Baseball isn’t exactly a French sport, but the phrase “hitting the sweet spot” certainly applies to Versailles-raised indie rockers Phoenix in 2009.
With the completion of its fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the four-piece decided rather than make fans wait for it to officially drop, it would release the track “1901” as a free download in the meantime. The blogosphere picked up on it nearly immediately.
“With ‘1901,’ we wanted to present our new music but the record wasn’t out,” singer Thomas Mars told Pollstar by phone from France. “Everything worked so that we could present our music the way we wanted people to discover it.”
And discover it they did. Word spread quickly – and far beyond the band’s European fan base.
“It wasn’t really a strategy at the beginning,” Mars said. “When we gave it away, it was without expecting anything in return. We didn’t ask for your e-mail address; we didn’t ask for anything.
“We were confident enough that at some point people would get into it and listen. We were confident our songs were strong enough that we could give them away, and we were really happy to do that.”
With the buzz already in place when Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix finally dropped, Phoenix embarked on an American tour and a fortuitous appearance on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” that sent the band on an unexpected trajectory.
Phoenix hit the ball out of the park with not only the SNL gig, but a sold-out tour of venues ranging from the 550-seat Bluebird Theatre in Denver to the 5,500-capacity Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. The band closed the tour in front of more than 10,000 with two shows Sept. 25-26 at New York City’s Summerstage in Central Park.
“It was a combination of SNL and us really enjoying being there that came through, I guess,” Mars said. “We got on SNL because people liked ‘1901.’ Some people would have said ‘You’re not big enough to be on there, don’t even try.’ It felt like the planets were aligned and everything became possible.”
Within just a couple of weeks, Mars said, the whole game changed.
“That was the best experience of our career. It’s kind of the ultimate way to present your music. We grew up discovering bands like this,” Mars said.
He and his bandmates grew up in Versailles, southeast of Paris and, as Mars put it, “next to Paris but far enough away that you’re isolated when you’re a kid.” Mars and bandmates Deck D'Arcy, Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz all met in school.
“What’s nice when you have a group of friends that are making music is we don’t really think in terms of how long we’ve been doing this because the friendship and music are connected,” Mars said. “It’s not really a problem for us in terms of achievement or setting goals or things like that. What is nice is what happened recently in the United States with this last record, especially because it is something that we’ve always wanted.”
And even though it took nearly 10 years to have that breakout in the States, Phoenix looks at the long build as a tremendous advantage.
“The last thing you want is to be a greatest-hits band. You want to be a contemporary band and what happens when we play in the United States is that people want to hear the new songs the most,” Mars explained. “That’s why we like it there so much. It makes us feel contemporary and gives us a better future. It encourages you to be creative all the time and to make things differently.”
Thomas Mars, Laurent Brancowitz, Christian Mazzalai & Deck D’Arcy
Helping the band to do that is Creative Artists Agency’s Marlene Tsuchii, who has been with Phoenix “from the beginning,” according to Mars.
“She’s different from other people because she doesn’t want to just come to the nicest shows. If you’re playing in the middle of nowhere and there’s only 20 people showing up, she’ll be there to support you,” Mars said. “Now, she’s coming to the big prestigious shows and we can celebrate because we’re getting the big crowds, and it’s fact! After the Greek Theattre show in Los Angeles, she said, ‘I feel like a proud mom.’”
A more recent addition to the Phoenix organization is manager Simon White of Coalition Managament in London. He’s been officially on board for about 1-1/2 years now, but has been a fan of the band much longer, and twice turned down offers to manage while waiting for the timing to be right.
“They weren’t a huge band; they were a cult band,” White told Pollstar. “They were one of those groups that I personally felt had been ignored and could never understand why. All the records have been of a certain quality and I think on this album they made a definite piece of work.”
Phoenix is currently on home turf, with European gigs including a slew of German dates into December. American audiences who missed them the last time around can take heart: Dates and venues are yet to be confirmed but Phoenix plans a return leg in December and January, and again in spring. This time, get your tickets early.
“On this record as a band they’ve done their 10,000 hours and they are at the point where they defined themselves as both artful and commercial in equal parts,” White said. “There’s not many groups these days that can couple making great art with something that’s commercially viable. They’ve hit a really sweet spot without really trying.”