Chefs, vintners, and Impressionists may consider success in France the only kind worth having. Rock bands, not so much. But even as teenagers jamming in the basement of singer Thomas Mars’ house, Phoenix set their sights on les États-Unis. “It’s like when you play chess,” messy-haired, bespectacled guitarist Laurent Brancowitz explains, sitting opposite sleepy-eyed Mars on a mauve velvet sofa in Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel lounge. “You want to be in Russia. You do not want to play a tournament in…Florida. We knew we wanted to play in zee major leagues.”
He pauses. “Yes? Zee major leagues?” he asks. “I’m very bad at sports — what’s zee name for zee top?”
Whatever it is, Phoenix have arrived there. In April, almost two months before they released their fourth studio album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Loyaute/Glassnote), their appearance on Saturday Night Live triggered an out-of-left-field phenomenon. Not only did the relative unknowns perform three songs, a privilege typically granted only to giants like U2, they broadcast an infectious presence: Mars’ pitch-perfect, effortless vocals; guitarists Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai bouncing about with contagious spunk; and hair-tossing bassist Deck D’Arcy-in jaunty blue scarf and vintage Paris fireman’s coat-looking so damn French you wanted to run and put some Godard in your Netflix queue. (Touring drummer Thomas Hedlund makes five.)
“We like to break bands, but we don’t get to do it as often as we want to,” says SNL producer Marci Klein, who booked them sight unseen off a friend’s recommendation. “We’re always looking for the next Phoenix.”
Since then, the band has played Letterman and Kimmel, sold out clubs across the country, and performed for thousands — including a rapt Flavor Flav — at Bonnaroo. Released in May, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix — a collection of swinging, vaguely Strokes-ish nouvelle vague — debuted at No. 2 on iTunes and became the band’s first album to break the Billboard Hot 100.
But while Phoenix were not exactly surprised to reach zee top (“It was deep in our hearts,” Brancowitz says with an embarrassed laugh), they didn’t think this would be the album to take them there.
For the entire Phoenix feature, plus four more photographs, check out the Sept. ’09 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.