On a humid, late summer Monday in Music City, U.S.A., French four-piece band Phoenix brought more heat — in an incredible live light and sound production — to the historic Ryman Auditorium on their first American tour since 2018. The indie dance-pop veterans’ seventh studio record, Alpha Zulu, is out November 4.
I spoke with singer Thomas Mars and guitarist Christian Mazzalai backstage at The Mother Church on the afternoon of their show date.
Listen to the radio feature, covering the recording of Alpha Zulu in a “super productive” time at the locked-down and empty, world-renowned Louvre Museum in Paris, plus some extra tidbits from our chat.
On the Record: A Q&A With Thomas and Christian of Phoenix
Thomas Mars: [Recording this record] was very strange and dystopian — and dystopian is not a positive word, but it was like a fantasy. It felt like a simulation at some point because we recorded at the Louvre Museum. That in itself is a crazy experience for us because since we were kids, we wanted to be there and we wanted to record there. But then it was also empty because of the pandemic. So it was surreal because the art was hidden under all those white sheets. No one was visiting the museum except the guards that were there that would tell us stories about ghosts in the building.
You had just one entrance, too. You’d walk for 10 minutes to the studio and see this art by yourself. It was very unusual, and it’s exactly what we were looking for, because when we look for a recording studio, we look for a place that’s new and that hasn’t seen too much music, but at the same time has something inspiring. We checked a lot of boxes.
CG: You grew up France, but people come from all over the world to see the art there and you all just got to be communing with it, sort of alone in that space. That sounds kind of eerie.
Christian Mazzalai: It wasn’t intimidating at all. We thought it could be. But because we didn’t see Thomas for like almost nine months, because he was stuck in the U.S. Since we’ve been kid, we always write music, the four of us in the one room. That’s the only rule we have, almost. And so when he managed to finally come to this empty, huge place, we were just the four of us. We were totally ecstatic and we produced more than ever. We couldn’t stop recording day and night for ten days. And we wrote more than half of the album. We were super productive. And it a was pretty surreal moment between the darkness and at the same time looking for a brighter horizon with our music that we couldn’t control.
CG: It’s pretty powerful to me that you would have collaborated for so many years together, not being able to be in-person, and then it just pours forth from you like you’ve just picked up where you left off. But almost that you had all these reserves of creative energy to pour into one another and into that blank canvas of a space. Tell me about some of the songs that did come out of that time and what they were inspired by — how your lives have maybe changed and how the music has changed with it.
TM: They were very melancholic and at the same time full of light. The times were all dark. I mean, if you ask me about a typical day in the studio, even though we were in the Louvre, it was dark, really, really early, and the walls are so thick that you don’t hear any sound from the exterior world. It felt like out of time. The songs that we wrote, we were all looking at a little bit for a brightness, some sort of the end of the tunnel, you know. And also, there was a little bit of apprehension, fear and excitement because you’re living something that’s unique. All these feelings are combined, which adds gravitas to the whole. And I think it’s not just our album. Every album recorded during the pandemic has more depth. I remember the live shows that we would see on Zoom or something during the pandemic, I didn’t find anything inspiring, it felt flat to me. And then once you realize the album they released, after that, they go a little deeper and you couldn’t take the music for granted after that period.
Our writing process is always the four of us. No one writes on their own and is always stream of consciousness because it’s it’s therapy for us a little bit. But this time, yeah, because we had no choice and were apart for so long, we had to come up with alternative routes. When I was away, they would send me files, I would send them files again. And and these things became the way to communicate more than just making music. It became a necessity, and not just “we need to make an album.” It’s like, “Oh no, we need to talk to each other.”
A song like “Winter Solstice,” for instance, was made this way. It was done remotely, and it opened up possibilities because I don’t think we would have done a song with Ezra or with anyone else before if that would have not been successful. This distant relationship works, then we thought like, “Well, we can ask Ezra for this part.” [Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend guests on the Alpha Zulu single “Tonight,” which was released in September.]
