The French quartet Phoenix has already sold more than 150,000 copies of its latest LP, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, this year. If the band sells about 80,000 more pieces, which should happen by late fall, the album, the band's fourth, will be certified gold. That is, it will have sold 500,000 copies in America since its release last May.
More than a decade ago, before MP3s and iPods slowed the roll of records off shelves, that last statistic might not have been so surprising. But without the support of mainstream radio or a major label, and with a lyrical and musical approach that's willfully complex, Phoenix might manage to break a sales barrier that's becoming an increasingly high hurdle for bands at large. But how?
The presence of Wolfgang's first single, the fuzz-and-chime "1901," in a stylish Cadillac advertisement didn't hurt, and neither did the inclusion of "Too Young," an earlier song by the band, in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. But Phoenix's success—those high sales and an upcoming short American tour that will put them in amphitheaters in Cary and Charlotte before they play a top spot at this weekend's Bonnaroo Music Festival—depends, it seems, upon a strange hybrid of swoon-worthy romanticism and old-school industrialism. They're a band that admits to making songs for gorgeous women while dropping the sort of musical references and instrumental dexterity that pique dude-ly interests, too. That's an admittedly reductive and restricting binary, but, looking out from stages every night, Phoenix has seen it at work.
"Women are a more interesting audience," Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz admitted to Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield last year. "They are more open to a pure form of pleasure. Men are more interested in demonstration, the technical virtuosity. Women have their arms open to celebration ... It's the women who start dancing."
Indeed, Phoenix's most memorable songs tend to be its most danceable, like the flawless, kinetic pair that opens Wolfgang, twin singles "Lisztomania" and "1901." Both songs have been remixed innumerable times, and rather than shy away from the remixes for fear they filch funds from their own sales, the band often catalogues them on its website, wearephoenix.com. A box set edition of Wolfgang even gathered 15 of these remixes, including contributions from Animal Collective and Yacht.
What's more, Phoenix generally seems romantic to American audiences: These four now-posh childhood friends grew up together in Versailles, worshipping both heavy rock and dance club anthems. Frontman Thomas Mars lives with film royalty Sofia Coppola, and the couple is now expecting its second child. In interviews, the band offers some hybrid of the enigmatic and erudite, referencing high culture and concepts while being just vague enough to foster intrigue.
Brancowitz told Sheffield he wanted not just the dancing women at his shows. He also wanted the men doing what he does when he enjoys a rock show—standing and staring, observing a good band from behind folded arms. "It's especially good if they end up having sex together after the show. That's our goal," he noted of the dancing women and gawking men. That's where the playing comes in, apparently. Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai are wildly counterintuitive guitar players, their layered lines framing each other like a laser light show. Listen closely to their starts, stops and shifts on "Rome." Coupled with the drum programming, Deck D'Arcy's bass and synthesizer work—he prefers thick textures and long, emphatic tones to compulsory melody-chasing—often leaps in from empty space.
And Phoenix makes more than great dance-rock singles. They produce audacious, artful records, too. Wolfgang, for instance, stacks three irrepressible tunes at its top and chases them with "Love Like a Sunset," an eight-minute anthem that moves from a winking Steve Reich phase piece to a swelling noise passage to a Kraut-like march. Suddenly, it all washes into a haze of acoustic guitar and ruptured bass: "Here comes, a visible illusion," sings Mars in the short song's second stanza. "Oh, where it starts it ends. You're like a sunset."
It's a love song, then, locked in a music-geek symposium.