“It Was Just the Emotion of the Period”: 15 Years of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

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The assured sound of Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was more than just the French band’s breakthrough in America: It christened a new, electro-aided era of indie rock. It brought the “French Touch” known from Phoenix’s earlier work — as well as Daft Punk, childhood friends of Phoenix guitarists Christian Mazzalai and Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz— to a rousing, widescreen format. The album is ritzy and elevated, but the journey to get there was not quite as glamorous.

Speaking to Branco and Mazzalai in Los Angeles ahead of their performance at Just Like Heaven 2024 — a time capsule to the indie era Phoenix helped usher in — the two musicians are wary of giving in to nostalgia. “We are not really nostalgic people, as humans,” Branco says. “But it’s good sometimes to look back at those moments of our lives — we know the power of that music and what it means to people. So tonight is one of those shows where we indulge in this emotion.”

Phoenix’ audience had been growing before Wolfgang. Their third album, It’s Never Been Like That, capitalized on their predominantly European audience while remaining a bit of a secret stateside — they toured in the US, but never at venues bigger than clubs.

Their savvy blend of synth-soaked rock was far from fashionable in 2006. Mainstream alternative radio found itself in a great conundrum of post-post-grunge, Fall Out Boy-style pop-punk, and whatever Red Hot Chili Peppers were doing on Stadium Arcadium. But the indie scene began bubbling up, and meanwhile, Phoenix found themselves free from a record label, thrust into the “blog era” with the world at their feet. “We were just coming from a big tour in the US and the world,” Mazzalai says. “We had the energy!”

 

Before holing up in a studio to record their fourth effort, the band decided to try something romantic and write music in selective locales, starting with a hotel room in New York. “We shared a room together,” Mazzalai recalls to Branco. “We had a fantasy because we knew one of our heroes François Truffaut, the French film director, would write all of his scripts in hotels and would never go out of the hotel. So we had the dream, the fantasy, to know all the employees at the hotel, to really be creative there.”

Though the duo confesses that not much came from those early New York sessions, one song began there: “Rome,” a bit of a counterintuitive title for the one song they wrote in America. Nevertheless, Phoenix continued finding new spots for inspiration once Mazzalai claims they “discovered the beauty of changing the environment.” One such location was a boat on the Seine River in their native Paris — gorgeous, romantic, and inspirational, yes, but practical? Definitely not. “This was the only place where we wrote zero, nothing at all,” Mazzalai says. “We were a bit seasick. The water looks still when you see it from the bank, but it’s not still at all!”

The band hadn’t achieved their ideal results yet, so they decided to work from their friend Philippe Zdar’s home studio. Still, despite having a familiar figure behind the boards, it wouldn’t be easy. “Philippe [Zdar] was always part of the [Phoenix] project since the first record, but this time, his studio was under construction,” Branco recalls. “There was almost no light, no air conditioning. It was very, very rough.”

Zdar’s studio had been compromised during a flood during recording sessions for Sébastien Tellier. So, for Phoenix, it was all makeshift. “There was no bathroom!” Branco recalls, sharing that they literally had to go to a bar around the corner to use the toilet (they later paid for a special commemorative plaque to put up at the bar). Mazzalai remembers the heat being debilitating and the unfiltered air as particularly bad: “It was very, very unhealthy.”

But despite the humbling surroundings, Mazzalai claims that Zdar’s makeshift studio served as “exactly the kind of place we love when we want to create. We felt zero pressure. We had no record label. And we had this place that Philippe would rent to us almost for free because it was so rough.”

Listening to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix 15 years later, it’s hard to imagine this music being crafted in a place with no natural light, no bathroom, and mildew reeking in the walls. The songs brim with life, with the type of heartwarming ecstasy that would go on to define the Obama era of American indie. And as many who purchased Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix upon its May release can attest, it sounded like summer.

“It’s very hard to explain, but when I listen back on that album, the tempos are very high,” Branco says. “It was like we were pushing against something… and we never thought about it. It was just the emotion of the period.”

Perhaps the restlessness of their surroundings served as the catalyst for a rollicking number like “Lisztomania,” which the band performs even faster live. It certainly affected the album’s drum sounds, which are equally inventive and satisfying. “For us, the drums are the most important stylistic element. It’s where you can make it or break it, so we put a lot of energy into drum parts and drum sounds,” Mazzalai says.

“When we were young, drums on the radio sounded really bad. So we always lived with this idea of a golden age, of a civilization that had collapsed, and we had a responsibility to restore it… we had already been into this mindset with electronic culture, and we learned a lot from our friends in Daft Punk about sampling drums, finding the right snare sound, controlling the compression, all of that.”

They may herald the drums’ importance to their sound—not to mention the genius of their live drummer Thomas Hedlund, as well as vocalist Thomas Mars who crafts many of the drum parts—but every element of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is immaculately delivered. “Lasso” exemplifies this; the opening tom-and-hi-hat drum line is a romp in and of itself, and the track becomes even richer as their bright guitars flood in. “Forever is a long, long time when you’ve lost your way,” Mars sings. Each piece of the puzzle fits perfectly, their blend of guitar-driven rock infused with an electronic palette serving as inspiration for hoards of new, keyboard-loving bands.

It felt like half of those artists happened to be at Just Like Heaven this year—a symbol of Phoenix’s role as the class presidents of their colorful, synth-leaning cohort. Indeed, it was a pleasure for Mazzalai, Branco, and the band to indulge in the work that brought so many new fans to their corner, that helped spawn a greater movement of alternative rock, while also staying true to the fact that this is not a band with just one great album—they have seven of them.

They won’t look back for too long, though. “We don’t have any more labels, so we are totally free!,” Mazzalai divulges.

“Usually we start from scratch, but this time, I don’t know why, every time we meet, we are very creative,” Branco says. “So we have a lot of material to sort out and turn into something, but it’s exciting — the well is full of water.”

“It Was Just the Emotion of the Period”: 15 Years of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Paolo Ragusa

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