CG: Speaking of Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend, your bands — both an American band and French band — burst through around the same time. Have you had a relationship since then or just known each other through the scene?
TM: Yeah, I felt like we were part of the same… we don’t have this in France, but you [Americans] say, like, “class of 2025.” So even though they are younger, we were on the same festivals in 2009-2010. We toured so many festivals together that we would hang out and we became friends and then we got to know each other better because our wives worked together. [Thomas Mars is married to film director Sophia Coppola, and Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig’s partner is actor Rashida Jones, who starred in Coppola’s 2020 movie On The Rocks.] We didn’t have to go on stage and work, so we had some leisure time.
When they [Vampire Weekend] started, we were all still sharing an apartment, the band. We were still living in the same apartment and the TV was on 24 hours a day on a music channel. I mean, there are few bands like that that come on, you see a video like, “OK, what is that? This is very good.” And we’re all glued to the TV. That was when “A-Punk” was on.
CG: Christian, can you tell me about any guitar work on [Alpha Zulu], if that’s evolved based on the times that you experienced since the last record?
CM: What can I say? It’s a bit weird because when we write an album, everything is confused. That’s what we are looking for. We are looking for not clear lines, but something blurry and magical. So to be honest, I almost don’t remember what I played in the songs and who played it. Is it Branco [Laurent Brancowitz]? And maybe sometimes it’s Deck [D’Arcy], the bass player played guitar parts. And it’s something I cherish because the most important thing is the song.
But what I remember vaguely is that many of the takes we did are the first take. Like I would say, more than 50% of the what you are listening to is the first take when we were recording. With this album, more than ever, we were looking for this genuine feeling, you know, of the first take when we discovered the song. And with mistakes, but, you know, charm…lots of charm.
On Late Friend and Producer, Philippe Zdar
CG: Did I read that this album also serves almost “in memoriam” to somebody that you lost, a friend of yours. Do you care to share any about that person?
CM: It was Philippe Zdar, who collaborated with us mixing, producing. He was the fifth member of the band who passed away two or three years ago — yeah, three years ago, pre-pandemic.
That was the beginning of this album because a few days later, after his funeral, we wrote the last song, the song that closes the album, “Identical.” And through the album, Philip was with us very strongly more than ever, actually. Because we’re always thinking, “What would he — “. So he was with us, it was a conversation.
On The Influence of American Radio
CG: What function did music radio serve for you all? Growing up and playing music, propelling your band in your home country, or just inspiring you?
TM: I have to say that I’m appreciating radio now, but I didn’t appreciate radio when I was a kid. or When we were kids, radio was in France was really bad. It was very commercial. It was still like a guarded power to be on the radio. There was middlemen, you know, people like watchdogs that you had to seduce to get in and stuff. And we were singing in English and when we started there was a quota that it had to be 80% French bands. And we were all not considered French in our own country because we sing in English. So the 20% was like for Madonna and whoever else was big at the time. So we were never on the radio.
CM: But we were fascinated by American radio, too.
TM: For sure.
CM: Especially from a sonic point of view, because when we were in the U.S. We realized the sound of the songs with the compression was so magical, we couldn’t believe it. So our goal was — and I would say in all of the generation with the French-Dutch electronic music — is to have this limited sound of U.S. Radio. You know, we studied a lot. We even bought an old school compressor and stuff, gear from radio. We have a vision from across the Atlantic sea, you know, we have this poetic fantasy about the radio. And here we are at the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry, the power of the radio here is pretty magical. In France, it was not the same but we could feel it overseas.
TM: And also, like Chris was saying, the sound, the compression. The first time we were in L.A. to record an album, our second album, we heard [Michael Jackson’s] “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” on the radio. And I realized, “OK, now I understand this record in a different way than I heard it.” It sounds like you went behind the scenes and you understood the place of every instrument and you really were in the studio. And that was pretty thrilling.
