A Trip Down Memory Lane with Phoenix at Bilbao BBK Live

If you read our round up of the recent Bilbao BBK Live 2023, you’ll know we’re big fans of indie legends Phoenix, and couldn’t wait to take a trip down memory lane during their festival performance. So naturally we jumped at the opportunity to speak with the band just before their set. There was an electric atmosphere backstage as the band psyched themselves up for the show, and we sat down to interview two of the founding members, Thomas Mars and Laurent Brancowitz. With a journey that spans genres and time, their music has touched the hearts of countless fans around the world. Join us as we delve into their thoughts on creation, inspiration, and the evolution of their artistic vision.

Hi Thomas and Laurent, thanks for speaking to us, so to start with, I wanted to ask if you have a favourite album or song that you’ve created and why?

(Thomas) That’s like asking a father “Who’s your favourite child?”. You know, it’s truly difficult to tell. You cannot pick. Also, I think my choice would change often. Right now, I miss ‘Fior Di Latte’ because we don’t play it often. I heard it yesterday on the radio and I was like “Oh I forgot about that one”.

(Laurent) Some songs don’t belong to us anymore. They have their own lives, and they are far away from us. But we love them all.

What are your biggest inspirations, musical and non-musical?

(Thomas) Our main musical influences would be The Beatles, Velvet Underground, Marvin Gaye…

(Laurent) Let me pick the non-musical. Well… I don’t know if that was a good idea (laughs and hesitates). Sometimes in the studio, we are very visual, you know? We made our last album in a part of the Louvre Museum, and it felt great to create while being surrounded by art. It was a bit like when we grew up in Versailles and we were surrounded by a museum. It’s an environment we’re comfortable with and it mysteriously leaks to our creativity.

That’s a great answer. So you started playing together when you were teenagers. What do you think your younger selves would think if they could see where you are right now and how things have changed? 

(Laurent) They would be slightly disappointed. When we were teenagers, we thought everything was possible. We didn’t have any doubts. But we would be also proud of all the hard work. We had a lot of doubts about the industry also, we had a lot of doubts and we thought they were fools, and we were right in some ways… 

(Thomas) I think there’s a mystique in making records. It’s not exactly getting lost but it’s shifting to something else. Right now, there are like 45,000 songs released every day, our younger selves didn’t know that. It wasn’t like that when we were younger and it’s a game changer. Sometimes the path of least resistance is not satisfying for us as creative individuals, you know? Navigating that is a challenge to us.

Would you say you’ve encountered that challenge especially during the last few years or has it always been there?

(Thomas) I think it’s exponentially growing. Because we didn’t change that much, we’re still making records of 10 songs, it’s still the 4 of us, and we’re still performing live like we always did. But there’s a black hole in the music industry that’s absorbing everything. We see it in the distance, and we feel like it’s getting closer and closer.

When was the moment you knew you made it as musicians? That you could live out of music and be able to focus on your craft and creative process?

(Laurent) When we released our first record, which was United, we felt like it was a big accomplishment. We were always looking for a new victory and every small step felt like progress in our career.

(Thomas) But when you’re safe it’s not good for creativity. You’re less likely to take risks and chances. There’s less gambling… it’s uncomfortable to make an album. It should be. It’s a moment when you’re not physically okay. We would get sick making records. Our second album (Alphabetical) was, I think, the hardest to make because we had plenty of years to make the first one, but we had a deadline and less time to make the second one. I remember getting sick all the time because of the anxiety, stress… In that situation, you’re not sure where you’re going with what you’re doing; if it’s going to work… It’s a lot of pressure.

Do you remember any time when an interaction with a fan has deeply moved you?

(Thomas) Yes, plenty. I remember once in Brazil, in Curitiba. There was a guy in the front row who cried during the entire show. Very complex tears, you know? Sadness, joy… He was so tired at the end of the show that he collapsed. We brought him backstage, and we tried to talk to him to understand and he couldn’t speak. I think, in a way, that was better; because as Laurent said, our music is not ours anymore and our fans have their own stories with them. And that’s a relief, actually. When you’re not controlling everything anymore because it’s out. But yeah, I remember that vividly.

I also remember a concert in Mexico and this kid was sending a message to us with his phone, with a scrolling LED message app. His brother passed away, his brother was a huge Phoenix fan, and he was there to honour him. That was crazy to witness.

Since your bond as musicians, friends, and almost family is very strong, you even said in some previous interviews that you wouldn’t be able to play with people other than yourselves. But you did do some collaborations, and I wanted to ask which of those you enjoyed the most or felt more comfortable with. And is there any artist you’re looking forward to collaborating with in the future?

(Thomas) We like them all because we learn something different from every one of them, that’s why we decided to work with them in the first place. But the one with Ezra is our favourite one. I’m eager to play the song live with him. I don’t know when it’s going to be, there is a plan for one special occasion but it’s still not confirmed.

(Laurent) I would agree. They are all very different and we always learn from them, which is our main goal in life. We have a few exciting collaborations in the oven. We’d love to do something with Tinariwen. They just played at BBK Live a few minutes ago and we were listening to them by the Txiki stage, it was a great show and we loved it. 

Are you working on something new now and could you give us a few hints on what would that sound like?

(Thomas) There are things we cannot talk about. But we can say that we are working on the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s upcoming movie. We are picking the music and did everything related to music in the film. It’s almost finished by now.

As we conclude this conversation with Phoenix, it’s evident that their journey transcends mere melodies and lyrics. Their dedication to crafting music that resonates emotionally while evolving with the times is truly remarkable. Just as their performances envelop audiences in a blend of nostalgia and innovations, their reflections in this interview offer a glimpse into the minds behind the music.

We extend our gratitude to Thomas and Laurent for sharing their insights and to the festival promoter Last Tour for making this interview possible. After our conversation with the band, Phoenix treated the audience to an exceptional performance. Guiding us on a journey through time, they resurrected the finest indie anthems from the 2000s. The crowd enthusiastically sang along to the opening notes of ‘Lisztomania’ and the concluding chords of ‘1901’, and they also discovered some hidden gems from their latest album ‘Alpha Zulu’. It was a true celebration of their musical journey, honouring their past while embracing the timeless magic of their songs.

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Words: Mar Rubio Boné