Video of Coulda Been My Love taken from the front row at the Fillmore in San Francisco:
Great interview of Sam by LA Weekly, as he takes on the narrative of the band’s 2013 head on:
Sam France doesn’t want to talk about any “rebound record.”
“It’s not a rebound. Stuff was never that bad.”
France doesn’t sound particularly hostile, or even mildly annoyed. If anything, he sounds like a teenager explaining to the teacher why his homework isn’t done.
“We both were young, certainly,” he admits. “But people were writing things about us for their own motives.”
“It definitely wasn’t as dramatic as people said,” points out France. “We were never, y’know, fighting, we were never gonna break up. We missed some shows but it’s not because of like… band drama. Plus I got injured. I broke my leg last year. So.”
The broken leg came at the worst possible time — during the first song of the first show of a tour meant to placate fans after the band had canceled a bigger chunk of dates for the far sketchier reason of “creative health.” Rumors began popping up of discord between France and the more sedate Rado, of blow-ups with fans, of a possible break-up.
All the while the duo was also feverishly listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk while churning out material for what would become the band’s latest effort, …And Star Power.
France says he wanted to “write really vague songs” that sounded “like general soap operas.”
“I just wanted the words to sound cheesy because of the ’70s rock,” he laughs, before admitting that he thinks he “subconsciously” writes about himself.
“We have an unpredictable aspect to our show. We have tons of energy on stage, so much that we don’t have any energy to do anything else during the day when we’re on tour. We’re just completely exhausted all the time,” says multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado.
There’s greater musical diversity on the album. The songs bounce around to every conceivable sub-genre of rock ’n’ roll from the ’60s and ’70s (psychedelic, doom-metal, soft-rock, AM pop tunes, space-jams, glam-rock and country-rock) and digs into the campiness of it in a new way that’s both playful and endearing.
“Back then, they weren’t trying to make a cheesy song, they were trying to make a good song—I think it’s the same mindset that we have,” Rado says. “We were theater kids raised on show tunes. It’s built into our blood—that campiness. A lot of my inspiration for my piano comes from show tunes.”
“We just wanted to do more. We wanted to show different sides of our music,” Rado says. “We wanted it to start out lush and then go into complete trash. That was kind of the idea.”
NPR’s First Listen is streaming the upcoming Sgt. Pepper cover album organized by the Flaming Lips. Foxygen appears with MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) track near the end of the album. Click here to listen on the NPR site.
Here’s another roundup of recent reviews of “…And Star Power.”
Sam France and Jonathan Rado have the type of musical partnership that’s so chemically reactive, it’s tough to say exactly how they should manage it: Are they more impressive when they whittle and polish their spitballs into structured songs and “pop,” or when they don’t? Last year, it wasn’t entirely clear that their breakout album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, was a product of the former, but it’s clear now. Its successor, the 24-song double LP …And Star Power, is a spitball mural that stretches a full city block, comprised of long swaths of barely revised jams littered intermittently with tiny bombshells of truly gifted songwriting. Juxtaposed with Peace and Magic, Foxygen’s third album provides the evidence to decide for yourself.
Star Power overwhelms with its personality, one that takes on a wildly different but equally zealous form every three minutes, one that’s exciting for a long while before suddenly making you want to shelve it for a longer while. At the same time, it’s not hard to picture Star Power ending up the kind of album that’s more clearly impressive in 10 years than it is today. Should Foxygen actually be at the start of a long and hyper-fruitful career, this album could retrospectively reveal itself a critical step and deceptively rich in its nonsense. In the meantime, it’s a thrilling if uneven ride.
If I was to describe what Foxygen sounds like, I would say that they sound like The Misfits dropped acid and resurrected John Lennon while asking Sgt. Pepper to come play with them. I may even go as far as to say that they sound like what pop punk maybe have sounded like if it existed in the ’70s, and then I’d leave it at that while proceeding to find a way to escape the psychedelic madness that is …And Star Power. Unfortunately I have a word limit to abide by, and am going to have to delve even further into the chaos that is …And Star Power.
