It suits it Phoenix‘s live show, specifically on a balmy evening at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 9, buzzes with electric energy. After all, the acclaimed French band – comprised of members (and decades-long friends) Thomas Mars, Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz, Deck D’Arcy and Christian Mazzalai – had been waiting with bated breath and fingers crossed for this very moment.
After a scintillating display of the band’s beloved material – including No. 6 mapping Adult Alternative Airplay hit “Entertainment,” fan favorite “Too Young” from its self-titled debut LP, and several cuts from the group’s Grammy-winning classic Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix — the quartet stripped things back for the live debut of “Winter Solstice,” a stark look into Phoenix’s mindset amid a pandemic that left members starving for connection. That view hits the band’s seventh studio album, Alpha Zuluout now via Glassnote Records.
To be clear, Phoenix “didn’t want to do a cliche pandemic album” with Alpha Zulu. But when France was under lockdown due to COVID-19 and Mars was separated from his friends, musical pieces served as the band’s letters to each other. On the other side of the world away from Branco, Mazzalai and Deck, Mars wrote and recorded the stream-of-consciousness lyrics that would later become “Winter Solstice” to speak to the isolation he felt amid the Northern California wildfires. Out of this gloom, the light that would inspire the rest of Alpha Zulu began to shine through.
“It sounds corny, but music became the way to communicate when we were separated. It was our way of saying that we knew everyone was okay, but on standby,” Mars explains of the brooding, synth-driven track above a four-way Zoom call, accompanied by his bandmates. “We wanted something to happen in our lives, but the only thing that could happen was a good song and the opportunity to play it live one day.”
The quartet didn’t want to linger too long in mourning. “After we recorded ‘Winter Solstice,’ we wanted to escape and think about a brighter future,” adds Branco. As lockdown restrictions across countries began to ease, hope began to break through the clouds. Between pockets of travel to Mars—”he could get back to Paris, but not more than a week or 10 days and had to rush back because of new waves in other parts of the world,” according to D’Arcy—Phoenix was feverish with inspiration , when they could finally meet again.
Huddled for weeks in a warehouse-turned-studio at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs (“real studios are very boring,” says Branco), the musicians were immersed in both chaos and solitude, a combination that put their creativity in fire .
“We were surrounded by Napoleon’s throne and works from the Middle Ages and the second century. All this culture merging into a dirty, empty museum where no one saw us…it was a big mess!” Mazzalai explains with some glee. “But it was helpful for us. Very liberating and happy in a way.”
He further recalls: “We have never been so inspired because Thomas was stuck in confinement during lockdown for many months in the United States. It was the first time we did not see Thomas for more than a month, so when he could only travel in the studio after weeks of waiting, we produced more than ever. It was perhaps the most creative time of our entire lives.”
“The silence made the recording of the album even more intense for us. The world was asleep and it gave gravity to us and depth to the record,” adds Mars.
The trying conditions resulted in some of Phoenix’s cleverest and most ambitious work to date. “After Midnight,” a cut from the top half of Alpha Zulu, sees the group enter a euphoria that leaves its listener equal parts jittery and energized; “Season 2” calls back to Phoenix’s classic – and infectious – use of wordplay (“giddy up, I’m bored”), while “Artefact” highlights the band’s consistent, artful use of synthesizers and lyrical repetition, also seen in the tongue twisters of the album’s title track, “Alpha Zulu.”
For the first time, the band needed a friend to help bring one of its songs to life. On the single “Tonight,” Phoenix enlists indie pop heavyweight Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend to provide backing vocals and a verse on the upbeat track. Marking the band’s first time collaborating with another artist, the band spent months cultivating a relationship with Koenig. Initially, the uptempo track started out like any other Phoenix song, with the group jotting down lyrical ideas on the makeshift studio’s whiteboard and assigning names to each of the song’s parts for easy swapping. But when the track’s second verse rolled around (“What if we hang on till the dawn like you promised me?/ Who let the boys waste their entrance fee?”), the band knew something—or rather, anyone – was missing.
“Lang’s playfulness reminded us of Ezra, so we had to call him. We were so familiar with him that we knew the song was safe,” says Mars. “If it wasn’t good, we didn’t have to put it out there, or he could say no if he didn’t like it. It’s rare that we know people well enough to do that.”
To be admitted into Phoenix’s circle is a privilege not many can afford. The group – friends since elementary school who have been in a band together for the past 25 years – still manage to maintain an unwavering chemistry without resorting to breaking up or bringing in new members. So what’s the secret? “The lead singer is not one of the brothers. If you look at every band where the lead singer is one of the brothers, they are totally collapsing and hating each other,” jokes the frontman.
The true formula for Phoenix’s tight-knit nature lies in the most benign form of communism – every member of the band has a hand in every moving part. “We divide everything into four, in a very communist way,” Branco explains. “Our music belongs to us because we control everything, from the release to the production, the four of us, equally. That’s the French mottoFreedom equality Brotherhood’ (freedom equality Brotherhood).”
While other bands may rely on the lead singer to write lyrics or handle most of an album’s production, Branco insists on It has never been like that for the French quartet: “There’s not one of us more gifted than the other. There’s not one genius songwriter and the others just following along. We’re pretty average—or bad—when we’re alone, but when we add our powers, we produce a result that is better than the sum of our individual qualities. We know that we need each other.”
The band’s unofficial member, Philippe Zdar, was also crucial to Phoenix’s friendship story. Alpha Zulu marks the first album the band has worked on without the guidance of the French music producer, who died in 2019 — the quartet touches on the producer’s passing in the LP’s stunning closer, “Identical.” The track, which also appears in Sofia Coppola’s (Mars’ Wife) 2020 film On the stonesserves double duty by shedding light on the band’s perception of life after the pandemic.
Speaking about Zdar’s role on “Identical”, Mars says that the track “was the best way to end the album because he was the main thing that was missing from our work together. The song has the light at the end of the tunnel, which fits the pandemic. That’s the album’s strong identity. We’re not trying to deny what happened or wash it away. It’s a reminder that every album is a Polaroid of its time.”
Whereas Phoenix’s previous studio effort, 2017 I love yousaw the band take to Italo disco sounds and nostalgia sweeter than scoops of melted gelato, Alpha Zulu has no specific purpose. There’s no obvious takeaway, just the unbridled “joy of creating things as different from each other as possible.”
However, the band’s message has always remained the same – to infiltrate their listeners’ most human senses to make them feel something at their core.
“The power of music … it’s like a charm or a spell. This magic trick that’s so powerful that even us magicians don’t understand how it works,” says Branco. “That’s why we make music.”