Interview by Rachel Ellison
Images by Jan Willem-Dikkers
“Star Power is a punk band that takes over the album
and by the end of the album has taken over the band.
And it’s also a radio station,
—Sam France a mysterious radio station run by aliens.” — Sam France
Musical duo of Sam France and Jonathan Rado, who grew up and met in Westlake Village, California, where they started making experimental music together in 2005. Their first album, Take the Kids Off Broadway, was released in 2011 after a brief stint in New York, followed by the 2013 sophomore album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, both on Jagjaguwar. They have gained notoriety for their off-the-wall live shows, especially for the antics of lead singer France. Now a nine-piece group, Foxygen will release their third album, …And Star Power, on October 14.
It’s lunchtime at Canter’s Deli in West Hollywood when I meet Foxygen’s Sam France and Jonathan Rado, who are quick to warn me that the food is not good. While I heed their advice and stick with a coffee, the two disregard the diner quality and order meals that prove challenging to talk through as I shoot them questions about their new 9-piece set and Sam’s hair color (a mixture of pink and peroxide).
Despite a rough 2013, today, over a turkey reuben and bowl of mish-mosh, the two 24-year-olds seem in perfect harmony. France, in a tight blue almost crop-top and grey leisure suit, happily claims the role of zany front man, with famously energetic live performances in which he bounces around the stage and gyrates his hips, usually in something sequined. Rado, on the other hand, is wearing beat-up Adidas and maintains a more inconspicuous air, at one point pausing to wipe a drop of pickle juice from my phone.
The duo is just a day away from setting out on a cross-country tour to promote their third album, …and Star Power. The double LP, bursting at the seams with 24 tracks, broaches new territory with catchy songs woven between less accessible instrumental tracks that range from 1 to nearly 7 minutes. The signature, throwback sound remains, with the undeniably cheery single, “How Can You Really,” and 70s crooner, “Coulda Been my Love,” but the opener, “Star Power,” among others, showcases a more experimental and free-flowing sound. Below they talk to us about high school, daddy issues, and how they are nothing like the Black Keys.
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.
(Looking at the menu and talking to each other)
SF: I ate ribs yesterday.
SF: We went to Wood Ranch and I ate ribs. I haven’t eaten meat in a year and a half or something. It was horrible.
JR: That’s because it’s Wood Ranch.
RE: Are you touring right now?
“Now we have a more
thing. We put together
a dream band.”
— Jonathan Rado
JR: We’re going to leave tomorrow. Phoenix [is the first stop]. It’s US and Europe. We go to Europe in the end of October. Halloween is our first show. We’re figuring out what the theme is going to be. What do you think Sam?
SF: We talked about “The Shining.”
JR: “The Shining” theme seems really good. There’s only like six characters in that movie. But then there’s the bear. The girls in our band—we have background singers—so they can be triplets of the twin girls. I was going to be Danny and ride out on a tricycle.
SF: He’s going to be the little boy and I’m going to be Jack Nicholson and I’m going to murder you. Or try to.
JR: Shaun will be Shelley Duvall. I just don’t know what Kevin could be. Kevin could be Scatman Crothers.
RE: How many members do you have now?
SF: We’ve had a few lineup changes. I guess we’ve lost two people in the past few years. We’ve kicked two people out of the band.
JR: Over the last year there was always a rotating fifth member. Now we have a more solid nine-piece thing. We just put together a dream band. Our new guitar player, Kevin, we didn’t really know too well before he joined but he’s awesome. Besides that everyone else we knew.
Originally El Producto, El-P is a rapper, hip hop producer, and entrepreneur from Brooklyn, NY. He is known in hip-hop for producing underground rappers, as the co-founder/CEO of Definitive Jux record label, and as half of hip-hop duo Run The Jewels with Killer Mike.
RE: Who are the three backup singers?
JR: Jackie (Rado’s girlfriend), our bass player Justin’s girlfriend, Nina, and then our friend Emily. She’s the girlfriend of the rapper, El-P.
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: (Incredulously) It was like The Black Keys. Wow.
JR: It wasn’t like The Black Keys at all. So then we just recorded a lot. We played maybe six or seven shows. It was kind of a weird thing at our high school, they kind of tried to like, maybe they just made this up, but I always felt like they were trying to screw us out of shows. Like they didn’t like us because we were too weird or something. We always tried to play concerts at our high school and they always fell through. But we were the underground favorite at Agoura High School.
“We met in 6th grade
math class. I was
in a band called The
Boscos and we kicked out
our lead singer and
replaced him with Sam.”
— Jonathan Rado
RE: What happened after high school?
SF: We kind of both went our separate ways for a second to do stuff. But then we got together. Rado was living in New York and I moved to New York for a few months and we just made this record called Take the Kids Off Broadway. We were actually proud of that. It was the first record we made where we really liked it or thought it could be heard by others or something. So that record was the next step for us.
Richard Swift is a musician and producer, and also founder, owner, and recording engineer of Oregon-based recording studio National Freedom. As such, he has produced for and played with the indie rock band the Shins, and is the touring bassist and background singer with The Black Keys.
