On the morning of February 23, 2009, the French indie pop band Phoenix did what very few non-Radiohead bands were doing at the time: They gave away the lead single to their upcoming album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, for free. In the world before streaming, when 99-cent iTunes downloads were the currency of the land, this move was radical. Handing over the lead single of your upcoming album to anyone who wanted a copy, free and clear?
But it paid off. Listeners were immediately left rapt by the glitzy, fuzz-filled vibe of the new track that sounded something like a perfect marriage between the shiny pop sensibilities of groups like Of Montreal and the scuzzy, rock aesthetic of the Strokes. “We had been gone for something like three years, so we didn't really have high hopes,” Phoenix’s frontman Thomas Mars said recently via phone, speaking on behalf of the band, which now lives around the world. “We thought people might've forgotten us a little bit.”
Far from being forgotten, “1901” became the biggest hit of the band’s career, launching them into a new stratosphere of fame and critical adulation. Over the next year, Phoenix performed the song on Saturday Night Live. They performed it on The Late Show With David Letterman and the Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. They performed it at Coachella, while Jay-Z, Beyoncé and her sister Solange watched from the side of the stage, mouthing the words. And they performed it at Madison Square Garden, during a show that ended with a cameo appearance by their friends in Daft Punk. The song made it into video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 and was used to soundtrack episodes of television series like Friday Night Dinner, Gossip Girl, Melrose Place, The Vampire Diaries and Hellcats along with television commercials for PlayStation and Cadillac. As much as an erudite song from a French rock band can be considered inescapable, “1901” was inescapable for much of 2009. In the span of 12 months, Phoenix went from being a band that might have been forgotten about, to being one of the biggest bands on earth.
The real power of “1901,” and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix as a whole, is the way it uses both the past and memory as a playground for the absurd. Growing up as they did in the shadow of the opulent Palace of Versailles, the members of Phoenix were raised with a unique perspective on how restrictive the force of history can be. “It’s a city that existed in the past but does nothing. They make it hard for anything new to exist,” Mars explained. “It’s a little bit more alive than it used to be when it was this very dead place telling you that everything great happened in the past and whatever you’re doing is irrelevant.”
Rather than let themselves be cowed by the staid figures and traditions of the past, on their fourth record, Phoenix decided to play around with them. They stripped away the mystique that permeated their first three albums and added in a bit of irreverence to make what was once old and stuffy feel real and fresh again. From the very name of the record itself, which places them in the same breath as the immortal composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to songs like “Lisztomania,” a celebration of the so-called original rock star, 19th-century German pianist Franz Listz; “Rome,” which invokes images of the ancient Coliseum; and, of course, “1901,” which is styled as a sort of fantasy about what life in Paris might’ve been like during the Gilded Age; these people and places feel within your grasp.
“There was a book called Mozart In The Jungle that Sofia [Coppola]’s cousin Jason [Schwartzman] told me about, which he ended up making into a TV show with Sofia’s brother Roman,” Mars said. “They were doing the same thing. Just the names Mozart In The Jungle or Einstein On The Beach. Putting these things together feels like bringing them back to life or something.”
Though many were entranced by the record and its eyebrow-raising motifs, some held onto reservations. “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is kind of pretentious, but it’s also very silly,” Mars said. “I remember the brothers [the band’s guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai], when they told their mother, she cried. She thought that was the end of us.”
When the band started working on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in 2008, they did so without a record deal. All of their past work — United in 2000, Alphabetical in 2004 and It’s Never Been Like That in 2006 — had been released by Virgin Records, but for this project, they decided to take their time, create an album on their own, and then shop it around once it was complete. For 18 months, they created hundreds of new, wild sounds, catchy choruses, extended jams, and tiny snippets here and there, largely in the confines of producer Philippe Zdar’s studio in Paris.
