Q&A: Phoenix's Christian Mazzalai

Q&A: Phoenix's Christian Mazzalai
Photo by Phil Knott

French pop-rock group Phoenix are bringing their incredible live show to Minneapolis tonight on the heels of the band's fourth release, last month's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. The band spent much of the past two years working on the album, which, despite being their first without major label backing, still managed to shoot them into the mainstream.

Over the past two months, Phoenix has found time amidst a busy touring schedule to appear on both Letterman and Saturday Night Live, which is as good an indicator as any that they've made it. The sold-out concert at the Varsity Theater tonight will likely be one of the last times you'll be able to catch Phoenix in such an intimate setting. Also playing will be Brooklyn's on-the-rise art rockers Amazing Baby.

City Pages spoke to guitarist Christian Mazzalai by phone before the show about the meticulous recording process that was Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and their big breakout year.

Your latest, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, features remarkably complex compositions for a pop record, without ever seeming overly indulgent or exclusive. Can you explain how you put these songs together?

Christian Mazzalai: We spent two years at a studio in Paris constructing Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. What you hear on the record, the final product, was essentially written and produced at the same time. The lyrics were even written in the studio. It was a big mess. Some of the songs we worked on just about every day for two years, so by the time we are playing them on tour we've literally heard them a thousand times.  

In the last few months Phoenix has received some serious mainstream exposure with gigs like Saturday Night Live and the David Letterman show. After 13 years as an underground pop band, did you imagine this release would bring this kind of success?

Mazzalai: It's been a very fantastic surprise for us and one we hope continues. We've never felt such a good vibe before. We're going to be back (in the states) in September for another tour in bigger venues. We love to discover new cities and to play our music. The online music community has helped us and many other bands release music freely, without comprises, and experience success. Look at a band like Grizzly Bear, they are very big right now, and their music is fairly strange and free. I don't know if they would be popular without blogs, and it maybe is the same with us.  

For one reason or another, many bands that have been around as long you have lose some of their excitement and inevitably put out records that pale in comparison to their earlier work. You've provided an exception by releasing what most fans and critics believe is your finest record, a decade removed from your early singles.

Mazzalai: Yeah, it feels great to hear that. It's a very good CD, yes? (laughs) We didn't have a label telling us what to do so we got to make an album totally free of compromises. This isn't to say that we compromised our previous albums, but we had to fight with the label to get things how we wanted. I think it's definitely our best record, but I think the next one will be better. It will be a lot better, otherwise we wouldn't release it, you know? That's the way we look at it.

Does it scare you to imagine releasing a bad record? Does fear of failure motivate you?

Mazzalai: Definitely. Staying creative is something we don't have control over. It's just as scary as to imagine having regrets about something that could end up being our best moment. It's very hard because we have so much pressure to go in the right direction and make something that is better than the last record. Because of that, making records isn't pure pleasure. That's not to say it isn't a fantastic gig, but sometimes you suffer through frustration in the studio. With [Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix], we went in thinking we could make this album in two months, but in order to make it how we wanted it took two years.

You gave away the album's first single, "1901," for free on your website months before it was officially released. Was this your idea or the label's?

Mazzalai: I wouldn't call it a single as much as it was the stupid idea of four French guys. We were still without a label when we gave away "1901." Our contract with EMI was finished and this was something we could do with on our own. Usually you have to wait like 3 months after the record is finished to release anything because it takes awhile to press the CDs, but we wanted to give something away to our fans. After a day, there were downloads all over the world and it was a fantastic surprise.

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