Laura Snapes Discusses Working with Phoenix on New Oral History Book

Guardian music editor Laura Snapes on her new book, 'Phoenix: Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix!'

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Laura Snapes Discusses Working with Phoenix on New Oral History Book

Whether it’s adroit electro-funk, fried garage rock or exhilarating indie-pop, Phoenix have mastered their fair share of musical styles during their two decades as a band. The Grammy Award-winning French quartet, best known for their 2009 pop/rock opus Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, went from stealing toilet paper and living with 14 people in a filthy Parisian flat to becoming one of the most inventive and consistently great bands of their era. In that time, they had to overcome a fairly huge hurdle—how to become one of the first French rock acts to achieve mainstream recognition outside of their home country in a time when it was largely consumed by “French touch” acts like Daft Punk, Motorbass and Air.

While Phoenix were somewhat intertwined with the ethos and sound of those DIY electronic groups, they also weren’t a part of that scene, either. They loved scrappy rock music, too. Air’s Nicolas Godin listened to one of Phoenix’s early demos and described it as hearing “The Strokes five years early.” After cutting their teeth as Air’s backing band, Phoenix released their debut album, United, in 2000, and though it brought them a small cult following, it laid the groundwork for much bigger things. It wasn’t until 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That when critics really started to take notice, and fans began shouting their lyrics at shows. It was the perfect launching pad for their next album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which propelled them to international stardom—radio play, major festival slots, TV appearances, awards and mainstream hits. It was a record that brought surreal moments for band members, like sitting near Slash and LMFAO at the Grammys and Beyoncé singing along at their Coachella set.

Since their ascent in 2009, Phoenix released two more albums. 2013’s Bankrupt! and 2017’s Ti Amo experimented with luxuriant synth-pop and Italian disco, respectively, and Phoenix dazzled audiences with more impressive stage setups, including a four-ton mirror that hovers above the band and creates optical illusions. To celebrate two decades as a band and 10 years since their breakthrough album, Phoenix published an oral history book titled Phoenix: Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix! (out now via Rizzoli New York) with interviews conducted by music journalist Laura Snapes and various archival images from the band’s upbringing and career.

We spoke with Snapes, the deputy music editor at The Guardian, about writing this book with the band and how Phoenix fit into today’s musical landscape. Read the Q&A below, which has been edited for length.

Paste: Do you remember when you first heard about Phoenix?

Laura Snapes: I vaguely knew the name because I had worked at a record shop when I was a teenager. The first time I really knew who they were was when I was at university. I was working on the student newspaper in the music section, and I got sent Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It was from a publicist that I liked, and he said that he thought I’d really like it. And I did.

How did you get involved with this book?

They contacted me and asked if I wanted to do it. I have never asked them why. They asked me in 2018. In 2017, when I was still freelance, I had interviewed them for Q Magazine and I guess they must’ve liked the outcome, although from what I remember of the day that I spent with them, I felt really sweaty and really uncool. Because they are totally not sweaty and very cool.

How and when were these interviews conducted?

I spent four days with them in Paris last November. I talked with them all individually. There weren’t any group interviews. I thought we would be able to nail the whole career during that time, but I think by the time I left, maybe I’d got up to Wolfgang with one of [the days]. I think this is a problem of my hyper-detailed approach to try to unearth every single fact. So I spent four days with them there, and then in December and January, I did a bunch more phone interviews with them, and then with their other associates who are in the book like Phillipe Zdar. I’m really glad that I got to talk with him. The book is dedicated to his memory.

What was your impression of the band?

They’re all very charming, very intelligent, extremely welcoming. But they do have pretty distinct personalities. I would say Thomas is very enthusiastic, and he really tells stories with a boyish sense of heroism and maybe a mild sense of exaggeration that’s very endearing. Chris is sort of similar, but one of the funniest things, when I looked at the transcript about how Chris tells a story, is he uses the word “suddenly” all the time. There’s always a great sense of excitement and forward motion when he’s telling you a story. Deck really does not like talking about himself at all, but he’s very thoughtful when pushed. Branco is like the philosopher with great ideas and great theories about why the world is like it is. A real joy to talk to all of them.

