Phoenix: The Studio Story Behind 'Bankrupt!'

It is the opinion of Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz that the best music kind of stinks.

Phoenix (left to right)—Christian Mazzalai, Thomas Mars, Laurent Brancowitz, and Deck D’Arcy. It is the opinion of Laurent “Branco” Brancowitz that the best music kind of stinks. Asked if there existed an overriding philosophy while recording Bankrupt! (LOYAUTÉ/Glassnote Entertainment), the fifth album by the strategically unfolding pop-rock band Phoenix, the guitarist/keyboardist describes a compounding methodology laced with effervescent head notes, harmonious heart notes, and richly saturated components. “For this album, we had to forget fear and beauty,” says Branco. “We had to think like a creator of perfume, and use very disgusting smells to keep the whole thing wonderful.”

A diffuse and indulgent depiction feels like the appropriately rococo metaphor for Phoenix. Bankrupt! is an album of accumulation and alteration. There is nothing by any means “disgusting” about the album, but working again with producer Philippe Zdar, the band has blurred the line between digital and analog, transistors and valves, achieving a sound that is fast, sharp, and creatively frayed and enriched with details that provoke curiosity. “We had more than 1,000 pieces of music, from 30 seconds to five minutes each,” says Christian Mazzalai, Phoenix’s second guitarist and Branco’s brother. “The last album was a bit like that, but this album was 10 times more in the process of songwriting.”

With 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band reached a critical and commercial apex, a point many, perhaps unfairly, reference as a starting point. So, having “arrived,” Phoenix can push their stylistic charms into new directions less beholden to any expectation beyond sounding youthful and magnetic. On first listen, Bankrupt! flares into passages so monolithic, it’s difficult to imagine them composed by a group that’s ever taken a stage with instruments in hand. However, there’s a logical progression to the way Phoenix has embraced the seeming contradictions of “less is more,” pushing needles to the right, and lacing reverb throughout the band’s once-dry aesthetic.

Phoenix gestated in Versailles in the mid- 1990s. The band—which also includes Thomas Mars (vocals, programming) and Deck d’Arcy (bass, keys)—released its first full-length in 2000 with United (Source/Astralwerks). Composed in basement practice spaces and garage studios in the outskirts of Paris, United imaginatively drew on elements of Prince, Hall & Oates, Simon & Garfunkel, Al Green, Kenny Rogers, Iggy Pop, Gram Parsons, the Cars, Nico and the Velvet Underground, and The B-52s, alongside influences drawn from AM soft rock, disco, and the synth-laden soundtracks of movies such as John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Phoenix, like their contemporaries, became successful by avoiding radio tropes.

After an extended break, the band released Alphabetical (Source/Astralwerks), a more melancholy, parched album that individual band members likened to both a puma’s elegant rhythm and a caterpillar’s decided pacing.

After touring extensively, Phoenix decamped to Berlin to funnel that spontaneous energy into 2006’s self-produced It’s Never Been Like That. Constructed in three months, the album showcased a desire to concentrate on purity of arrangement.

“We are often very bad with things like mic placement; we usually just put it in front of the source and then put it through a very good Telefunken [U73] compressor,” laughs Branco. “We love instruments and equipment that are cheap, and also what is top end. We like them to confront each other. We didn’t worry so much about technique, but one thing we learned is you can have a very cheap microphone, and if you plug it into the right preamp [often a Telefunken V76] it can be good; at least that’s our theory.”

It was with the band’s next album, however, that the sonic perfumers truly managed to stabilize their primary concepts and distressed modifiers into punchy formulations. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix reunited Phoenix with Zdar, who had produced United. However, with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix he became like a fifth member of the group, which lived for nearly two years in Zdar’s Motorbass studio in the 18th Arrondissement when not searching for inspiration in a New York Bowery hotel suite and boats on the Seine.

One half of filter-house duo Cassius alongside Hubert Blanc-Francard, with a long production résumé that includes production work for the Beastie Boys, The Rapture, Chromeo, MC Solaar, and Étienne de Crécy (a colleague of Air), Zdar began his career as a tea boy at Paris’ Marcadet Studios, transitioning to mix engineer. Zdar’s primary function with Phoenix was not that of engineer, but rather as a creative antagonist. “He [Zdar] has become even more emotional than he was before; he may care more about our music than we do,” says Branco. “He worked with us on the first record, saved us when we were very lonely . . . we have a long story together and the level of confidence we have with each other is at its peak.”