“I’m listening to radio more and more now, because I don’t want an algorithm to tell me what to listen to.”
TM: These days, it’s very different. Radio seems to be one of the defender of some sort of democracy. I’m listening to radio more and more now because I don’t want an algorithm telling me what to listen to, and I certainly don’t want myself to tell me what to listen to. I want to stumble upon things that I would never… You know, everything that’s curated to you because the machine thinks they know you. Or if I’m at home, I say, “Alexa, play…” — the fact that I want to hear something seems satisfying, but I instantly regret the choice once it’s playing because you want to stumble upon, you know, something magical.
Even if you go to a store and hear something and you’re like, “What is that?” The good ideas of sharing music, making playlists and things. I think that’s in some way the same as mixtapes. But the algorithm, the fact that you yourself are not able to stumble upon new things and and there’s great people [on radio] that can introduce you to great music. It’s the most playful relationship you have with music when you’re like, “What’s going to be the next one?” And then something comes and that’s a satisfaction that’s kind of weird because it’s interactive in a way, but it’s really good.
CG: We started a radio station in 2020 in a pandemic, a terrestrial radio station, and that seemed ridiculous, right? Because of the way people consume music now. But we believe what you just said is true. The human curation aspect, being able to segue an old song and a new song perfectly together. It’s not like “who’s telling us to play these bands, we have to play them,” you know? We get to decide. And that’s it’s a powerful thing. We still believe in it and people are responding to it. So it’s neat that you are, too.
TM: Yeah. And it’s about interaction because you cannot be with yourself all the time. Lunch and dinner, watching your YouTube. It’s a thing now. I go to restaurants in New York where everyone’s on their phone looking at YouTube, no one’s interacting with each other, but the isolation has become so… Curating something is such added value and it’s so much healthier for your brain.
On Diving Deep Into Brazilian Guitarist Baden Powell
CM: I studied a lot of classical guitar. To answer your question, then, during the pandemic, which was total lockdown, we couldn’t even go to the studio in France. So that’s why I took this time to study bossa nova, meeting baroque music, and I got into [Brazilian guitarist] Baden Powell — that was my my big master for six months.
CG: I had planned to ask you both how you were consuming music differently. I know you said you watched live streams of other bands, maybe felt that energy lacking, although it’s what artists could do to reach their fans. It’s sort of all they had, right? But as far as scholarship of music and, you know, music for your own healing and survival during that time, I wondered what you were listening to. And so that’s answered my question. At least it pushed you musically, but also, did it meet like a spiritual need for you to study that?
CM: Yeah, it helped me a lot. And I was only focusing on this one artist and then for two songs of him to me, six months to study all the chords, because I studied on my own, you know, watching the videos. So that was mainly this and one song by Bob Dylan that he released — “A Murder Most Foul” — a very long song.
CG: Thomas, what about you?
TM: It was similar. Christian shouted out Baden Powell, which is also one of my favorites. I was in Northern California and I don’t remember the name of the radio, but it was the classical music station. It felt because we are living in a out of time moment, you might as well embrace it. With Baden Powell — it’s something so mathematical. But it’s cleansing. It heals you, it’s not something that’s overwhelming. It’s something that’s serene. You can tell that the guy has been through a lot. For instance, I think he lost about nine or ten kids in all the age, which at the time was very common. But the music is the most stable music and deep, you know, it’s solid. It’s an anchor. So you listen to that and it gives you perspective, like, “It’s all going to be OK. We’re all stardust, it’s fine.”
But I was surprised that I was listening to this. And then when I called Chris he’s like, “I am listening to Baden Powell playing Bach.” There was no need for nothing new. I wasn’t craving anything, you know. Everybody was watching — what was that tiger show, again? Yes, Tiger King. So somehow people are either craving the newest new things while not that interesting. And it was also a moment of looking back.