When a band’s got a good thing going, they’re wise not to fiddle with it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Luckily nobody mentioned that to Phoenix, who boldly ditched their usual meticulousness to speed-write and record their dynamic third album. It’s Never Been Like That isn’t a drastic departure, but its unabashedly enjoyable songs have an urgency and liveliness absent from the band’s previous, almost-too-perfect synthfests.
We spoke to guitarist Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz about taking the gamble.
The L Magazine: Where are you guys right now? Somewhere in the Midwest?
Laurent Brancowitz: We are in Minneapolis. We are discovering the city. We have been here two hours, so it’s a bit soon to tell you if we like it. It’s good to be here, though! Very exotic for us to be in Minneapolis.
The L: Ok, on to the new record. It’s much more off the cuff than your first two.
LB: True, this album is different. We really didn’t prepare. The first record, we had a precise vision of every song before going into the studio, and this one was really the opposite. We had nothing.
The L: Why did you decide to make the album in Berlin?
LB: Our strategy was to find a place that was poetic enough to help us write an album quickly. Berlin was a good city for that. We found it fascinating. There’s German radio and old buildings with very good sound and a strange nostalgic vibe. Berlin was crucial, I would say.
The L: You wrote and recorded everything in only a few months, which is crazy. Why the self-imposed deadline?
LB: We wanted to explore something more naïve. What we were trying to express was more instinctive, so doing things fast without really knowing what we were doing was the right solution for this album. And when we were doing it, the first takes had something that was more true. We tried to “re-do” them in the beginning, but we felt that we were losing something — so a lot of tracks on the album are first takes. I think you can hear something spontaneous. We had to forget our brains.
The L: Did you guys start to go nuts?
LB: It was a very passionate moment. We were all in the same room and everything was happening very fast. We would record immediately. It was a very good time — a time of fear and of joy.
The L: You’ve always produced your records without any outside help. Why?
LB: To us, the production is not just a scientific process; it’s really part of the record. We know how our music should sound. And we’ve [known] each other for so long that it’s kind of hard for another person to fit. We don’t need a fifth person to slow us — for us, Phoenix will always be the four of us.
The L: Your songs are ideal for commercials and movies, but I haven’t heard your music in anything since the Lost in Translation soundtrack. Are you guys turning down a lot of offers?
LB: Yeah, we say no a lot of times. I don’t know why, but I think we have a very childish and naïve relationship with our music, so it’s kind of hard to let it go with someone else. We really need to trust the person to give them our songs, you know? The L: What’s the weirdest licensing request you’ve received?
LB: Deodorant. You know what this is? It was strange. People are crazy, you know? They tell you, “We think this could work!” But it doesn’t. We need to feel it, and there are a couple of things that are really out of the question, believe me. In the case of Lost in Translation, we knew Sofia. We knew she would be a good babysitter.
The L: Speaking of Sofia Coppola, I hear you guys have small parts in Marie Antoinette?
LB: It was our first day as actors. I must say, it’s a really nice job, except the period we were in, in terms of style — it’s really bad. You will see. We are playing a little serenade for Marie Antoinette in the scene, so this is a very noble, important moment. But the problem is that we are wearing these pink outfits. I guess everybody was. We asked to have something more black, you know? But historically it needed to be pink or some kind of green. I’m very happy not to live in that style. For a woman it is nice, but for a man...
The L: Does it annoy you that American reviewers place a lot of emphasis on your Frenchness?
LB: I think it’s good. We like the fact that we are French. In the beginning we were trying to hide it because we thought it was not important, but it’s really part of what we are. We like the idea that we are Frenchmen riding across the world. We also have the feeling of being some kind of pioneers, because there haven’t been a lot of French bands around here.
The L: Lots of people are referring to this record as the “album of the summer.” Do you like that distinction?
LB: I love it! For me, every summer has its album. I remember a lot of summers and a lot of good moments that are bonded with records. I would be really happy if, for some people, our record is the soundtrack of this summer.
The L: What’s next for you guys?
LB: It’s going to be a year of touring, to Japan and Canada and back through the US in the fall. We’re going to see each other a lot.