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Phoenix rises with Bankrupt
Phoenix rises with Bankrupt

"When we start a record we have no clue where we want to go. But we knew what we didn't want to do and even gave it the codename of Ludwig von Phoenix - a part 2."

The dead composer reference is how Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars summarises fifth studio album Bankrupt!, something the French band has been working towards in the four years since the release of breakthrough LP, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.

With mega-hits such as Lisztomania, Wolfgang propelled them from respected journeymen on the indie touring circuit to bona fide festival headliners and Mars admitted there was a temptation to give their exponentially expanded fan base more of the same.

"It was really tempting; for three or four hours we thought about it, not more, because then we knew something was wrong about this. It's not the way we function," he said.

Mars is sitting by himself on the Empire Polo Club grounds in Indio. The relative quiet of the Californian desert proves conducive to reflecting on the new album's gestation and its symbolic launch party last week at the Coachella music festival.

A coming-out party that was a stunning success, BTW. Amid wild rumours Daft Punk would join them on stage, the group debuted new material and performed an uber-surprising three-song medley with R'n'B legend R. Kelly. They opened the set with Bankrupt!'s effervescent first single, Entertainment; an Asian-tinged throwback to 80s synth-pop that is every bit the equal of Lisztomania and an accurate mission statement for the record.

The singer, who is married with two children to director Sofia Coppola, said the band lived by the "slow preparation, fast execution" ethos as outlined in Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards featuring advice for overcoming creative block that was first published in 1975.

"We pushed it to another level on this record; the preparation was incredibly 85 weeks and the execution was two weeks, maybe," Mars said.

The weeks of preparation included an initial period of sonic experimentation at New York's Oscilloscope Laboratories, a studio owned by Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch, before they decamped to an apartment in Paris and eventually landed in producer and long-time collaborator Philippe Zdar's home studio in Montmartre.

The Phoenix of old combusted as the group endlessly demoed sounds from toy keyboards picked up in their home town of Versailles and explored the possibilities of a vintage solid-state recording console that was used on Michael Jackson's Thriller, bought on eBay for the bargain price of $17,000. Accordingly, the 10 tracks on Bankrupt! represent a new Phoenix rising from the ashes.

"And that was really exhausting because this is the first record that we did like this, starting every song almost at the same time, and we finished all the songs together in two weeks," Mars explained.

"I think that this record is potentially something that can resonate more than anything we've done but I don't know how to protect it. It's a bigger record; a record that needs those extra listens that people will give it because of the success of the previous album."

Such success has taken Mars, guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai, and bass player Deck d'Arcy, a long way from their humble origins as a garage band in Paris in 1995. But the driving principle remains unchanged. "We grew up loving the idea that you can make a fool of yourself in front of a lot of people - it's something that we are really close to," Mars said.

"I think we love it because we've never made a fool of ourselves and it makes everything unique and unexpected."

Bankrupt! is unlikely to make a fool of them but even if it did you get the sense Mars sees their career as a classic French farce. "We still think that this whole thing is a joke in a way," he said. "You have a very naive approach when you don't feel like you really belong to this space."

He remembers a discussion the band had while touring the last record in which success on such a grand scale was deemed unattractive. But the group found a way to make the biggest shows seem intimate and personally fulfilling and now Mars can't wait to rejoin the world after years in recording lockdown.

Yes, you can expect an Australian visit. "We were discussing it today, actually, and I don't want to say anything because we don't know but maybe at the latest early next year though I'm hoping before that," Mars said.