You’d expect four coolly sophisticated Frenchmen to know all about wine. But sake? A few days before their recent return to Saturday Night Live, the Versailles-bred indie-pop phenoms Phoenix met up with EW at the posh EN Japanese Brasserie (a favorite of singer Thomas Mars and his wife, director Sofia Coppola, who live nearby with their two young children) to show just how serious they are about fermented rice beverages, among other things. Over a few of their favorite bottles, Mars, bassist Deck D’Arcy, and guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai talked about childhood fist fights, popular perfumes, and their upcoming fifth album, Bankrupt!, out April 23.
ROUND ONE: A BOTTLE OF DAKU NIGORI
EW: Thanks for ordering — I wouldn’t have known what to get.
LAURENT BRANCOWITZ: Well, thank you for paying!
So why did you guys choose a sake place?
BRANCOWITZ: We discovered that sake is the only alcohol that is truly artistic. You achieve a drunkness that is not drunkness — more a poetic state.
Well, before we get too poetic, let’s talk about how it felt to win the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy for 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Are Grammys considered a big deal in France?
THOMAS MARS: You know, it’s the only prize we ever won, so for us it was a real moment we enjoyed.
CHRISTIAN MAZZALAI: With all the artists who’ve won this Grammy before in this category, we thought, “We are dreaming.” It’s funny because after we won it, there was a French Grammy, and we were not even nominated because our record company forgot to [submit] us! That’s France, you know –chaos.
Did that upset you guys?
MAZZALAI: No, it was more just funny to us.
MARS: We like the idea.
Is that because rock music isn’t a big part of French culture?
DECK D’ARCY: There’s no bands in France. Zero! We are the only one. France is more about singers, solo artists, or electronic music. The culture of French music is not really about bands.
BRANCOWITZ: The bands you like and know that are French are always outsiders in the French music industry — Daft Punk, Air. So it’s a bit normal that we are not totally in the system, because we come from the outside of the outskirts.
You mixed the new album on the same console that Thriller was made on. Do you feel like the spirit of Michael Jackson seeped into the record in any way?
BRANCOWITZ: I wish it did, but I’m not sure. We thought about [Thriller] a lot, and even with all those efforts, we really couldn’t understand its magic. And that’s what we like about it. If you try to copy it, you miss the point. Because it’s uncopyable — is this a word?
EW: Sure — inimitable.
BRANCOWITZ: Yes! If you imitate, you destroy the spirit of it because it was the spirit of doing something new.
So I loved the Dinosaur Jr. cover of “Entertainment.” How’d that come about?
BRANCOWITZ: We’re big fans of them, and we just were looking for people to do remixes. So when we learned from out management that he [J. Mascis] said yes, we couldn’t believe it. For us, it’s the biggest gift we can have. Thomas saw them when he was a teenager when we were very young.
MARS: In Paris, I saw him twice — once for Green Mind and then again for Whatever’s Cool With Me. And then recently we went to see him again when he was playing in Australia. It’s always — each time you see him, you discover another song.
MAZZALAI: We might even do a few concerts together! We’re excited about it, if it happens.
ROUND TWO: A BOTTLE OF TATSU RIKI JUNMAI GINJO
BRANCOWITZ: [Pointing to the Daku Nigori] This is like a three-star hotel. It’s nice, and it has everything — walls, elevator, clean sheets. Then [with the second round] you’re in a four-star, and you’re like, “Wow, this is great!” And then [with the third round] you’re going to Paris.
MARS: There’s one sake here that’s made by hand, but it would be impolite for us to order it. It’s $4,000.
What do you guys normally drink? Like when you’re on tour?
MAZZALAI: We drink lots of sake before our shows. We have a Japanese guy —
BRANCOWITZ: [laughing] An importer!
MAZZALAI: — an importer from America who gives us many bottles for the beginning of the tour. They wait at each venue for us.
BRANCOWITZ: They’re part of the equipment. A big refrigerated truck — the sake truck.
Some of the songs on the new album seem to deal with celebrity excess and consumer culture. Am I reading that correctly?
MARS: Well, “Drakkar Noir” is more about the duty-free cheap perfume. It’s more popular here now, probably, but growing up in France, it was big.
BRANCOWITZ: Yeah, it was a very popular perfume when we were kids.
MARS: “Popular perfume” says it all.
Thomas, “S.O.S. in Bel Air” sounds like it might go with the movie your wife just made, The Bling Ring [out June 14].
MARS: That was actually called “S.O.S. in Damascus” for a while. I don’t know why it switched to Bel Air, but the two places have a lot of the same issues.
BRANCOWITZ: “Bel Air” sounds very French. But you’re right, it’s about the loneliness of what popular culture considers a triumph but is in fact a failure.
You’ve been friends since you were kids. Do you ever remember not knowing each other?
BRANCOWITZ: Yeah — it was lonely and sad.
