French rock band Phoenix, currently in the midst of a world tour playing the biggest stages of their career, have won a Grammy (for their 2009 smash Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix), scored a No. 1 single (“1901”), and played Saturday Night Live. How did four stylish, witty Europeans become one of the biggest bands in America, the favorite group of every Structure-clad dude and his cheerleader girlfriend in America? According to Phoenix front man Thomas Mars, it has something to do with his wife Sofia Coppola’s disdain for the Beatles, the French yé-yé movement, and growing up in a museum town that rejected all things modern.
You guys have talked about growing up in Versailles and how the fantasy of that place makes you want to be super modern by contrast. Can you expand on that?
I lived in a museum. The frustration we had was that everything great happened in the past, and they wouldn’t give the chance for anything new to happen. There were like two shows happening there when we were kids. One was Pink Floyd, which wasn’t really exciting but it was exciting because something was happening. And one was Tina Turner.
Tough place to be a music fan. You guys met in a record store, right?
No, at school. It was really hard to miss each other because it’s not like you had kids listening to one style of music or another, we were the only kids listening to any kind of music at all. Even making music in a museum [city] was … you couldn’t do it. If you would play until ten at night police would come. There was this very small guy that we would see all the time who would come around [when we got too loud]. Recently, when Jeff Koons had an exhibit in Versailles in the chateau and they opened doors to the castle and had Michael Jackson in bubbles and the tourists thinking that this was part of the chateau. That was big. To me, that was the end of a frustration. The end of people respecting something too much.
Where are you guys with the next Phoenix record?
Everything is on paper, we have nothing recorded. You write down things and you know they are going to end up in a song, but you have no idea how. I like “bright pink” and I know it will be a lyric or something very abstract in the music. My favorite moments are in the beginning when you are at the base of a pyramid and there are so many options, so many directions.
You’ve been embraced by America in a way a French band hasn’t in a very long time, maybe ever. Has that seduced you to a more American way of thinking?
In the sixties in France, there was a trend called the “yé-yé.” It stands for “yeah yeah” but French people couldn’t say “yeah” so they said “yé.” It was a post-WWII thing where everyone wanted to be American. Everyone wanted to chew gum and wear blue jeans and play their jukebox and go to Route 66 on a Harley Davidson. That was my parents. There wasn’t even a French-music scene, it was just American standards and Motown and they would just translate the lyrics. We are doing the exact opposite. We’re singing in English but singing about stuff that probably makes very little sense to Americans because it’s thought in French. We love that it’s weird and there is something very French about it. We don’t want to be American even if we love America, and even though we are Frenchmen we don’t want to be French.
You want to be you.
But that idea of being an individual is how America thinks of itself. Being authentically you is supposed to be the identity of the entire place.
In New York, maybe, but not in Des Moines. The idea is not to please the most amount of people. Growing up in Versailles, the idea was to please the least amount of people.
Why are there so many cute girls at your shows?
There aren’t anymore, it’s just frat boys.
But it seems like you really keep girls in mind even though rock and roll is often thought of as a guy thing.
Not for us. Before we became more popular with this record, I felt like it was always the girl that discovered it and plays it for her boyfriend. I don’t know. Every band — there should be something very sexual about their music. But with a lot of ruling rock bands, there is nothing sexual about them. For instance, Sofia hates the Beatles. And I totally understand it, though I like the Beatles. I understand that there’s something totally nonsexual about them. Sexuality is a very underrated quality.
Does she like John Lennon?
[Laughs.] No, not at all. John Lennon is probably her least favorite Beatle!
The Beatles aren’t sexy, exactly, that’s true.
Just look at the cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
Why do you write in English?
When I started writing, the first thing that came out was in English. I liked a few French things, but they were very overwhelming.
The music, you mean?
Lyrics. If you only listen to Wagner, it’s not inspiring. That music is just made to overwhelm you and tell you it’s superior. There are different kinds of artists, the ones that inspire you and the ones that overwhelm you. Most of the French people I liked were overwhelming but Prince, for instance, wasn’t overwhelming for me. It was very exotic.
Some artists inspire whereas others make you feel like they’ve already done it perfectly and there is nowhere left to go?
Yeah, exactly. Because a lot of French people are still trying to do what Gainsbourg did. There’s been, like, 30 years of bad Gainsbourg. And now I think it might change.
Because now it’s going to be bad Daft Punk.
And bad Phoenix?
I didn’t want to say it but yeah, maybe.