Entering the studio to write, track, and mix simultaneously, Phoenix and Zdar established the template from which Bankrupt! developed. “On Bankrupt! everything has been embraced, left in the open, and it may surprise some but it is to me completely what I think would follow Wolfgang,” says Zdar. “[Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s] ‘Love Like a Sunset’ was the last song we did, and three years later, after they did many tours and I did many records, we realized we were starting from there again. If you listen to that, you can hear those reverbs, those synthesizer sounds, that big bass . . . all of those things have pushed their way forward and we have tried to stay honest in front of this sound.”

This sonic evolution at times put Phoenix in what Zdar describes as “not safe territory,” which he considers the most important path to quality. “Recording with some risk is so important,” he proselytizes. “Sometimes I can feel the comfort in a record, I can hear how much money and women and drugs went into a band losing its edge. I have read that [Factory Records house producer] Martin Hannett would keep his AC very very cold so that no one would want to sit in the control room and they would be forced to stay with their instruments and concentrate on getting the best of their art on tape. I only have wooden chairs in my studio, because artists need to concentrate on pushing to do something they didn’t know they could do.

“Sometimes you might spend weeks trying to find a sound, and as you are recording along the way, amazing things can also come of it,” he continues. “But not if you are on the couch. But also, you should not spend all your time behind the board or a computer, because you might find a sound but lose the use of it. You must use your threshold of taste to know when a sound goes too far the wrong way, and with Phoenix we have the same threshold of taste, which is why we work together. I think they are four of the best producers I know; they could do it alone, and they did do it alone for several albums, so I am there because we have a good time and maybe with my help they can avoid some mistakes.”

“The general strategy is to just be excited by what you are doing,” echoes Branco. “What we are trying to do is have ideas in the beginning and we work on them and when we realize they are bad, that’s when the real work begins, when you forget about what you had in mind and you just go into the darkness of creation. All those clichés about mistakes being more interesting . . . we based all our career on that, on mistakes that worked out for the best.”

The first steps toward Bankrupt! took place across the Atlantic. “We started work on the album not far from here, over at Oscilloscope Laboratories, [the late Beastie Boys member] Adam Yauch’s studio,” says Branco, entertaining interviews with the rest of Phoenix at New York’s Standard Hotel, East Village. “But our work in New York was for the palette. Later we used a lot of these sounds, and also the song ‘Trying to Be Cool’ happened here. I think it has a little East Village vibe. I didn’t like it when I was young, but now I can feel the charm of that early Danceteria Madonna, the balance of freedom and careful styling.

“It’s weird, though, that coming to New York had a greater influence in reverse mode,” continues Branco. “It brought us closer to our Europeanness, our roots,” meaning a cultural influence on songwriting, both from classic French pop but also the “. . . European vision of exotic countries,” he says. “In the ’70s and ’80s, back to Serge Gainsbourg, there was more of an element of discovering the modes of foreign music, especially pentatonic, but also Ethiopian, Balinese . . . all these new things in music that teach you that instead of adding a note or a chord, you can subtract.”

Guitarist Mazzalai shares that a French approach also helps explain the band’s DIY studio philosophy, which echoes Zdar’s belief in avoiding worshiping someone else’s success or technique while recording. “There were many home studios in the late ’90s—like with Daft Punk and Air and ourselves—and we did our first recordings on our own, built our equipment and learned on our own. We see the recording process the same way; we have never been interested in the culture of the big commercial studio, chasing the new sound or new equipment.” For Bankrupt! Phoenix and Zdar used a mix of plug-ins, outboard processors, and an SSL 4000 E Series console, but not to chase any particular contemporary or even retro sound. Instead, they chased an imaginary one.

