Sometimes, you gotta stop and smell the music. "Do you recognize that song?": Thomas Mars, the 40-year-old lead singer of French pop aesthetes Phoenix, is hanging his head out the window of the Manhattan conference room we're sitting in, desperately trying to hear the music that's playing just outside the room. "It's strange. It sounds like two songs."
"C'est quoi?" guitarist Christian Mazzalai asks him. "Sorry, I have to know," Mars says to the both of us, listening with effort showing on his face. I mention that it sounds a little like Cocteau Twins, which he doesn't quite agree with; after 45 seconds, he looks slightly disappointed and sheepish all at once. "Sorry," he says as he returns to the chat.
The pair are munching on avocado toast before taping an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in support of their sixth album, Ti Amo (out this Friday on Glassnote/Loyauté). A warm, neon-streaked document of soft-focus synth-pop and effervescent electronic sounds, the record is a love letter to Italo disco and the idea of being in Italy itself, its handmade cover art acting as the postage stamp. The scrawled heart on the face of Ti Amo was drawn by Mars himself on his phone and inspired by Italian graffiti: "Italy has a weird relationship to graffiti that's unique and very interesting. 99 percent of it is naive—not territorial pissings, just 'Ciao,' or 'Ti Amo.' A very simple idea."
Ti Amo was conceived of over the past few years—shortly after the release of the band's last album, 2013's Bankrupt!—with recording sessions taking place in Paris' La Gaîté Lyrique, a former theater reconstituted as a general arts space. During the songwriting process, the band worked extensively with samples (a first, for them) and drum programming, to the point where, as Mars puts it, "We even confused ourselves. The idea of getting lost was really appealing to us. We wanted to create our own sound in our own language, and it's easier to achieve that when you don't have to stick with the classic approach. We didn't have to reinvent the wheel—we just changed a few basic things."
Those basic changes result in one of Phoenix's lushest and loveliest records to date—and one that's resolutely a few years out of step when it comes to trend. Ti Amo arrives a few years after the dreamy synth sounds many associate with Italo disco and the 80s at large broke big thanks to Italians Do It Better mastermind Johnny Jewel's involvement in the iconic soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn's stylish and violent 2011 film Drive. In 2017, Phoenix's endearing just-behind-the-times lag mirrors their 2008 masterwork It's Never Been Like That, an economical dose of clean-sounding guitar rock that mechanized the Strokes' brand of downtown cool years after "downtown cool" was no longer a thing.
When asked about this tendency to chart their own path regardless of the here-and-now, Mars' response is as stoic as it is artistically sincere: "We try to create our own language—but to create our own language we have to use a vocabulary that everybody uses."
Noisey: You've said that this record reflects your own fantasies of Italy. How do those fantasies line up with the real thing?
Thomas Mars: We don't want to find the truth—the true Italy, which is not something that you can really find. We don't want to be authentic in the same way that when we sing in English, we don't want to create American folk songs. The fact that it's an inaccurate distortion has more charm to us.
Christian Mazzalai: You know that Ernest Hemingway book A Moveable Feast, about his years in Paris? He's saying that he when he was in Paris, he wrote about stories in America, and he had to come back to the US in those last years to write about Paris. He couldn't write about Paris in Paris. For us, it's the same. When we're in Italy on holidays together, we never listen to Italian music. When you really see things from afar, there's something attractive.
This record reminds me a lot of your first album, United . As a band, your popularity with American audiences has increased substantially over the past seven years—but you've been making music for nearly two decades now.
Mars: It reminds me of United, too. When we made that album, all those styles of music didn't live together before. The frustration when we were teenagers was that you had to stick one sound. This record feels very naive and innocent, like our first record.
Mazzalai: We were a kept secret for a few albums. We take this as luck, because when big success came to us, we were ready to be confronted with all the dangers that came with it. We're happy that we've done six albums. It's been a long journey.
Mars: When we were starting out and went to play in different countries, we got used to the fact that one song is heard in different ways by people. We never really try to understand how people perceive our music. I was reading this article about Max Martin and how he knows all the triggers to pull. I don't want to know what to do to have a strong chorus, you know? It's not that we don't want to be successful—we want it to be art. Thinking that way would be counterintuitive for the process.
A lot of the lyrics on this album are in other languages. You guys are playing a lot of festival shows this summer—gonna be hard for the audiences to sing along sometimes.
No one knows the lyrics to "If I Ever Feel Better," either.
Mazzalai: There's a beauty in that.
Mars: It's cryptic.
Mazzalai: With "1901," everyone is singing the wrong lyrics. We grew up like that, too—as French kids who were listening to English music and didn't get it.
"With '1901,' everyone is singing the wrong lyrics. We grew up like that, too—as French kids who were listening to English music and didn't get it."
You've also said that this album is about romantic notions of Europe in general. How do you compare the Europe in your mind to the Europe of right now?
Mars: The comforting thing about Europe is that that the roots felt really deep, even in terms of inspiration. It has this rich nest of—you know—of potential. It felt like, when we were making this record, it was changing, and what was comforting about Europe was that it didn't change much.
They built a little bit in Paris the 70s, and it didn't work, so they moved it outside of Paris. Rome isn't a city; it's a museum. They can't even extend the subway line because each time they dig they find ancient ruins. Europe's not meant to be evolving. It's just stuck in time. It was a lot of shock to realize it's changing and becoming a new place. It's exciting. It feels like the ideal of Europe could either perish or be reborn. It was a world of values, and it became something else.
"Lovelife" is almost explicitly a love song, and love is a pretty common theme running through a lot of your records. What draws you, as humans and artists, to exploring the nature of love through art?
We're more curious about human interactions than we are about other things. The language on "Lovelife" is very simple—"Would you love her lovelife?" That's not something that men really ask themselves.
What's your perspective on the changing nature of masculinity as you've seen it?
I was talking to my dad about what defines a generation. He was saying, "My generation was the generation of TV," and maybe it's too much of a statement, but it feels like that's what's changing in my generation: gender and human interaction. In the 70s, men were almost medieval—"I'm going to work and I'm leaving and that's it." The human interaction defined itself in very clear and simple roles. Maybe it's too much of a generalization, but I feel like that's changing—the codes are not as clear.
For me, it always comes back to Prince. He redefined manhood and made it so much more interesting and complex. A song like "I Would Die For You," where he's like, "I'm not your lover, I'm not your friend, I'm something that you'll never understand." It's so strong.
What are your memories of enjoying music in your youth?
My strongest memories are with cassettes—being in my parents' car, you had to go through the entire album. I had a double-cassette tape deck, so I could make mixtapes. That was huge, and the perfect metaphor for what it is to be a kid going into their teenage years. As a kid, you take the full album—you don't need to create your own identity—but when you're a teenager, the choices you make are so important because they define who you're friends with.
"Europe's not meant to be evolving. It's just stuck in time. It was a lot of shock to realize it's changing and becoming a new place. It's exciting."
Mazzalai: I remember you made me a mixtape.
Mars: Yeah, I don't remember what was on it though.
How do you feel you've changed as you've gotten older?
Time is the easiest solution to tell a story differently because it's evolution. Aging, as it's seen in terms of creativity, doesn't help everyone, but every time we make a record, it feels like it's the first record because we put so much pressure on ourselves. Our live show doesn't matter, because it's not a record—a record is going to stay. Maybe it's not true, but we still intend to think that way.
Mazzalai: We were never worse on this album. We were more productive than ever. It's the beginning for us, in a way. With every album, we're learning how to write songs again.
Larry Fitzmaurice is the internet's most discerning voice. Follow him on Twitter.