Beautiful and dull.
That’s how he describes his hometown.
Versailles, France, is hardly an austere setting — it once was the seat of power for Europe’s longest reigning monarchy and is still adorned with the eye-widening architecture befitting royal inhabitancy — but for Christian Mazzalai, guitarist for French alt-pop ingenues Phoenix, coming of age in said Parisian suburb meant that life was as blunted as a butter knife.
But boredom has its benefits.
"I guess it helps to grow up in a place that’s boring, because you do things for the good reasons," he explains. "Like, right now, I’m in Los Angeles, and I think if you grew up here, you would lose your naive approach to making music.
"Growing up in Versailles, we wanted to please the least amount of people possible," he adds, "because we couldn’t relate to them."
Still, Mazzalai’s childhood surroundings were fertile, culturally speaking, giving rise to acclaimed electronica acts such as Daft Punk and Air as well as visionary director Michel Gondry.
Phoenix loosely fits in with that coterie of free-thinkers.
The band’s buoyant, dimension-less pop works in both discotheques and dive bars. Phoenix’s latest record, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," finds the group tightening the screws on its sound, with songs that range from arms-in-air anthems with buzzing synth lines ("1901") to seven-minute studies in texture and nuance ("Love Like A Sunset").
"Wolfgang" has been a breakout record for the band, earning a recent Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album and significantly raising their profile here.
"I don’t know what happened," Mazzalai says of the band’s growing status. "From the beginning, we started this record without a record company, and the first thing that we did was agree that we would finish it without a record company. It’s the first time that we put out a record where we felt like we could put it out the way we want.
"Before, it was very frustrating, because we come from France, and you rely on people, you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know how they talk about you, how they present your records to America or England. We felt like a brand or something. I think we managed to escape this thing and present it the way we wanted."
As for that Grammy nod, the band members still haven’t completely gotten their heads around that one.
"We didn’t know it was such a big deal," Mazzalai says. "I don’t even know what you win. It sounds like you’re going to the Olympics with your band or something," he chuckles. "It’s hard to relate to, but at the same time, the more that we do music, the more that we appreciate those things. There’s always a moment where you feel like you belong to some sort of musical tradition."
On the surface, Mazzalai’s words seems a little counter intuitive, as questioning tradition has long been one of the group’s most obvious aims, partly because their hometown is practically posited on as much.
But perhaps the most important development for Phoenix on "Wolfgang" is a palpable sense of self-assurance, to the point where they no longer feel the need to question anything — least of all themselves.
"There was a moment that came really late, where we were totally confident," Mazzalai says. "We had this confidence that we never had before. I have a very good friend, but our musical tastes are totally different. He came in the studio and heard ‘1901’ and thought it was really bad. And I didn’t care. To me, that was a sign. The satisfying part was already there, the fact that we did a record altogether. It’s always been hard to realize if a record is good or not. But if it’s good for us, that’s enough."
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.Preview
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