The book mentions that in their early days, they were a bit snobby. I think most people perceive them as warm and friendly, so were you surprised to learn about that?

All of that stuff was a really joyful surprise. It’s really interesting that you say that that’s what you would’ve expected because one thing that became really apparent to me through spending time with them is that they are obviously very concerned with the perceptions of them in France, which to you and I, as Brits and Americans, we don’t have those cultural hang-ups at all. Because they weren’t from Paris, because they were from Versailles, which is where the old French royal family used to live before the royal family was brutally got rid of, they were all seen as posh boys, even though I think it’s not really true of most of them. Even Thomas’ family, they lived in this kind of outlandish house, but it sounded like his dad was this great, wheeler-dealer kind of character.

I spoke to his dad, and he was great in conversation as well. Even to this day, they were quite concerned about some things that might enhance the impression that French people have of them as posh. So I was trying to push back against some of that, saying, “But that’s not how we see you at all.” I found that their candor about those stories, like when he says that he was a bit bratty and somebody else says that they were teasing him about “you and your money,” a lot of bands don’t talk about that stuff and they were very willing to go into it. I found the stories of their boyhood so charming and endearing. I think one of the things that I really liked about the idea of doing this book is that I hate the whole sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll cliche. I think that’s really boring, and I learned really quickly that they do as well. From the couple of days I spent with them in 2017 for that Q Magazine feature, I interviewed them two at a time and while I had two of them, the other two were in the corridor in the backstage of this venue in Brussels playing paper airplanes. They’re men in their early forties. They go on holiday together. They very sincerely play paper airplanes in the hallways of backstage—not that kind of rock ‘n’ roll cliche at all. I love the stories of their boyhood friendship and about how Chris and Deck were in what we would call primary school together and they didn’t see each other for years and then they meet on the bus and Deck’s like, “Oh God, that guy, he’s not gone through puberty yet. This is so embarrassing.” I love that stuff.

Do you have a favorite story about their friendship?

One kind of classic bit of their story that they share with a lot of bands is this period where they were having this really early exposure to quite a glamorous lifestyle, but they were still living like absolute gremlins. There’s all these stories of the frankly horrible sounding apartment that they lived in Paris where there was like 14 people in a place big enough for two people and vomit stains on the wall from Sébastien Tellier. The story that I found grossest—this probably says more about me than about them—was that there were so many people in this apartment and they were working day shifts and night shifts at their various jobs and they also had day shifts and night shifts in bed. I can’t remember who it was, but somebody was like, “You would get home from working your night shift, one guy would have got out of bed and you would get in and the sheets would still be warm.” Something about that made me gag. It’s disgusting—like only boys!

The other detail like that, which I loved, was Thomas telling me that they just threw dirty plates in the dishwasher and they didn’t put the dishwasher on, so it got full of worms, full of maggots. When he was dating Sofia [Coppola], the first time she came over to the apartment, he was like, “She thought it was this great romantic place. These French guys living in their cool apartment.” And he was like, “What she didn’t know was that there were worms living in the dishwasher.” When I interviewed her, I asked her about this story. It became clear that he had never told her this. So, I got to break it to Sofia Coppola that her boyfriend had a really wormy dishwasher when they first met, which was fun.

It’s funny how that dynamic reflects their approach to music. They never wanted to record in a proper studio. It sounds like they hated being comfortable.

Yeah, I got the impression that, certainly in the beginning, France did not have a reputation for cool music. They talk about this quite a bit in the beginning of the book. Obviously there’s stuff like Serge Gainsbourg, but French rock music was awful. Like John Lennon who said, “French rock is like English wine.” There obviously is a really huge music industry there and there was when they were teenagers, but they were so repulsed by all of it that they just wanted to completely build their own thing. They didn’t want to work in these stuffy old studios that had produced songs that had haunted them as children. They wanted, I guess in that very punk way, their own kind of ground zero.

How do you view their place in the musical landscape back then versus now?

