Photo by Nina Corcoran
“Hold onto your butts and get ready!” declares Sam France, lead singer of Foxygen, during their new, conceptual 24-song double album, …And Star Power. The captured heirloom recording at the beginning of the track “Cold Winter/Freedom” is a cheekily spirited mimic of a radio broadcaster forewarning his imaginary news-thirsty listeners to hold onto their behinds and brace themselves for the impending doom that lies ahead. The message feels explicitly foreboding, like a little harbinger wrapped in a duvet-cape, standing in the middle of a desert, wearing a protective helmet fashioned from tin foil. Before listening to this album, I would suggest holding onto those butts of yours and getting ready, because the gutsy Foxygen nucleus of Sam France and Jonathan Rado dive deep into a new phase and emerge with sounds awash with punky noise skitters, psychedelic toggle turns, and an ecstasy of influence.
Even before they injected 1970s classic rock with the psych rock it needed, Foxygen were a band scribbling unique sketches from multiple generations, whilst mapping across multiple atmospherics with the inclusion of multiple collaborators. There is the idea expressed through this record — intentional or not — that creating a music offering without excess, ambiguity, or harsh schisms would taint the band, suck the life out of it, and leave it stale and unusable. The piece of work described as “the radio station that you can hear only if you believe” is conducive not to notions of progress but to a sense of unreality, a work of magical ambition reminiscent of the need for more — the stalwart defenders of modern-day culture.
During our recent interview, Jonathan Rado discussed collaborating with The Flaming Lips again, how wanting more musically and giving more creatively allows for mutual discovery, and how strongly he feels about the full-album experience, liner notes, poster foldouts, everything … and more.
So, I believe you played a show last night? What’s usually the hardest thing about touring?
Oh, god. It was in New York, and it was actually so terrible! I don’t think the audience cared, but we had to play with no sound guy, because he was rushed to the emergency room. Then, two songs in, some kid decided that he was going to stage dive the lamest stage dive, the “I’m gonna impress my friends stage dive,” and he got right next to all my keyboards completely drunk, then stepped in all my chords, wrapping his foot in them, and dove off the stage, taking my keyboards with him and smashing them on the floor. One of them broke, so I didn’t have one of my keyboards, and then the bass kept breaking! It was a train wreck of a show for us.
Photo by Nina Corcoran
Good god! I suppose you can’t show that you’re pissed off, because you still have to perform?
I did! I definitely did. The thing is that no one saw this guy do it, so no one in the band saw it. So there was a point where I was like, “Did I just make that up?” I’m knocking on wood right now that it’s the worst it’s going to get.
I’m sitting at a wooden desk with my arms spread out. I’m practically biblical right now. Let us pray.
I appreciate you a lot.
But onto more positive subject matter. How have your goals for Foxygen shifted as you’ve released more albums and as your fan base has grown?
Our goal is always to surprise people and never let Foxygen become a stale thing. We’ve been doing this so long it’s not sacred, and we don’t want to let it ever get boring.
Jonathan, this new album is definitely not boring. But is it ever difficult to deal with the perceptions that come along with being a young artist while also feeling free to show vulnerability and openness in your art?
I think we’re a lot to take in, and I feel like I need to be in this and not think about that in the present. It’s hard for me. I think people focus on our age, but there’s a lot of young people that are doing amazing things. Mac DeMarco and Ty Segall are pretty young.
They are, and it’s usually part of the discussion when they’re mentioned too, but considering how bloody ambitious your new album is, people might attach age next to that.
I don’t think our age factors into the work that we’re doing, but it’s amazing to people that 24-year-olds can make a double album! The way I look at it, if we were 40, we would have made this album. It just feels like the right thing to do right now for us in this time period. We hear a lot of people shocked at how young we are and tell us we’re so prolific, but I feel like obviously you would be more prolific if you’re more excited about things. I have friends that are in bands, and they are 16 and 17, and it’s crazy watching them developing musical ideas so quickly. It’s amazing to watch.
