This year’s answer to Vampire Weekend and Franz Ferdinand — a buzzing indie-rock band with a catchy, danceable record — the French synth-pop quartet Phoenix has not one but two singles popping up across the United States this summer, “Lisztomania” and “1901.” Now if only most American listeners knew what the songs are actually about.
Calling from Paris before their U.S. tour kicked off last week, bassist/keyboardist Deck D’Arcy was eager and willing to provide a primer on the stories behind the hits.
Both tracks — which the group played on “Saturday Night Live” in April — hail from Phoenix’s breakout fourth album, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” which is garnering praise for its fun mix of classic European culture with modern, innovative sounds and pop melodies.
“We are starting to see that all this history that surrounds us is a gold mine, around Europe and especially in France and Paris,” said D’Arcy.
“When we were kids, all of this was just uncool to us. We only wanted to talk about all the cool things in the U.S. or London. But after touring around a lot, we realize that there are very cool things where we come from.”
Among the coolest was Franz Liszt, the 19th-century Hungarian classical composer who’s the subject of Phoenix’s song as well as a 1975 big-screen rock musical (also called “Lisztomania”) starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey.
“We didn’t really like the movie, but we liked the idea of this guy who was kind of the first rock star,” D’Arcy explained. “He was this guy who was very wild off stage and who liked creating chaos on stage. We thought it was kind of modern.”
As for “1901,” that song is based on the era when Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair for which the city modernized its infrastructure and reset its reputation as a cultural capital.
“It wasn’t exactly 1901, it was more the beginning of the 20th century,” D’Arcy said. “We thought of it as the beginning of modern times in Paris.
“We like to fantasize about the past in Paris. When you hang around in Paris, there are a lot of monuments and a lot of things to see from different periods. It’s what surrounds us.”
The band started writing and recording the album in the heart of Paris, on a houseboat on the River Seine. It didn’t go so well, though. Said D’Arcy, “Some of us were seasick.”
The band later retreated to a studio in a mansion owned by Phillipe Zdar of the French techno duo Cassius. There, it took almost a year to finish the album, which D’Arcy said is pretty standard for the group.
“We always have the same mission: To make an album where we surprise ourselves, and that is really original to our ears,” he said. “It’s always a pain in the ass to do that.”
Friends since grade school, the members of Phoenix all grew up in the famed Paris suburb of Versailles, home to the palaces that became the symbol of the royal family’s opulent lifestyle before the French Revolution. U.S. fans of the group probably know it best from Sofia Coppola’s movie “Marie Antoinette,” in which the members of Phoenix had a bit role as chamber musicians (Coppola and Phoenix singer Thomas Mars now have a daughter together, Romy).
D’Arcy credits Versailles for inspiring his band’s music and that of fellow French dance-pop homies Air and Daft Punk — but not in the way outsiders might think.
“It’s a nice city, but it’s very conservative and very boring and empty for young people,” he said. “That was one of the reasons we became musicians. We had nothing else to do, so music was a way to escape from it. And it made it easy to find your mates, the guys who are cool like you.”
Now those cool dudes are enjoying a breakout year and their first string of sold-out dates across America, D’Arcy said, “For us, it’s an honor. Not a lot of French rock bands get to tour the U.S., so we are like, ‘Wow!’ People are very fresh and keen on listening to music there. And we have the best days off there.”
Who knows, maybe the next Phoenix record will be loaded with American historical references.
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