Reverb: You recorded “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic,” in a professional studio, but you went back to the garage to record “…And Star Power.” What’s the thinking there?
Rado: We’ve been making albums by ourselves for a really long time. Recording our last album in a studio was an amazing experience, and one I wouldn’t trade for the world. I think we needed a lot of time to record this album, and we knew how to get the sounds we wanted for it better than a producer.
I wanted to get [“Ambassadors” producer] Richard Swift to be a part of the album, but our schedules conflicted. Swift is like a spiritual guru in my life. He’s definitely psychic.
Reverb: Did you look anywhere for conscious inspiration for “…And Star Power”? Long walks in the park, Steve Gutenburg films?
Rado: No, nothing I can think of. Mostly like sitting down at a piano and saying, that sounds really nice. (Laughs) I draw inspiration from actually playing music rather than outside things.
We had the concept first. We knew it was going to be a double album, we knew it was going be called “…And Star Power.” As it always happens with us, we came up with the title and the concept before we wrote a single song. Knowing that, we came up with an idea of what the album cover was going to be. Seeing that in our heads, we were able to write songs for it.
Reverb: So you created an idea of what you wanted it to be and filled in the gaps afterwards with the music.
Rado: Right. We start with the frame, and then paint the picture inside of it.
Reverb: Wasn’t “Star Power” the name of Sam France’s first solo album?
Rado: Yeah. Well, it was a punk band he had in Olympia, WA. The solo album was pretty much a collection of his demos for this album. I think it was only released on cassette on Craigslist, and only in Washington.
Reverb: Some people are taking issue with the length of “…And Star Power.” What do you think about that?
Rado: I always thought that more was better. A few people have taken this stance of, “Why is there so much?! Why have you done this to me? Why are you making me listen to this?” I don’t know! That’s such a shitty way to approach listening to music. Shouldn’t you be into the fact there’s a lot of ideas going on?
What they don’t realize is that their favorite albums is the same thing. People didn’t like The Stooges when they were a band. People like them after they broke up, when it was cool. I think it’s just a close-minded way to look at music.
I read one review where some guy was like, “This is not at all what I expected from Foxygen, so I don’t like it.” He calls himself a Foxygen scholar, like, “knowing Foxygen, this is such a disappointment to me.” Well, you’re not a Foxygen scholar. No one is. You’re not allowed to. You’ve only heard one album.
I think it’s not career suicide to take a risk. It’s what people should do. That’s the whole point of music. That’s the reason rock music exists. Somebody was like, “I’m going to play harder.” This album wouldn’t have come about without people taking risks.
European music show Encore’s Music Show has a nice feature on Foxygen, accompanied by an interview with Rado. It’s a fairly surface-level rehash of 2013 along with a preview of the new album, but it’s well-produced and the correspondent is clearly a big fan, which comes through in the report. Watch it below (the Foxygen segment starts at the 6:35 mark):
What we do know is that …And Star Power is a concept record about another band and a radio station – both named Star Power, naturally – and if Foxygen has the decoder ring for unlocking further meaning, they are not sharing it. One gets the sense that the concept is as loose as the record’s sprawling 24-song tracklist, and that’s kind of the point. … And Star Power is a playful and mischievous album, much like the band’s Richard Swift-produced breakthrough We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic, but whereas its predecessor stuffed ideas within ideas within single songs like a collection of matryoshka dolls, each dose of fancy and classic rock cribbing is given room to properly roam on … And Star Power.
In conversation with Radio yesterday, he said that the album appeared to be leaving fans both confused and intrigued. That made him happy.”If you’re going to put out a record like Star Power, you kind of want that reaction,” he explained.
In comparison to We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic, Star Power feels less polished, a little rough around the edges. Was that a sound that you were going for?
There’s a quality of records that we love, where they’re all sort of strange feeling, whether it’s completely overblown with instrumentation or, like, played on three instruments. With the production and the engineering, we were definitely trying to make it sound a little bit odd. I wanted everything to sound a little odd. It’s not like we were shooting to make something lo-fi. It’s just how it came out. [Laughs]
Was the [four-part] “Star Power” suite conceived as one piece or was it something that you stitched together?
It wasn’t one big song at first. We each wrote a bunch of songs called “Star Power”. Each of us wrote two songs with that name. Then we jut decided that if we had done that, then we should combine these songs, and then we realized that they fit together really nicely. It’s an extended version of how we often write one song.
What do each of you bring to the table?
I think that I bring the instrumentation – the technical skill of playing instruments. Sam has a strong instrument with his voice – which is my weakness – but he also brings the element of un-technique. He doesn’t really know how to play guitar and how to play bass, but sometimes that’s the best thing for a song. Sometimes it should sound like someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. That’s what Sam’s best at instrumentally.
“Last year was really frustrating for us, because we couldn’t play the songs the way we wanted to,” Rado says. “The records were so orchestrated. … So it was really frustrating for us because we weren’t able to fully expand on the sound on the records. We only had three people in the band, just guitar, bass, drums.”
It’s almost as if … And Star Power‘s plot — which follows Foxygen as they are joined by others and a new band called Star Power takes over — echoes Foxygen’s quest for comfort onstage: They found fulfillment in numbers.