We can’t discount that people are getting inspired from more sources at younger ages or that you’ve managed to pull off a conceptual album and a double album simultaneously.
We really wanted to create something that we want to listen to over and over again whilst trying to do stuff that involves other people and the listener. I hadn’t listened to this one, though, in a few months, but then I listened to it six times in a row!
How long did this album take to make?
It took around five months to record.
Did you end up recording any songs at your childhood home?
Yeah! It’s funny. We recorded in my childhood bedroom because I was building a studio in my house in LA, and it wasn’t really done yet. The drywall and the construction was taking a while, and we really just wanted to start recording.
How did it feel to have your parents right there during the whole process?
They’re actually not intrusive at all. It’s a longer-shaped house, so they don’t hear what I’m doing. They can go to sleep, and I can still do shit, and they won’t hear it. So, that was always fortunate growing up, too. But yeah, they’re super supportive, and they’re really great parents.
What did they listen to when they were younger?
Oh, yeah. Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Steely Dan, The Beatles of course. I definitely took it all in and got inspired. Their CD collection became mine too.
It’s wonderful to be able to find a commonality like taste in music with your own flesh and blood. I’ve also always wondered if some artists get inspired and go through any extreme emotions by proxy, like a method actor would do whilst recording. You’ve got this alter ego of “Star Power.” How organic was the process of getting into character?
Knowing what this album was and thinking about the general concept of it, it was actually easier for us to get into the concept of doing something crazier by just doing whatever we wanted to do. We called a bunch of friends over and had them cram into my tiny studio and play an instrument that they’ve never played before, then cut it up and put it on the album [Laughs], you know?
Photo by Nina Corcoran
Was there ever a point where you thought, “Oh, my god. We’re pushing this! What the heck is going on?”
Oh yeah, a lot of the time I was like, “What the fuck are we doing?” But in a good way! When we recorded that track “Cold Winter/Freedom”, it was a jam for 30 minutes, and listening to it back we thought, “God, this sounds like doom rock,” and “Hell, and this is insane,” but it was the best thing I’d ever heard. That’s like one of the best tracks on the album. It’s fucking awesome. It came about super organically too. It’s just a bunch of people in a room having a really good time trying to make some doomy drone rock, and I love it.
I love how it starts with the voice-over saying, “Hold onto your butts and get ready,” and that live jam aspect to it where you capture a certain energy in that particular moment, which wouldn’t happen if you were to fiddle with it to the point where it loses that. Did you have a particular idea in your head of what sort of feeling you wanted from the album?
Oh, definitely. We wanted everything to seem like it was a band playing it. Most of the album is just me and Sam [France] overdubbing all the instruments, actually. It seems like it’s kind of polarizing, this album, you know, in a way, and I’m glad you reacted to it like that, because that’s the way that I intended on it.
I tend to think of this record as an album in that classic sense too. It’s a concept, so it needs to be listened to front to back. Do you still feel strongly about the album experience in this stream and MP3 era?
I was hoping when we made this album that people would listen to it all the way through. I didn’t even want to do a stream of it, and part of me didn’t even want to put it on iTunes! But that’s not gonna happen, and you just have to accept that people just want to hear a few songs. That’s kind of a joke, too, on the album. All the singles we released on purpose and were like, “If you just want to listen to some of the singles, then here you go. You don’t even need to scroll all the way down on iTunes.” I think it’s definitely that we tried to make a complete album that starts in one way and then ends in another and the journey in between that.
And new releases have, for the most part, become geared toward our terribly short attention spans.
Which is why we wanted to open with a precursor of what you’re getting into.
And there’s still a lot of anxiety and darkness in the lyrics. Is it more a manifesto for your fans, or are these external messages you’re repeating so that you can remember them?
Yeah, it’s definitely a dark album, and it goes from being sunny and meaning nothing to being dark. Especially when you get to the middle, and there’s not even really lyrics, and Sam’s just screaming “society” over and over.
