From What Ashes?
The four French electro-poppers of Phoenix may not be the first rock stars to name-drop a classical influence—that honor, we think, goes to Chuck Berry, he of “Roll Over Beethoven.” But they’re arguably the most dedicated: to shoot the video for “Lisztomania,” the first single from their rather impishly-titled fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band made a pilgrimage to Franz Liszt’s stomping grounds in Bayreuth, Germany.
You may have seen Phoenix perform “Lisztomania” on Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Kimmel, or you may have heard it at a dozen house parties in the last few months-with its peppy beat, clean guitar line, and comfortingly senseless lyrics, it’s well on its way to becoming the official song of summer 2009. (And it’s not even the best song on the album, necessarily: the slow, eerie buildup of “Love Like a Sunset,” which clocks in at almost eight minutes long, is probably more rewarding.)
The term “Lisztomania,” refers obscurely to the huge popular appeal of Liszt, who in his day played sold-out gigs to legions of screaming fans. Phoenix knows a thing or two about that-since May, they’ve been playing jam-packed shows all over the world on a massive tour that will continue through November. We caught up with lead singer Thomas Mars by e-mail, somewhere between two French festivals.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: You wrote Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in New York-how was that different from the process of writing your other records?
THOMAS MARS: We started recording that album in NYC, but we did most of the work in Paris. We rented a hotel room in the Bowery Hotel for a few weeks-it is how Francois Truffaut wrote his movies, and we wanted to experience that.
AS: You’re going pretty much non-stop through November. How has this tour been different from previous, smaller ones?
TM: It is the best tour we have done so far. People want to hear the new songs the most, and that is the best gift they can give us.
AS: What’s the best story you can tell about it thus far?
TM: My favorite show on this tour was in Denver. We played the day Michael Jackson died, and our sound engineer Matt played Michael Jackson’s songs after the show. Instead of leaving, the whole crowd stayed for an hour, turning the venue in a nightclub. We all danced together and it felt like the end of our childhood.
AS: When you were in New York, it seemed like you played a lot from your second album, Alphabetical, but with a poppier bent that’s closer to the sound on the fourth album. How do you think about your old songs when you start a new tour?
TM: On our early records, the songs were really hard to adapt for the live show. They are like wild animals that we are trying to tame. Over the tours we’ve managed to accomplish that, I think.
AS: You’ve played with some awesome musicians on this tour—Metric, Passion Pit, Chairlift, among others—did you choose your own opening bands?
TM: It is crucial to have a good opener, because you are responsible for the crowd to have a good time and listen to good music. We do choose them ourselves. There is nothing worse than to get a weak opener to make sure you shine more.
AS: To ask a question a lot of people have been wondering: why write a song about Liszt?
TM: Franz Liszt has such an epic/dramatic life—he is a very inspiring character, and he’s also considered by some to be the first rock star. When we were writing Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, we thought it was some kind of commercial suicide, since it was talking about a very weird, personal, hermetic subject that few or none care about. It is great for us to see that it is our most successful record.