Following the slow building international success of their 2009 album Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Versailles’ Phoenix are back later this month (22 April) with a new record. Called Bankrupt!, the album has been fuelled by extremes: the prospect of failure (hence the title) versus champagne binges in the studio; the soundboard used to record Michael Jackson’s Thriller! versus a cheap keyboard found in a pawn shop – read our guest column from guitarist Christian Mazzalai for the full story of the band’s strange equipment. Q caught up with Thomas Mars (left) and Deck D’Arcy (right) to discover how they brought these highs and lows together.
How the devil are you?
Thomas Mars: “Not too bad!”
So apparently you were desperate to start writing Bankrupt! after touring your last album?
TM: “Yes because we don’t write on tour. So after you finish the tour you get sick because you’ve been touring too long and then you start writing because it’s the only thing we know how to do really.”
Deck D’Arcy: “Two years out of the studio is too long!”
Were you kept on the road longer as the last record became more successful?
TM “Yeah, yeah, yeah! We had to go three or four times to the same cities and each time the venue was twice the size it was before. It was funny.”
DD’A “The bigger the venue, the more suburban it gets. You end up in a huge warehouse with nothing around. We’d be miles from the centre and the places we wanted to visit.”
Despite the fact you were desperate to get cracking with the new record, it’s still been a fairly lengthy gap between releases, how come?
DD’A: “Our main problem is that by the time we get off the road we’ve forgotten how to write, which is a bit annoying. But it’s good because it means we have to start from scratch. We couldn’t do any proper songs at first. It took us a year before we had anything, but it’s good, it’s a fresh start!”
Is it different each time you relearn how to do it?
DD’A: “It’s pretty much the way we always work, but this method does force us do something total different again each time. We don’t know what we do exactly, we aren’t really skilled or anything, we create random stuff and fit what we like out of it. It’s always very random, it’s like rolling the dice and if we get a six we keep it. Otherwise we roll the dice again.”
How do you keep it together doing that? Are people annoyed if their ideas are thrown out?
DD’A: “We never talk…”
TM: “We fight! [laughs] We never talk about music, we talk about nothing. We know each other so well, that’s the luxury of it. It doesn’t work when you talk about music. I don’t know who said it, but when you talk about happiness it ruins it. It’s the same trying to explain a joke, it’s really unfunny, so we’re really lucky we know each other so well that we don’t have to talk about music. We carry the pressure and the stress in a different way until we have something that’s good enough.”
Sounds like a lot of jamming?
DD’A: “We tape everything and allow ourselves a cooling period, which means we listen to it after a few days. You can never judge something on the spot. It’s impossible because it’s too familiar. It can’t be original if you’re judging it while you’re doing it. It’s need to mature. It’s like when you make wine, it takes a bit of time to get that [kisses his fingers]!”
TM: “We try to bypass our brains, basically.”
Dd’A: “That’s very important, our brains are too formatted. Originally and creativity is beyond us.”
So the ideas have to happen in the moment, no premeditated thought?
TM: “They happen but we don’t realise they happen. It’s not original to say that, many people do it this way, but for sure it’s the way we do it. We’ve always been doing this way.”
You could imagine that after the success last time a label would just be saying, can we have another Lisztomania please. Of course you were out of a deal…
DD’A: “It would have made us do totally the opposite thing, so everyone was clear not to give us any advice. We don’t feel any pressure. We work with people who totally trust us.”
Apparently champagne was an ‘influence’ for this album?
TM: “Yes Philippe [Zdar], the producer whose Paris studio we were in, has a fridge full of 50 bottles of champagne.”
DD’A: “He has a massive fridge, you open it and it’s exclusively champagne from top to bottom.”
TM: “It helps! Also it makes every moment was very extreme. Philippe was creating this atmosphere where if something was good we’d open champagne and if it was bad he was on the verge of crying. He doesn’t have a gun, but it’s a French Phil Spector! He was putting a lot of weight on every moment and it’s nice, that’s what you want to feel. There are too many records that are the same. At some point it’s embarrassing. You want to create an atmosphere that from the beginning you feel what you’re doing is more than music. He creates a different path. Right from the beginning it’s an adventure!”
Did that sense of extremes give you a tightrope feel during the sessions? There was no safety net, it was all or nothing?
TM: “The safety net was that because of the success of the previous record we knew that some people would listen to it. So we could have made it as we wanted and people would listen to a few times at least. But that’s the only thing. We don’t even want that. The whole thing about the safety net is if you take it out there’s more people watching you on the balance beam and it makes the whole thrill more incredible. I just happened to see that documentary yesterday of the guy who did the tightrope walk between the World Trade Centre towers. Man On A Wire? Yeah. It’s insane! There was no safety net. He slept up there for 20 minutes in the middle if it all. That was his moment!”
You wanted that sense of danger artistically?
TM: “We wanted the vertigo and we wanted the fear. That’s probably why it’s called Bankrupt!, we want that excitement.”
Although the album is quite immediate, it’s very layered on closer inspection…
DD’A: “This is the kind of music we like. Our favourite records are usually the ones we didn’t like on the first listen. We like to discover something new each time we listen to it and we hope that is something we’ve created. I think with this one there’s a lot to discover, it’s quite dense.”
How do you get to a point where that work comes out over time, rather than overwhelming the songs on a first listen?
TM: “Even my favourite painters, the ones who are doing something very simple, you realise how much thought and work there is behind it. They erase things and replace it. The importance is not where you end up, it’s the road you took to get there. The journey. There are songs, like Bankrupt!, that are minimal now but there were many layers that we decided to take out. There’s a lot of sounds that feel Asian because we took some notes out. We muted some things. On this record, for the first time, we didn’t just make it bigger. We had all the possibilities and we took some out.”
So have you come full circle now, having been desperate to get off the road and write, are you now desperate to play live again?
TM: “That’s what’s nice about music. When you’re in the studio for too long you can go on tour and when you’re out there you can get back in the studio. It was Groundhog Day for two years basically!”
DD’A: “We’ve already been rehearsing, it’s cool. We have the opportunity this time to headline some big festivals!”
You’re going to become superstars…
TM: “There’s a saying: you can judge a man’s value by what he does with power. Now we have this mini power it will reveal who we really are! We can buy a Porsche or put everything into the light show. It’s nice, it’s a challenge and they are interesting decisions we have to make collectively. There’s a leap of faith aspect to it.”
So when fans get to the gig they should look in the car park to see what you’re really in it for?
TM: “Exactly! They’ll be disappointed, they’ll be four Porches!” [laughs]