RIGHT NOW, Phoenix is the biggest band in the world—even if much of the world hasn't realized it yet. Their fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, became last summer's go-to pop record, suitable for every hour of the day, from sunny morning commutes to work to lazy afternoons at the river to late-night dance sessions. It still sounds as appropriate in dark and rainy winter, and its songs sound just as at home on the new Rock Band game as they do in deconstructed dance club remixes. It's G-rated, without a trace of nastiness, but it's also sexy as hell; a dance-pop album with this much appeal hasn't been seen since Michael Jackson's Thriller. There's a very good chance that if you are reading the music section of this paper, you have already heard Phoenix, and you like them. But if you haven't heard Phoenix, rest assured: You will, soon, and you will like them.
Amazingly enough, Phoenix are French. Up until now, France's contribution to the global musical landscape has been minimal: Georges Bizet's Carmen. Air's glazy wallpaper lounge. Rapping baby sensation Jordy's "Dur Dur d'Être Bébé." But guitarist Laurent "Branco" Brancowitz says their nationality could be part of the reason Phoenix's music touches so many corners.
"Maybe the fact that we are French afforded the possibility to listen to everything without prejudice," Branco says on the phone from France. "So the education was really through records; we were fascinated by listening to everything. Classic stuff from our parents when we were kids, Thriller, a lot of the Velvet Underground, Pixies, bossa nova, Serge Gainsbourg, stuff like that. When we were listening to country music we didn't know the debate—that some of those guys were extremely to the right. And we could grasp the music as pure music without the cultural debate."
Surprisingly, Phoenix wasn't trying to make a hugely popular record with Wolfgang, but Branco says it's true. "When we were making this album we thought it would be a very weird album that only a few people would really like. The fact that this album spoke to the most people is a very beautiful surprise because it's been done with pure intentions. We really didn't want to please everybody. Sometimes when bands have a lot of success, it's with music that isn't representing who they really are, and I think this is not the case for us. We're happy about that."
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is aptly named after the Viennese composer; Mozart's music was both frothy and substantial, both simple and intricate. The aftershocks of his music could be heard for decades after his death, and it's likely that we'll be hearing countless Phoenix imitators over the next few years. But their music, as effortlessly buoyant as it sounds, comes from a long, protracted period of collaborative struggle, says Branco.
"We grew up together, and there are a lot of disagreements, but about very small details that nobody would even hear—very small things, but we need to disagree on some things. It's part of the dynamic. The thing is that we never write a song and don't put it out—we have never finished a song that wasn't on a record. There's a filtering process. It's not like we write 30 songs and then we pick the ones we love the most. The songs we finish, it's because we know they're strong enough. They've been through the crash test."