Where do I start with this album? It is probably the most haphazard and chaotically beautiful thing I have heard this year. If indie had a sub-genre similar to progressive metal then Foxygen would rule that sub-genre with an iron fist, or about as violent a grip that a dreamy mash-up of horror punk and ’90s stoner rock could produce. Most bands tend to stick to one particular sound for an album, while Foxygen go through sounds faster than a teenager goes through ideologies.
Instrumentally, the band has come together in a more impressive fashion. You could pick apart the songs and find the older bands that are being emulated, but it is nowhere near as obvious as it was on 21st Century, or even Broadway. Singles like “How Can You Really” and “Cosmic Vibrations” are the most obvious showcases of different generations of rock being mixed to create what truly sounds like a new type of sound. Even Sam France’s vocals sound more like his own personal style, rather than his channeling of Mick Jagger and Lou Reed, although there is still plenty of that.
Returning to a tack they’d previously embraced before achieving a measure of critical success, … And Star Power reorients Foxygen’s trajectory, without any regard for making a “follow-up.” In hindsight, 2011’s Take The Kids Off Broadway EP and 2013’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic were – in Star Power’s wake – outliers within their discography.
Those two albums, by turns invigorating and confounding, were the most polished works Foxygen had released to date. They were, however, not debut albums. From 2005-2011, Foxygen made several EPs and at least one “album,” — only no one heard them. Kill Art and Ghettoplastikk are twenty-odd minute journeys through two teenage boys discovering themselves and their sound. They feature as many great, catchy tracks as they do maddening ones, and display an emerging confidence in their studio weirdness. “Jurrassic Exxplosion Philippic” is a 30-song “opera” that’s light on song length and lighter on concentration, but flashes a progressing prodigy. An EP in 2011, and various other tracks (and untold more stowed away on external hard drives) also punctuate what amounts to ten years of output.
… And Star Power is not “new,” but it is a step forward in Foxygen’s self-determined progression. It’s much more amusing to simply be at peace with the fact that Foxygen completely eschews our normal, boring 3-minutes-is-a-song world than to get ticked off for not getting a record full of “hits.” As demonstrated by adding of twenty-four new tracks into an already robust catalog, Foxygen keeps saying: don’t play anything after it stops feeling good. Move on. Next.
With …And Star Power, the crazy pair have crafted a record that works better as a mood piece than it does as active listening. But it is instantly transporting, no doubt. It’s the zany, zoony soundtrack to a film from 1969 that never existed, the crazy sonic ramblings of a bunch of wide-eared kids with eyes too big for their stomachs. It’s imperfect and overzealous and hopelessly indulgent, but that still doesn’t mean it’s not one hell of a trip. There’s no doubt about that.
In accordance with that style, ...And Star Power reminds the listener of the organization of an album like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. No one is going to listen to “Outside The Wall” on its own, yet The Wall is still considered a great album.
Similarly, a few songs off …And Star Power aren’t particularly appealing when listened to individually, but then again, they aren’t supposed to be. Foxygen takes us on a musical odyssey that can still be contemplated days after listening.
What really differentiates …And Star Power is that rather than being a bunch of songs on the same album, this is a story, a work of art. Sure, side three has a few songs that remind you of a bad acid trip from a Hunter S. Thompson novel, but again, that’s sort of the point. All books, movies, and stories, will go through different phases. These aren’t just individual songs you can pick and choose from the iTunes store. This is a carefully crafted narrative.
Despite a strong start that promised a double-album worth 82 minutes, Foxygen couldn’t keep it up. Unfortunately, the album descends into madness as the songs go by, tossing you down a psychedelic rabbit hole of clashing melodies and indecipherable lyrics. The nostalgia is cut with clumsy fuzz and flat stretches of record where you’re left listening to a directionless effort. Even calling it effort seems unjustified. As a band that adopts a hipster persona—disapproving of modern rock and making videos that look like Wes Anderson movies—it truly feels like there are times on the album when France and Jonathan Rado seem indifferent to the final product.
As an editorial aside, I do have to take issue with this sentence from the above review: “In the middle of the album, the three song stretch of “Mattress Warehouse,” “666” and “Flowers” is cotton dry and unoriginal.” If you were trying to critique a 3-strong stretch as dry and unoriginal, seems like that is the worst possible example on the album to use to make that point.
And King Tuff has by far the most unique review of the album — a review that Rado enjoyed:
the @KINGTUFFY review of star power is the best review i’ve read of anything ever.
