The Best, Worst, and Exceptionally French of Phoenix, According to Thomas Mars

On Bill Murray, not being able to escape “1901,” and over 30 years of his band. Photo: Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images

The worst thing you could probably say about Phoenix is that they helped define Apple-core (or Tumblr-core) in the late 2000s: The era when skinny-tie-cool indie rock was ubiquitous enough to sell iPods, and songs like “1901” and “Lisztomania” were beloved by critics and a generation of young writers during the golden hour of music blogs. If you hated Phoenix, it was probably because you hated hearing Phoenix everywhere. Yet the French band earned their breakthrough with 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album with infectious melodies, strong deep cuts, and timeless cool that holds up after a decade. It’s all the more impressive when you remember that Phoenix had previously released back-to-basics rock and roll and New Wave tracks, like “Party Time” and “Heatwave,” two years before the first Strokes EP.

To celebrate over 30 years of Phoenix — the quartet technically formed in the late ’80s when front man Thomas Mars, real name Thomas Pablo Croquet, was a 10-year-old Prince fanatic — the band last year released Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix!, a deep oral history on the Grammy-winning group co-written with music journalist Laura Snapes, whom Mars dubbed an honorary fifth Phoenix member. The writing process was a lot like group therapy. “It was way more work than I thought,” says Mars, laughing over the phone. “I felt like now that the book is done, we can move on.” Earlier this year, Mars shared more from the book with Vulture, and discussed the highs and lows of his band’s history, including their work with Mars’s wife and longtime collaborator, director Sofia Coppola; their partnership includes a new song, “Identical,” for Coppola’s latest film, On the Rocks. Mars also confirmed that more new Phoenix music is on the way, eventually: “We’re working on the new album,” says Mars. “But I don’t know when that will come out.”

Best Phoenix album

That’s hard because we don’t really think [that way]. I mean, there are definitely best and worst things, but what we do is sort of quality control between the four of us. If the four of us agree that there is something to it, then it’s on an album; the four of us agreeing will give it longevity. We think about albums more in terms of photo books. They’re all reactions to each other. I know there were albums that were harder to make than others, so I had better times making certain albums than others. Some were really intense. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was one of them, because there was a lot of drama around the record, and that gave the record a lot of gravitas and emotions. But I don’t look at it like, “This is a better album.”

Most underrated Phoenix album

Maybe Ti Amo. Not because it’s the last one, but I think Ti Amo plays with very specific memories that we have growing up as kids. It’s kind of complex because, being French, the band had this relationship with Italy [where they visited frequently growing up]. So Ti Amo needs a little bit of insight. That record is a little bit of a leap of faith. It’s definitely not the first record you should hear from us as an introduction to the band. But I think it’s also the most underrated because we checked a few boxes that I wanted to check, whether it was what subjects we were talking about, or [the instruments] we were playing with.

Most random use of “1901”

There was one day in New York City where I heard it everywhere. I would go into a store, in a restaurant, and hear it multiple times during that day. Then I remember crossing Broadway and Prince Street; there was this guy jogging. He saw me, and he showed me his iPod. It was playing “1901.” I kept walking, and I was close to the Apple Store. There was a guy playing guitar. He was playing “1901.”

But I have a better answer. I was on a flight to go to Austin, Texas. It was at the peak of the song [in 2009], and [the stewardess] was so happy. She loved that song, she told me on the plane. She was so excited that she played “1901” for the entire flight … through the speakers of the flight. I was really embarrassed, because almost the whole flight was just like, “What is going on? What is this?” This was as we were descending. She blasted “1901” through the Southwest Airlines speakers.

Phoenix song that reminds you the most of Versailles

“North” is a song we wrote for [2006’s] It’s Never Been Like That; it’s instrumental. At the time, we were driving, and we were always going back and forth between Versailles and Paris. We would always listen to that song on that trip — going to Versailles, driving at night, heading toward the capital. It was a good soundtrack, and we were testing that the mix was right.

Song you’re most proud of

You know, a song is on the record because it means the four of us are like, “Okay, this is good.” Then once it’s on the record, I don’t relisten to them anymore; that would be extremely narcissistic [laughs], because I listen to them hundreds of thousands of times before in every possible way. Then I’d like them to be free for everybody to do whatever they want with them. I’m done with them.

But there are certain subjects, like “Lisztomania,” I’m proud of because it talks about some things that we really wanted to talk about all the time that should be said about reappropriation, and how the city of Versailles is a museum. The frustration of growing up in Versailles was really strong because nothing great could be done. Everybody was always talking about the past, and you couldn’t really play music there unless it was 18th century or classical music. To bring those two worlds together was satisfying.

