Phoenix Interview: Christian Mazzalai on writing new chapters & life in Paris
June 27th 2017
Iconic French four-piece Phoenix are back with Ti Amo, their most romantic record yet. Written amid France’s current geopolitical tension, the band transformed feelings of darkness into album number six, thick with love and pure emotion.
Up For It’s Lucy Smith phoned guitarist Christian Mazzalai to get the lowdown on what went into making the LP, chatting creative self defence, missing home and keeping things fresh after spending the better part of two decades as a band.
Firstly, I do want to say congratulations on the release of Ti Amo – this is super exciting. How does it feel to be back in the game after four years since ‘Bankrupt’?
I can’t wait because we didn’t predict to be that long in the studio, you know? But we wanted it to be solid songs. So we took the time, enough time to do them right – so right now I’m so happy, finally the songs don’t belong to me anymore.
It’s been described as one of your most romantic records yet. Could you tell me about the European influence throughout this album?
For the last album we toured a lot around the world and we just simply, after a few months in, we missed home. We loved the tour, but sometimes we were watching a French movie or Italian movie …and I don’t know why, but it came back to us after when we were beginning this new record. Thomas was singing a bit in Italian and all the music was in a very colourful mood. And we were looking for some kind of lost paradise in a way… Italian summers.
How was that experience for you – being able to create this music and escape to that dream world you’ve created?
It’s really a selfish process, you know? When we write songs it’s just for the four of us, because if we do this we are staying pure to the composition. We don’t want to think too much about the outside world; otherwise we won’t be that pure. So when we are the four of us, we really wanted to escape in a way.
You’ve spoken a lot about purity and that comes across in the emotions of the record. You’ve got love, desire and a lust-filled element – as far as songwriting, how did you put that together lyrically?
Lyrically, it was all a process – the way we write songs, we do everything all together in one room. We chose an old theatre in the centre of Paris, we were under the roof. So in this little room, there was Thomas just in front of me and he was writing, and it’s very hard to explain because it takes 12 hours a day, so he’s writing thousands of lines. And we look at what he’s writing and we say this is good, this is not good. And on this album I think there’s a whole theme that comes out pretty easily.
You just mentioned what a collaborative process it is and I also read that with each album you choose to come together in a new, unfamiliar studio space – what’s the motivation behind this?
It’s a very basic motivation, it’s just we want to start from scratch; we want to write a new chapter. So we want to forget all of our old recipes on the last album always… and to do this, first we have to be in a new place. It’s very important. So every album we’ve done it in a different location, sometimes in another country – we’ve done an album in Berlin, one in New York, one in Los Angeles, one in Versailles, and this one we wanted it to be in the centre of Paris. And we found this old theatre, which was really perfect because usually when we’re in the studio we don’t see anyone else – we’re like monks kept from the outside world – and this time there were concerts in the theatre…so there were people surrounding us. This was brand new for us.
The album has been in the works for about three years, but you had hundreds of hours of music – you guys have been in the game for a while, how do you decipher what makes the cut?
That’s the very tough part, the most artistic part. Because first we did this album in two phases. Phase one was really to experiment: not to over-think at all, not to judge, just to produce as much music as possible. So for one year we were producing music, experimenting and then after I had to archive, that’s my role. So we had like five days of music and we chose the best parts. We listen to the things we recorded like two or three weeks after, so we have a better judgement. It’s very strange. It’s very hard to finalise, we thought in two days we’d be finished and it lasted one year. It’s very hard to finish an album.
The guitars were recorded and altered electronically, and you can hear throughout the record that it does have more of an electronic grounding, sonically. Is that something you set out to do differently with this record?
Good question. We tried so many things, we experimented a lot with the sound of the guitars and even the keyboards and even the voice of Thomas, playing a lot with that. So we had a set-up, very old school, with very old microphones from the 50’s, German, the best ones. And very old keyboards from the early 70’s, and at the same time we had a very modern programmed computer. So it was a mixture of ultra modern and very old school, and then we messed with all of that.
It’s awesome taking that older equipment and then creating such a modern sound. Do you think that level of electronic sound production is the way we’re heading more so in 2017, that artists need to be mindful of?
Ah, this I really don’t know. But, for us it’s always been part of our DNA. We grew up, our friends Daft Punk or Air, we all grew up with samplers and drum machines. Even when we were 15 we were playing rock songs, but we always had the culture of samplers and the sound of a drum machine is very important, maybe it’s a French thing? Maybe nowadays it’s everywhere, but for us it’s always been like this.
You mentioned that when you created this record it took you to a sunny, euphoric place. You started recording in September 2014 and I guess being in France, the socio-political climate is a bit different to the sound of the record. Did this enter your mind at all?
In a way there’s a link because we were living in a very hard time, actually everyone in the world. But when we were doing Ti Amo there were terrorist attacks very close to where we were, so it was pretty tough. But all of our music was very colourful, and it was a bit strange at the beginning – but very fast we realised that that was a natural process for self defence. We were just working as artists and creating some kind of lost paradise. It was just a selfish way for the four of us who are doing music to forget. You know Serge Gainsbourg? He was a French god of music in the 60’s and 70’s, and he wrote one of the saddest French songs ‘Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’En Vais’ and he wrote it when he was the most happiest guy in the world, and when it was written he was with Briggite Bardot and she left him. So he was the saddest French guy in the world and at that time he wrote the most happy pop songs, you know? But I think it’s the universal thing when you’re very sad and you’re looking towards the opposing emotion.
Absolutely – but you also mentioned it was a selfish way, but in the end you’ve created this incredible body of work that is going to make people so happy.
You’ve got a few appearances coming up at Glastonbury and Summersonic over in Japan. How do you keep touring and those aspects fresh when you guys have been hanging out for the better part of two decades?
We’re super excited right now because we worked on this new tour for two years now. We had an idea two years ago in the studio, it’s the first time we’ve had an idea that early for the live show. And all the visuals we created something very special, we’re very very excited about it. It’s a magic trick with a mirror we created. So that keeps us very excited and even the music we are still improving live. For example we wrote a song on the first album, If I Ever Feel Better and this one I think we play better now than ever, so we’re still progressing and we’re still excited to tour.
Overall, what can people expect from the record and what do you want them to feel?
The last album we did was pretty complex and a bit cynical, and this one is very the opposite. It’s an album where we open our arms to the world and it’s just an album for us, it was very important to release it before the European summer in June so you could hear it in the summer. So I would say you should come to Europe and listen to Ti Amo, you Australian guys.