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Interview: Phoenix

Frank Etheridge chats with the indie favorites about their new album Bankrupt!

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Reached by phone while at the trip-friendly confines of California's Coachella festival, a three-day freakout in the desert that is more Burning Man than baby boomer gathering, Phoenix bassist Deck d'Arcy talks about the French band's new light show.

  "We've been working a lot on it, and we're pretty happy about how it turned out," d'Arcy says from the festival grounds, where the band served as headliners on its first American tour in years. "When we all saw it finished, we were like, 'Wow ... that is psychedelic.'"

  The psychedelic label has been applied frequently to the latest album by the four men (d'Arcy, vocalist Thomas Mars, guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai) from Versailles, France. Lush, ambient synthesizers and danceable rhythms mark much of Bankrupt!. (Loyaute/Glassnote). Media coverage featuring heavy use of the term started in January when the band announced Bankrupt!'s release and has continued on the current tour, through Coachella and to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Asked about the extended organ waves that introduce the album's title track (which clocks in at just under seven minutes, a combined long time and rare sound for international pop sensations), d'Arcy says the extended organ-wave intro to the title track was recorded two years ago in rural Australia — and under the influence of a shaman the band consulted while there.

  "We were just finishing up a tour (in Australia) and ended up in some random town, doing random things, making these random recordings. We went to see this shaman, who was really cool. ... It's funny to think now about the end result."

  Such strange, spontaneous recording compels fans and scribes alike to apply the psychedelic label in describing a band they felt they knew so well just a few years ago. But Phoenix's post-shaman departure — from previous practices, preconceived notions, or perhaps even reality itself — is but one part of a band that is older, wiser and light years removed from its breakout year in 2009. Four years ago, the talented quartet of friends in their mid-30s became big-time stars upon the release of the insanely popular Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth LP. The power-pop masterstroke packed popular punch, from dance-floor favorites "1901" and "Lisztomania" — which were so accessible they made it into American wedding-DJ sets. The band's popularitu also prompted a tabloid-cover wedding when Mars tied the knot with filmmaker Sofia Coppola, whom he met while producing the soundtrack to her haunting 1999 movie The Virgin Suicides.

  Finding itself in uncharted territory, Phoenix — a highly stylized, quintessentially French group that recalls aspects of the swagger of '70s disco-era Rolling Stones, sing-along frivolity of ABBA, and intrepid aesthetic of Daft Punk — decided to plot its own course. The band turned the remix/mashup notion running rampant in today's music industry on its plagiarizing head by offering on its website multiple remixes and recordings of tracks from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which ultimately went gold and won the 2010 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. That spawned countless remixes, most notably ones from Passion Pit and Animal Collective. Concert and festival promoters from across the globe tossed big-dollar offers at them for several years, but Phoenix declined. Instead, they put together the pieces for Bankrupt! in relative obscurity, recording most of it in a space they rented in a seedy neighborhood in Paris.

  "We like mysteries," d'Arcy says to explain why the band kept its cards so close to the chest over the last several years. "We like corrupting them around the present vision. Because you sometimes don't see while the eye is open. Since we started, that's been our consciousness."

  Their shared shamanistic sense of pursuing music in its purest form is evident when the bandmates all play a rotation of instruments, as they did while recording Bankrupt!. Experimental in every regard, Phoenix used a cheap toy keyboard on some parts of the album and also paid $17,000 on eBay for the vintage console also used to mix Michael Jackson's Thriller.

  If there's any cohesive account to glean from listening to Phoenix's latest album, it's one of precocious talents developing a bit of cynicism and world-weary wisdom while also having a fine time globetrotting the world as rock stars. You'll find lyrics such as "Scandinavian leather/ Drakkar Noir/ Fake riches, oblivious tales," ("Drakkar Noir") and "When every piece of every costume is stolen" ("SOS in Bel Air"). But then you'll hear about Mars floating pixielike into an adoring crowd and oozing gratitude upon the raucous conclusion of the band's first stop on its current tour in Brooklyn, N.Y.

  Asked about the meaning of the lyrics in "SOS in Bel Air," d'Arcy offers little insight into their collective consciousness, deflecting instead: "We get asked about the meaning of that song a lot. All I can tell you is that it's seen through very French eyes. Obviously, everybody knows this Bel Air is in California. But it is also a French name meaning beautiful air."

  D'Arcy is less opaque when providing an explanation to the album's title. "We liked the edgy symbol to it," he says. "Going bankrupt — it's being on the edge of failing."

  While hardly on the edge of failing, either commercially or artistically, Phoenix places other layers — like its trademark synthesizers sailing over the wail of Fender guitars — on the word's connotation.

  "No matter if it's a gig, an album, a tour, we put everything, all whole lives, into it," d'Arcy says. "So there's also this meaning of emotionally bankrupt. We gave everything we had to get to this point. So in that way it's meant as a term for absolute commitment. There's a notion of the absolute in bankruptcy that we like."

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