When the French band Phoenix are not on stage or in the studio, you’re likely to find them grooming one of their horses. We got together with Thomas Mars, a few thoroughbreds and the rest of the guys to talk about their love of horses.
Text Ida Pyk Photography André Wolff / The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 2
Would you pass me a brush?” asks Thomas Mars, gently patting his horse’s muzzle before currying her with firm yet loving strokes. Thomas is the vocalist for French pop band Phoenix and married to movie director Sofia Coppola. He stands in a leafy garden in the warm embrace of the afternoon sunlight. Serene and lovely, the mare stretches her neck towards him and draws a deep breath. Every now and then she is spoiled by cosseting hands and intimate whispers from the other band members, Laurent Brancowitz, Deck d’Arcy and Christian Mazzalai.
Not many male rock stars spend their leisure time with horses, those icons of countless little girls’ rooms. Yet horses have always captivated creative people, providing inspiration for painting, fashion, music and literature. Artists Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet loved horse racing, and often incorporated the powerful animals into their work. French painter Rosa Bonheur disguised herself as a man to draw the horses at exclusive horse auctions, from which women were still barred in the 19th century.
Today, brothers Gerard and Alain Wertheimer, owners of the House of Chanel, are among the biggest names in equestrian sport. Phoenix share their galloping interest in racing with a large cross-generational audience in France, though it appeals primarily to the upper classes and the artistic elite there. For style and spectacle, the annual Prix de Diane at Chantilly is the high point of the continental horse racing calendar in France. With more than 30,000 visitors, including celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve and Eva Longoria, the event’s surroundings have almost overtaken the importance of the race itself, which crowns the top three-year-old filly in France. Horse racing lures aficionados with its glorious luxury. A day of racing is a day of leisurely ease around the track, where the VIP sections are very generous indeed – late-night venues full of power networking, art deals and champagne toasts.
For the past two years or so, Phoenix have jointly owned the three-year-old thoroughbred Baronesse. When the Versailles quartet’s manager, who initially bought the horse, got married he decided to do so with the band in attendance at a race in luxurious Deauville, to the northwest of Paris. With its race course, international film festival, Grand Casino and yachting at the harbour, Deauville has become an emblematic resort for high society. In the twenties and thirties, Coco Chanel was a regular at the racetracks, along with the singers Josephine Baker and Mistinguett, the latter involved in an affair with Alfonso XIII, King of Spain. Today, the Wertheimer brothers, designer Philippe Starck and photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino own houses in the area – so don’t be surprised if you see them on any of the famous races that take place in Deauville.
Phoenix’s interest in the fashionable sport has taken them to racetracks around the world. When they are on tour, they’re always on the lookout for any local races, both for sheer enjoyment and for a spot of betting – and also as a cure for homesickness.
Christian Mazzalai: Racing is typically French, and when we’re touring we usually keep up the French traditions.
Thomas Mars: We’ve been to two races in the USA, several in France and one in Italy. In San Francisco, there’s a fantastic track across from the Golden Gate Bridge. You can see the horses from the bridge; it’s gorgeous. I like how the social scene surrounding racing varies around the world. In LA, only Mexicans go to the races. In France, it’s mostly old , rich people, the bourgeoisie.
Do you place bets? Thomas I bet on them a bit, but I never know which horses I’m betting on. I usually ask my oldest daughter Romy who she thinks will win. Unfortunately that doesn’t always work so well.
Do you ride Baronesse? Thomas No, but I rode as a kid. When you’re young you’re not scared. I remember the first time the horse galloped. It’s a unique experience – a bit like flying.
Did you know that the way horses run has been compared to musical rhythms? Thomas Really? Yes, a galloping horse has a musical cadence. Photographer Eadweard Muybridge proved that a horse running at a gallop has all four hooves off the ground at once. Galloping creates a characteristic sound, yet it is reminiscent of flying. Thomas Cars can give you a similar feeling, and they are based on horsepower too… Ferrari has a whole team specialising in sound. The idea is for a drive to remind you of riding a horse, so they look for a special sound. You know sometimes when you open the window and there’s this woo-woo-woo sound? It’s the most annoying sound, but it creates a certain harmony in the car. Our soundtrack for Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere is based on the sound of a Ferrari.
Laurent, Deck, Thomas and Christian are old school friends who put together their highly danceable pop band while growing up in the Paris suburb of Versailles. In 2000, they released their debut album United on their own Ghettoblaster label. The track Too Young became a hit after Sofia Coppola used it in her 2003 film Lost in Translation, and the band have contributed to her films ever since. Sofia and Thomas fell for each other on the set of her first feature film, The Virgin Suicides, where he sang “Playground Love” with French band Air, and they got married on 27th August 2011 at a wedding in her family-owned villa in Bernalda, Italy. Sofia’s new film Somewhere is a little reminiscent of Lost in Translation and is apparently based on Sofia Coppola’s relationship with her own father, director Francis Ford Coppola. It takes place partly in Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont, and concerns an actor (Stephen Dorff) living a decadent and destructive life which comes to a turning point when his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) turns up unexpectedly. Last spring, Phoenix worked on the film’s soundtrack.
