Spinning Platters Interview: Laurent Brancowitz of Phoenix

by Dakin Hardwick on August 6, 2013

Phoenix - Phoenix - General 3

It’s been a pretty amazing year so far for Phoenix. Their latest record, Bankrupt!, is receiving amazing reviews, and they are playing to the biggest crowds of their career! We had the opportunity to chat with their guitarist Laurent Brancowitz ahead of their upcoming set at Outside Lands. They are playing the Twin Peaks stage at 8:40 PM on Saturday night. Just a warning, we pretty much only talked about how much we like R Kelly.

Throughout your career, most of your music has been written in English. However, your first language was French. How do you tackle that, mentally? Do you write in French then translate? Or do you think in English when you write?

The truth is that when we write music, we aren’t really “thinking.” That is something that happens afterwards. And then, the choice of English, it’s like the middle ages. Back then, Latin was the choice of communication, or maybe during Antiquity, when it was Greek. We consider it as a way to communicate with the entire world. That’s what it’s about- a way to talk to the entire world.

The writing process is mysterious. And we love also  the lyrics to be mysterious. We grew up listening to songs we didn’t understand. And this fascination we had when we were kids was very strong. And we try to emulate this feeling.

Did you ever listen to French music growing up?

We listen to a lot of Serge Ganinsbourg. He’s the only one we really loved. He’s the only exception. Aside from that mostly English, American, and a little Italian music.

The track “Lizstomania” was one of the two songs that helped break you into the mainstream consciousness here in America. Do you find it ironic that a song about such a topic would get you to that same level of fame?

The topic of the song is weird. I like the idea that we became a little bit famous. Not because we became famous for a song about fame, but because it’s a very weird an European topic. And also something that is really disconnected from what you hear in popular music these days. It is so different. I like that this and “1901,” also a very bizarre song about the past and the fact that those songs connected to the American audience, we really enjoy. I hope that our mission is to provide some sort of weird angle, some European weirdness to the American audiences. We like to provide an alternative to what you are constantly hearing on the radio. That’s what we are happy about: the weirder songs that we write are the most successful

You spent so many years on a major label before breaking. Do you think your old major would have released either of those songs as a single?

We always had a good relationship with all of the labels that we worked with, because we always had a total vision for what we wanted to do. And, in those cases, people tend to accept and respect that because it’s easier for them when you know exactly where you want to go. People tend to follow you, even if they are a major label. What changed, when we moved to an independent label, the intelligence and cleverness was higher, so it was easier to make quick decisions. They wouldn’t follow the book that the other major labels were following. We never had any problems before, but we have more solutions now.

That is a much more optimistic view of the label system than most musicians.

When we started doing music, we knew there was a real danger of changed being by the machine. So, from the very beginning, it was clear to us that we had to have enough power to do exactly what we had in mind. We knew we had to be careful about it. When you are aware of a danger, it it significantly less dangerous. I remember when Prince wrote “slave” on his cheek. It was very shocking to us as children that even Prince could feel he was being treated like a slave. So we were all very careful, and it worked!

How did you end up performing with R Kelly at Coachella?

It was a very a simple and naive process. We wanted to d something special. And we thought of asking R Kelly because we are big fans of his work. I think of him as a genius. There are a lot of musicians that think of him this way. We are part of a secret society of R Kelly fans. And then we called him, and he said yes very quickly. I thought it would be more difficult, but, in fact, it was very easy. What was more bizarre was that we met him on stage because he was late. He arrived as the show began- we had never met. It created a weird tension that was really enjoyable.

So that wasn’t rehearsed?!?

Well, the parts that we played, we rehearsed so we knew what to do. But we never had done. In my imagination it was perfect. He is a real professional.

I have always been a big fan of R Kelly. I love that he can be himself, very eccentric, but still relateable.

It’s really rare- he’s able to create something very original and new. He’s managed to create a thing that is unheard. Like Trapped In The Closet. That was a big moment for music.

Have you heard any of the new chapters?

I have, but I really am a top fan of the original series. It’s hard for me to enjoy the new ones because I am a very nasty fan that doesn’t want it to change.

Your last tour was a weird balance of huge festivals and tiny clubs. How is it different playing for big vs small crowds?

In a weird way, it’s easier to play in front of a huge amount of people.  It’s such an abstract thing. But it’s also harder to create that moment of intensity. But when you reach it, it can be a really amazing thing. The huge amount of people under the same moon in the darkness. When you reach that moment of tension, it’s really gratifying. It’s worth trying. So, we really like it. We like the challenge because it’s the most amazing moment of our lives on stage. We spend more time on stage than anywhere else, so it’s the place where we feel most at home. It’s weird, but it’s the truth.

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