Thomas Mars discusses the themes, the thoughts & the European flavors on the new album
“Io, te, 1 moto, la velocità, 1 sogno, il mio sogno, ti amo” or in English, “Me, you, a motorcycle, speed, a dream, my dream, i love you,” is scrolled in graffiti across an Italian wall. It’s this kind of sentiment that runs throughout Ti Amo, the new album from French indie pop-rock superstars Phoenix. It’s straightforward, it’s romantic, and it’s even a bit dangerous.
“The mood is tough, it’s like before a wedding or something. It’s exciting, but tense,” says Thomas Mars about the impending release of Ti Amo. This time it’s different than Bankrupt!, which was “released after our most successful record,” he adds. And indeed, Ti Amo couldn’t be any further from the band’s last album in feeling.
“There’s a lot of inspiration on Bankrupt! that comes from negativity. A lot of ideas came from rejecting other ideas,” explains Mars. “This record is the opposite of the other one. It comes from pure, innocent, almost like childhood memories of just simple feelings.”
It isn’t just the content of the band’s writing that has changed in the last four years, however, it’s the state of the world. “When we started music it was because we didn’t want to be responsible,” remarks Mars, adding, “But today, the days are calling for you to be a citizen and for you to be responsible, so there is a contradiction.” But Mars doesn’t see this as unusual, “Even in France someone like Serge Gainsbourg would write love songs when he was heart broken.”
Ti Amo is able to remain present even as it harkens back to band members’ French and Italian roots, and it leaves audiences on their own to interpret the meanings within. The record is both joyous and sad, almost like a reflection of a hazy summer memory. Or as Mars explains while discussing one of their early tracks, “If I Ever Feel Better,” “You, the listener, the state of mind decides how you feel about the song. It’s also a song that’s very, it sounds pretentious, but it’s Proustian in that way… you know when Proust writes about his grandmother, the grandmother, he so happy that he’s going to see her and then as soon as he sees her, he’s just sad because he knows that countdown started and that he cannot enjoy that moment because he knows it’s gonna go quick.”
It’s here in this unknown moment, where you are not sure if you want to laugh or cry, that Mars wants the album to exist. Childhood memories are sewn throughout Ti Amo, and feelings of both pleasure and loss can be seen at any moment, depending on the audience.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Thomas Mars to discuss the memories behind Ti Amo, find out what it feels like to make something that can be interpreted as joyous in dark times, and learn about the emotions that went into the making of the record.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, Ti Amo. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Thomas Mars: The mood is tough, it’s like before a wedding or something. It’s exciting, but tense and there’s a lot going on and we want to do justice to the songs. We want the new songs to have the best chances, so that people can hear what we had in mind when we recorded them, so it’s very exciting, but very overwhelming.
We built on this tour, we extended our roles, and it’s not just writing songs, but it’s visually, the whole concept of this album comes together with the live show and all the production that shows. It’s a simple idea, but it really is something we thought about when we wrote the songs as well, so it’s more than just the album. It has this other thing we are trying to figure out we can make it work.
CF: It’s been four years since you released new music. How is the release of Ti Amo different from the release of your record Bankrupt!?
TM: I think Bankrupt! was released after our most successful record, and it’s always… you try to find something exciting. We knew we would get extra attention from the success of the previous one, so we knew that we could do things.
I think part of the challenge of the fantasy we had was to create these songs that were too over-layered, they would modulate all the time. It would be these mini journeys, and then at the same time we want to disconnect ourselves a little bit. There’s a lot of inspiration on Bankrupt! that comes from negativity. A lot of ideas came from rejecting other ideas, which we thought was interesting. We embraced that. We were curious to see what this was like.
This record is the opposite of the other one. It comes from pure, innocent, almost like childhood memories of just simple feelings. Even though the record took us a long time to make and if it might seem simple, the songs themselves have been through a lot of changes to end up like that on the record.
CF: I found a lot of joy and lightness throughout the record, you said something like “pistachio gelato” was a good relation. It is certainly a chaotic time in the world, what is it about the darkness of these times that made you want to create something carefree?
TM: When we started music it was because we didn’t want to be responsible. We started music because we didn’t want to have a job. And still to this day we’re pretty amazed that this is our job because it doesn’t feel like one.
But today, the days are calling for you to be a citizen and for you to be responsible, so there is a contradiction. You know we went in the studio and we got stuck because we don’t know how to do that. We know how to be a citizen in everyday life, but when it comes to making music we don’t know. The interests we have when we make music is just coming up with this chemistry between the four of us with songs that tell a little bit about who we are and tells us about who we are, but we don’t feel like we have a message or at least that’s not what we think is interesting about what we make.
It was strange because we were surprised we made this very hedonistic album in very dark times, and you feel a little alienated because you’re disconnected from everything, and at the same time you are, you don’t want to be. To me it’s not escapism or it’s not being in denial. It’s not trying to be entertaining. It’s still carries a lot of the weight of its time, but it comes out as very joyful. And then I think we got a little reassured because we… if you look at music or art in general it’s a battle that exists. Even in France someone like Serge Gainsbourg would write love songs when he was heart broken. So it’s not that unusual.
CF: You said it wasn’t escapism, and I was wondering if you find looking at things is a simpler way allows you to see world more clearly?
