The first thing that’s noticeable about Ti Amo, the sixth studio album from French quartet Phoenix, is that it’s mellow.
The second thing that happens is that there’s a worry the band has lost their verve, the joie de vivre. Where’s the giddy cousin of “Lisztomania” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Where's the swoon of “Long Distance Call” or “Run Run Run”?
But then Ti Amo begins to sink in. The album is a charming record that's happy with its imperfections. It's a celebration of European culture and in particular a love letter to the high and low art of Italy.
Guitarist Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz addresses the four-year gap between Bankrupt! and Ti Amo and having been in Phoenix for twenty years (first album United came out in 2000) – is he finding that the band is slowing down, taking more time off between albums?
“No, no we take zero breaks,” laughs Brancowitz. “We’re slow. Very slow! Embarrassingly slow. And it’s always been like that, except for one record…umm, It’s Never Been Like That. I understand now why it’s called that, finally.”
From the opening track “J-Boy” (which rather than a celebration of eastern culture is short for “just because of you”) Ti Amo adopts a sort of mellow take on Italo disco, a praising of Italian and European culture but through a prism of being French. It does stand out in the field of other Phoenix records, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Frantic pop replaced by languid guitars and sparkling synths, Phoenix has moved from the rock club back to the discotheque.
“We try our best to make it very different each time,” admits Brancowitz, who along with his brother and fellow guitarist Christian Mazzalai, Deck D’Arcy (keys) and Thomas Mars (vocals) make up the consistent, unchanged Phoenix of the past two decades.
"It did feel awkward creating such joyful music in such a weird, dark period."
“Every album we choose a different studio and this time it was in an old opera house in the centre of Paris which has been converted into a venue and a museum. It has a little room on the top floor and we found this place to be very inspiring.
"It was a great space, and we stayed there for more than two years...we tried to change things a bit but in the end it’s the four of us in a room forever trying to write songs. It’s always the same kind of dynamic; this time we seemed very inspired and it was easy to create loads and loads of music.”
A darkness was cast over these inspiring sessions on Friday 13 November 2015 by the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan concert venue and surrounding areas, which left 90 people dead. Phoenix’s recording space overlooked this part of Paris and the band found themselves helplessly watching the horrific events unfold before them. Yet Ti Amo remains a positive record. Did the events of that November night make its way into the record in some form?
“I think so but in a kind of negative way, you know?” affirms the guitarist. “We realised the music we were creating was kind of trying to push away the negative vibes….at first it felt a bit awkward but we realised there was really nothing we could do about it.”
That outlook seems to confirm Brancowitz's earlier comment about the band always having the same dynamic despite however grim the surrounding atmosphere. “The way we work, we kind of follow the stream of our emotions,” he says, “and it did feel awkward creating such joyful music in such a weird, dark period. I guess it was like how you view the negative of a photograph…. ”
“For us it was related to some profound European beauty, like the one you can find in Italy."
What seems to outweigh the darkness of Bataclan is the celebration of everything else Europe has to offer Phoenix. You can see it in the song titles: “Tuttifrutti”; “Fior Di Latte”;”Via Veneto”. It’s also there in singer Mars’ occasional lyrics in his native French, or the casual drops of Latin America that come through the more you listen. Made in a world of Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, endless referenda and elections, Ti Amo strikes as a non-political celebration of all that is good and great about Europe and beyond. It's an ode to Italy and to the continent, but it’s addressed to a world that’s at least part fantasy or part imagined.
Brancowitz is slightly hesitant about confirming this was all part of the plan. “You know, we really didn’t think in those terms when we were doing it,” he says, “but in retrospect that sounds kind of right. I never thought about the European thing, but it’s kind of true, also.
“The instinctual thing was that we were attracted by things that were full of hope, in a way. The focus was on hope and positive emotions, and also in what makes the world worth living in. In this shitstorm that we call life, we focused on the little moments of innocence and of grace.”