“We put together this nine-piece band that we’re touring with now that can play the songs the way we want to hear them,” Rado says. “So we can still have the crazy aspects of our live show without the negative things, just have more fun. It just took a while for us to figure out how to tour comfortably.”
“We had all these moments on the record that we just wanted to have,” Rado says. “A lot of that background noise and stuff is just where we’d set up mics and just record everyone talking, everyone kind of having a party and recording.”
While the ambient noise and varied sound of the double album are endearingly inconsistent, it’s the meticulous way that these pieces were placed onto the album that make it a story.
“We put a lot of work into it, and it feels to me kind of like a classic record,” Rado says. “It seems like it’s kind of a movie the way that it goes through a lot of different styles while taking you on a little journey.”
The Asheville Citizen-Times interviewed Rado in advance of Foxygen’s upcoming show in the area, delving into the recording of the new album along with the genesis of the Star Power concept:
Most of “…And Star Power” (out Oct. 14) was captured in Rado’s Los Angeles home’s garage, a.k.a. Dream Star Studios, where of Montreal and The Flaming Lips visited while in town and contributed guest parts. After four sweaty months in that space, France and Rado decided to rent out upscale rooms and record in two well known L.A. hotels, each of which came with a specific vibe.
“The Chateau Marmont, it’s kind of dark. It’s like Led Zeppelin and, like, John Belushi dying and it’s still kind of satanic. You know, like, there was dark (stuff) going on there,” Rado said.
“And then we moved to the Beverly Hills Hotel, the other famous hotel in L.A., and that one was super upbeat and it’s all flamingos and stuff and felt very much like David Bowie. In an abstract way, it felt like David Bowie was there.”
As for for the aforementioned underworld disintegration that “…And Star Power” takes, it stemmed from Foxygen’s live performances in 2013, during which the duo grew tired of playing their compositions in a straightforward manner.
“They were really unhinged kind of punk shows. Sometimes our songs would be unrecognizable because we’d play them with a bunch of distortion and really (mess) ‘em up,” Rado said.
Further inspired by the live-recorded fourth side of Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything?,” France and Rado explored that wild sound until it gave way to the titular punk band, an outlet for the two to freely explore their creative interests.
“Star Power is kind of like alter egos for me and Sam — just to have a band that isn’t Foxygen that can do whatever the (expletive) they want and have no repercussions,” Rado said. “That’s what happens on the third side of the record is that band just kind of takes over.”
William Ruof of the State Press wrote up a show review from Foxygen’s recent stop in Phoenix, along with a bonus after-show interview with Rado — and judging by the article title (“My night at the Foxygen concert, a.k.a the best day ever.”), I think it’s safe to say he enjoyed it. Some highlights:
Lead singer Sam France did his thing, dancing and jumping all over the stage, walking on the guardrail that separated the underage from the overage. His performance was funky and psychedelic to the max. The backup singers were also dancing up a storm. I can’t imagine putting on a show like that almost every night; my legs would be too dead to stand up.
SP: When the band isn’t touring or in the studio, what do you all do? Do you have time to do anything?
JR: I record like every day. Like, I record something. I’m thinking about writing a novel, a detective novel, but I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever do that, but I’d like to say that I would.
SP: How long are you going to be on the road?
JR: We’re touring until Nov. 9. So just about two months, and then we have a couple months off. Then we’re gonna go back out for like three months or something, like Europe and a bunch of s–t.
SP: What did you think of the crowd and your day in Phoenix?
JR: It was insanely hot. My friend Carson, he’s from Phoenix, and I asked him what to do in Phoenix, and he was like, “You should go to this one taco cart, and then like leave Phoenix. And be glad you didn’t spend 22 years growing up there.” But he’s a writer, so he always says great things like that. Yeah, then it was really hot, and I sweat a lot just like walking to go get a coffee, and then by the time I went to go get the coffee, I didn’t want the coffee because it was too hot to drink coffee, so I just got an ice water. Then I watched TV ’cause it was too hot to go outside. But the audience was awesome, well the under-21 audience was awesome, then the other side of the audience was … cool.
SP: What are one or two of your favorite albums?
JR: My favorite album ever is “Blonde on Blonde” by Bob Dylan. I’ve just listened to that like every day for a really long time, like a whole year because, I don’t know, I was just, like, an angsty teen, and just like, “Oh yeah, Bob, I know what you’re saying. You’re not even saying anything, but I understand it. I understand your gibberish, man.” And I’ve been listening to this Warren Zevon, like the self-titled Warren Zevon album from ’76 that has been, like, that’s the only thing I can listen to right now, it’s completely my stress reliever. I don’t even listen to music most of the time, but I just listen to that album over and over again. So right now, I’m obsessed with that.
Quick interview from the Santa Fe Reporter with Rado, where he discusses the new album and, more interestingly, how the band’s live show has evolved — both in terms of sound and lineup:
What was the impetus behind the heavier, more experimental material?
