’t know why but I was obsessed by it when I was there,” he explains. “When we were there we were very homesick and so we listened to a lot of French music from our childhood, so being in New York has made this even more French I think.”
The 80s synthesizer and percussion sounds that infuse Bankrupt! can be traced to this fixation. Often sounding as though M83 produced the album with Phoenix, songs like The Real Thing and Bourgeois are full of references to the era and to music the band loves. “We used the same drum machine as Prince…as an homage you know. We love doing that. All our music that is filled with little things like that, little connections, the memories you know, and little things we love. Some are from the 80s…like pre-Batman Prince we love. Actually, I don’t know why, but I was playing more keyboards this time than guitar. One day we went to Versailles to pick up some equipment, there we found a small shitty keyboard in a thrift shop, a 30-euro toy keyboard, and I fell in love with it, now it’s on every song. We love to use cheap instruments and beautiful instruments - the extremes are more interesting than everything that is in the middle, so on this album we have the best and the worst.”
Boasting that Bankrupt! would sound very different to earlier releases, many fans were surprised to hear lyrics and melodies from earlier Phoenix songs in the first single Entertainment and unsure whether this was laziness or an in-joke. “Your theories are true. We know that, and it’s hard for me to explain,” he laughs guiltily. “It just feels right to us, for sure should try to change, it’s more a sign of weakness. We always have the desire to make something very, very different and in the end we fail, we always sound like us,” Brancowitz explains in mock-despondency. “It’s a bit depressing, so yeah I guess this is as different as we can get, you know. We try so hard but we fail,” he laughs. “You can hear this desire in the music I think, to improve, to be better.”
Replacing the dreams that fuelled their early releases and initial success, Brancowitz explains that this failure is key to the band’s motivations. “We are very far from perfection, we are working on this tour but we are very far from what we have in mind. We have this goal and desire, and without this desire, life becomes very boring, so we are frustrated but at the same time we know if it was good already it would be very depressing.”
Chasing perfection, Brancowitz explains, is a core motivation for the band. Not to deny their humanness (his one-time membership in the band Darlin’ with both members of Daft Punk may indicate a shared fascination with the perfection/human dichotomy), but to celebrate it. “We always try to make perfection, but we never get there. We love things that are opposite; like the clockwork mechanism of a perfect song, but also the charm that is something you cannot describe or understand,” he explains keenly. “The more we grow up the more we know that the charm is the most important thing. You can have very shitty songwriting, but if you have this little thing, this unexplainable charm, it’s great. We try to combine these aspects, and it’s hard because they are fighting against it. Actually, the way we work even on record, we think very hard about the perfect mechanism and then when we have to execute it; record it. We usually use the first take. First take is usually not perfectly played, but the idea is to be good, the intention is to be good, but we’re not going for the perfect take. When we play live, there are a lot of mistakes but we consider them…artistic mistakes,” he laughs. “I am a pretty poor musician so I accept I’m good at necessary artistic mistakes. Sometimes the band does not see it that way, they get a bit angry,” he laughs, “but they are really nice about it most of the time.”
Looking back through pictures of the band, it seems singer Thomas Mars is photographed wearing the same shirt in almost every photo, suggesting that his wife, director Sofia Coppola, must be either incredibly accommodating or have no sense of smell. After unsuccessfully denying Mars’s penchant, Brancowitz confesses, “Thomas is an obsessive. When he has a shirt he likes he has it duplicated. He has dozens of the same thing, it’s more that than being a very dirty person, he is a perfectionist.” Phew.
Unable to say quite when the band is due back to these shores, Brancowitz insists that it is ‘soon’. “We are working on it right now. We love playing Australia and it was where we did the very first recording of this album, at a studio in Byron Bay, so for us it has a special meaning.”