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[Q&A] Phoenix’s Thomas Mars on fame, the accidental “1901” single and performing live without shoelaces

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If you blinked you might have missed it — French rock band Phoenix went from toiling in relative obscurity for essentially all of the 2000s to becoming Grammy-winning, arena-playing, can’t-get-that-song-out-of-your-dome (and-that’s-still-rad-even-though-you’ve-heard-it-a-gazillion-times) torch-bearers of all things top-shelf indie, circa 2010. The band have maintained their cool despite your mom loving “1901,” despite using Cadillac television commercials as a pole vault to the mainstream stratosphere and despite, well, everything else that comes along with pop culture ubiquity.

Before Phoenix the band hits Agganis Arena Monday night with the equally-vibrant Two Door Cinema Club and Mr. Best Coast trio Wavves, Phoenix the newspaper reached out to vocalist Thomas Mars on the band’s sudden rise to fame. With 20 seconds to the last call, I resisted the urge to shout “hey hey hey hey hey hey hey.” after each answer; but here we go, like a riot like a riot, oh:

The band began in 1999, but for a lot of people here in the US, Phoenix is this “new” band. Is it strange to be sort of “born again,” and do you feel new?

It does feel strange when we play old songs and they sound like brand new material for the crowd. We never tried to please that many people but the success of the latest record is very enjoyable. It makes us feel contemporary.

It’s been interesting to see, as with the previous three studio albums, there has been a steady worldwide build: “United” charted in two countries, then “Alphabetical” in six, then “Its Never Been Like That” in nine. Now “Wolfgang” has charted in 13, including the US for the first time! Did you get a sense a breakout was coming?

We started this record without a label and we wanted to finish it without one so there wouldn't be any misunderstanding or creative issues. When we played Wolfgang to industry people, they didn't like it. So we had no idea that it would be a success even though we were satisfied with the final result.

Working with Philippe Zdar [of French house duo Cassius, who also mixed the 2000 debut] seemed to suggest a positive outlook for the Wolfgang recording...

We worked in Philippe Zdar's studio. He would come by and always have an interesting, strong opinion about our music and how the new record should be like. He ended up producing it with us and mixed it because he made himself irreplaceable.

Most people in America probably first heard “1901” on the Cadillac SRX commercial. Are you surprised the song has become a sort such a launching pad?

When we finished the record, the first thing we did was to give “1901” for free on our website. We were mostly frustrated from previous experiences where we had to wait four to five months between the time the record was done and the time that it was out.

Was that the plan, to hit as wide a range of people as possible, through TV commercials, free downloads, movie trailers, iTunes exclusives, talk show performances etc.

“1901” wasn't supposed to be a single, but it became one soon after it was online. We enjoy being control freaks in the studio but we enjoy losing total control of our songs once the record is done. The fact that this song was everywhere on TV or on the radio was really exotic and thrilling for us.

Phoenix has still maintained this sort of indie rock edge, and indie rock cool. Is it weird to still be considered “indie” playing arenas and being known by everyone from young kids to parents? It’s pretty impressive how you’ve maintained that credibility.

Thank you, it won't last.

In Boston you’re playing Agganis Arena, which is massive, but in NYC you’re playing the even bigger Madison Square Garden. When you walk on stage, are you going to stop and think “Oh my god!”

When there was too many people in the crowd and I was too shy on stage I would pretend to lace my shoes. I did it so often that it annoyed my friends in the band and they took my laces off. I need to figure out something new for this tour.

 

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