We had a lot of aggression towards playing live because we couldn’t get our live band to sound the way we wanted it to. Our first record was so based around keyboards, and all we had on tour was bass drums and guitar. This led to playing the songs really heavily, and we just wanted a bigger sound.
Right. And you’re a nine-piece when you play live now?
There are background singers, two guitar players, and the band sounds just amazing. The music sounds good and interesting, and Sam has more freedom; he doesn’t have to play an instrument now, so he can really go crazy. I think a lot of bands have this singer/guitar player who just kind of stands there, and a Foxygen show is more like controlled chaos. We want to bring a show that is entertaining for people in more ways than just the music.
The Tulane Hullabaloo interviewed Foxygen in advance of their show in New Orleans next Monday:
“We did the last album with Richard Swift in Oregon,” Rado said. “It was kind of new for us … he had a studio. We made [‘… And Star Power’] in my garage. We did it all on tapes. I have a pretty nice collection of older gear. My trademark is stuff that’s about to die.”
While “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic” only had nine tracks and a runtime just shy of 40 minutes, “… And Star Power” brings an action-packed 24 tracks spanning 82 minutes.
“We had a lot of songs for [’21st century’] that we just didn’t have time to record,” Rado said. “With this one, there was no time limit when it was due or when we could start it. We just started and went until it was done, and we came up with a lot of songs.”
The article includes some of the most detailed descriptions of the upcoming album to date:
The album starts out in classic Foxygen fashion, bubbling with pleasant little pop tracks, but then punk band Star Power begins to take over the album. By the time the third side of the record rolls around, Rado and France are gone. Only Star Power remains.
“There is also this idea of somebody going insane throughout the record, possibly being abducted by aliens,” Rado said. “You know, it’s a pretty loose concept record.”
The album spans a number of sonically diverse areas, bouncing from neo-psychedelic joyrides to disco punk compositions evocative of a Ramones and Justice mash-up no one ever decided to make. The one constant is the distant, disconnected vocals that whisper over the frantic instrumentation.
Rado recorded most of the drums and all of the vocals on old reel-to-reel dictation microphones originally used in the ’50s and ’60s as interview tools. Interspersed between songs, different vocal recordings appear, as well, but not from Rado or France.
“Sam carried around a tape recorder while we were recording the album. He would just record everything, like people’s conversations,” Rado said. “He cut it up into little pieces, 15-second snippets. We put them in between tracks to give it the effect of tuning to a radio station.”
“Star Power is this fictional band that exists within the universe of the album, sort of our backing band on the album in a sense,” Rado says. “They’re introduced halfway through side one, and then it becomes the band playing by the end.”
The record comes from five straight months of recording, an unending stream of Star Power-related creativity.
“We just had so many ideas built up. It’s the longest we’ve gone without making a record from the last one to this one. We had so much pent up,” Rado says. “We wrote 20 different songs called ‘Star Power,’ and over time, it became more and more of a concept. We always said it was going to be a double album, but even still we had to cut it down. There’s probably three hours of music we cut.”
“The third side of the record — the scream side of the record — is a little bit influenced by last year. Maybe not the drama of the last year, but the way that we started playing because of that,” Rado says. “We had a lot of frustration, and that would manifest itself into some crazy-loud jam onstage, and we’d take our aggression out on our instruments, and we really started liking that.”
So, has anyone in the Foxygen universe ever faced an extraterrestrial visitor?
“Sam. I question it for sure,” Rado says.
All of which might make you think the sessions for their forthcoming second record …And Star Power would be rife with conflict and at least a few fistfights. But that would not be the case. In fact, the only moment of contentiousness they can recall involved a five-minute argument about the quality of a certain drum take and a thrown lighter—not exactly “Behind the Music” material. “As far as me and Sam working together as Foxygen, that was never a question,” says Rado. France agrees, calling any and all breakup rumors “utter bullshit.”
Pitchfork: The liner notes list each side’s theme, and side one is called “Star Power, Side One, Part One: The Hits; What’s the Hook?”
JR: [laughs] Yeah, that’s the side of the album that I think casual Foxygen listeners will really like. “What’s the hook?” is like the album’s motto—while we were recording, we wrote that on the wall of the studio, and it was overlooking us the whole time. It doesn’t necessarily mean “catchy chorus,” but more like, “Why are people going to want to listen to this song?”
Pitchfork: You credit a Skip Spence song in the liner notes—is it important for you guys to give credit where it’s due as far as borrowing from other artists?
SF: Particularly in that case, yes. It’s from a bonus track on Oar by Skip Spence, which is kind of obscure, so I definitely wanted to credit him. But other than that, I don’t think we’ve ever given too much credit. Our songs have always just been this changing amalgamation of things.
JR: Sometimes you realize you do it after the fact. Not that every Foxygen song is ripped off from other songs, but there were a few moments where it’s like, “oops”. But if you’re not realizing it, you’re warping it into something else that’s not that person’s song anymore.
SF: There was a point where I was like, “Yo, this is ‘Suspicious Minds.’” But we weren’t really thinking about it.
JR: We don’t ever go, “Oh, we’re going to steal this part.” We’ll write something and be like, “Oh, maybe that’s something else.” But we still wrote it and it still came from an organic place.