— Jonathan Rado (@JonathanRado) October 17, 2014
Ahh yes, the Foxywoxies have really done something this time. …And Star Power is the sonically demented twin of last year’s breakthrough, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, a black magick sheep who can barely talk and just makes wicked sweet grunting noises when you tell it you love it. This album is a perverted shit-demon with Hollywood sunglasses constantly fucking the line between perfect pop and an amateur teenage punk jam session, a through-composed mountain of ideas that will delight the freaks and send the squares shitting and running. Salty black sprinkles of soft Satan glimmer all over it.
Sam and Rado were interviewed by Issue Magazine at the (apparently terrible) Canter’s Deli in West Hollywood for a new profile. The interview covers a ton of ground with lots of good nuggets throughout:
Rachel Ellison: Where are you coming from?
Jonathan Rado: The Valley. Sam’s living in Westlake Village.
RE: Are you living with your parents?
Sam France: Yeah. It’s cheaper than paying rent. I’m kind of dangerously used to it. I don’t want to get too settled.
JR: [I live] in Woodland Hills with my girlfriend. It’s in the Valley, it’s like the furthest end of the Valley. I never really wanted to live in Echo Park or something, it just seemed too stressful. It’s a great place, I like spending time there. I lived in Manhattan for five years so I got all the city living that I need out of my system and now I’m just ready to not live in a big city.
SF: [I lived in New York] for eight months or something like that. I didn’t really like it.
JR: I think in retrospect you come to enjoy New York a little more or something.
SF: I like New York City but I didn’t like living there. I’m not very organized and I was really bad on the subways and stuff and I got really stressed out and there were just too many people and too much stimulation for me.
RE: Tell me about Foxygen’s beginnings?
JR: We met in middle school in 6th grade in math class. I was in a band called The Boscos that was like a Doors-esque band and we kicked out our lead singer and replaced him with Sam. I don’t even remember the details as to why he was kicked out.
SF: I orchestrated that secretly. I put it in everyone’s mind that I would be better.
JR: So we got rid of him which was fine, I don’t think he really cared that much. And then we replaced him with Sam. And then we did these recordings and Sam took them home and did all these cool little noises and stuff over it and lots of harmonies and interesting melodies and everyone in the band hated it except for me. And then we decided to do more of that kind of stuff, just the two of us, and called it Foxygen.
RE: Did you play instruments?
JR: Yeah I was mainly a “guitar player.” I took like ten lessons and then I just taught myself through the Internet and playing all day. And Sam played primarily drums, and sang. And that was kind of the initial lineup – not too many instruments, we didn’t own a bass or anything. It was kind of like The Black Keys or something in a weird way. But sounded nothing like that.
SF: On the last album we were listening to Fleetwood Mac and Todd Rundgren, just basically stuff from 70 to 75, whether it be easy listening stuff or like Stooges and stuff like that.
RE: What is your writing process like?
SF: [We write] separately and bring it together.
JR: We write stuff together too but this last album was written a lot separately.
SF: On the last album our songs had a lot of imagery in them, just like a lot of colorful images and stuff and I was trying to just make a lot of imagery in the songs, but on this album we were trying to have not that much imagery and make them sound like really generic love songs. Just like soap-opera feeling songs, which was more of a challenge than just saying like, lollipop, blah blah blah or something. For most of it we were trying to write songs that actually sounded like they were about something.
RE: Are they ever personal?
SF: Yeah I just notice it after the fact. But not straight up. I just don’t like doing that for some reason. But afterward I’ll look at it and I’m like, this is what this is about.
RE: What do you feel like each of you individually bring to songwriting?
SF: I feel like we’re on a really similar plane so we’re trying to cultivate the same vibe.
JR: We play instruments differently. I’d say I’m more technically proficient at instruments than Sam but sometimes that’s not what the song needs. I can’t figure out the right wording, I don’t know, how would you describe…
SF: Just say it, I suck.
JR: That’s the thing, I don’t want to say, un-technically proficient because that makes me sound really pretentious. I don’t know, yeah. I’m more technically proficient at instruments than Sam. But the songs themselves are always working toward the same thing so it’s easy to work together on something.
RE: Sam, when did you start singing?
