With five albums, a Grammy and a perfectly strange collaboration with R. Kelly under its belt, French rock group Phoenix has assured the world that it’s unstoppable. With the release of its latest album, Bankrupt!, last April, the band embarks on a new tour with a stop in Ypsilanti on Sept. 29 at Ypsilanti’s EMU Convocation Center.
With the enormous success that surrounded 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the album that for the most part introduced the band to American audiences, it would follow that stress levels would run high for the group, but lead singer Thomas Mars has a different perspective.
“I think we’re less anxious and stressed out about it,” Mars said. “It’s more of a reward, this tour, than anything.”
Since forming in the late ’90s, the group has developed an extensive and varied discography. However, Phoenix tries to keep its sets as fresh as possible in order to avoid being stalled in the past or being viewed as a “greatest hits band.”
“We always approach the show with playing everything that’s new … There are other things that are included, but they’re not the main part of the show,” Mars said. “I think that, with this idea, that something always has to be new. Even if it’s an old song, it has to somehow mold or melt with another song so you see it in a new way.”
A prime example of seeing its songs in a different light is exemplified through the introduction of R. Kelly on stage during a set at Coachella this past April, the band’s biggest show to date. Together they performed a mash-up of the group’s “1901” and R. Kelly’s “Ignition,” a show that seemed just as unlikely to the band as it did to the audience.
“We never thought about (collaborating with R. Kelly) because we never thought our music would work together,” Mars confessed. “There were no rehearsals. He came up on stage pretty late. Everything was very stressful and made it a better experience.”
As for when R. Kelly compared Phoenix to the Beatles in a recent interview with Pitchfork, Mars said, “I pretended that I didn’t hear that just for my mental health. I blocked it out of mind.”
For most people, that kind of high praise from an R&B superstar would result in a head big enough to consume a small city-state, but the group manages to stay grounded thanks to their families and hometown, Paris.
“I think the luxury that we have now is that we can play whenever we want and we can stop whenever we want, so we sort of steer our own ship. That took a lot of time for us to do that,” Mars said of the band’s ability to spend time with their families. “The other guys, they live (in Paris), so they get back often. I go back pretty often … It’s a good hometown to have because it will always be the same. That’s sort of what you want with your hometown. It’s there, it’s not changing and it’s comforting.”
The comfort of a hometown is more of a necessity during the constant travelling, but that’s all part of the excitement of touring for Mars.
“I like the weird places. When I saw … how do you say it, Ypsilanti? I’ve never heard of it, but I thought it sounded cool. I like the places that you’ve never heard of. I’m more excited to play places in between or in the middle, places I wouldn’t go to,” he said. “More than Vegas or L.A. There’s usually more excitement.”
Despite his love for touring in the hidden crevices of America, Mars has one major gripe with its venues.
“The one thing that’s frustrating is that sometimes when you play in the U.S., the shows are 21 and over. When I was a kid, I saw shows when I was 10, 12, 13, and I never would have started a band if I went to a show after 21. I think when you’re after 21, it’s too late. It’s stupid.”
Even with a massive tour, gears have started to turn for the next record, but don’t expect a release in the near future.
“Everything you start with, you never end up choosing. It’s always a struggle … almost the first year,” Mars said. “It usually takes us a year to come up with one decent song, and then the other ones come together, so I’m just curious to get that one song … the song that’s good enough so the others can exist.”
For now, Phoenix’s focus is the upcoming tour, where each show will provide an unexpected adventure for both the band and its audience, since Mars claims that it’s “never really prepared.” But, he added, “that’s what makes us interesting.”
While this laid-back method to its madness may result in disaster for most bands, looking back upon the years of Phoenix’s headlining shows, world tours and successful albums, unpreparedness seems to be working out pretty well.