After riding the Grammy-winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix tidal wave, France’s Phoenix resurfaced recently with their introspectively experimental fifth album, Bankrupt!. Taking two years to record with partial assistance from studio space provided by Beastie Boys legend Adam Yauch and the soundboard used to record Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the album has been well received by fans and critics alike. Headlining several high-profile music festivals this year throughout Europe and the U.S., it’s obvious that Phoenix’s understated authenticity shines through by just being who they are, not “trying to be cool.”
I spoke to Christian Mazzalai, guitarist and keyboardist for Phoenix, on a quick break in Paris among other things about this new experimental album, Grammy triumphs, headlining festival pressure and panic-filled pondering about the end of the world. Check out his answers below and visit Phoenix’s website for more summer and fall tour info here!
Did you feel the magic of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones coming through on the Thriller board you recorded with?
Yes, it was very custom, unique and quite magical. There were special buttons on it that made it sound magical. We were a bit skeptical but once we got it and tried it, we could hear the magic. My brother found it on eBay randomly and we couldn’t believe it was for sale. There were some bidders but no one believed it was the real one. We investigated for a few months and called the engineer to validate it was the real one before we got it.
Who taught you how to play the guitar? Who’s your favorite guitar player of all-time?
My brother and uncle taught me….Maybe Sterling Morrison from The Velvet Underground or Curtis Mayfield.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would you say?
I think when we were 15, we were arrogant. When we were 15, Phoenix was already there so we were teenagers and listening to no one else. So if I spoke to myself at 15 years old, Phoenix wouldn’t listen to anything from me. I would rather listen now to my 15 year old self. I learn more from a kid. I prefer the virginity, it’s more interesting so I would rather listen to me back then.
There are some Asian influences on this new record, Bankrupt. Is it true this came from soaking up the culture, living in Chinatown in NYC?
Yes, we were in Chinatown but I’m not sure it comes from there. We don’t really know where it came from.
How did you connect with Adam Yauch from The Beastie Boys? He gave you some studio space to use to record this new album?
We knew him because he worked on our last record. He invited us to his place in NY to experiment to make the album… It was a dream come true.
Do you get tired of explaining that Bankrupt has nothing to do with finance or the economy?
We always have to answer the same question but we try not to complain about it (laughing)… it meant something different to us. It meant we gave everything, we gave all we had. It took two years exactly to make this album. We wanted to do something special so we took the time. Our approach is to be as selfish as possible and not try to please anyone.
Was it difficult watching yourself in the documentary From A Mess To the Masses?
Yes, I’ve seen it but just once. We don’t like to watch ourselves. I think it’s a human thing. Even when we see clips of when we play, it’s hard to watch.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about Phoenix?
It’s all about misconceptions. We accept them. As soon as you deliver music and it’s out, you don’t control it anymore but that’s what makes it beautiful. If someone were to understand it exactly like us, it would be a bit boring. Once we release the music into the world, it’s up to their interpretation. They add a value that we don’t control. That’s the beauty of it.
Describe the moment when you received your Grammy. Was it a surreal experience?
Surreal is the right term. I still cannot believe we won. I cherish that experience. The same day we won our Grammy, Neil Young was in the room. He also won his first Grammy that night. The fact that he won his first Grammy so late in his career and we won so early in our career, it definitely put things into perspective. Our peers respected us and gave us this prize in our favorite category. It’s fantastic and of course it would be nice to win again.
How did you like headlining Coachella and Glastonbury this year?
We could feel the pressure of headlining but once we got onstage, we forgot about everything. That’s the beauty of life. You are in another state and you transcend and forget everything. I hardly remember what happened. I lost myself in the experience. Before, I remember there was beautiful tension and excitation. It was good and we loved it.
Photo by Marv Watson