When they first came out, they appear in this brief, mid period in between the end of Britpop and the start of that Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, more exciting New York rock scene. Even in their first album, you can hear them anticipating all that stuff that was to come because it was a little bit before it and because it was coming out of France. It didn’t sound like any of the French touch, electronic stuff that Paris was known for. I think they landed in this kind of no man’s land where nobody really knew what to make of them. There are some weird songs on that first album. They talk quite at length about “Funky Squaredance” and the way they built this mad 10-minute song and how they wanted Johnny Cash to do a remix of it. Even if you listen back to that first album now, there are some odd production choices maybe, but there’s this really indelible pop songwriting. If Phoenix were to make a greatest hits, you would pick an equal number of songs from all of their records. They say they were always outsiders until Wolfgang just chimed at this great pop moment. It was also a moment where indie fans were becoming less snobby about pop music. They straddled both of those things really interestingly. Now, they’ve very quickly become sort of elder statesmen in a slightly weird way. I don’t agree with the critical drop-off after Wolfgang. I still think both of those records are really great. They’re the epitome of sleek pop/rock hybrids, which everybody from like Imagine Dragons to Paramore is doing. I still think they’re one of the greatest examples of it.

Did they play you any of their early unreleased demos or anything like that?

No, but I’ve heard the Darlin’ EP because it’s on YouTube. One of the details that I really like is that at some point, Thomas’s dad was advertising or marketing for a yogurt company and there are pictures in the book of all of the old yogurt cassette tapes that they used to tape over with their own demos. There’s one for “Too Young” in there. I met them at La Gaîté Lyrique, which is where they recorded their last album and they were just starting sessions for whatever their next record will be, but they were literally in the first week, so I didn’t really hear anything.

What was it like to interview the band’s family members?

The only ones I spoke to on the phone were Thomas’ dad and Sofia [Coppola], and some of the other family members were done via email in French and translated back into English. Thomas’ dad was hilarious. When I called him, he pulled over and talked to me from a lay-by and he refers to the whole band as “my children,” which I thought was wonderful. You can tell that he’s as proud of them now as he was when they were 12 and playing in Versailles. He was really good fun. I can’t say what they were, but he did tell me a couple of stories that I put in and the band were like, “Nope, we can’t have those in there!”

It sounds like they always kept this schoolboy-like bond. There’s a story in the book where they’re at a wedding and the band had just come home from touring and they’re still giggling in the corner with each other.

That’s from Jason Schwartzman [actor and Sofia Coppola’s cousin]. He was one of the most delightful people. We had a long chat. He is a great storyteller. I liked how he talked about how he first heard of these guys and they seemed really cool. He heard some anecdote about them doing sports in the grounds of a Versailles castle when they were at school and he’s like, “Ok, so Phoenix, French, cool, running shorts.”

The book mentions that several labels passed on putting out Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. They eventually signed to Glassnote and suddenly, they got booked for SNL, which was a turning point for them. What did they remember about that performance?

Daniel Glass [of Glassnote Records] was like, “I mean, you don’t say no to that.” It’s a real baptism of fire moment. They get to [SNL] and everything is working in rehearsal, but then the producers come and say that they don’t think the performance is very good. Then Daniel is having a go at them for not being the band that he thought that he had signed. They kind of get it together and then their equipment’s not working and it’s literally like the “five, four, three, two, one” countdown and suddenly, it all just starts working and they pull it off. It’s really by the skin of their teeth. They all really enjoyed telling that story. The strength of the first performance, I guess all of adrenaline from it going wrong and being told, “You’re not doing a good enough job,” it was so good that they get asked to play two extra songs at the end. It’s only Paul McCartney and maybe Coldplay that have ever been asked to do that before. That was really their introduction to America. Thomas says the day after SNL in the airport is one of the first times that they’ve ever been recognized in public, apart from that very weird, brief period of massive mega fame that they had in Norway on their second album.

Phoenix: Liberté, Égalité, Phoenix! is available now via Rizzoli New York. Purchase the book here.

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