Lyrics that make you want to crawl into a ball and weep the most

“Napoleon Says” has a line that I thought I really enjoyed for a while: “Hit me like a freight train.” Then maybe a few months later, I talked to this classical composer who said, “You know, I don’t like rock music. I don’t like your lyrics. To me, it is very boring. Why put lyrics on music saying what is sung, and usually what is too stupid to be said?” Things like [“Napoleon Says]. And then he said, “All the lyrics in rock music are like, ‘I’m taking the bus, I’m taking this freight train,’” and he almost said, “Hit me like a freight train.” I realized there’s some truth in [what he was saying]. As much as there is creativity and psychotherapy in lyrics, and there is some truth in the process of writing lyrics, there are a lot of things that would be better unsaid. There’s a repetitive pattern that can be very frustrating and annoying.

Best place to play in America

America’s made for touring on a tour bus. It’s designed to go from east to west, and stop in the Midwest, and stop in all these weird places that you would never stop if you weren’t on a tour bus. And you have the best shows there. It’s really random, and it’s never what you’d expect. Chicago’s always a great crowd. So is Austin. But usually, it’s not what you’d expect. We’ve had a few of my favorite shows that were in cities that I would never have been to without making music, like Tulsa, Salt Lake City, and Columbus, like where the crowd was really strange.

A lot of times when we’d start a tour, people are like, “Well, Phoenix, when are you playing Phoenix? Phoenix, that’s going to be great.” But usually, it’s not what you’d expect. We end up playing in Scottsdale.

Most memorable live moment

We’ve played a lot of shows. That would be my answer [laughs]: a lot of memories. I had a bunch of very strange, almost life-and-death situations, so we were just happy to not die at some point. We played in a monsoon in Jakarta. We had a production manager who had his first day with us, so he didn’t want to stop the show because it was his first day. So, we played with an inch of water onstage. I could feel the electricity. I could feel it was not safe. I was getting shocks and stuff. That was scary. When you’re onstage, for some reason you’re aware of what’s dangerous for others, but not for yourself.

Best use of a Phoenix song in a film

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation dancing to “Too Young.” You can’t really top Bill Murray.

Most unexpected achievement

The first time we played SNL was a big achievement for us, just to be part of it. We were not ready. The songs were not out. The record was not out. We didn’t rehearse for touring. To be in that beast of American show business with so much pressure, and the fact that we were all working with equipment that we were, like, beta testing. We were not really ready to use all these complicated machines that well. The fact that everything went okay was a big achievement.

Moment you wanted to quit the most

There was a festival we were booked for in Australia called Future Music Festival [in 2014]. It was the peak of EDM. They were saying, “Okay, there are going to be EDM bands, and there are going to be bands with instruments; there are going to be these two stages.” We were the only band with instruments. We were the only band at a DJ festival. It was like ten days traveling with all the DJs. It didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t really relate. Every music genre has something like 5 percent of very exciting, new, good music, but the other 95 percent is extremely boring and unexciting. It felt like it was not going anywhere. We wanted to get away from this because not only was it unpleasant, it was also hurting our creativity. We didn’t really want to go back to the studio after feeling uninspired.

Best criticism you’ve received

The first review we ever had was in a British magazine; I think it was called Mixmag. This was in 2000 [and it was for our debut album, United]. We had zero out of ten. That one was so bad that it was really good, you know? To me, the worst reviews are the ones that are in the middle. This one was so violent. There was also a review in a French magazine that compared our music to chemotherapy.

The French didn’t like us at first. There’ll always be the Versailles factor. When you come from Versailles, in France, it’s seen as very posh. It’s definitely not on your résumé if you’re in a band. It’s not a plus. Maybe now it is.

Best story that didn’t make Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix!

This was in Australia again, the year after there was a tsunami in Phuket in Thailand [in 2004]. We arrive at the Gold Coast in Australia, which is just beautiful. I mean, it’s not beautiful. It’s like Reno on the beach. You have incredible water, but then it’s a giant mall on the beach. The only thing you can do there is go to the ocean. We were trying to go there, but the ocean’s being still. And we see cameras, and there are people saying that you can’t go swimming there, the tsunami’s coming. We’re like, “No, no, we want to swim. It’s all quiet. There’s no one.”

A few of us go into the ocean. I stay on the beach like a good Catholic from Versailles. And there are cameras filming, waiting for the tsunami to come. Then we go to bed. The next morning, someone tells me, “Okay, the tsunami came, but it was nothing. It was just an inch of a wave. It totally collapsed overnight.” So it was nothing.

But my friend said, “Did you sleep okay?” Because our parents rang us at night. What had happened is that all the cameras that were filming us were showing the footage in France saying, “A tsunami’s coming in Australia,” and our parents saw us on the news, and we were the only kids in the water. We were the only people in the water waiting for the tsunami, and they freaked out. And they called us at night in Australia saying, “What are you guys doing on the beach? A tsunami’s coming!”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Best of Worst of Phoenix, According to Thomas Mars