Alternative rock group Phoenix may have already well-established their "rockstar" status, with the tremendous global success from It's Never Been Like That, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Bankrupt! albums just within last decade, but now as 2014 sits ahead of them, the group suggest they're still full of surprises. Composed of four members who prefer to be described as "four childhood friends," the French group has raised a finger to conformity right from their conception in the 1990's, and continue to challenge music with a laissez-faire approach. Brushing off their early jam sessions with the then unknown helmeted duo, Daft Punk, as "boring" and detailing each of their album's extensive creation processes as "slow", it's almost impossible not to get caught up in the bands humility, momentarily forgetting that the band are a GRAMMY Award winning group that's been described as everything from modern Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to new-age Beatles. We caught up with the band to discuss their recent work with R. Kelly, their past (and potential future) projects working with Daft Punk, the current state of digitally-influenced music and recent highlights from touring the world.
How are you guys feeling?
It’s our first time in Hong Kong so it’s exciting. We love to discover new places, and when we come for the first time to a country it’s very special, and we have high expectations. It’s going to be a short trip but we like it so far.
You’ve got a big fan base in Asia, how’s your experience been in your Asia tour so far?
Our fans are very different, when you compare them from one country to another. Previously, within Asia, we had only been to Jakarta and Japan so we don’t know Asia overall that well, but this is the tour where we will be discovering and making all the stops. What we love is the way that the Asian fans react to the new album and the way they sing along - that’s something that doesn’t exist in France or Europe in general - I mean, perhaps you might see it in the UK, but this concept that your fans could know every lyric of every song, it’s very rare.
Can you tell us about the creation of the “Trying To be Cool” music video with CANADA.
That was our favorite video because the whole thing was sort of a gamble - we knew that there was going to be mistakes and there was no way everything was going to fit in the video, and so we were part of this experience of risk and uncertainty. These days everything is very manicured and you can edit your videos in a thousand ways, but this video could only exist in one stream and one way. There was nothing else other than two cameras.
Tell us about your collaboration with R Kelly, was it difficult to combine your sound with his distinctly hip-hop and R&B sound? Do you plan to mix hip-hop or any other unconventional genres in with your music in the future?
That was definitely easy because we love his music, so the combination of the two sounds meshed quite well. This concept that there is a vast difference between musical genres and style is just a perception, these differences are essentially just defined by a few chords. As for if we’ll do it again in the future, perhaps we will but not in such an obvious way. I feel like this is actually something we’ve always done, for instance in our second album we had creative input from a few additional musicians who had completely different musical backgrounds, so we’ll continue to do that but perhaps not make it as obvious. I don’t think we could make something that screams it obviously as this [collaboration with R Kelly].
What do Phoenix get up to in their downtime between releasing albums, what happens during the years?
During that [approximately] four year down time, we tour for about two years and then we are very slow, so it takes us another two years to put an album together that we agree is good enough. We don’t really feel pressure when it comes to creating an album, we just see the positives, especially when new people listen to whatever stupid thing we do. We’ve always taken around two years to create an album which is very sad but we are just slow and it’s a long process.
Where do you look for inspiration when you’re working on new projects?
When we start a new project we go into this mode where everything has a possibility to fit with what we’re doing. Whatever you’re looking for, like an introduction to a song for example, if we’re in the subway and listening to an announcement we’ll shift our brains so that everything around us becomes potential music material. We even pull stuff from our childhood memories, for example, there was a commercial for some sort of cheap alcohol we had seen when we were growing up as kids, and even though it seems like everything is on YouTube these days we still haven’t been able to find it again, but the fantasy of trying to remember it stands out. It’s actually probably better that we haven’t been able to watch it again because the fantasy of it allows us to look in to these small unconnected things that evoke a sort of musical mystery. From this we get several thousands of pieces of music and then we filter through, which is a long distillation process, and the song then comes out like a little drop. The “distillation” process takes a long time because if we feel like we’ve done it before or it’s too familiar it instantly feels very boring for us, so we want to discover new territories and we have to learn new ways to put together songs because we can’t use the same recipe we already know.
