Thomas Mars is arguably the coolest Frenchman in pop. His girlfriend is the American director Sofia Coppola, she of off-beat, ethereal feature films like Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides (for which Mars helped mix some of the soundtrack). He has elfin features, peaking out above his often black, artfully dishevelled wardrobe, and is crippled by an enigmatically shy personality. There is also the small matter of him fronting a little-known, critically-adored band.
Mars fronts the Gallic four-piece Phoenix. The group hails from the tragically un-hip Versailles suburb of Paris and, while often lauded in the music press, they remain largely ignored by the public, suffering their greatest anonymity in their native country. This is a shame; their first three albums, 2000's United, 2004's Alphabetical and 2006's It's Never Been Like That, brought the world wistful, softly spoken songs as told through Mars's sweet, plaintive vocals. Arguably their most popular success came through the United track "If I Ever Feel Better" in 2004, after Erlend Oye produced a sexed-up remix for the DJ Kicks series (the Norwegian Oye, like Mars, sings in English in an endearing foreign accent). Now, Phoenix's latest album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is turning critics' heads ahead of its release on 25 May. Dazed & Confused call Phoenix "masters of the pop-rock crossover", The Word thinks they've "shifted things up a gear" and last month, the band performed two of its tunes, "1901" and the toe-tapping "Lisztomania", on the flagship US comedy show Saturday Night Live (most bands just do one).
To write the album, the quartet decamped to various "inspirational" locations, including the former Paris studio of the 19th-century Romantic painter Théodore Géricault, a houseboat on the Seine and New York's Bowery hotel (where they lived for a month). They also recruited Philippe Zdar to produce. Zdar is one half of French house duo Cassius, working with his fellow Frenchmen for the first time since United.
"We used the hotel to get started," says Mars, talking from Los Angeles. "It was so nice after the relative austerity of the locations that had come before. After three months we ran out of money, and that was the best bit because it forced us to be creative. The same thing happened on Alphabetical. We spent all our cash on this huge track we recorded with the Opéra National de Paris and we didn't use it on the record. So when we found this place with Philippe, it was under construction and we could get on with things; there was suddenly an artistic pressure on us. We like the home-studio thing – it's where we come from."
The inspiration certainly seems to have helped them up their game. One track, "Love Like a Sunset", is a sprawling, ambient epic, a halting counterpoint to the album's poppier efforts. Mars says that the notoriously opinionated Zdar smoothed, rather than ruffled proceedings.
"He's such a strong personality that there's no in-between with him," he says. "We can only really work with someone who is going to tell us honestly what's working and what isn't. You can't play it to a friend, as they always say they like it. We needed someone like him to stop us from wasting too much time in the studio." Of "Love Like Sunset", Mars says the band was listening to minimalist US composer Steve Reich's 1970 work Drumming. Phoenix wanted to compose a 45-minute-long track, akin to Reich's, but were discouraged from doing so by Zdar.
In the US, the album is the band's first to be released on their own label, Loyauté, teaming up with independent label Glassnote, whereas in Europe it is being released as a partnership between V2 and Cooperative Music. It is the group's first release since they split from former label Astralwerks, affording them a degree more creative control.
"It's the most exciting thing for us, we can present our music the way we want to," adds the vocalist. "Previously, before it got to the public the music had to go through so many hoops – it wasn't really us. We released some of the album for free over the internet earlier in the year, which was such a relief after having to wait five months, say, for your writing to get released. It's not commercial suicide; it's just releasing things the way you want.
"Now, it's hard to say whether someone is from the rock or the electronic scene and I like it. The boundaries don't exist any more. In France, where there were loads of different groups of kids, they are now all the same shape."
They might even manage to break the French market. "With the French you have to tour and record for a long time to prove that you are credible," continues D'Arcy. "For a long time we didn't let on that we were from Versailles, because it's a bit of weird place and all of the bands that come out of there are a bit weird... it made people suspicious. It's the same for everyone. There can be this trial period which can be quite long. Until the the last album people didn't know whether it was good or bad, but it's getting better now. We went abroad for a long time touring. When we came back we were fresh... we like France now."
'Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix' is released on 25 May on V2/Cooperative