PHOENIX at the Mod Club (722 College), Friday (September 8). Ticket contest winner and invitees only; and Saturday (September 9) as part of Virgin Festival, Toronto Island Park (Centre and Olympic Islands), noon. $57.50-$104.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
There's nothing like the cold and sterile confines of a former state-run broadcasting facility in East Berlin to get your creative juices flowing.
At least that's what the genteel rockers in Phoenix had in mind when they hunkered down to record their latest, It's Never Been Like That (Arts & Crafts).
The near-abandoned Bauhaus building once employed as many as 10,000 happy proletariats in its Red state heyday but now employs no more than 10, giving some idea of the ominous air and crushing sense of emptiness affecting its few denizens.
However, the absence of typical studio amenities and opulence was exactly what the Parisians needed to strike their creative spark.
"It almost had a mythological atmosphere," lead singer Thomas Mars, on the phone from Olso, says about Planet Roc studios. "It is very cold and very gigantic, but it was something very stimulating. The weird thing is, they still kept the cafeteria, so the choice of tables was not a problem."
Phoenix entered the compound with zero material written and a strict four-month deadline for completing the record. The idea for a self-imposed do-or-die schedule came from how much they liked the snapshot-in-time vibe of their live album, Live! Thirty Days Ago (EMI).
But as Mars says, they enforced a German work ethic to avoid reliving the exhausting, overly laboured experience they had making their sophomore beast, Alphabetical (Source).
"On Alpha we were two years in a studio and didn't have a clue about what we were doing," recalls Mars. "It was neurotic times for us. We were sick without even knowing it.
"Being far from home and far from everything this time gave us the distance we didn't have on the second record. We wanted something more authentic, with more depth to it, that says something about who you are instead of something that is perfect."
This "studio sickness" Mars speaks of appears to be a recurring affliction.
"In Berlin we were also sick, because every time we do a record we are sick," he says. "It's pressure; it's nerves. You're focusing so much on something that your body and mind can't follow.
"We rely so much on each other, the four of us, there's no way we can get out of it. It's a domino effect, if you want. One falls and everybody goes. Destruction is stronger in those cases, because if one person is doubting then everything can go wrong."
At the moment, everything seems to be going right. The new joint is doing well, they've played all the big summer festivals, and Mars is dating Sophia Coppola, who had a big hand in launching the group when she prominently added their single Too Young to the Lost In Translation score.
But you could charge Phoenix with being somewhat inconsistent over the course of their three albums, and thus fracturing their fan base to a degree. Those who jumped on Phoenix's debut, United because of its kooky eclecticism, depressed lyrics and dilettante electronics (guitarist Laurent Brancowitz was in a Daft Punk precursor band called Darling) were miffed at Alphabet's mainstream playability.
And Phoenix are now a more stripped-down, pop-rock affair, which, as Mars admits, is a long way from United's days of four garçons experimenting in their own studio back in Versailles.
"We are doing everything we want, but some people make us feel we are not allowed to," complains Mars. "There are hardcore fans who need to hear something very specific, but there is no way we can satisfy them. There are songs that are almost impossible for us to play live. We have so many different people who want to hear our very early songs , the ones we wrote when we had our own studio and were doing electronic music.
"I think people understand us more when they come to see our live shows."