You guys have previously mentioned you were glad there was no YouTube around when you first began to build up as a band. Can you tell us a little more about this? What’s your take on the influence of YouTube and other music sharing platforms these days?
Mystery plays such a big part in music and everything we do. When we started off as a band we were very bad, we had high ambitions, but we were very bad. Some people, when they start off, they’re instantly very good at what they do, but all we had was high ambitions and we had to learn to work and we worked a lot. Sometimes, people who are instantly good, [and for them YouTube works right away but then] they find it hard to last because they aren’t used to working for it, but we’re used to working hard in order to move forward because we started at a very low level before we got here.
[Laurent]: That said, we do have some videos of our first gigs from when we first started that we’ve filmed of on our own, but they’re just for us. I have one video of the band’s first gig, before I was even in a band as Phoenix with these guys. At that time I was in a band with the guys from Daft Punk, we called our band “Darlin’,” and these guys played a show on the same stage as us. It was very stupid, nobody cared and the audience was very bored.
Speaking of Daft Punk, any plans to work with Daft Punk in the future?
Nope, and if they have any plans we don’t know about it, they’re very secretive about things. They joined us on stage in New York and that was great but they like to be secretive and don’t always try to plan things. With something like that, if the time is right, it’s right.
Has this shift from an underground band to a globally-recognized group had any affect on your music, or on you personally?
One thing I’m glad about is that we chose to do things in reverse. When we signed on to a major label we were not really “indie” anymore at all and people expected us to sell millions of records, it was during this time where every music video costed millions of dollars and [upcoming artists] didn’t have that sort of freedom like you have now. After that, we sort of obtained our own independence from there, and now we work just as the four of us, and there’s not many people who work with us which makes things a lot easier.
Would you say that your biggest fan base is in France or have you seen your support shift globally? Is there a certain stop on your tour that’s really stuck out?
I would say our biggest following is in the U.S. in terms of numbers, but it’s something that’s in constant movement with every album. Asia, for example, has been very receptive to the new album, and that changes over time which is cool and we love it. Around ten years ago we had a big hit in Norway, but now we’re considered pretty “outdated” in Norway, which we love because it’s normal. When we were starting off as Phoenix we didn’t play too much in France because we sang in English and that wasn’t really cool there, we were doing shows in London and Japan but we tried to avoid France. But now, when we go back now it’s kind of exciting.
Every single show we do really sticks out to us but there’s one show we played recently in Jakarta, and it was during a giant thunderstorm, that was really awesome. It was pouring and we were totally soaked and on the verge of electrocution and totally aware that it could be the last show we ever played, but the fans stayed with us and sang every lyric and didn’t leave, it was so powerful. When you’re performing sometimes there’s a point when something strange happens, I lose the sense of time and space. Sometimes I’m suddenly in the middle of the crowd and don’t even know how I got there.
Do you prefer performing in larger arenas over performing in smaller intimate concerts?
One of my favorite American comedians Steven Wright was performing at a stadium and was asked the exact same question. He said “when you’re in the ocean, it does not matter how deep the water is. All you have to do is swim” I think it’s the same to us. The only thing we can do is swim. Playing music is the only thing we know how to do. So it doesn’t matter where we are. Once we are there, we’ll just play music.
You once described the Phoenix band as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” what’s the story behind that?
One time we were asked to describe the band in under five words, that’s what came to mind. They’re turtles, they’re ninjas, they’re named after Italian Renaissance characters, and their master is a rat. They make no sense, and neither do we, so that’s why.
R Kelly prefers to describe you guys as new-age “Beatles,” what do you think about that?
I think he’s crazy. I [Thomas] was on the phone with him when he said that and the reporter and I both paused because we thought he was crazy. The one thing that is true about that is that they were four friends and so are we.
Photography: Delphia Ip for HYPETRAK