“There’s an American brand of amplifier I know since the ’80s, called Spectral [Audio], and they are known for this very powerful, very fast transistor sound,” says Zdar. “I have never heard one, none of us have, but we fantasized that we wanted this Spectral idea, for our songs to be very sharp, very fast. With valves, some days it becomes too old, you lose a little bit of sound, and this sag can also sound wonderful but it is not the sound we wanted for Bankrupt! We put pictures of the Spectral up everywhere and would put limiter plug-ins going into a $10,000 Pultec, if it would help us maintain this hyperfast feel for the record but also create a full-frequency response.”

This quest created shifting roles in the studio. Branco explains that Mars, for example, “is usually vaguely in charge of the beats”— which can originate from an Akai MPC, Native Instruments Battery 3, and/or Linn LM-1 and LM-2, among other sources—while “the rest of the burden [melodies , harmony, structure, arrangement, production] is shared equally between the four of us.”

Branco reveals a “song” might start from something as simple as “one finger doing bass on my keyboard in the key of C, and the other hand on a toy keyboard. We also have huge custom bizarre sound banks of sounds, samples, harpsichord, flute. We prefer when things are processed. We would want a very organic sound like a flute; we would play the flute, but it would sound too much like a flute, so we would sample every note and it would sound like a flute played like a robot, and we like that very much.

Recording to Pro Tools|HD, Phoenix zealously sketched (evidence of this is made public on the deluxe iTunes edition of Bankrupt!, which features 71 bonus “tracks”). A wealth of hi-fi-meets-lo-fi gear was utilized, including the Fender Bullet Stratocaster (a “simple, affordable and practical guitar for beginners and students”), a Yamaha PSS-390 with MIDI retrofitted by Maitre Dirstein, an ARP Solina String Ensemble, a Yamaha CS-80, Korg Trident, a Memorymoog, a Fender Mustang Bass, a custom crunch pedal made by the band’s friend and stage manager, Cédric Plancy, and much more. Beyond the aforementioned Telefunken preamps, and perhaps some Neve 1073 EQ, minimal processing was done during tracking.

By far the real money has been invested in Zdar’s outboard mix chains, which often remain constant. For example, bass and kick drum sounds regularly go through an insert that includes a Neve 1073 EQ into a Pultec EQP-1A, a Massenburg GML 8200 EQ, then a Neve 33609 compressor. Vocals and snares are threaded primarily through a Urei 1176 or LA- 3A compressor, while synths are often guided through the V76, Neve 1073, a Urei LA-4 compressor/limiter and the Massenburg. Hihats, cymbals, and toms often get compressed right in the SSL, with possible some application of an SPL Transient Designer.

Compression in multiple stages became especially integral to Bankrupt!, while also threatening to choke the songs at times. The initial arrangements from the band used iZotope Alloy and Waves Ultramaximizer compression to achieve a crispy, fast, fat dynamic, but Zdar stepped in to allow for a far more judicious use of digital congestion.

To recreate/complement the more aggressive moments of the in-the-box compression scheme, Zdar assembled transistor modules including the Pultec EQP-1A3-SS EQ with the API 2520, Urei LA-5 (a fixed-ratio limiter originally for live sound), as well as the Helios Type 69 EQ (particularly for boosting in conjunction with cuts and additional compression on the SSL console, increasing excitement and reducing fatigue). This ability to control both broad outlines and surgical details achieves a softened loudness, so to speak.

“We would use some of the hard limiting and EQ plug-ins before my insert, because sometimes it would be easier to add a little [Universal Audio Neve] 1073 on a specific bass in the box instead of changing a physical chain for affecting many instruments,” admits Zdar. “And there’s the [Universal Audio Ampex] ATR-102 [mastering tape recorder] plug-in I love, to get some wobble or add some air. But wherever we could, we would use hardware to keep a sound that is hi-fi but also trashy in a good way that won’t hurt your ears. I would never use five plug-ins when I have the Pultecs, and I always filter and EQ on the desk.”

Zdar discloses that the members of Phoenix, who appear to be men, are actually alchemists who grafted themselves together to actualize Bankrupt! “We wanted to create our own instrument sounds that could only be played by a gigantic eight-armed man,” admits Zdar. “I’m obsessed with Robert Fripp and Carlos Alomar working with David Bowie and Adrian Belew with the Talking Heads . . . these men who when they play you can’t say it’s a Stratocaster going into a Boss pedal into a specific amp. And we wanted this colossal thing, where Phoenix was no longer four guys but one multiarmed creature, so we’d always double, triple, quadruple instruments … listen to the song ‘Chloroform’ and you will hear this beast.”

