The French indie pop band has been on the steady rise for years. The quartets first few records -- more inie rock than pop -- did well in their home country and they eventually caught overseas attention. Now they're a major international touring act with charting hits, big enough to play Red Rocks Amphitheatre this summer alongside indie rock veterans Dinosaur Jr.
Fame was never a calculated chorus. There wasn't a roadmap for success. Phoenix has never been in a rush to churn out albums and hold an audience's attention, and the band members don't know where their music is ever headed next.
"We love the fact that we really don't know where we're going, and when we know where we're going, it's really boring," guitarist Laurent "Branco" Brancowitz said. "The only method we found -- it's a bit too time consuming, but it's a lot of fun and it brings you to places you couldn't imagine seeing."
In the case of Phoenix's latest and fifth record, Bankrupt!, the process brought the band to knew levels of instrumental complexity. The music is glossier than anything they've done before and thick with details.
"Well, I think the songs are more complex -- you know, richer -- and they have more layers. So I feel that you have to fight a bit to conquer them as a listener, but when you do there's a bigger satisfaction in the end," Branco said.
Of course, that takes time. Most bands would acknowledge that to be true. Phoenix, though, took a notable amount of time. Maybe it felt particularly long because 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was the breakthrough hit record that left people eager for more. It's Never Been Like That, released in 2006, did pretty well on American soil, but wasn't the synth-charged indie hit Wolfgang became. By the time Bankrupt! was announced, anticipation was high, and Phoenix had worked on the record over all the years in between.
"No time off, I'm afraid. We are pretty bad with that," Branco said. "On the last day of touring, we went straight to the studio. We like to do that, you know. We're writing songs in the studio and recording them at the same time, and trying out thousands of ideas."
Even as Branco looks back on the process, there's no clear picture of what he, Thomas Mars, Christian Mazzalai and Deck D'Arsy were working with or toward.
"It's really hard to tell because we are only guided by the emotion we feel when we are doing it, and for sure there's elements of our childhood and there are a lot of sounds that would be familiar to french listeners because it's part of what we grew up with. We embraced the french sound this time," Branco said.
Since Bankrupt!'s release in April, the band has been touring and working out the kinks of the new music. At this point, they're taking a break back home in Paris and comfortable with the material.
“We were very happy to go back on tour because we spent so much time in the dark cave,” Branco said. “The beginning was quite hectic, but now it's more enjoyable. We have a bit time to get things right. It's true that you need a few months to make the sound is organic and together. I don't know why, but it demands some practice to achieve the level of musicianship that was required.”
Certainly Phoenix has earned a spot on the Red Rocks stage. The grand surroundings suit their live show, too, as they've always placed a high premium on their light show. It's not the standard display of swirling colored spots you'll see at most shows. There are specially designed structures and an attention to detail in each song's setup.
Even the grandeur of Red Rocks will have competition for the capacity to stun at Phoenix's Aug. 7 show. Then again, the band will be plenty happy to work with that setting.
“Well it's the new evolution that we are even more involved in this light show. It's always been a fascinating thing for us. This time we're spending quite a lot of time just to make it right and kind of unique. We feel that rock shows are very conservative and they always look a bit the same,” Branco said. “When we are thinking about our shows -- they're always iconic venues that we have in mind. That would be the Greek Theater or, of course, Red Rocks. They're special places. When you imagine the ideal rock show, it alway takes place in these places. When you finally get to go there, it's quite exciting. it's rare when you can make your dreams and reality coincide.”