The sound of Phoenix’s breakout hit, "1901"—a deft, hip mix of synthesizers and rock guitars—might suggest that the band comprises fresh-faced Brooklynites or recent graduates of The New School. But the members of Phoenix actually hail from Paris, France, and have been cranking out danceable indie-rock music for 15 years. The quartet’s latest album, the Grammy Award–winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, has garnered near-unanimous critical praise and vaulted the band into the spotlight—culminating in its 2009 appearance on Saturday Night Live and, finally, an upcoming CMJ-branded show at Madison Square Garden on October 20.
Below, Phoenix guitarist Christian Mazzalai discusses the band’s success, New York City and how the two are related. There’s good news for New Yorkers who want the five boroughs to get credit for all things wonderful in the world: even though Phoenix is from France, the music on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is very much a product of NYC.
What does it mean to you to be playing Madison Square Garden?
Christian Mazzalai: It means when we got the offer to play there, we couldn’t refuse. It’s something surreal—I still don’t believe it. This will be our last show for this album [in New York], so we are preparing a lot of surprises.
What kind of surprises?
CM: No, sorry, I cannot tell you. But we want to try to approach this venue in a different way. That’s all I can tell you. And it will be very French!
Could you chart your rise through the times you performed in NYC? What were some of the places you played in New York while you were building a fan base?
CM: We’ve played many places in New York. We began in the Bowery Ballroom. We love this venue. We’ve played many gigs in small places. Slowly but surely, the places get bigger and bigger. We’ve done four albums, and with every album, the places become bigger. I think we are ready for [Madison Square Garden].
New York is very special for us because we began the album [Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix] in New York City. We did all the songwriting in The Bowery Hotel; we stayed there for two months to write songs. The beginning [of the album] was New York.
Your album has a song about old-time Paris ("1901") and a song called "Rome." When are we going to get a song called "New York City"?
CM: Ah. Ha-ha. Maybe one day. But, actually, there are lots of songs that are very New York City for me on this album. "Love Like a Sunset" is a long instrumental in the middle of the album—it’s a very important track, and all of the basic ideas came from New York.
What about New York did you find inspirational in particular?
CM: New York, what could I say? For a French guy—a Parisian guy—New York is perfectly exotic, and at the same time you feel at home. It’s very French and very American. It’s all of the great musicians like Steve Reich and Lou Reed. For me, this is New York. The Strokes. There are so many good bands, like the Dirty Projectors. They are going to play with us at Madison Square Garden, and we are so happy to have them play with us, because we really think they are the best band right now.
Are there any places in New York where you like to eat or hang out?
CM: We love the East Village around the Bowery. We used to hang out there a lot. There are so many cool places there. And we like to eat at Shake Shack. You know this place?
When we played Central Park, we had our best after-show there. We invited the owner of Shake Shack, so after the show, we had a special after-party. They opened Shake Shack especially for us. It was a great souvenir.
Even though you’re from France, your lyrics are in English. Why is that?
CM: It’s just that English is the language of pop music, like Italian was the language of opera. You know? English is the language of pop music and of computers, so it’s just a code you are using. We never questioned ourselves. Even when we were teenagers, to sing in English was natural. We sing French things, but in English.
What’s next for the band?
CM: We’ve just done some tracks for Sofia Coppola’s new movie. It’s called Somewhere. We did instrumentals, and we are very happy about it.