MAZZALAI: Well, I always knew Branco! [Laurent and Christian are brothers; Laurent uses their mother’s maiden name.]
BRANCOWITZ: But I remember my life before Chris was born, actually! When he was born, my parents bought me a bike but told me that it was his. I guess it was some sort of ’70s strategy to make children accept their younger brother?
MAZZALAI: It kind of worked.
BRANCOWITZ: Well, it was a good bike.
When did you guys start playing together?
[Lots of internal discussion]
MARS: I think at 10. [More internal discussion] I like that the sake is starting to work! But yes, I had a small drum kit, but I couldn’t play the bass drum and the snare drum at the same time, so I would only play snare and hi-hat. And Deck had a keyboard that we plugged into a small stereo. We had three minutes of pleasure. The amplified sound was very powerful. And then the stereo broke, so we had to wait a month to get another. So right at the beginning, it was already a very frustrating and precious relationship with the music.
MAZZALAI: We would play every Saturday. And we were running to play, because we were waiting for that all week.
MARS: Literally, we’d be all be running. And shouting.
MAZZALAI: And fighting. Back then, we would fight for real a lot. Now we don’t as much anymore because we fought so many times already.
MARS: Yeah. From, like, 14 to 16.
D’ARCY: I remember, they had very small fists.
MARS: [Pointing to D’Arcy] Yeah, he was the biggest. No one would fight him.
MAZZALAI: When we were 14, he was here [raises hand] and I was here [lowers hand], and he had [lowers tone] a deep voice and I had [in a high-pitched tone] this voice.
MARS: I would throw tennis balls at Chris’ guitar, and he’d throw something back. But I was playing drums then, which is good because [crouches behind table] you’re protected behind them. And once I remember it almost came to fists, but we were separated by a very stupid object, like my bed or something.
MAZZALAI: Yes, this is true. I remember I wanted to kill him, but I don’t know why.
MARS: Yeah, I don’t remember why. But I know it was your fault.
When was your last big fight?
MARS: Glasgow, 2003. But even then, it was really nothing. We’ve been good since ’98.
You guys used to say that you’re bad musicians.
MARS: We still do.
Even after five albums and a Grammy?
BRANCOWITZ: We are always very suspicious when someone plays too good, you know? It’s a bad sign. Like that people consider music at the same level as sport — a physical activity. It’s a very bad sign. When we were kids, we hated people who could play very well.
MAZZALAI: Yeah, when we were teenagers, for example, we had a rule: Never play solos on the guitar. It was too skilled, too show-off.
D’ARCY: We’ve never been impressed by instrumentalists. Songs, ideas? Yes.
MARS: It was just easier to know what we didn’t like — it comes from rejecting something. And for everybody [back then], music was about virtuosity. It was just mastering your instrument, and it was a very selfish thing.
MAZZALAI: Even now, we play very easy guitar parts. The song in the end will be sophisticated, but every part of it should be simple.
ROUND THREE: A DECANTER OF DASSAI 23 JUNMAI DAIGINJO
What else have you guys all been doing together since convening in NY? [Everyone in the band but Mars lives in France.]
MAZZALAI: Basically preparing, getting ready for upcoming shows. Lights and everything like that.
BRANCOWITZ: We work a lot. We are the hardest-working band in show business.
Is that a fact?
BRANCOWITZ: I hope so – I’m not sure. But I want to say it! I want to believe it.
Are you nervous about how fans will receive your new record?
BRANCOWITZ: We know that if it’s really bad, our fans will stone us. But we’ll accept the stones if so — try to survive! We’re working very hard, but we’re not totally ready yet. It’s scary, but also exciting.
How long did it take you guys to record Bankrupt!?
MAZZALAI: Two years. For us, it’s the same amount of time as usual. We’re kind of slow. We didn’t plan it that way — we wanted it to go for only six months, one year max. But we don’t control it.
MARS: And we don’t write music while we’re on the road.
MAZZALAI: Yeah, we close all the doors [when we write]. We’re always in a very tiny room for hours and hours and hours, so the outside world is a bit blurry. Like right now — you hear a bit of what’s going outside this room, but it doesn’t affect you.
Where did you record the album?
MARS: We spent three months in [late Beastie Boy] Adam Yauch’s studio in New York, and then a year and a half in Paris [where the Thriller board resides]. Adam liked our previous album, and he said we could come stay as long as we want for free; he was very nice. But we decided to stay only three months. We left for France at the end of Spring, 2011.
Are you guys more famous in France or in America?
MARS: We are not famous at all in France.
MAZZALAI: I don’t consider us famous anywhere
Where are you guys most famous?
BRANCOWITZ: Very good question. It’s not really where, but when. The day after a TV show, we’re famous for about 24 hours.
MARS: We will be famous on April 7 [the day after their SNL performance]. But on April 17, I’m not so sure.