Zdar wasn’t originally supposed to produce the record, but because of his long relationship with the group, he eventually assumed that role. “He saw it as a friend, so he understood where we wanted to go with the record and he saw its shape,” Mars said. “What’s the most exciting about Philippe is his aura. He’s not a guy you can really hide from. He’s always late. He gives you crazy advice. His studio is sort of a weird sanctuary for him. The first time I opened the fridge it was just champagne bottles. Maybe, like, 50 champagne bottles of one precise year. Everything he does is very precise.”
Precision was key to the collage-style of creation the band was employing at the moment. “This one was more of a complex tapestry,” Mars said. “The dozens of pieces we collected, some of them were like four seconds, some of them were 12-minute instrumental that would turn into, like, “Love Like A Sunset.” It was a relief to have this system because you didn't really live with the feeling of, ‘Am I gonna miss something?’”
Setting aside the lyrical content for a moment, as a product of so many wildly divergent pieces of music smashed together, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains an incredible aural treat. From the harpsichord solo on “Armistice,” the four-on-the-floor disco beat of “Fences,” the swirling, synth tapestries in “Rome,” and the glittering, keyboard-created introduction of “Fences,” there’s so many different and interesting sonic elements vying for your attention across the album’s 36-minute running time.
The most awe-inspiring moment in this regard comes at the very heart of the record, where the lengthy instrumental track “Love Like A Sunset Pt. 1” sprawls into the more jaunty and precise “Love Like A Sunset Pt. 2.” The decision to break the song into two parts stemmed from a desire to ratchet up the drama and maybe make up for past missteps. “When we worked on “Funky Squaredance” on our first record, it was a three-part song,” Mars explained. “We ended up not splitting it up and I think we felt we should’ve done that, which also influenced that decision.”
Clouding and informing much of the material was the sad fact that Brancowitz and Mazzalai’s father was slowly dying while they were in the studio. “It was the end of his life, so that put a lot of gravitas and weight behind this record,” Mars said. “We were exhilarating with the music, and then we knew there was something deep. It felt the music was very sincere and deep, melancholy — something heavier.”
As someone who tries to write beyond himself and include the experiences, viewpoints and perspectives of the other members of Phoenix, Mars found the task on Wolfgang to be quite trying in that respect. “You can’t avoid it, especially when you’re doing something creative, those stories will end up being on the record,” he said. “I was trying to absorb. We’re all trying to be on the same page. I’m not sure how much exactly made it onto this record, but I remember a good six months of the record being very intense because of this.”
Phoenix had no way of knowing how big of an impact that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would finally have once they released it on May 25, 2009. At first, because of their decision to tour festivals in France and Germany where they were just another name on a poster, the response to the album seemed muted. Then they came over to the United States. “We knew there was this other life online, this secret society listening to our music that was not showing up to the shows,” Mars said. “Then we played Bonnaroo, the first U.S. [festival] we played, and I remember I was late and when I arrived at the festival site and I heard the tent was super loud and I thought it was going to be really hard to follow whoever was playing there. Then I realized that for 20 minutes, it was the crowd waiting for us to go there. Then I go onstage, I pass Roman [Coppola] coming there with the Beastie Boys. That was their last show, and I remember they were side-stage, next to Flavor Flav. I remember thinking ‘This is gonna be crazy ride from now on.’”
By the end of the year, the breathless critical plaudits were almost too numerous to count. Time Magazine placed the album in the Top-5 of their best records of 2009. It came in third on Rolling Stone and Spin’s lists, second on the Village Voice’s far-reaching Pazz & Jop critical poll, and No. 1 on both The A.V. Club’s end of the year round-up and Drowned In Sound’s. And on January 31, 2010, the band took home their first Grammy when the album won for Best Alternative Music Album. It was the most unpredictable end to an unpredictable year for Phoenix, that even they never could have seen coming.
“I don’t think Wolfgang is better than the other [albums], I just think that sometimes there’s this thing in popular culture where it’s the right timing,” Mars said. “Somehow the planets were all aligned. It felt like we were making something that people needed. Not something people wanted.”
Header photo by Antoine Wagner.
Corbin Reiff is the author of the upcoming book: Total F@&king Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell. He’s also a contributor to Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork, Spin, Uproxx and Noisey, to name a few.