Italy is the dominating influence on Ti Amo: from the moment “J-Boy” begins with its vintage synth buzz and Mars’ filtered vocals that pitch the song right into an ‘80s Roman disco right through to those song titles, it’s like a dream vacation. Then the smooth funk – or the self-referential “sophisticated soft rock” - of the title track kicks in and Mars lists Battiato, Lucio, prosecco and gelato all in the space of a verse.
Brancowitz laughs while recollecting the formation "Ti Amo": “For us it was related to some profound European beauty, like the one you can find in Italy.
“It’s a mixture of pure ancient beauty like history…and also very simple pleasures of holidays, or a beautiful girl eating an ice cream. It was this fantasy land which doesn’t really exist but synthesises all those beautiful things you can find in life.”
"What we like is a mix of emotions, a mix of pleasures. Like the height of art but also some very mundane and cheap, guilty pleasures."
Pressing further on the charms of Italy, is it just the so-called high culture that attracts Phoenix to the country or is there a true love of Battiato and Lucio?
“Well yes it’s a bit of everything,” Brancowitz admits. “What we like is a kind of mix: a mix of emotions, a mix of pleasures. Like the height of art but also some very mundane and cheap, guilty pleasures like early ‘80s Italian music which tried to emulate American disco, but failing!
"Also some of the best movies of all time, which mix with [infamous porn star and politician, former wife of equally infamous artist Jeff Koons] La Cicciolina. Basically a mix of the best and the worst – but everything has a lot of charm. And ‘charm’ was a key word for us. We wanted to focus on that…. ”
The mention of La Cicciolina is one that’s somewhat apt for what Phoenix is doing with Ti Amo.
La Cicciolina had a naivety and a certain charm that appealed beyond Italy’s borders. Imperfect, for sure, but with her connections to The Radical Party and her dalliance with Koons (another person with a charm, albeit supremely twisted) it raised her above the supposed “low” culture she was part of into the realms of art and broadsheets. With Ti Amo, Phoenix is taking the plastic-ness of ‘80s Italian pop and raising it back up again with some added sparkle.
“Some songs on this record aren’t perfect in terms of songwriting but they kept this little charm in them,” explains Brancowitz, “and it’s something very hard to define. It was there in the beginning when we discovered this new sound which was coming to us. We had this little thing we couldn’t describe but we were very careful of preserving it during all the steps.
"The process of writing a record is brutal and it could have destroyed this little sparkle, this little charm…but we were very careful about it. It’s something that’s very Italian to me…you could replace it [charm] with any word which evokes a lost paradise.”
Now that Brancowitz mentions words, it’s reminder that part of the regular charm of a Phoenix record is trying to catch out Mars in a game of whether his lyrics have any deep meaning. “And at the Masquerade ball / you feel trapped in a vault, in an empty aquarium” goes one of the lines in “J-Boy”. Later we get “Smash the castle down, delete it / Tuttifrutti, it's all on me” in “Tuttifrutti”. It’s hardly even gnomic: these often seem like words thrown together because they sound right in Mars’ clipped voice.
“In general, the more we grow up, the more we understand that being French...we weren’t dealt a very good hand in terms of wanting to make popular music!” says Branco, by way of beginning a lengthy explanation.
“Being French and doing some kind of weird French rock…not a lot of people wanted to bet on us when we started. Let’s put it that way. So we discovered, this thing which handicaps us, it was also the strongest card in our game.”
"We knew that we had to make this album in France, not to go to the best studio in Rome. We had to do it from the perspective of people who are dreaming about something.”
So English, being their second language, actually works to their benefit?
“The fact we were raised in a different culture, our brains were wired a tiny bit differently. Very quickly we embraced it: we always think of Kraftwerk as a reference. To us, they’re one of the few bands who have managed to create their own mythology. They were German, of course, but they managed to create something of their own that was based on their references. They didn’t pretend to be American or British, they just talked about their autobahns and industrial Germany, all those things. So very quickly we understood we had to follow this route.”
