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Like a riot: Phoenix wreaks havoc in Manila

Kara Ortiga - The Philippine Star
Like a riot: Phoenix wreaks havoc in Manila

Thomas Mars, Deck D'arcy, Christian Mazzalai, and Laurent Brancowitz. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

MANILA, Philippines - When you only have five minutes to interview the French band Phoenix — whose music accompanied your memorable college days — those five minutes are stretched to immeasurable bliss.

I struggled over a list of questions to ask them that wasn’t already searchable in Google. The four boys are from Versailles, France, their music roaring with synthpop beats and a sturdy alternative backbone. Their album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” won a Grammy for “Best Alternative Music Album” in 2009, with hit songs Lisztomania,1901 and Girlfriend. And then there are some details that maybe only a few of their fans would know: that the vocalist, Thomas Mars, is now the husband of super-cool film director Sofia Coppola. They met when he was doing the score of her 1999 film The Virgin Suicides. The band would later on score more of her films, including the latest one, The Beguiled.

During my high school ball, when I went on a date with someone I actually liked, he had made a CD mix to play in the car on the way to the venue. One of the songs (Track 6) was Phoenix’s Too Young from their first album “United.” “Did you know this played in Lost in Translation?” my date announced, some hipster kid who was the frontman of his own band. My eyes sparkled with infatuation when he referenced a film I loved so much, and I had to rewatch the movie again to find the song. I found it playing in the background of the basement house party that Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray found themselves in after the infamous karaoke scene. The song plays for like five seconds.

But it was their album “It’s Never Been Like That” (2006) that is still, to date, one of my favorites. It was the one that played incessantly in my blue-green car that I drove to and from college. It was the anthem of that crucial point in my life — pure melancholy.

And so, little did I expect that in 2017, literally more than a decade after I had first chanced upon their music, I would be able to sit down and have an actual conversation with them.

For five minutes.

Band members Thomas Mars (vocalist), Deck d’Arcy (bassist), Laurent Brancowitz (guitarist) and Christian Mazzalai (Guitarist) are very… French. They are quiet and a little austere in demeanor — lanky but chic in appearance. They had just flown in from another concert in Indonesia, but they didn’t scowl at us, even if their tired eyes communicated otherwise. And then we realized they’re actually very goofy, constantly mumbling to each other in their local parlance, four friends just going about their daily lives. Their humor is dry, animated by their actions, and you can tell that they’re making jokes 80 percent of the time. Except you don’t get the jokes. You aren’t in on it.

“I’m a huge fan,” is the first thing I am able to muster when Thomas, the band’s frontman, is sitting in front of me. “I’m a fan of your wife’s films, too, and all the scoring you’ve done for her films.” He warms up to the praise and asks, “Did her new film come out here yet?” Inside, I’m crying like a college girl. And then I tell them the truth: Sofia Coppola’s films never actually make it to the cinemas here. Too artsy, I guess. Lol.

The boys have actually been friends since they were 14, and now they’re touring the world at 40. “What were you guys thinking as 14 year olds?” I ask. They pause. “We were thinking that 40 years old was so old,” says Laurent. “We thought that 22 was old,” pipes in Deck. Then Thomas quips, “There’s a line in our song Countdown, ‘Do you remember when 21 years was old?’ and I do remember.”

I tell them that each of their albums sounds so different from each other. “You guys always say that your process involves a lot of improvisation, so which album was the most fun to make?”

“Thank you, by the way, for saying all our albums sound different,” says Deck. I nearly pee in my pants. “This one was fun to make, at least the beginning of it. The first two years of every album is always fun.”

“Making every album is a journey, it’s a process, so there will be ups and downs. And we spend a lot of time in the studio, so this one took us almost four years… so we go through a lot,” says Thomas.

“What’s the best thing about your job?”

“That it doesn’t feel like a job. It’s not a job, when we started music we wanted to not be responsible. We used to make jokes to each other and call each other ‘colleagues’ at the time, as if this was a job. And the precious thing about it is it is a job, but it sure doesn’t feel like one.” says Thomas.

“What’s the worst thing about your job?”

“You have to face your own limits all the time, and that can be very frustrating,” says Laurent.

“Who has impressed you recently in the music industry?”

They pause for a long time. Then Christian says, “We played with Arcade Fire recently, several months ago, and it was a good group of people playing together.”

“What’s the most important thing you’ve learned doing this for so many years?”

Silence again. Then Laurent says from behind, “Nobody knows it better than the artist. In the beginning we thought we could get help from people with more experience, but it turned out that it was just a waste of time. You have to figure it out in your own way.”

Ding. My five minutes are up. They say thank you, and we all stand up. “Good questions,” says Christian. “Important questions.” And I feel like I am floating on Cloud nine.

The day after our interview, Phoenix performed their new album “Ti Amo” at the Kia Theater. They opened the set with their new song J-Boy, and the rest is spectacular chaos. They tell the crowd, “Manila is the best singing audience in the world.” And everyone cheers some more (or raises their cell phones higher).

Listening to them live, you realize that when you grow up with people’s music, and this music is the soundtrack of your life, the music never leaves you. Instead, the music takes you back, back to those days and that time and whatever the hell you were doing then. Phoenix is that for me. And it is this power of music or of film or of art — the power to make it stay with you and offer something absolutely intangible, but truly real and wonderful — that is amazing.

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