TORONTO - In an age where almost every piece of historical information is available at our fingertips, Thomas Mars and Laurent Brancowitz of the French band Phoenix surprise me with a fact that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere on the internet.
“One of our first shows was actually in Japan,” Mars says, backstage at the Field Trip festival in Toronto. “(It was our) second show as Phoenix. We had two shows: one in Sapporo and one in Tokyo.”
Before I can react, Brancowitz takes the words from my mouth. “Isn’t that crazy? Back then the band’s establishment was very, very fragile. The foundation was nonexistent.”
From playing its earliest gigs here to its single “Too Young” being used during a Tokyo dance party scene in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film “Lost in Translation,” Phoenix’s history with Japan is perhaps deeper than any other country, with the exception of France. That said, Mars and Brancowitz don’t speak of their home with the same respect and enthusiasm they have for Japan.
“We were raised in Versailles, where there were literally zero venues, so we started as a studio band — our studio being our basement,” Brancowitz explains. “That was the kind of weird upbringing you can only have in Versailles. It’s beautiful there, but to live there is a different story.”
When the pair discover our interview is for a Japanese publication, their faces perk up in delight at the prospect of discussing their favorite country instead of their latest album, the gloriously sun-kissed “Ti Amo.” This weekend they will perform at Summer Sonic for a fourth time, since first playing in 2006. There is a reason they keep coming back.
“Summer Sonic is very unique, there’s nothing like it,” Mars says. “If you’re not familiar with it the first time you go there you likely think it will be the worst show of your life … and then you have one of the best. The venue is totally empty five minutes before you go on stage, and then somehow 10,000 people come in excited for the show. And then afterward they’re gone, like there is no trace of the people being there because it’s so civilized. Everywhere else you go the place will be trashed with beer cups and garbage. But at a Japanese show you could have another (concert) right after. Everyone in Japan is trying to make it the best show possible.”
To further convey the band’s appreciation for gigging in Japan, Brancowitz chirps in, “It’s different from what we’ve experienced in Europe, especially France — a nation of pigs!”
Phoenix is the rarest of live acts. Its performances are dynamic and full of visual splendour, yet the members’ chemistry as a group is second to none. Those early years of working hard to become a studio band — not to mention, the years off they regularly take in between albums — clearly show they have put in the effort to sound better than everyone else. Though Brancowitz feels in Japan they definitely get a boost.
“The sound is just so good,” he says. “We were playing with Daft Punk in a warehouse once and it was the best sound I’ve ever heard. The sound was like audiophile quality — in a warehouse! We love Japan.”
Brancowitz says he can go on forever about sound quality, but he also wants to praise the band’s Japanese fan base, which he feels truly understands and respects what Phoenix is trying to do.
“The audience is very focused and respectful, sometimes a bit too much,” he admits. “They respect the arts. It is beautiful. There is a melancholy in our music that the Japanese spirit can understand. The mix of success and failure is something that is, maybe only in my imagination, very Japanese and very close to our hearts.”
When asked what they look forward to most about returning to Japan, Mars and Brancowitz give two very different answers.
“When we travel the luxurious thing for us to have is a routine,” Mars says. “You go back to Tokyo and you visit all of the same places you went to before. The sense of discovery is not as important as it was before because there are places where we know people and we want to visit them.”
“I love the fact that we can get lost,” Brancowitz adds. “I remember our first show in Sapporo, suddenly I got lost for real looking for the venue. It’s a feeling that I can’t feel anywhere else in the world. I also love the hot baths and the smell of the wooden buckets. Japanese wood is so good.”
Something Phoenix loves even more than the people and wood of Japan is the sake. On previous trips they would take an expert in the alcoholic drink named Toshiro Kuroda on tour with them. Unfortunately, earlier this year Kuroda passed away from, as Brancowitz puts it, “too much sake.” In his honor, Phoenix has just released its very own sake, which Kuroda helped them design. As one final request, he asked that all proceeds from the sales go to the International Federation of Red Cross.
“He came on tour with us in Japan and he took us to sake factories,” Mars recalls. “At the end of every show he would give a small comment, and it was always the highlight of every tour.”
“The sake is not just good, it’s the best,” Brancowitz adds. “It’s a bottle we designed and the sake we chose, junmai daiginjo, is the best sake. It tastes like water, in a good way. In an imaginary vision of what water should taste like.”
The topic of sake becomes so fervent that once the interview ends, Brancowitz insists on me speaking to his brother, Phoenix guitarist Christian Mazzalai, a self-described Japanophile.
“He doesn’t care about promoting the album,” Brancowitz says. “He only cares about the sake.”
“It’s true. It is more important than promo for the album,” Mazzalai says. “It’s very important for me to do this. Sake is more than alcohol, it’s something that goes beyond for us. The idea of perfect sake is minimalistic, the idea of streaming clear water. You should try the sake. It’s really, really good.”