SONIC REDUCER How do you fluff up sagging ole demon rock in the 21st century? Break it down to just one dude with a laptop and free-floating mix of hip-hop and hesher, ho'-pulling and hoary? Take it up a couple jillion notches and set it free of verse, chorus, and bridge to nowhere, heading into noise's bristling, gristly outerzone? Or just turn it around and send it through the filter of another country, another tongue, another cult-cha and back. The latter is the case for French combo Phoenix and Israeli outfit Monotonix (see sidebar), two travelers in the rutted, wrecked roads of rock both playing this week in this bobo bastion by the Bay.
"When we were young," says Phoenix guitarist Laurent "Branco" Brancowitz, 35, "we tried to sound like the Velvet Underground and tried to erase the Frenchness." He chuckles under his breath. He's on the phone from Versailles, where Phoenix first rose up from old Europe's antiquities. "But now that we've grown up, we don't try to hide our accent. We love the fact that we had to admit we come from a different country than most rock musicians. We can't talk about Cadillacs, but we talk about our own things: we talk about the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the things that are our Mississippi and cotton fields."
Tough to reenvision the Eiffel as a small-town Midwestern water tower but Phoenix manages its own reinvention on the Parisian landmark on "1901," off Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Loyaute/Glassnote) as well as, Brancowitz explains, "all these things that were so modern at the time, that are now so obvious and cliché. There was a moment when [the Eiffel was] scary, offering a new vision for the future. It was an idea we were fascinated by, the idea of modernity in the past and how you relate to that."
Phoenix has flown far since the days when it served as early Air's live band and had a sleeper hit of sorts with "Too Young" via the Lost in Translation soundtrack. Vocalist Thomas Mars might have graduated to the gossip columns as director Sofia Coppola's baby daddy, but Wolfgang can stand proudly on its own (with help from producer Philippe Zdar of Cassius), straddling the kingdom of Killers-ish dancefloor-friendly rock-pop with ethereal numbers like "Fences" and the more austere, ambitious ambient outskirts, as embodied by the lovely "Love Like a Sunset Part I."
Thanks to its old Versailles nest, the outfit is accustomed to both staring inward at the past and out. There, says Brancowitz, "the buildings were perfectly symmetrical. There's the boredom that's important. We had all these dreams of escaping. The combination of boredom and beauty shaped us." The band members hid out in their basements listening to the Velvets and the Beatles and retreating to another kind of inspiring yet imposing past, while Mozart, Liszt, and the like blared in the background. As kids, Brancowitz recalls, "We had a lot of soccer matches with a soundtrack of classical music very loud classical music."
That breed of bonding has led to the fact, as the guitarist puts it, "for some very strange reason, all the good French artists are friends." Brancowitz himself started out in a band called Darlin' with Daft Punk's Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, the pair who changed the world's perception of French pop. The punk Beach Boys-inspired band crumbled when the other two "decided to go to a lot of rave parties, and I didn't because I didn't like the nightclub life. I'm a bit of a snob about it I find it very vulgar." He laughs. "But we are friends.