"This summer has been like 10 summers rolled into one," said Mars, still sounding buzzed from the band's closing set at Lollapalooza in Chicago this month, which Rolling Stone called "the best performance of the entire weekend." He's also pleased with Kelly's remix version of their new single, "Trying to be Cool," which he calls "a gift."
Phoenix's four members - Mars, bassist Deck d'Arcy, and guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalei - grew up in Versailles, the Paris suburb that was home to the 18th-century court of Louis XIV.
Beginning with their debut United in 2000, the group, who sing in English, built a growing audience with a brand of ebullient power-pop that rocks out without neglecting the dance floor. Their following exploded with 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It sold 20 times as many copies in the United States as its predecessor, thanks to a Cadillac SUV commercial that used the Phoenix hits "Lisztomania" and "1901."
Expectations, then, were high for Bankrupt!, which delivers on them from the get-go, with "Entertainment," a spiky lead track that begins with an intensely catchy synth riff.
"Entertainment" concludes that, amid all the fanfare, "I'd rather be alone." It's inspired, Mars said, both by diffidence toward mainstream success for a band, whose 2011 tour documentary is called From a Mess to the Masses, and by time spent sitting around watching videos of North Korean military exercises.
"What we liked about this song is that it took on different shapes and spoke to us on different levels," said Mars, 37. "It was something that was very exotic and far away, and at the same time very close to us."
The key in creating Bankrupt! was taking a "naïve" approach to music-making, he said. "You always have to start from scratch. You always have to learn how to write a song. . . . It has to be about creating music, in a selfish way, that you like."
Phoenix got good at making rock music you can dance to, in part, because "our influences are all over the place," Mars said. "When we grew up, there was just one record store, and we couldn't listen to the records before we bought them, so we would buy them because of the covers. It didn't make any sense - that's what we liked about it. There was Neu! [the German Krautrock pioneers], and then there was Shaft" - Isaac Hayes' 1971 blaxploitation soundtrack.
Mars always sang in English "because even though we had French music influences, there were a little more English-speaking ones, and that was just enough to pull us in that direction."
Versailles "was like growing up in a museum," Mars said. "Noise is not welcome. Music is not welcome. Everything that's great happened 300 years ago. It's all about keeping it how it was.
"And at the same time, people forget how decadent and insane it was, and how Versailles was this giant Graceland. I don't want to offend Elvis fans, but Graceland is sort of a cheap Versailles. The level of insanity and rock star-ness is insane. And yet, people living in Versailles are the most conservative people, and they don't get that feeling at all. It lost its power with time."
In 2007, artist Jeff Koons displayed his porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with his pet chimp, Bubbles, at Versailles. "I thought it was really clever," Mars said, "because it made Versailles feel really contemporary again."
As frustrating as the frozen-in-time tourist town could be, it forced the band to rebel.
"It felt like Versailles was keeping us from doing anything," Mars said, "because there was no interest in the music. But because everybody was against it, you had to do it, in a way. You had no choice but to go against this, and go and do it."
Speaking of Michael Jackson, when Phoenix was working on Bankrupt! earlier this year, they purchased the recording console used by Quincy Jones in the recording of Jackson's landmark album Thriller. It sold for $17,000 on eBay, although, Mars said, it cost them twice that to ship it from California to Paris.
"A recording console is almost like a car that you go to work with when you're a musician," Mars said. "We spotted something that inspired us when we were kids, that is really special. Something, not to be too Spinal Tap about it, that really goes up to 11 and does something magical.
"We just enjoyed it. It's just old, so it's not that precious. A lot of things don't work, so you have to fix it all the time. The charm is in all that effort."
After the band completed Bankrupt! and hit the road touring, their studio in Paris was burglarized. All their equipment was stolen - except for the Thriller console. "Nobody could steal it because it's too heavy," Mars said. "So that's the reward we got for all the effort we put into making the record. We're all happy that it's the one thing that stayed."
Five electronic dance music acts from foriegn lands
Next weekend, Jay Z's Budweiser Made in America Festival returns to Philadelphia for its second annual two-day blowout on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
This year, Jay Z himself is not part of the official lineup. But do we really think he's not showing up at his own festival, when his wife, reigning pop diva Beyoncé, is the Saturday night headliner?
