Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars’ awkward fan encounters

Paul John Caña
Though his wife Sofia Coppola can sing the Philippine national anthem, Thomas Mars says he doesn't know anything about the Philippines. Still, that doesn't stop him from being excited to play for legions of fans in Manila

PHOENIX. The French band is set to play in Manila in January. Thomas Mars (2nd from right) is the frontman. Photo courtesy of Karpos Multimedia Inc

MANILA, Philippines – People are generally divided into two groups: those who love Phoenix, and those who don’t know them. Uniting those even with completely different musical preferences, the French band has garnered massive acclaim over the last few years from critics and audiences alike. They’re one of those bands that most anyone can namedrop if they want to be immediately thought of as cool but not pretentious. 

Formed in 1999 in Versailles, France, Phoenix is composed of vocalist Thomas Mars, bassist Deck D’Arcy, and guitarists and brothers Chris Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz. They have won multiple awards, including a Grammy for best alternative album for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in 2010, and have sold out countless venues across the globe, charming audiences with their unique hybrid of alternative and dance-rock music. Having just released their fifth studio album called Bankrupt!, Phoenix will play in Manila for the first time ever on Tuesday, January 21 at the World Trade Center. 

Rappler got the exclusive chance to chat with frontman Thomas Mars and in this interview, he talks about the making of the new album, why they will never do a residency in Las Vegas, and crazy fans. Excerpts: 

Rappler: Hi, Thomas. Where are you now and what’s outside your window?

Thomas Mars: We are in Singapore in a venue called the Star Theater. Right how the windows are not see-through so I cannot see anything. But it is a very nice theater. It looks good. It looks promising. 

Rappler: Bankrupt! came four years after Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. How different was making it compared to the last one?

TM: I think it’s pretty much the same. There’s always that moment where you bring the 4 of us together and you don’t think about anything else. It’s probably harder with each album we make because it’s harder to impress ourselves. So it gets tougher and tougher, which makes it more stressful each time. But it’s basically the same; we have to learn how to make a song again, because we want to make it new each time. So it’s not that different. The location itself doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really influence the sound. 

Rappler: Were you inspired by any specific artist or album when you were making Bankrupt!?

TM: Yes, a lot of things, but things that are very strange and very close to us. Things that are from our early childhood. Memories. And very French things that were on the radio when we were growing up. At the same time, I think it’s easier for us to be inspired by things that are not necessarily music. When you think it’s far from us, that it’s something we can’t grab on to because it’s that far, we are fascinated by that. The power of combination: putting things together that don’t go or shouldn’t be together. And that creates infinite possibilities. 

Rappler: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was a critical and commercial success. Did you feel any pressure at all while making the new album? 

TM: We did feel a lot of pressure. But one thing we learned quickly is that you can’t please everyone. It’s pretty much the opposite. Like whenever we do something, there is satisfaction, and there is a tension that is interesting. I don’t think we were stressed in the sense that we wanted it to be a success. But we wanted not to do more of the same. The problem with success is that people want you to do more of the same. And you have to go against this, which is exciting. But not everyone thinks it’s exciting. 

Watch: Phoenix performing their hit “1901,” featured in Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival 

Rappler: You guys have stayed together for years. What’s the secret of your dynamics as a group? 

TM: It’s very unique. Most of the bands I know there seems to be a kind of tension. Working together creates tension. But when we were 14, we spent pretty much a year or two only fighting. All the time. So I think we got it out of our system (Laughs). I think that’s a good trick, just to get it out of your system.  

Rappler: Along with a handful of other bands, Phoenix has become kind of like an ambassador of contemporary French music. What do the rest of us need to know about the French music scene today? 

TM: Hmm. I don’t know. I’m flattered by your question, but what I love about it is that it’s a big contradiction. It’s pretty ironic that you think we are [French] ambassadors and yet we sing in English. A lot of the good things that come out of France, they come to you. It feels like you get more of the good things than the bad things. 

Rappler: You play a lot of live shows, especially on a tour like this. How do you keep your shows fresh or different, especially when you’re performing almost every night? 

TM: Yeah. It’s a matter of sanity, you know. If they stay the same, it’s embarrassing for us. But most of the time, we try to do something, whether it’s changing the songs or changing how [things] look. Most of the time what keeps it very special for us is the different crowd. It’s the fact that it’s never the same. In that way, we couldn’t do a residency in Vegas because that would be the same every night. For me, that’s probably our worst nightmare.  

Rappler: So you’ll never do a residency in Las Vegas? 

TM: No no no. No we will not do that. What we like is the fact that in some countries, they know some songs and in other countries they know different ones. And you have no idea what’s coming. And that’s very surprising and helpful. 

Rappler: You have very devoted fans around the world. Have there been any strange encounters with them? 

TM: Yeah, all the time. Every day, pretty much. There are people who follow us…ugh, way too much. Even if I love having them, sometimes we think, how can you…you know it’s like a full time job [for them]. I don’t know how they do it. There’s someone that’s been to least at half of the [tour], and every show is in a different city or country around the world, so it’s a big dedication.

I mean that’s of course very nice. I remember one stewardess. She was a Phoenix fan and to show her dedication as the plane was landing she put her iPhone on the speaker system and the whole plane landed with our songs playing. I felt very embarrassed because I didn’t want anybody on the plane to listen to the album. There are other things. It just goes to show music goes places and you have no idea how and who it would reach out to. 

Rappler: Many artists define success very differently. For some it’s record sales, others it’s awards, and other things. What about for you guys? 

TM: I don’t know because, even the term, it’s not something that we really think about. It’s something that helps you. Perhaps you create more things. It gives you more power for good or for evil. It’s another tool.

I don’t think in terms of achievements because we never look back. So I think it’s more a tool, it’s almost like a frame for a painting, it can make it look better, or it can make it look like it’s part of the establishment, which is for good or for bad. Because once you’re part of the establishment it’s harder to get out. It’s a gift and at the same time it’s a curse. So it’s something you have to be careful with.  

Rappler: You’re coming here to Manila next week. What do you know about our country? And can you send out a message to your fans in the Philippines? 

TM: You know it’s so great to go to a place that you’ve never been after 5 albums. It’s been a long time. I don’t know anything about the Philippines. The only thing I know is that my wife [actress and director Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola] spent a year in there when she was growing up. She knows how to sing the national anthem. That’s the only thing I know about the Philippines (Chuckles). But it’s even better that we don’t know much because there’s so much more to discover. So we’re super excited. – Rappler.com

Watch: Phoenix performing “Trying To Be Cool” from new album Bankrupt! at SNL 

Phoenix Live in Manila is a production of Karpos Multimedia and happens January 21, 2014, 8PM at the World Trade Center, Pasay City. For tickets visit SM Ticket Outlets or <smtickets.com> 

Paul John Caña is the Managing Editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at pjcana@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana