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PHOENIX The French Resistance

It was a beautiful day in both Paris and Perth when HARVEY RAE picked up the phone to speak with Phoenix guitarist and former bandmate of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Laurent Brancowitz. That would be an inconsequential aside, except that new Phoenix album Ti Amo strictly deals in beautiful things: gelato, Via Veneto in Rome, the French and Italian languages. Flying in the face of Parisian fear following the horrific acts of terrorism that defined Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan, Phoenix set out to make their own sort of protest record.

Laurent it seems you’ve been inspired by Italy and everything from gelato to the famous Via Veneto in Rome on Ti Amo, which itself of course means “I Love You” in Italian. Why the romance around Italy?

Well, it wasn’t planned but when we were writing the songs, for some reason a lot of music came with an Italian flavour in terms of melodies. I don’t really know why, but I guess it’s because in our hearts Italy is a bit like… land where you can go to when the weather is bad. I guess it’s heaven in our imagination.

Who in the band has Itallian heritage and explain some of those song titles for us?

Fior Di Latte is a gelato flavour. Vanilla, creamy, the most sensual ice cream you can find in Italy. So it’s not about the cheese (Fior Di Latte can also mean mozzarella). Which would be a good idea to write a song about cheese but it’s not very easy to – quite hard – a challenge I would say. Maybe on next album (laughs).

Chris (Mazzalai, guitar), my brother and I, we are half-Italian. So we actually, we do have an Italian passport. It makes sense in terms of a psycho-analysis, you know. It’s something related to our father. He passed away a few years ago, so maybe a secret homage to him, I don’t know.

As well as Italian, there’s also a number of very French references in song titles such as Goodbye Soleil and Fleur de Lys, and a little less singing in English over the course of the record. What inspired that change do you think?

We don’t really control what we are doing. We sit in a room for ages and we just write music continuously. So it’s not like one guy is in his bedroom writing a song that’s complete and offering it to the rest of the band. It’s really not like that. It’s, we are all together, and we sit and we work all day long, and after a while pretty much a stream of consciousness process where we really don’t know what we are doing. And this time, a lot of words came in, yeah, in French, Italian, and actually you know, because we are very afraid of being bored, when something new appears, we are quite excited. So when we add all those weird French and Italian titles, we embraced it, and when we knew it was something a bit weirder, that would be interesting to explore.

Tell us a bit about the record and how it’s different to previous releases, especially Bankrupt!

Well it’s a very, very more open than Bankrupt!, which was a pretty complex album. This one is more, I think, I might be wrong, but more simpler emotion. You know, simple and generous melodies. We wanted something that was very genuine. Very naive, almost. And something  that could talk to people’s heart, you know, with no secret messages or complexities. It’s something very straight forward and positive, the way I see it.

I felt like Bankrupt! expanded on some of the more experimental impulses found on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix but here we have more of a straight up indie pop album. Did you know that would be the case going in and was it a reaction to Bankrupt! in some ways?

I remember when writing Bankrupt! (we thought) people would give it some attention because of Wolfgang, being an album that has a good success to it. So we thought we should take advantage of that and make an album that a bit demanding, because people will give it a true listen. We wanted to do something with a certain level of complication. I don’t know why. All the songs have key changes, tempo changes, a lot of different melodies; pretty demanding album when I listen back to it now.

With this one, it’s true, it’s quite the opposite. There’s something very generous. So I guess, again, it was some kind of reaction. And also, in terms of theme, lyrics: Bankrupt! was very much more cynical, you know, and this one is really the opposite of cynical. It’s very pure emotion, and simpler, like it’s like a child. So it’s, yeah. So I guess it’s a big contrast.

I understand that while you made this record during the turmoil of Charlie Hebdo and also the Bataclan bombings, not to mention the rest of the political turmoil and terrorism worldwide, the writing of this album surprised you in how apolitical it was – almost as if it were an escape from reality. Is that how you see it?

More like a real strength: a strength to resist. And using everything that you have, every weapon that you have to resist and move forward. Instinctively it was this very positive music. But for sure, when we started writing, spontaneously this kind of music was happening. We felt very weird because the contracts were very strong with the political vibe was around that. So… some kind of almost political move, you know, some kind of a very real political resistance. That’s the way I see it.

Looking back on the lyrics what threads do you see running through it?

There is a lot of love (and) nostalgia. Also, you know, desire. A lot of sexual desire. I think this record is more erotic than any of our previous records. It focuses on the emotions that are very strong, very positive, I guess.

Just as the title suggests…

Yeah, yeah exactly.

Tell us a bit about the songwriting process – I understand Thomas only joined you for 10 days of every month so who tends to lead the creative process out of the three remaining members?

Well, the strange thing about our band is that there really is no leader. So it changes. Some of us have  specialities. My brother Chris, for instance, is more like (an) archivist. Taking care of the archives. Yeah, he knows all the little songs we have written, which, there are many ideas. Like thousands of ideas when we write an album. And he knows where he has classified them, so he’s more like that. Deck (d’Arcy, bass and keys) and I would be more in the technical aspects. You know, taking care of the actual recording, the tapes and everything. So when Thomas is not here we like turning the chaos of this pure musical matter into a song that is listenable by you, for instance. It’s more like when he’s there we write the plan of the building and when he’s not there we actually build it brick by brick.

I’ve been a Phoenix fan for many years and would probably go between United and Wolfgang as my fave. New album aside, what’s your favourite Phoenix album, looking back?

Actually we never listen to our music. Only by pure coincidence. You know, like, it happens once a year somewhere, you hear them in a bar, in a shop. But if I had to choose one right now, maybe it would be United. Because I’ve forgotten, it’s been a long time and I would, actually I would love to just to hear what we sounded like, like 15 – 17 years ago, which is a long time.

You of course were part of the famous French band Darlin’ before Phoenix ever existed – most famous for spawning Daft Punk and Phoenix after you split up. I’ve seen the video of the Daft Punk guys performing with you at Madison Square Gardens back in 2010, do you remain close with those guys and is that how that collaboration came about – through your relationship with them?

Yeah. I mean those guys are friends. It’s been a long time now. But when we worked together, it’s in a way a kind of coincidence, Madison Square Garden. They came to one of our shows like two weeks before that, and then after the show we were chatting and the idea (came up that) there is some venues that we could do that. We had an idea for a particular song we could kind of mix one of their songs and one of ours. So it was more like an idea that we wanted to do. It’s just pure instinctive desire that appeared, you know, when you’re together. So, zero plans, but those guys are, they’ve been friends for a long time now.

Your live shows are famous and from your festival sets to a particularly memorable show at Belvoir Amphitheatre , they’re always quality. What can we expect from you live when you tour this record? Is there an Australian tour in the works?

Well, thank you. Thank you first. I would like to do a special shout out, because our live show sounds good, and why does it sound good? Because we work with a guy from Perth, you know? And this guy is called Matt West. He’s been working with us since 2009, I think. And he’s the best. So first, Matt West, he’s really, really good.

The stage design we are working on, it’s pretty crazy. But right now we don’t know if it’s going to work because of it’s kind of a prototype; very big, a big stupid idea but that could be really amazing. So next week we are going to see if it works in real life and if it does, it could be really, really amazing. And then, next thing is Australia, of course we will come because we love it there. We, we played some of our best shows. Australian audience has been very, very nice to us. They know the lyrics of the very old songs. We are going to come, for sure. And hopefully with this big stage design. If it’s going to work by then (laughs). We need your prayer.