“That’s always been a strategy of people who are interested in sound,” confirms Branco. “Like Brian Wilson doubling clarinet and violin, doing layers. It’s been done before, but it’s a very powerful trick to do new things with old instruments. We love it when the limit between something very organic and something very synthetic is blurry. We love it when it’s mysterious.”

Considering the potential for conflict in this approach, Zdar cautions against the common impulse to push the focal point desired in a mix. “When I was young I was working with Bootsy Collins and I recorded a guitar where I wanted it to have lots of bass, lots of medium,” he reflects. “But then we started the mix and [Bootsy] told me to make it sound like it was going through a telephone. So I cut everything out and then it just was sitting in the mix, and in five minutes I already forgot there was no bass on the guitar. This day I discovered a lot; it made so much sense to me how, if you’re mixing lots of stuff, before thinking of invading you need to think about making room. The synths should make room for the bass, the guitar should make room for the snares or the highs, instead of the synths pushing and taking the room from the guitar. So at the end of the day there’s as much filtering as there are plusses on my EQ. One of the worst things you can do in mixing is soloing stuff, worrying about how ‘perfect’ one sound is. It’s how well it all balances.”

Compounding all of these odd, thinned, so-wrong-they’re-right sounds is a slathering of reverb, which the band previously allowed only in sparing increments. Its increased presence fits in with the importance of unease in the compositional viewpoint, and also acts as a bridge between both Phoenix’s recording and childhood inspirations.

“We read that when making ‘Kiss,’ Prince decided to take out the bass and put some AMS reverb on the kick to create that impression,” says Zdar. “Everyone told him he was crazy, but it worked so well that it is now what ‘Kiss’ is about. The great thing about reading such things is that it is freeing you to experiment, to believe there is no rule and you can try anything. There was no judge to say Bankrupt! would not come out if we had the guts to do something like take out the bass or push the reverb and delay. So we used the EMT 250, the AMS 15-80 and RMX16, a Lexicon 200, a cheap spring reverb like a Master Room like what they used in the Compass Point Studios. If you know where each one goes well, no one can tell you these cannot live together. When you use them right they appear to have always been part of the rhythm.”

Zdar and Phoenix avid readers of “behind the closed door” studio stories, and are always enthusiastic to find out that artists as contrasting as the Dead Kennedys and Fleetwood Mac have the same problems and very different solutions when recording. Zdar is particularly adamant that it’s important to read about artists that are not favorites in order to avoid just emulating your influences. He acknowledges that the use of AMS delays and reverbs is part homage to Prince, but that first and foremost they are used to establish a rhythm that fits the evolution of Phoenix.

“We have always cared about the final recording first,” says Branco. “We grew up with records more than with live music, so for us songs only exist when it’s finalized, you know? It changes the process from other bands who have songs and play them, rehearse them … I don’t know how they do it. We need to hear not just structure but the exact tone of everything to fill the emotion. Everything is linked as a whole.”

The decisive link for Bankrupt! comes from the SSL board in Motorbass. Doing minimal volume automation in the box in consideration of the compressor inserts, Zdar rides his board in a style Branco calls “jazz mastering.” “The SSL 4000, if you pull back too much it sounds sloppy,” says Zdar. “The Beatles, Quincy Jones, Chic, Thelonius Monk—they have all slammed their sound in a way that is well orchestrated and like velvet.” Zdar identified the driving element of each song, brought in the vocal quickly, locked it in, eased it back, brought everything else up and then went for precision. Finally, a pair of Ear 660 Limiter/ Comp Amplifiers on the stereo bus, a final tube stage, helps “move the speakers, help things get crispy, thumping, or have magic even on technical, transparent compression.”

Hundreds of studio hours and 41 printed minutes later, Bankrupt! establishes a heady scent ready to push wideband, high-current amplifiers of both the real and fantasy variety. “We like the moments where the structure doesn’t matter anymore, that are about letting go, and we also love things that are compact, perfect like a cube,” concludes Branco. “We feel enough in control that we can be less mastered.”

Tony Ware is a regular contributor to Electronic Musican.