RE: And then you gave it to Richard Swift and he loved it?
JR: We hoped that that would happen.
SF: We weren’t thinking of him giving it to his label [Secretly Canadian] or anything like that, we just wanted him to have it because we thought he’d like it.
JR: We were big fans. Still are.
RE: Who/What are your other influences?
SF: The new album is less 60s influenced, it’s more 70s influenced.
JR: There’s been a ton of stuff, it would be impossible for us to narrow it down. We’d have to break it down album by album.
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: Tell me about the new album.
JR: We kind of arranged it side-by-side based on how the songs felt emotion-wise. But I think we tried to keep it so each side had stuff that is really catchy.
SF: I think we were inspired by those excessive albums of the time. We wanted to make something excessive and that showcased a lot of different sides of us.
JR: It took a while to record. We had like a year to write it.
RE: Do you respond well to pressure?
SF: We’re always writing stuff so it never really comes down to pressure from the label or anything because we always have an excess of material.
JR: We’re always like an album ahead. There’s always a point where someone’s like, you’ve got to start finishing it a little bit, and that drives us to wrap it up.
RE: Plans for next few albums?
JR: The next one is kind of like an orchestral pop record kind of like if the Electric Light Orchestra made a Disney soundtrack or something. And the next one after that is a hip hop record.
RE: Did this album come out exactly how you had planned?
JR: In a way, yeah. It kind of is exactly how I wanted it to be.
(referring to his soup)
It’s got everything, it’s got a matzo ball, it’s got rice, it’s called a mish mosh. It’s good.
A psychedelic rock band formed in Oklahoma City, OK, in 1983 and still active today. The Flaming Lips are known for their over-the-top live shows, which often feature costumes, intricate lighting, and frontman Wayne Coyne rolling about in a giant plastic bubble.
Founded by frontman Kevin Barnes in 1996 in Athens, Georgia, of Montreal has experimented with musical styles ranging from late 60’s influenced psychedelic pop & vaudeville to electronica, funk, glam and afrobeat. They continue to play and record.
RE: Can you talk about Star Power?
SF: Star Power is a punk band that takes over the album and by the end of the album has taken over the band. And it’s also a radio station, a mysterious radio station run by aliens. But also, I don’t know, I can’t really synopsize it like a movie because it is an album, so it’s kind of more open for interpretation.
[It developed] a few years ago as a vague concept of the album that it wasn’t just me and Rado on the record it was more a collaboration of some other entity, I don’t know why, we thought it would be cool. Or maybe we just had the title first. I can’t remember.
JR: Sorry I was texting. Yeah I think the title came first. We set a mood for each of the albums before we make them. We come up with a title, what it is going to sound like, and then the songs. It’s easier that way. It always [strays] a little bit, but it’s never a bad thing.
RE: What collaborations did you have on the album?
JR: They’re all our friends in a way. But they’re also very specific. Like of Montreal and the Flaming Lips, there were songs that we knew they would sound really good on, so we asked them to do it. Everyone that’s on it we know in a way, they’re friends of sorts.
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: Do you sing on any of it?
JR: Not really
SF: You sing on “Flowers.”
JR: Yeah I sing background vocals on a few songs, not really any of the lead stuff.
RE: Sam, when did you start singing?
“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.”
— Sam France
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: Where did you go to college?
JR: Sam went to Evergreen in Olympia Washington and I went to SVA, the School of Visual Arts in New York. (mouth full of soup) This is a mouthful interview, sorry. As long as you don’t mind.
SF: This is actually really good (referring to his veggie reuben).
RE: So you’re a vegetarian again?
SF: Today yeah. Well, I ate ribs last night and it was just a horrible experience. Some of the band is staying at my house and we wanted to go out to eat and I couldn’t think of anything except this place called Wood Ranch, in my hometown. And I was like, oh they’ll like that, they’ll want to eat ribs, that will be fun. And so I went and was like, oh I’ll eat some ribs and it was horrible and totally a bad experience. I probably won’t eat meat for a while now.
JR: You have weird exceptions, like you’ll eat calamari. Not all seafood, just squid.
SF: And scallops, yeah.
RE: What made you reunite after college?
JR: I graduated from an alternate high school. I barely graduated from high school.
SF: You graduated from high school.
JR: We didn’t graduate from college and the reason that we didn’t is because we started taking music more seriously than school. Sam took a year off from Evergreen then he never really went back. So he came to New York, where I was. It was my sophomore year of college and we were recording while I was going to school during the days. I went one year after that, I got up to my junior year, but then we started touring. [I was studying] screenwriting, which is not even real. Film school is not even a real thing. Anyway, we just started touring and stuff and it didn’t work. It just seemed like we had an opportunity to do way more than a degree in movie watching would get me.
RE: So are you involved in your video making?
JR: No. A lot of the time we’ll come up with the basic concept of something and we’ll give it to a director to work on. I don’t really think in music videos. Like when I hear music I don’t see images or something, like I couldn’t do that. But it is important to us.
SF: We think of the concepts of the videos and then we work with the director and collaborate on it.