Tell us about the soundtrack.
Christian: There is no soundtrack.
Christian: No, the music alone is nothing, but together with the images in the film, it’s perfect. It was exactly how we wanted it. Thomas It is very minimal. Making movie music is more craft than creating. You know, it’s all about melodies… finding the perfect sound of a Ferrari as it glides through LA. Like that.
What was your process?
Thomas: We worked with the production team on set. For us, it’s important for the music to be part of the film, to come into being while the film is being made and melt together with the characters. It’s not like we made music and then added it on top. The only stand-alone song is the Strokes track I’ll Try Anything Once that Julian Casablancas redid solo.
So the soundtrack is your musical interpretation of Somewhere?
Thomas: Yes, but… Sofia knew exactly what she wanted.She always knows. She had a very strong idea of the movie and how the music would meld with the script. She gave us directions and we set to work based on her ideas. We did about 200 small pieces and she picked what she wanted. Then we put them together to make little minimalistic tracks. The characters in Sofia Coppola’s films often seem lost and lonely – take Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, for example.
How well does that line up with the philosophy behind your music?
Thomas: All my favourite songs have a certain sense of sadness.
They’re a combination of feelings. I don’t think we write songs about sadness or happiness; I don’t divide up the world into those categories. For me it’s all about the same thing. Two feelings that are woven together and exist in a kind of balance. And depending on how sensitive you are, you experience them as happiness or sadness.
Do you feel sad, too?
Thomas: Maybe the part of me that drinks is sad. That’s the only thing that’s always sad. But there’s something glorious in sadness, too. Take Gustave Mahler’s music, for example. He wrote his music in a constant sense of conflict, never knowing when to be sad or when to be happy.
And, you know, it’s music that can be played both at a funeral and during the really happy moments in your life.
You moved around a lot while you were recording your last album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. First you spent a month at a hotel in New York, then you were off to an artist’s studio in Paris, then you rented a houseboat on the Seine, and finally you ended up finishing the album at the studio of Philippe Zdar from Cassius. What were you looking for?
Thomas: We were looking for a feeling of exile as a source of inspiration. A place that was right for our purpose, but that wasn’t a studio.
Which place did you like best?
Thomas: The studio of 19th-century French painter Théodore Géricault. It’s in Montmartre, and the whole interior is just like it was when he lived there, like an old library full of books and paintings.
Phoenix already have plans for their next horse purchase, a little thoroughbred foal who will be called Lisztomania, after the hit song from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album which earned them a Grammy last year.
Christian: I can just see Lisztomania at the head of the pack in a race: “And here comes Lisztomania. Lisztomania takes the lead. It’s Lisztomania by a nose… Lisztomania!” Thomas Lisztomania is a good name for a horse. If I saw a horse named Lisztomania in a race, I would bet on her instantly. I like betting on horses with good names.
Do you make any money on horses?
Thomas: No, we’re not getting rich off horses. Even if a horse wins a fair amount of money, it costs a huge amount to keep them. It’s not about money. Our interest has more to do with the pleasure of horses and the thrill of the race.
Where will you record your next album?
Thomas: Our families are in Paris and the US, so that’s where we’re
going to be. We end up having to do a lot of travelling, but we always find a way.
Christian: We think of our albums like photo albums. When we’re finished with the songs, it’s like pasting pictures into a new album. It’s impossible to say what will go into them until we’re done. We may have an idea about what we’re going to do, but it will probably change in the process of doing the work, and we only see the overall shape of the album afterwards. It’s always that way.
How do you make your music?
Thomas: Like this. We sit and talk – maybe about horses. We talk about horses for two or three hours and then we play 10 minutes of music.
Christian: Yes, we talk more then we play.
Is the talking a way of finding your lyrics?
Thomas: Yes. To arrive at something that seems interesting, we have to talk until we are thoroughly exhausted. We want our songs to feel very mysterious and private. Often when we’re working on one, we have something ugly in mind, like the smell of an unbearable perfume. We know that otherwise it will be too generic and polished. The things we hate the most at the beginning often turn into songs. If we’re thinking, “do we even need to record this?” then we’re usually on the right track. That’s exactly the piece of music that turns out to be the most important two days later.
When are you happiest?
Thomas: Right before an album is finished. We’re sitting in the studio, just the four of us, playing together. Everyone has a secret smile on their lips and nobody wants to change a thing. It’s a total ego trip.
Christian: It lasts for two days.
And then what?
Thomas: Just another three years’ wait for those two days.
When will it happen again?
Thomas: This autumn we’re going into the studio again, when it gets foggy and cold. Fog is really nice, actually. In music and in horse riding too. That’s where I’ll be this autumn – riding a horse in the fog. •