Phoenix has a problem with sound check, and I don't speak French. Lead singer Thomas Mars turns to the engineer on his right, points at his microphone, then waves his hand in an upward motion. He can't hear himself sing. Phoenix's own sound man, in a giant maroon sweater, approaches stage front of Philadelphia's Theater of Living Arts. More French.
The band turns around to face drummer Lawrence Clais, solemn-faced, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. The smoke travels in a thin swirl up to the changing venue lights. It seems everyone has a different opinion of how the song should sound, but everyone's looking at Clais. It might stem from the fact that he wasn't involved in the creation of Phoenix's fresh and energetic sophomore release Alphabetical. Nevertheless, the problem can't be resolved right now. Opening band Long-view still needs to sound check and doors open soon. Phoenix is ushered off the stage, but everyone's still smiling.
Mars wears a sea blue polo, dark blue pants and grey and white Nike's. His hair is a disheveled dark brown, beard thick but not unruly. He grabs his navy blue pea coat and wiggles into it. "Is it better to do this upstairs?" he asks. We ascend a narrow, moderately-lit stairway up to Phoenix's dressing room, occupied mostly by black travel bags and empty soda cans. Mars pushes a few bags to the side, slumping into the newly-created space against the arm of the couch. "Is that going to be a problem?" he asks. He's referring to the obnoxiously loud tandem of the air conditioner and beverage cooler. It appears Phoenix is all about accommodating, which might just be reciprocation of America's unlikely embrace of a French band during a time of political differences.
"The people that come to our show wanna make up for the bad," he says. "They are very aware of the situation and they want to tell everyone they are not part of it. It's an overwhelming feeling. And it's not necessarily where you think. In Texas, we never had a bad experience." Mars has a penetrating stare when he speaks, occasionally looking down as if lost in thought. He smiles frequently and sporadically, as if he's having a better time than everyone around him.
Maybe he's hearing Phoenix songs in his head. Alphabetical is filled with danceable, feel-good party tracks. It's the kind of music you'd use to score the movie of your life, which is exactly why Sophia Coppola picked "Too Young" from Phoenix's debut for Lost in Translation. Mars met Coppola while working with fellow French-natives Air on the popular song "Playground Love."
"We always like things to happen in a natural way," he says. "It's horrible when you ask or give your song to a publishing company, beg everyone in Hollywood to put it in an advertisement." Phoenix followed the same rationale by starting their own music label instead of trying to get labels to sign them. "When you do things on your own, that's when people want to get involved," he says. "When you don't need them." He laughs.
Like many groups with the same electronic feel, Phoenix started off as a pure studio band. They spent as long as an entire year trying to perfect a single track. Touring and translating the albums into a live set wasn't the easiest of transitions. "For us at the beginning, what stays in time is the record," he says. "A live performance is one night, but they are very addicting when you realize anything can happen. There's a feeling of eternity when everyone in the room is feeling the same thing." To display their newfound addiction, Phoenix recently released Live! Thirty Days Ago, culled from performances in the fall of last year.
Drummer Lawrence Clais enters the room wearing a tan fisherman hat draped low on his head. More French is spoken. "I think we learned English through girlfriends and records. It was music," Mars says. While singing in a non-native language might seem difficult, the opposite is true. Lyrics tend to form in non-cliched patterns, lending to a unique friction between the words and music. "I think it's an advantage for us because it's a way to be more original and personal even if you have less vocabulary," he says. "I'm a big fan of Hank Williams and all his lyrics. It's simple words but put in a situation where they aren't usually put. It's not that complicated, but the emotions are very pure. Now I'm a Kings of Leon fan and I don't understand a word they say." He laughs again, but he may be on to something.
His notion of putting words in unusual situations applies to the band as a whole. Phoenix is far from home, succeeding in a different land. Mars says he uses English as a tool. "Every song has its own story," he says. He's just finding a way to tell that story.
Clais sits on a folding chair in the corner. He opens a shoebox to reveal a pair of brand new brown Nike's. He removes the bright white laces from the box and begins lacing a shoe. Like Mars and the rest of Phoenix, he can slip on something American, go on stage, and tell his story all night. The shoe fits.