JR: We’re pretty pleased with all of our videos. Some of them are out of our control.
RE: Do you guys have any other hobbies? I know you walked in Saint Laurent, Sam.
SF: Yeah I walked on the runway. It was really easy work, it was a fun job. I think there were other kids in other bands, I’m not sure what bands. Also there were a lot of non-models in that show, like he just went around to music festivals, like Austin Psych Fest and the Burger Records Fest. Hedi just went to these shows and went up to random kids who were watching the shows and asked them to be in his fashion show. I don’t know if you can get too close to Hedi. He’s kind of quiet. But he’s really cool. Obviously.
JR: I’m going to write a novel. A detective novel. I’m a detective mystery writer. [I read] a lot of detective novels. I don’t have [the premise] yet but I’m going to work on it on tour. It’s my tour goal. I’ve written a screenplay.
SF: He was really good.
JR: I really liked it. I’ll probably do it again at some point. But I don’t know if I’ll ever really take it seriously.
SF: We’ll probably make a Foxygen movie someday.
RE: Are you nervous for the release?
SF: I’m excited
JR: I’ve gone through periods of nervousness. I think I’m generally a nervous person so it’s easy for me to get nervous about anything, but I’m excited. I’m excited to read really negative reviews of it.
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.”
SF: But they’re like British, it’s like British humor. British humor sucks.
JR: They’re old cranky British people that write that magazine. I have this weird thing with them where I feel like I have daddy issues. I’m just like, “No you’d like us, if you’d just look at it from a different angle you’d totally like it.” That’s the only one that’s really bothered me. It’s just they’re non-stop. I feel like they hate us for the wrong reason. I feel like they would like it, because they like the Flaming Lips and things that are in the same vein, but for some reason they hate us. They like Ariel Pink, you know. We’ve been doing stuff as long as Ariel, we’re just younger and we made an album that sounds like the ‘60s, but we’re not claiming to be mind-expanding dark, psychedelic music like Sgt. Pepper. We don’t give a fuck about any of that. That’s why it is weird to me. Most everything is totally fine or funny.
SF: It’s just that one vice article for me and that one website for Rado.
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.
SF: If we get together and hang out we’re going to start messing around with music.
JR: And we have so many ideas built up that it’s just like, I want to get them out before they get stale. We’ve always been like this. There was one album in high school where we just kept recording. It ended up being like 37 songs. And none of that was really written, we’d just get together every day and write a song on the spot and record it. Just for CDs for our friends.
SF: We’d give it out at summer school.
“There was one album
in high school
where we just kept
recording. It ended up
being like 37 songs.”
— Jonathan Rado
RE: How do you feel about the music scene in LA?
SF: We’re kind of hermetic. We’re not really involved.
JR: Yeah I don’t know what it is really.
Solo project of Tim Presley, who started playing lo-fi & psychedelic music under the name White Fence in 2010. White Fence has so far recorded six studio albums, two live albums, and a collaboration with Ty Segall.
LA-based band of sisters Jennifer and Jessie Clavin, formerly of Mika Miko, who play a mix of punk and psychedelic pop. Bleached released its first album Ride Your Heart in 2013.
An annual independent music festival that takes place in Happy Valley, Oregon.
An LA-based visual artist & musician known for her synth-infused homemade pop records, stage performances and throwback video art – which has all found her a cult following. Geneva has also performed as part of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Super Creep, and Vibe Central.
SF: We like the band White Fence, Bleached. We can relate to their music. But I’m not really too aware of what’s going on. I love [LA].
JR: Yeah I think LA’s amazing. I just don’t go to many concerts. When you play a concert every day of your life, at least for me, I have to really want to go see something to go stand in a venue. I’ve spent so much of my life in venues at this point. I do feel like an old crusty guy. We played a few nights ago in some warehouse in LA. At Pickathon was the last time I saw another band.
SF: I saw Geneva Jacuzzi. That was probably the last show I went to in LA. It was great. Awesome show. She’s awesome, holy shit, recommended.
JR: I can’t even recall the last concert I went to. It’s kind of sad. I saw my friends Dub Thompson play in Seattle. But I see them all the time.
RE: When are you leaving for tour?
JR: Tomorrow. We have a bus. It’s the first time on a bus. We have like 12 people in our crew now. We did a tour for a month and it was just crazy doing six hour or eight hour drives in the van, like crammed in between two people.
RE: Do you party a lot on tour?
SF: Compared to other bands we probably barely party.
JR: I think our shows are so energetic too that we’re really tired.
SF: We don’t really drink.
JR: I don’t like to drink. Half of our band is like party-centric and the other half is like bedtime. It’s an okay mix. Sometimes it can get confusing.
RE: Sam, do you do your own hair?
SF: I did this experiment. I did it this time. It’s fun to experiment with hair. I kind of wish I had just done straight pink.
JR: I had blonde hair for like four months last year. It was frightening. That was a weird time period. I feel like most people go through hair crises. I’ve cut it all off. It’s not good. I look like a drug dealer. I’ll do it again for our horror-soundtrack album, “Nightmare Man.”
SF: We’ve got to talk about that one by the way.