Like a synth-drunk, Technicolor ride through the south of France, Phoenix have carved out one of pop’s most distinct sounds this side of the millennium.
For a few albums, they were the curious, catchy boys from Versailles – critical darlings who dipped into wider consciousness when one of their tracks was featured in Lost in Translation. (Frontman Thomas Mars would go on to marry Sofia Coppola.)
Then "Lisztomania" happened. Then, everything happened. The music industry dominoes tumbled fast: playing Letterman, certified gold sales, a Grammy. It was something like synthpop actualisation.
With this year’s album, Bankrupt! – their fifth – Phoenix completed their victory lap, diving into ‘80s pop with fresh-faced Franco panache.
But how does their endearing pop/rock become so? Phoenix have felt like the band of the moment for, like, a decade – how does that happen? How do you stay creatively sharp and motivated and, well, excellent?
From a hot – "almost tropical"– room in New York City, lead singer Thomas Mars tells Esquire his 9 golden rules of creativity.
1 | Be patient
"First you have to learn how to write a bad song – that takes about three months. Then you have to learn to write a medium song – it takes about three months. And then something that is good, and then something that is very good.
It takes about a year. It’s always a struggle. That’s also good."
2 | Be open to experimentation
"It’s funny how something as small as a fortune cookie can create a song.
Everything that happens outside of your usual routine can result in creativity."
3 | Learn from your wife. (Especially if your wife is Sofia Coppola)
"[Sofia and I] work in very different ways. But both filmmaking and music is about discipline.
When you start a project, you’re never confident – that’s something that Sofia taught us.
You have your doubts, all the time. I don’t know anyone that I like creatively that hasn’t doubted themselves – that’s overconfidence."
4 | Remove expectation
"The last record was successful. We had gold sales, we won a Grammy, we won all these awards, which were in the studio with us.
Right when we started to record the new album, we gave them to our mothers, or we put them in the basement. They needed to be far away from us.
To us, success is a different thing. It has a lot to do with luck."
5 | Drink up
"I have the worst diet when I’m recording. I drink six Cokes a day. That’s what I drink. I drink exclusively Cola-Cola.
For the rest of the band, there was a lot of Negroni around for lunchtime. Red wine. Beer. Sparkling water."
6 | Don’t listen to the suits
"We knew we were on to something when we were writing "Lisztomania"
We were incredibly excited. Like four-year-old kids. The song made sense even though it shouldn’t have – those parts shouldn’t have been together.
We didn’t have a label at the time. We played it for French record company executives.
They came, they listened, and they didn’t like it at all."
7 | Edit
"It’s more about editing than creating. Making a great song is highlighting the right performance. We record everything. We have months and months worth of recordings for an album."
8 | Work harder
"It shouldn’t be like that…you’re meant to pretend that everything comes from the Gods. That it’s all a gift.
But we work hard. We work really hard."
9| Ignore your instincts
"Sometimes, the brain wants to hear something familiar. You want to create what you already know.
It feels like a good idea for a day. You like the song. Then in a day or two, you don’t.
What’s interesting is what’s not familiar."
Phoenix play the Leeds and Reading Festivals this weekend.