Phoenix's Thomas Mars on R. Kelly 'Contradictions,' Why They Won't Take a Hiatus

Phoenix iHeartRadio Music Festival - H 2013
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Phoenix iHeartRadio Music Festival - H 2013

Phoenix performed a five-song set on Saturday night at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, and frontman Thomas Mars confirmed that it's likely the first time the French pop group has agreed on their set list. Mars sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in the band's dressing room backstage, meaning that it's only the second radio show the group has participated in following an appearance at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas in 2010.

"We play the ones that feel urgent," Mars says of selecting their set list, which included past hits "1901" and "Lisztomania," as well as recent single "Entertainment." "You don't really have time so it's is pretty easy. I think we all agreed. Usually we fight for set lists, but this one we didn't. So we should do only 20-minute short sets. We'll be in a great mood."

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The group was originally scheduled to perform with R. Kelly, who joined Phoenix onstage at Coachella and appears on their song "Trying to Be Cool," off recent album Bankrupt!. The R&B artist pulled out of his appearance at iHeartRadio, but Mars said it's always a mystery as to whether Kelly will come anyway.

"There's no rehearsals with R. Kelly," Mars says. "He just shows up onstage. He arrives late. You're not sure if he's showing up and then you smell cigar and then you know he's coming."

For Mars, the collaboration with Kelly was two-fold. "We liked his music," Mars says. "And we liked the fact that there's so many contradictions -- he's the opposite of us. And somehow it worked musically. We invited him because musically it seemed like something interesting. But it's music that got us to work with him, not just a clash of personalities or clash of music genres."

Phoenix heads out on their own tour this weekend, kicking off in Chicago on Sept. 28. The band will perform several U.S. dates, including at Barclays in Brooklyn, before heading to Europe. The tour, which Mars says "is the thing we're looking forward to the most," is an opportunity to get the most out of the tracks on Bankrupt!. The singer confirms that the band has started toying with new music, but feels there are still some things they need to do with this album.

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"The songs of this album still have a new life on tour," Mars says. "It's hard to write new stuff when the songs you have written before are still changing and evolving. It would be like building something when the foundations there are not really solid. When we know we have to stop touring [the music] stops changing. So probably a month before we stop touring. It feels like we reach a level we want to reach and there's nothing more we can bring to the live show. And then we know it's time to write."

As for what that new music might involve? Mars will only says it will be something the band has never done before -- although according to the singer that's always the case with Phoenix.

"There's a lot of things we've never tried," Mars says. "We only look for these things. Each time we learn a recipe we burn it after. That's why we don't write songs on tour because we want to learn how to write a song from scratch. We want to learn again so we learn a different way. That way it's easier to make songs that sound different than the previous ones. That's seemed to work for us so far, but it's exhausting. It's a nightmare."

In light of the band's Glassnote labelmates Mumford & Sons recently announcing a hiatus, it seemed worth asking whether Phoenix had ever considered something similar. Mars said the band has taken an occasional break without announcing anything, but mostly Phoenix just keeps doing what they've been doing.

"People maybe don't care enough about it that we have to make an announcement," Mars says. "It's too weird to announce you're pausing. Our life is touring and then recording and then touring and recording, and it's been the same since we started. We're terrible at holidays. We can't stop. I would be useless. I don't know how to carve, how to make anything, how to sell. I don't know what I would do. I would try to build a treehouse maybe -- I don't know."

Twitter: @EmilyZemler