TM: To me, when I say it’s not escapism, there’s also no irony in music. These two things I don’t really grasp them. I don’t even understand them because I don’t really know how you can totally escape. You can be in denial, but anyway I think it comes from a selfish… in the beginning we just did it because that’s how we write music and it’s as simple as that. We didn’t really have a choice. Then I was reassured a bit because I saw that here and there in the lyrics, in the chords, you could feel that this record was made when it was made. I could see it being a little darker. I could see a pattern that existed on previous songs we wrote.
Even one of the first songs we wrote, which was “If I Ever Feel Better,” what I liked about it was when we wrote it was that you could see it. It’s very French. It doesn’t dictate how you’re supposed to feel about the song. You, the listener, the state of mind decides how you feel about the song. It’s also a song that’s very, it sounds pretentious, but it’s Proustian in that way… you know when Proust writes about his grandmother, the grandmother, he so happy that he’s going to see her and then as soon as he sees her, he’s just sad because he knows that countdown started and that he cannot enjoy that moment because he knows it’s gonna go quick.
His favorite moment is really the moment just before the anticipation, just before. And this I can really relate to and there are a lot of things on this record that are the same. I think when you grow and you have kids that’s something you can relate to because you see time fly by. These are cliches, but that’s how we felt while doing this record.
CF: I read that the album is about your, “European, Latin roots, a fantasized version of Italy.” Could you speak a little on where Ti Amo found its influences?
TM: There are two brothers in the band and their father was Italian. And I think a lot of their early childhood memories and influences came back when we were on tour for the previous record, cause if you are on tour for a long time, sometimes you miss home, and we would just listen to French music, then it became Italian music, and it’s pretty inspiring because you travel through all these countries. It’s the soundtrack to all these memories, so it’s a moment where it shapes the next record and this now we know because we don’t really listen to music when we are in the studio. We tend to listen to music when we are on tour.
That shape, the Italian influences, came from there, and also we’re just looking to create our own language. Italian is like English in a way because we’re using it as a tool not to be authentic, not to be true, but to be off. What we like is to be wrong and to come up with things that are awkward in a good way.
The contradiction is that when we sing in French, it’s the moment while we use French as a cliche and as a… it’s the least honest moment on the record. It’s almost fake, the use of French. It’s not sincere at all. It’s almost like a jingle that comes back from your memory or some that existed before. We try to create these things that existed before. And the moments that are most sincere are the cryptic ones using all these different languages in strange ways that tell more about who we are in a psychoanalytic, unconscious way because there is no filter when we come up with these things.
So yeah, we were working and it just happened to come, y’know, just singing “Fleur des Lis” and seeing my friends eyes lit up and thinking, “Are we doing this? Are we gonna sing “Fleur des Lys” for the chorus of the song”, that was enough just to to see the little danger and the fun in their eyes, it’s enough to just encourage me, like a kid, we can’t do this, but we are doing this together.
CF: Definitely, that sounds like those pure simple emotions that I’ve heard you talking about before. Does focusing on those clear moments help provide you with clarity? And I was wondering if those emotions really are simple or are they a little more complex? Like the idea of love being being simple is also confusing.
TM: It is. It is more complex, but also it differs from which band member you talk to, which makes it interesting. I know that Branco for instance has a vision of the record that is more pure and innocent than mine. I know that Deck has a vision of the record that is maybe more complex. I’m not talking about the lyrics, but the pattern, he sees it as less of a journey than I do. He sees it connecting all together with the other record, while to me this one stands on its own a little bit more.
It’s interesting that we all have to agree and create this thing together and then once it’s done we each have our own vision even though we have the same influences. It’s almost as if it’s a journey to come together and then once the record is done we each go in our own direction about how we live with the record and how we see it.
CF: Looking at art in any way, everyone comes away with their own emotions…
TM: I went to see a play yesterday that was really good called “The Antipodes”. I saw it as pure comedy, but the audience was divided. There were people on the verge of crying at some points. It was really something unique. I’ve never seen anything like that where the emotions are so different from one person to another. I don’t know if it is a sign of the times that we live in, but it’s very strong and I hope that the record does that too because it shouldn’t dictate one specific emotion.
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
TM: Yeah, our lives are very strange because we have a very boring life for three years, and then for about a year and a half or two years, we have the most exciting life. The contrast makes it event more exciting because you realize how boring your life is in the studio and how exciting your life is when on tour.
I think we force ourselves to create these ups and downs all the time and even when we play shows that are supposed to be a big achievement, like the first time you sell out the Hollywood Bowl and you’re in this legendary place and it’s overwhelming and then the next day you play the s***iest club somewhere in the middle of France and the two are really interesting. It’s easy to think of one as a really important moment of your life. You want to highlight the other one and see it as it’s such a great thing that we are enjoying the small one while no one cares about the music. So I think the more we do this the more the two mix together, and I think we tend to enjoy the fact that we are doing this without the consequences, without its result, just the fact that it can provide so many wide and different reactions.
If I had to choose one moment it’s hard because I hope that… It’s too hard… Maybe… Saturday Night Live was one of my personal favorites. The first time we played because you really feel like you are part of a bunch of crazy artists. You are just part of a circus. People that are extremely crafted and good at what they are doing and you feel like suddenly you are included in that family. To see a whole show, to be part of something, that was one of my favorite moments.