Phoenix Talk Positivity, Hedonism, and the Secret Influence on Their New Album

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Thomas Mars of Phoenix. Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

For their sixth LP, Ti Amo, the French band Phoenix looked to the Italian lifestyle for inspiration. Blending shimmering disco pop with a smattering of Italian phrases, Phoenix created a colorful, occasionally decadent sonic trip that manages to be optimistic — even in these troubled times.

Apparently inspired by gelato, and all the connotations the notoriously rich form of ice cream might bring, Phoenix recorded the album without much rehearsal time. “We tried to keep the first take, and the first emotion [we experienced],” says front man Thomas Mars. “We wanted to keep the first awkward, unconscious chemistry that was happening between the four of us.”

During a visit to New York, Mars and bassist Deck D’Arcy spoke with Vulture about finding inspiration in hedonism, and why it felt important to create a fantasy for their listeners.

How did you land on Ti Amo as an album title?
Thomas Mars: One of the working titles for our previous record Bankrupt! was Je t’aime. Maybe people don’t know [in the U.S.], but for a French band, it’s extremely ballsy to call your album Je t’aime. It’s not something you do … and we wanted to do it, but the songs and the title didn’t go together. [Je t’aime] isn’t very unique. It’s something that’s used by a lot of people. So it’s hard to appropriate it — there’s a bit of work that you need to make it yours. And slowly, while writing the songs, we embraced some of our own language, which had mostly English, but French and Italian. And then we shifted: Je t’aime became Ti Amo — and it felt like a natural choice. It felt like the record sounded like Ti Amo; the [music and title] matched. And that helped us choose the direction of which songs would be on the [album].

Why did a fantasized version of Italy become the focus for the record?
TM: When we first wrote the songs, it sounded like a mumble. The words came, and they didn’t really make sense, but there were a few words here and there that popped, and they were written in Italian. Then we embraced it: We tried to keep the first take and the first emotion [we experienced]. We wanted to keep the first awkward, unconscious chemistry that was happening between the four of us. Italy was a part of it because of a few trips and a few influences. But it popped out really strongly because I think [Italian] is not really being used a lot in contemporary music, and it’s always interesting for us to find things that no one taps into for some reason. People seem to drink from the same water. We went just a little bit outside and we found a giant oasis of fresh water.

What accounts for the romantic, carefree-sounding record?
TM: It’s romantic, but at the same time, while recording, we were the first ones surprised by the fact that it was light, carefree, and hedonistic. Because around us, there was not a lot of pleasure. I think that any artist would have you ask themselves, “What was really the point of [making this record] when the atmosphere in Paris was really dark?” So we all were a little bit surprised that we did something that opposite.

So is it a form of escapism?
TM: You know, people are gonna write protest songs — it’s that time. But music shouldn’t be one thing. We went into [making music] in its most precious and simple form, which is just a fantasy, pure and detached, but not escapism.

Deck D’Arcy: A lot of our favorite artists turn darkness into light. From Prince to Hank Williams. You know, [Prince’s] “Sign ‘O’ the Times”? The song has a darkness: It’s a questioning song, but then at the same time, there’s a lot of light, and a strong, new sound. There’s something new about it that I love.

What were you listening to when you made this record?
TM: Tons of things, but nothing specific. Maybe Italian music more, like Lucio Battisti, Franco Battiato. But then we have to find a common language; we have to make them fit into the same [music]. The less inbred, the better.

The less inbred?
TM: We’re Frenchmen, so it would be inbred to be inspired by a French artist. The more foreign in time and distance … like Monteverdi, that’s perfect: 1500s Italian music. That’s really far from us — we can easily steal from that.

Is this a concept record?
TM: Not on paper, but maybe. The word “concept” has a bit of a negative twist for me somehow, but at the same time, every album is a concept, because we see it as a book. With every single song that you hear, we want each of them to have a strong identity.

DD: It’s more coherence than concept. Concept sometimes goes against freedom. And the way we made it was free-spirited for a while. At least there was no concept at the beginning

Judging by the titles of the songs, Europe was a huge influence. How did you land on those titles?
TM: The thing is, we are a European band as well. Even in our previous albums, we talk about the European roots, and then we sing in English. And actually what we sing about is our European roots. But we probably pushed it even farther this time.

How?
DD: There are songs in Italian, like Thomas was saying. “Telefono” and “Fior di Latte.” The song is named after a kind of sweet milk. It’s actually the flavor of a very good ice cream. We were thinking a lot about ice cream and gelato while we were doing this album. That was the concept.

TM: Melting, always melting.

DD: Melting gelato.

TM: It had to melt. Otherwise, it helps when you’re in this industry to have a few words whenever you’re surrounded by instruments, and you have to choose something to fit in a song. If you have a word that you can think of, it helps to make that decision. I know in movies they do that. Every day they have to take that: We want this shot to be green or white. And then, if “milk” is part of one of those words, you go with white … it helps create a coherent identity. So in that way, [the album] is maybe a little bit conceptual.

So is the theme of the album melted gelato, then?
TM: It is! Yeah! What would you say?

I would say, like, love and passion?
TM: Yeah. Melted gelato — there’s an erotic quality in gelato, and in food in general.

How many gelatos did you have while making this record?
TM: None, but you fantasize about them. No, actually, we had a few — the “Fior di Latte” one has this pure quality. It’s hard to analyze — I read recently a really good quote from Mike Nichols, who was quoting someone else. But he’s trying to explain his work, and he’s saying, “I’m a bird, not an ornithologist.” And I think it explains really well how incapable people are at analyzing their own work. We are the bird.

Other than gelato, how did you immerse yourself in Italy and Europe in general to create the record? Did you go to any specific places to gain inspiration?
TM: We did, but we weren’t looking for authenticity. We were looking for this distortion; we we were looking for mistakes and imperfection. With this record, we’re almost happy to stay as tourists to get the distorted feeling. Similar to the way that we sing in English, we don’t want to make perfect American songs with American accents. We love that our brain cells and connections are French, and it makes something cool that sometimes people don’t get. But I think it makes the music unique. So it’s the same way with Italian, we just used it as a vehicle to create a tone.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Phoenix Talk About Having Fun During Hard Times