And so Phoenix – and Mars in particular – decided to forgo handing the listener an explanation on a plate. “So the lyrics.” ponders Branco. “There are so many people who write perfectly understandable lyrics in English, you know? Whereas we do something a bit different which is influenced, I think, by the way in which we discovered music when we were kids. We couldn’t understand a few words here and there in the songs we loved, but the meaning…we created that in our imagination and we realised after the strength of the true meaning, or the true lyric.
"I guess we try to emulate this feeling; you understand a few words, your brain does the work of filling in the blanks….we think that process is very valuable. I think the lyrics reflect that feeling.”
Ti Amo certainly relies on the listener filling in blanks. The album conjures up an imagined Italy, one that doesn’t quite exist. It’s a mixture of Michelangelo and Lucio, of ice cream and porn stars, discos and frescos. In some ways it’s the perfect Italy, removed from reality – like Jean Baudrillard’s vision of America as Disneyland. We’re helped along in imagining this perfect vacation spot by title cues.
“So the song titles…'Fior Di Latte’ is an ice cream flavour in Italy….for us, it’s a very erotic song!” laughs Brancowitz. “It was a kind of ‘Little Red Corvette’ but from a continental European perspective. It’s a sexual song and a sexual metaphor.
"‘Via Veneto’ is a famous street in Rome where they filmed La Dolce Vita, well, actually, they didn’t film it there...they filmed it in a studio. Which is weird, because [Federico] Fellini lived 200 metres away! My father, and Chris’ father of course, he was Italian and when he was a young man he used to live and work in a hotel called Via Veneto so for us it also has a personal meaning.”
“In the history of art, the best things come from exactly this process of re-imagination…Elvis is this white dude trying to be black, there are guys in Liverpool and Manchester trying to be American, Italians trying to be David Bowie.... "
This is the perfect example of the beautiful artifice on Ti Amo, and Brancowitz agrees. “But it shows something: to create it in a studio is a beautiful idea – you don’t want the truth, you want to fantasise and recreate something that is fake,” he insists. “In this translation you lose a lot but you also gain something different which is really beautiful. For us, this idea was important. We knew that we had to make this album in France, not to go to the best studio in Rome. We had to do it from the perspective of people who are dreaming about something.”
Ti Amo is about not quite joining the dots, about avoiding a stale tourist guide version of Italy that’s all about a tour bus ride past the Coliseum or being stuck in a queue at the Sistine Chapel. It’s more about having a gelato walking down Via Veneto, not realising Anita Ekberg was in a fake fountain in some studio miles away from you. But you don’t care because you’ve got some tinny Battiato in your earphones.
“We like that things get lost in translation,” says Brancowitz. “To me, in the history of art, the best things come from exactly this process of re-imagination. If you think about some of the best things we’ve had – like Elvis Presley. Let’s talk about pop music…Elvis is this white dude trying to be black, there are guys in Liverpool and Manchester trying to be American, Italians trying to be David Bowie…these are the kind of things we love.”
And what of Phoenix? When in Paris recording Ti Amo, who or what did they become – a French quartet trying to become an Italo disco band trying to become David Bowie? Somewhere along that process they hit on the record’s charm, the thing which makes it stand out in the Phoenix canon.
“I think this album was very French in the process, very linked to this place in Paris,” Brancowitz says. “But when we travel the world we do feel the French-ness, or the European-ness. We feel the pressure of our subcultures, we feel the emotion. After being away from home for a while we do get nostalgic…without realising it we find ourselves listening to very French, very bizarre, Italian shitty things which mean a lot to us because they were part of our childhood.”
We end on returning to the creation of that love letter to Italy, the stitching together of cultures, styles, and eras to make a cohesive, engaging whole. Maybe like the EU: an artificial construct but one that pulls twenty-seven cultures together to create a whole, standing as an imperfect union but a union nonetheless.
“It’s a positive thing,” agrees Brancowitz. “It should encourage people not to focus on some imaginary purity, which is just a stupid idea. To me, this process creates the most beautiful things in art. And you can go back in time to the Greeks or to the Renaissance and find Flemish guys going to Italy to learn the techniques…and suddenly you have this whole new movement in painting. It’s a universal thing – when you mix DNAs good things happen.”