Pop music luminaries will abound on the MIA stages, including Trent Reznor's resurgent Nine Inch Nails. Their first album in five years, Hesitation Marks, comes out two days after the band closes out the festival Sunday night in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Rocky steps.
So MIA, as you might expect, will be heavy on U.S. talent, especially with the rappers, who are, to a man, American. But the festival is also surprisingly international, with global headliners Phoenix (see accompanying article), and an array of electro-dance talent (see below). That's somehow fitting for a fest whose titular beer is actually brewed by a parent company, Anheuser-Busch, owned by InBev, a Belgian-Brazilian multinational.
The U.S. rap contingent includes Seattle hip-pop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Pittsburgh weed rapper Wiz Khalifa, political agit-rap standard-bearers Public Enemy, ascendant Harlem emcee A$AP Rocky, and the entire California-based Black Hippy crew of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul.
But the EDM acts tend to be from beyond our borders, not surprisingly, since club music hit abroad much earlier than in the States. Below are five select international acts that, along with masked Canadian producer deadmau5, stand to be highlights of the festival. All except Scottish singer Emeli Sandé have connections to the EDM world.
1. Calvin Harris. Scottish deejay, singer and record producer Harris, the only MIA act to return from last year, might not be the most recognizable name on the bill. But he's certainly one of the best-paid. According to Forbes, Harris is the world's richest DJ, earning $46 million last year. (deadmau5 came in fifth, at $21 million.) Harris not only pulls in $200,000 per gig, but also gets royalties from writing songs such as "We Found Love," his mega-hit with Rihanna. He's the dance music headliner on Sunday, on a bill that includes British EDM artists Nero and Feed Me.
2. AlunaGeorge. The collaboration between Londoners Aluna Francis and George Reid, who met cute on MySpace in 2009, started yielding fetchingly understated and off-kilter dance-pop singles in 2011. They really hit their stride last year with the terrific "Your Drums, Your Love." That's a key track on their impressive full-length debut, Body Music, which pairs Francis' small but memorable voice with Reid's consistently inventive beats. On the MIA undercard Sunday afternoon.
3. Emeli Sandé. When they say an artist semi-popular in the States is "big in England," they don't usually mean bigger than the Beatles. Earlier this year, Emeli Sandé - born Adeli Emeli Gouraguine in the north of England to African and English parents, and now living in Scotland - broke an almost 50-year-old U.K. chart record when her debut album, Our Version of Events, fueled by the mega-hit "Next To Me," spent 63 weeks in the top 10, longer than the Fab Four's Please Please Me. Before going solo, Sandé was a behind-the-scenes songwriter. She's penned tunes for Alicia Keys, Rihanna, and Susan Boyle. As a singer, she deals in a style of soaring pop-R&B that seems sure to break her big on this side of the pond. She plays MIA on Saturday.
4. Empire of the Sun. The words electronic duo usually mean two geeky dudes squinting into their laptops while jacking the beats-per-minute to work a crowd into a frenzy. Not so with the proudly glammy Empire of the Sun, the Australian tandem of Luke Steele, formerly of Sleepy Jackson, and Nick Littlemore, late of Pnau. They dress up like characters from sci-fi fantasy novels and promise a show featuring "jaw-dropping visuals and dancing swordfish girls." Jay Z is a fan: The MIA mahoff brought Steele in to sing on "What We Talkin' About" on 2009's The Blueprint 3, and Steele also cowrote Beyoncé's "Rather Die Young." Ice on a Dune, Empire's new album, is full of synth-heavy pop songs with airy melodies and driving rhythms, like a flamboyant update of the Pet Shop Boys, without the subversive wit. On the Saturday bill.
5. Mord Fustang. In the tradition of fellow electronic music-maker Com Truise comes Mord Fustang, the 22-year-old EDM artist playing the Made in America DJ tent on Saturday. He grew up in a small town outside of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and so far he's been successful in both hiding his real name from Internet sleuths and avoiding being sued by the Ford Motor Company for his spoonerism of a name. You might call his music electro-house, mixed with dubstep, but he described his sound to Beatport, who named him 2012 breakthrough artist of the year, as "an adventurously nude fluctuant immaculate rainbow-coated thunderstorm with arpeggios, 1-up mushrooms and disco basslines, plus a wobble or two. Something like that." He plays MIA on Saturday.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.inquirer.com/inthemix.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter, @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix" at www.inquirer.com/inthemix.