SF: Forever ago. I briefly [had lessons], but I don’t think they helped at all. When I was in college I got really into The Talking Heads and I tried to be like David Byrne. And then I learned how to sing like Mick Jagger and then it kind of went from there.
RE: Is it hard reading negative reviews?
JR: It can be funny and it can be kind of infuriating too.
SF: I’ve only really been bothered by one article. Everything else just is whatever.
This kid couldn’t understand why people would like our music so he went into this whole societal rant about how we’re living in this culture that recycles old shit and people have no taste and we’re like the Olive Garden of music, like McDonalds, like Doritos, like the same crap being regurgitated because he can’t understand why people would consume this music so our generation must be stupid. But it was a kid my age who wrote it so I thought it was inappropriate. If you don’t like something then you don’t like something, but to justify it by going through this whole societal rant I thought it was ridiculous.
JR: Yeah there’s this one magazine that just hates us and it’s like not even appropriate. It’s not based in anything. It’s weird. They think that we’re trying to be a psych band, which we’re not. And they’re always like, “They’re not even a psych band,” and we’re like, “Yeah we know we’re not, so like, what the fuck.”
SF: Yeah they think we’re a psych band and they think psych is stupid.
JR: I always agree with them in a way. They’re always like “Foxygen isn’t even psych,” and I’m like, “You’re fuckin’ right.”
RE: Have you started the next album?
SF: We’ve written it.
JR: At least the music is done I think Sam is still working on the lyrics. Musically it is there. But we’re going to try to record it in November or December.
“It’s a cliché, of course,” front man Sam France acknowledges, from his home in southern California’s West Lake Village. “We’ve always worked in clichés.” With on- stage diatribes perceived as tantrums, bodily injuries, canceled tours, social media fights, rumored arrests, and passive-aggressively promoted solo releases, France and his bandmates—Jonathan Rado, Shaun Fleming, and Justin Nijssen—earned a devoted audience, but one as eager to see how the plot would twist next as to hear their music. “It was difficult for us,” France explains. “We kind of just got thrown into the indie music circuit. We didn’t know what to do, we felt out of control of our image, we didn’t like the way we were being promoted, we didn’t like the way we were coming off in the press—we felt very out of control. Our own personal relationships were becoming out of control, so things became very meta. It was bizarre becoming those characters and then realizing that we didn’t have to do that anymore.” He breathes a sigh of relief and says, “Things are really great right now.”
The proof is in their fourth full-length LP, …And Star Power. Following an incident at a show in Minneapolis that left him with a broken leg, France retreated to his parents’ house to recover, and found himself healing in more ways than one. “I went through a lot of personal changes and started working on the record with Rado in his house, in Woodland Hills, in the analog studio he put together buying all this crazy old shit,” he says. “We just kind of chipped away at the album, the way you would chip away at a sculpture. We had this big vision, and slowly we made it happen.”
…And Star Power, a double-disc epic consisting of 24 songs, takes its name from an alter-ego punk band France and Rado felt they were sometimes playing in. While the record maintains the much-loved shimmering pop songcraft of their last LP (lead single “How Could You Really” and “Coulda Been My Love”), they also venture further toward anarchy, with freewheeling jam sessions (“Wally’s Farm,” “Cold Winter/Freedom,” “Freedom II”). “We sort of mastered writing our own versions of pop songs,” France says. “I mean, they wouldn’t get into the Top 40, although we’re working on that. It’s never a challenge for us to write catchy melodies. But I wanted to foray into something more visceral, more immediate, more modern, more avant-garde, more punk, and more aggressive.” True to the album title, this Foxygenated elixir of chaos and melody amounts to the type of magic that rock stardom is made of. Maybe the band’s sound has finally caught up with its rambunctious reputation.
“Our live shows can become improvised and sadistic, fucked-up, and weird,” France says. “I wanted to take that energy and put it onto the record, because people just don’t know about us. On our last record, people walked into shows wanting to hear songs like ‘San Francisco’ and then we would play some crazy noise jam for 20 minutes and I’d be screaming about random shit and people were completely freaked. I wanted to actually introduce the listeners to that energy as well.”
What about the label [Jagjaguwar]? Were they always on board with this ambitious idea, or did you have to fight to do this kind of a record?
