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Mainstream success hasn't complicated Laurent Brancowitz's approach to music. As lead guitarist and a founding member of the alt-rock quartet Phoenix, Brancowitz played a formative role in honing the band's straightfoward sound, a mixture that blends '80s pop cues, soul-informed guitar licks and plaintive vocals.
"It's a thing we've always done," Brancowitz notes with a very heavy French accent. "Very simple elements, when put together, create something more complex. That's the thing we've always loved."
In the past decade, the band has graduated from playing small venues in the suburbs of Paris to touring the festival and arena circuit in Europe to eventually making its way to the United States, where it gained a loyal American following and collected a Grammy and tons of critical praise. The acclaim, says Brancowitz, has only made the act more committed to simplicity.
"It's true that minimalism, this principle, is the only principle for us," Brancowitz maintains. "It's something we feel true to, in a way." This dynamic has driven the group's composition process, its on-stage approach and even its choice of studio space, he notes. "When we were just doing the last album [2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix], I remember we listened a lot to minimalist composers from the U.S. like Philip Glass. I'm not sure if it's hearable in the music, but it was a big influence."
Despite the pronounced commitment to minimalism, the members of Phoenix have made an effort to evolve creatively. Although Brancowitz is hesitant to list specific influences, he insists they've moved beyond their roots as a young band coming up in Versailles. "We reached a point where we never really think about that anymore," he points out. "But when we were really young, it was thousands of records. We were raised in a very boring town, and music was all we had, in a way. Now it's very hard for us to say what is guiding us."
Whatever the catalyst, the act's creative evolution is on full display on Amadeus, which offers rhythms that seem more syncopated than those from past outings, such as 2006's It's Never Been Like That and 2004's Alphabetical. Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai's guitar lines sound more nuanced, with a range of eerie and haunting effects that summon echoes of French impressionism. Songs like "Love Like a Sunset" revel in odd effects and a marked absence of backbeat, while more commercially viable tracks, like "1901," feature dark elements and more subtle vocals.
"I think it's our best album," Brancowitz offers. "The songs, they are richer, you know. It's the album with the songs that we understand least, which is a good sign. The songs are more mysterious to us."
Indeed, the draw of the album, recorded in Paris and produced by French house music veteran Philippe Zdar, has remained constant for the group over the past fifteen months of touring, with songs from Amadeus having dominated most of the set lists. "Right now we try to play the whole album," Brancowitz notes. "We play a few older songs, too, but we try to make those fast. We kind of like the new songs. Most of the time we play all the songs. It's the mood we are in.
"We kind of like to play the songs that are more difficult and more fragile," he adds, explaining that the focus on the full album extends to the long-form, more experimental rock instrumentals as much as it does the radio-friendly, three-minute pop tunes. "There are some songs that maybe collapse or maybe triumph live, the songs where there is a sense of risk. They are our favorite. 'Love Like a Sunset,' sometimes we try and we do really good — sometimes we nail it. But if there is no risk, there is no fun."
The risk, and associated thrill, of playing those songs live has kept the outfit from focusing on writing any new tunes. "We have this rule that we never write when we are touring," Brancowitz reveals. "We never write music. Basically, we are touring a lot and having holidays in between. That's the plan. It's a totally different rhythm, pace, another mindset. In a way, it's strange for us to write again."
Eventually the road work will come to an end, though, and the urge to create new material will be overwhelming. When that happens, the emphasis will shift from performing live to writing and recording, a process that can pose its own pitfalls and rewards.
"Every time we went into the studio, we thought it would be easy, and it never was," Brancowitz confesses. "Now I think we can say that it's going to be hard. But what's good about our job is that now, this oscillation between touring and being in the studio, there is a point where you can't wait, even if you know it's going to be hard. You can't wait to go back and write new songs. We feel these things. We begin to feel this urge to go back into writing mode."
And when the urge hits, it will be important for the band to find the right studio space, a process that's tied back to Phoenix's fondness for minimalism. For 2006's It's Never Been Like That, for example, the band settled on Planet Roc Studios in Berlin as the spot to record. A studio's layout, its surrounding city and its basic atmosphere, Brancowitz contends, plays a big role in shaping the sound of a record.