Phoenix’s Dapper Men Also Get Dirty

Phoenix ‘s Thomas Mars crawls across the crowd at Coachella, April 2013. PhotoChristopher Polk/Getty Images

Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.

It’s easy to forget that Phoenix is a real rock band. They’re so pretty and French and capable of un-ironically pulling off pastel pants that it seems like they’d be too polite to get really loud and dirty. False. I’d seen them before but mostly at festivals so I wasn’t entirely prepared for the sweaty mess of humans they recently attracted to Music Hall of Williamsburg, or for the sheer volume they delivered once they took the stage. They were so ridiculously loud that I had to pull that trick of stuffing little twirled bits of napkin into my ears. And they were so emotionally powerful that I felt a little embarrassed to be witnessing the looks on the faces of the dudes in the front couple rows who urgently sought deep eye contact with frontman Thomas Mars.

“Perfection, for Phoenix, is a kind of kryptonite.”

The band formed in Versailles, which, Mars told me the last time I interviewed him, was like growing up in a museum. The upside for artists: there’s money around. The downside: you’re not allowed to touch anything. It’s (understandably) a place where there’s a lot of reverence for the past, but Phoenix were from the beginning all about using loud guitars to escape the prison of nostalgia. When the band was first forming, it felt like the entire city was under a rock gag order; if your show went past 10 PM, the cops were called.

When we spoke, Phoenix was just coming off the dizzying success of their breakthrough Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Mars talked about the disquiet they felt knowing that increasingly large venues often translates into increasingly uptight rock shows. “Every time there’s a band that becomes big there’s LED screens — they hire people to do all of it,” he said. “But for us we want to do everything in the amateur way.” Perfection, for Phoenix, is a kind of kryptonite.

I was thinking about this – the appeal of disorder – as I sat at a table upstairs at this show, literally squeezing those little bits of paper into my ear canals hoping they wouldn’t get lost in there Girls-style. To my left: Beastie Boy Mike D. To my right: Mars’ wife Sofia Coppola. Milling around: Kim Gordon and Eleanor Friedberger. In all of our ears: the sound of perfectly executed, sleek rock and roll. This was a lot of fun but it didn’t feel particularly disruptive. Mars suddenly dismounted the stage swimming through the masses and singing when the cord to his microphone got wrapped around the stand. He was oblivious, but with every step he got closer to catapulting the thing through the crowd, likely cold-clocking multiple dapper, inebriated young men. But from the crowds dozens of hands (plus the frantic work of a panicked roadie) managed to untangle the mess so Mars could reach the soundboard, climb atop it, and serenade us all.

“There’s so many mistakes in one show, whenever there’s something imperfect, it’s even better because you know, okay, they don’t travel with twenty trucks and put on the same show every night. It’s never about comfort,” Mars told me. “That’s the thing I guess. We are never comfortable.”