France: They were a little freaked out, a little nervous. But they were supportive. They were like “OK, if you wanna do this, we’re just sayin’. People don’t do this, but if you wanna do it, then do it.”
Rado: I think they were behind us the whole way. The only thing was when we turned it in, they had a few like mixing notes that they might want to change.
You know, the label, they’re kinda weirdos there, too. They reissued, like, the Swell Maps records. And some of that’s like kind of gnarly and homemade. And I think they realise you can’t whittle a complete piece of work down. They would never say, “Why don’t you make this just one album? Why don’t you cut this?” I feel like they understand.
As with so many things with Foxygen, there seems to be a little mythology around the name of the record. Last fall on Facebook you even seemed to suggest you’d be changing the band’s name to …And Star Power. Now in the press release for the album, you say, “Foxygen have joined Star Power. It’s a punk band, and you can be in it too if you believe in it.” Can you elaborate on the concept?
France: The concept was basically that we thought of ourselves as a new band. What we were doing was so different that we wanted to kind of create this vague idea that maybe we were a different band altogether, that maybe there were other people taking over this record as we were making it.
With this monster record, it’s almost as though you’ve doubled down on the skeptics and said “OK you think we’re gratuitously weird, shameless appropriators of this and that? Well, here’s four times as much shameless appropriation.”
France: [Laughs] Probably a little bit. And there’s also the live show aspect. Things just kind of snowball at our shows, and we kind of go with a new vibe, kind of an impulsive thing that people aren’t used to seeing nowadays. But we definitely enjoy a bit of friction sometimes, although it’s better nowadays. Now at our shows, we’ve kind of figured out the formula to put on an entertaining show but not alienating people, not creating a bad vibe.
Rado: People still hate us though [laughs]. And they’re forever gonna hate us. It’s fine. I read a John Cage quote the other day that was like, “If your music doesn’t irritate people, you’re doing something wrong.”
Rado, I read where you said that it didn’t surprise you that people took to the last record, because came from a sincere place. And I thought that was interesting coming from a band whose detractors like to say Foxygen is just one big tongue in cheek send-up. Any expectations what people will make of this one?
Rado: I have hopes. I hope that people take to it because it’s the same level of sincerity. We don’t do anything tongue in cheek or sarcastic, because how could you make music ironically? Like, people call us an “ironic band” and that makes no sense to me. How does someone have the drive to make ironic music? I could never do that. It’s a real, sincere thing. It’s something that we sat down and labored over for five months, so I hope people really enjoy it.
“Double albums always seem like kind of bad ideas,” Rado says, laughing, “but they’re always so great because of that.”
“We wanted to make something that was excessive,” France adds. “Like the White Album or Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. We just wanted a ridiculous, excessive album.”
“I think we wanted a record that encapsulated a lot of different sides of our personalities because the album previous to it was just…we liked it, but it felt kind of one-dimensional, and so we kind of wanted to create this idea that maybe it wasn’t even just Foxygen on the album, that maybe we were collaborating with this other entity, like some sort of weird punk band from space or something,” Rado explains.
Whatever you do, don’t get used to Star Power. The concept isn’t so much a new direction for the band as it is the latest in a series of ongoing musical explorations.
“For now it’s probably one and done,” France says. “It’s funny to imagine us doing Star Power 2. Maybe we’ll make that when we’re like 40.”
Rado laughs. “I was thinking about that the other day,” he says. “I was thinking about how, you know, Eminem put out the Marshall Mathers 2.”
Instead, he and France will hit the studio after their tour wraps in November to begin work on their next album, one that will feature neither the heavy ‘60s influence of We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic nor the glittery excess of …And Star Power.
“It’s gonna be kind of like an orchestral album,” Rado says, one that sounds “kind of like a Disney movie” with “lots of fancy arrangements and stuff.”
“It’ll be really pretty.”
And so it seems that no two Foxygen records will be alike. There are no “changes in direction” for the band because that implies some sort of linear trajectory, and that’s not how stars work. They appear at random points in the universe, and we orbit them.
Foxygen performed Brooklyn Police Station on a local television station morning (!!!) show in Chicago and put on quite a show (the embed is a little wonky, so click here to view it larger on WGN’s site):