Overnight success is totally overrated, sneers Thomas Mars, whose French alt-rock outfit Phoenix had anything but. In fact, the frontman insists he's relieved that his band's own stardom took so long to kick in.
Formed in 1999, the group released three albums that largely met with disinterest, even in the band's native Europe. But that all changed when the Versailles-based band hit pop-chart paydirt with 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, thanks in large part to its two flagship smash singles, "1901" and "Lisztomania."
Phoenix subsequently won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, and became the subject of a documentary that's earned positive reviews at European film festivals.
Mars figures that having to work a decade before becoming successful has been a key element to making Phoenix — which also includes bassist Deck d'Arcy as well as guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai — a one-for-all, all-for-one unit.
Out of control
A lyricist who tends to express himself in terse, Baudelairian couplets, Mars swears he never intended to devote so much of Bankrupt! — the group's buoyant post-breakthrough follow-up — to dealing with his own sudden celebrity. But there he is in the New Wave-ish single "Entertainment," using cutting words to try and figure out exactly what's happened.
"It's something I didn't want to do," he says of the song's bout of self-reflection. "The four of us have this naïve approach — when you make an album, you don't want it to be influenced by anything that's really happened, or by anything that could have changed your creative landscape. And sometimes when you are done with the record, you look at it and figure out, 'This is what we've done.' So I'm as surprised as anyone."
The track and its accompanying video, says Mars, serve as a metaphor that ties together political conflict with personal anxiety. "One of the main influences on that song was the idea of that North Korea / South Korea kind of tension," he says in a thick, crème-brûlée accent, "what it feels like to be one guy in a crowd who is part of something without really wanting to be a part of it. So it's the beauty of a mass event, but at the same time that sadness, because it's just too big for you."
For Mars, that same sadness is one of the risks a band can face when it finds itself surrounded by the trappings of success.
"I think that whenever a band — or you — have a little success at some point, it can either be too big for you, or you want to control it. So it has to be a selfish thing, and you have to find something interesting within it. Otherwise it's not worth it."
Of course, that's not always as easy as it sounds. "I'm sure there are examples of people who did amazing things with this idea of sacrifice," says Mars. "But those two things — the sacrifice and the selfish approach to art — they have gotten harder and harder to figure out."
Fifteen minutes of fame
Mars traces a number of references on Bankrupt! — songs like "Chloroform," "Drakkar Noir," "S.O.S. in Bel Air," and the aptly dubbed "Trying to Be Cool" — to time spent with his significant other, Sofia Coppola, who recognized the band's talent early on by including its song "Too Young" in the soundtrack to her 2003 film Lost in Translation. Mars and Coppola, who went on to have two children together, now reside in New York, where the musician says one of their daily activities is sitting around the breakfast table scanning the newspaper for inspiration and ideas.
"I think the Parisian and the New Yorker are probably pretty similar in how much they read the paper," says Mars. "I remember Andy Warhol saying, 'I don't read the papers, I just look at the pictures.' And I think that's more our approach — more of a visual, graphic approach, where you take something out of context for a source of inspiration. And you don't even have to digest it; you just look at it differently."
Hence, Coppola can read a Vanity Fair article about a real-life gang of kids who burgled vacationing celebrities, and then come up with the film The Bling Ring. Mars can mine similar terrain when peppering the band's new album with references to self-entitlement.
"There are things that intrigue us in different ways," says Mars, who's not shy about expressing his concern with the post-millennial mindset. "Somehow, these kids have immunity in a way, you know? And it's not only the kids now — it's something else."
A big part of it, Mars says, is our cultural obsession with social media. He cites a speech given by a professor to his graduating students, advising them to climb the tallest mountain in order to see the world, as opposed to doing it so the world can see them.
In the end, he figures it all comes to a question of what you consider an achievement. "I think the meaning of that has drastically changed," says Mars. "And it's exactly what that guy said: 'You should not be on top of that mountain to have your ego flattered.'"