But you also offer some lighter, universal shades of humanity, like you mention the word “love” in 19 out of the 24 songs.
Sam was doing this thing where he was writing lyrics, especially with “How Can You Really”, that meant nothing and everything at the same time, writing lyrics that were so nondescript that they could appeal to anyone. It was like an experiment because on the last album he wrote very vivid imagery. It was all very specific lyrics.
I suppose coming out with an album of this nature that you might need to counter it with a universal theme stitched through.
It’s not supposed to be dull, and it totally works. You listen to classic pop songs, and you realize that they’re not really using specific imagery. The lyrics are pretty straightforward, but everyone can relate to them. It’s an art to write random words you know can connect emotionally.
So then, with that said, how did the whole idea of this alter ego punk band “Star Power” come about?
On one hand, and this is like the worst interview answer, but I don’t necessarily remember [Laughs]. Sam had this punk band in Washington, and he would play solo shows and always just call it Star Power, so I guess in some way that manifested from that, that Foxygen will be joined by this trash rock punk band for this album.
We had so much time to think about it and discuss it. It’s all been one long year of conceptualizing and then de-conceptualizing.
You have a long list of collaborators on this album. What was the pull?
It just fed into this idea of “Star Power” and having it be a band on the album and just having it be anyone who is around can be in the band
Great. I’m in the band, then!
Yeah, you, me, and Kevin [Barnes] from of Montreal. Kevin is our buddy and took us on one of our first tours, and he’s amazing, and he wanted a little rap on a track.
And in this track, “Star Power III: What Are We Good For”, there is also cowbell.
Yeah, totally. I love cowbell too. I love that song, and with The Flaming Lips, it was the same thing. From the quote-unquote music industry, we’re friends with them, and it’s one of those things where there was no other way we could have recorded the “Everyone Needs Love” song without them.
How much love do you have in your own life right now?
I have a lot of love. I think that we love the position that we’re in, too, and I guess everyone really does need love?
That is the worst answer ever. Please print me saying that that’s the worst answer I’ve ever given. “Everyone needs love.”
It’s better than me leaving your album wanting to jump into the bottom of a well, right? I think cheesy is nice.
We wanted you to feel a bit of everything.
So then, how does the cover art tie into the whole album? How involved are you in that part of the process?
We are amazingly picky about the album art, and the initial idea a year or two ago was that it was gonna be us in a frame on a wall, but then the idea evolved, and our dear friend Cara Robbins took those photos at the Chateau Marmont in LA for the front and the back at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I mean, what’s really happening in that picture is I’m rubbing my eye and Sam’s looking at something, but it looks like this incredibly emotional photo.
I have to look at it again. I can’t believe you’re just rubbing your eye.
I’m just rubbing my eye! Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe it’s better left like a mystery, but it looks like I’m crying. It’s just an amazing photo. There was a phone cord in the corner that we had to airbrush out [Laughs], but we’re pretty picky about the album art, even on the inside of the album. There’s a collage at the center of the vinyl, and I think the best albums are the entire package. I wanted to have something that you could look at while listening to the album. There’s a poster, too. I miss album art and liner notes. I really love that stuff, and lately I feel like they’ve gone by the wayside, and people don’t do them anymore. I always want there to be more.
Is that a metaphor for your life, too?
Oh, totally, and I understand why people don’t do liner notes, and I get it, but I love opening up a record and discovering there’s a poster, a foldout, an action figure, and some money in there too!
That would be incredible. Please send me some money with my copy!
Our next album is just going to be a bag of money. I’ll just take the whole album budget and then put $5 in every record.
So, was there any album that stood out in terms of that full experience?
The Beatles’ “White Album” had so many pictures. You could just sit and look at that for hours. Todd Rundgren’s liner notes are my favorite, though. It’s just him being sarcastic and annotating the whole record.