Phoenix lark – 'Bankrupt!' and happy about it
Either it's an extreme case of false modesty or the French truly are different from the rest of us. Contemplating the astonishing rise of his band, Phoenix, guitarist Christian Mazzalai seems at best hazily attuned to the fact that the group are now a very big deal. Screaming fans, heaving arenas, platinum records – you visualise him puffing a Gitanes and thinking, what of it?
"As far as I am concerned it is exactly the same," shrugs the man from Versailles, in an 'Allo 'Allo! accent so pronounced you initially suspect a put-on. "The vision of what we want to do has not altered. There is no change within the group."
He may demur. Yet the undeniable truth is that Phoenix, performing at the Longitude Festival in Dublin this month, are a rare example of a stadium act with both broad appeal and unwavering critical approval.
Their breakout year was 2009. They won a Grammy for their album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and racked up sales in excess of a million.
Phoenix have now followed that triumph with an even bigger record, the slick and shiny Bankrupt! (named because they liked the way the words looked written rather than because they have anything profound to say about the implosion of Western capitalism). A top-four hit in the US, the LP has underlined their status as a major force in rock – in addition to representing a swashbuckling riposte to the dreary banjo bashing of Mumford and Sons and their endless parade of soundalikes
"Of course we dreamed of one day being a huge band," says Mazzalai. "But only starting out as teenagers. You reach a certain age and it ceases to be a realistic goal. You resolve that you will not think about such things. Then you get there and, honestly, it is crazy."
Though you can't hear it in the music – which is joyous in tone and brisk in delivery – Bankrupt! was assembled in troubling circumstances. Having married film-maker Sofia Coppola, Phoenix singer Thomas Mars, in particular, found fame not especially to his liking and had to work at maintaining a low profile.
Meanwhile, tragedy touched the group in 2012 when their friend, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, died. His passing was particularly poignant as Phoenix had been recording Bankrupt! in Yauch's Manhattan studio the day word of his cancer diagnosis broke.
"He passed away exactly 12 months after we started the album," says Mazzalai. "It was wonderful to see him so much before the end. [His death] was terribly sad."
With Bankrupt! finally completed – albeit a year later than their record company would have liked – further hitches awaited. Phoenix had planned on unveiling the LP in style, at April's Coachella rock festival in southern California. To give their headline date extra oomph they arranged for R'n'B crooner R Kelly to join for an extended cameo
"We love his stuff, which surprises people," says Mazzalai. "Before we go on stage we listen to Serge Gainsbourg and R Kelly. It is very different from what we do. I don't know why but we adore that music. It puts us in a good frame of mind."
A hook-up with an urban pop star was the last thing anyone would have expected, another reason Phoenix were drawn to the idea.
"It was a risky collaboration. So we were very enthusiastic. Nobody would anticipate it. Of course, we were nervous, too, because it was the first gig on the tour. What if it went wrong?"
On the afternoon of the performance matters took a turn for the shaky.
Shortly before they were due on, Phoenix received word that Kelly had been delayed. They would have to start without him.
"He got caught in traffic. It was really stressful. We didn't know if he would come or not. The time for him to appear arrived. We stared into the wings stage and no, he was not there. Then I looked again and saw him materialise very slowly, with a cigar and a diamond microphone. That was the very first moment we knew it would definitely happen."
Before Sofia Coppola and Thomas Mars were a couple they were distant admirers. He adored her dark, dreamy feature-length debut, The Virgin Suicides; she fell instantly in love with Phoenix's self-titled first album, in particular the single 'So Young'. Smitten by its intoxicating mix of joy and melancholy, she was inspired to write a scene in her next film especially for Phoenix.
"Sofia contacted us and told us she was working on a movie called Lost In Translation and that she wanted 'So Young' to be in it," recalls Mazzalai.
"The part where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are at a party was created specifically with it in mind. It was amazing for that to happen to us. It raised our profile for sure – except in France, ironically. There, people have always been slow to warm to us, though that is changing now."
Phoenix headline Longitude, Marlay Park, Dublin on July 19.