A Breath of Foxygen
Westlake Village, California no doubt has much to offer—among other things, it’s the corporate home of Dole Foods, Guitar Center, and K-Swiss. But the well-heeled suburban LA enclave also has something weirder and more wonderful to call its own. It was in a math class there, in the early aughts, that a couple of sixth-graders named Sam France and Jonathan Rado met, sowing the seeds of one of the more inspired young outfits you will hear this or any year: Foxygen. The duo self-produced a string of adventurous records throughout high school, parted ways for aborted stints in college, then in 2011 managed to get their EP Take The Kids Off Broadway into the hands of avant-pop maven Richard Swift, who helped Foxygen land a deal with Jagjaguwar Records. Take The Kids‘ release last year got indie-dom to sit up and take notice.
Now comes Foxygen’s thrill ride of a debut album, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. Produced by Swift, it’s a record on which unmistakeable classic rock touchstones careen to and fro—The Doors here, Velvets there, Dylan on “No Destruction,” The Rolling Stones on the rollicking title track, yet all very much Foxygen’s own, delivered with a healthy dose of bizarro, paisley, Wes Anderson-esque mirth. Frontman France is a piece of work—part punk irony, part vaudeville flim-flam, capable of multiple voices, as in “On Blue Mountain,” a sonic bumper car packed with head-spinning changes. As for the lilting camp gem “San Francisco,” which sports a charming Royal Tenenbaums-meets-Satanic Majesties video, it’s one of the singles of the year, and it’s only January. It’s hard to say enough good things about Foxygen, so we’ll let them talk. We spoke to Rado and France at New York’s Webster Hall, where they were playing support for like-minded eccentric Kevin Barnes and his band of Montreal.
JOHN NORRIS: Great to meet you guys. It seems kind of perfect that you’re out for this short run with of Montreal. Seems like a good match.
JONATHAN RADO: Oh yeah. Of Montreal was the first concert I ever saw, when I was like 15 years old. So it’s great.
NORRIS: This is truly an amazing record. As was last year’s EP, but this even more so. And in its own way, so original and fresh, though it’s obviously influenced by some classic sounds. I might as well ask you about those constant comparisons. You are probably used to it by now, but whether it’s the Stones or Velvet Underground or The Doors or whoever, do you have a little bit of a “we want to be our own band” reaction to those comparisons? Obviously, that’s fine company to be mentioned with.
SAM FRANCE: Yeah, yeah, that’s the way I think of it. It’s not the worst thing to be compared to The Beatles in this day and age. I appreciate it, actually.
RADO: I don’t think they’re conscious references, though. For instance, some people say Bowie, but it was never Bowie. It was more Eno and stuff. But still, they’re close.
FRANCE: I think it’s the glam thing.
NORRIS: I have heard people say T. Rex before.
RADO: Yeah, a little bit. I mean we were listening to all that stuff when we were making the record.
NORRIS: And before?
RADO: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been listening to that stuff forever.
NORRIS: I think one comparison that is valid, not because you guys necessarily sound like him, but because it seems like you kind of approach music in the same way, is Ariel Pink. You both seem to take this pastiche approach to songs, with multiple changes within one track. People can say there’s a psych element to Foxygen, or a garage or glam element. But really there’s a lot of looks, you can find blues moments, even cabaret or vaudeville-y things going on, sometimes within one song. So it seems like on a very general level what Ariel does and what you do is not dissimilar.
FRANCE: I appreciate being compared to him. I love his music a lot. I wouldn’t say it inherently inspired it. But I see the comparisons. I think we’re both weird, or something.
NORRIS: You do a lot of different things vocally. And you seem to like characters.
FRANCE: Yeah, definitely. Definitely for albums. I think we kind of assume different roles on different albums. On our next album, the one after this, we’re gonna completely promote it like I’ve gone insane or I’m in a mental institution or something, or I’ve killed myself.
RADO: Well it’s possible that you might actually go to a mental institution.
FRANCE: Yeah. But even if I don’t really, we’re gonna promote it like I was. We’ll just lie in the press, and make it seem like it’s this weird album like [1969 Skip Spence LP] Oar, a complete mental-breakdown album.
RADO: Sort of like how I read that Henry Rollins went to prison to record Charles Manson, he apparently went and recorded this whole Manson album. I sort of like the idea of going to like a mental institution to record some of Sam’s songs. Like sneaking a recorder in there. So I think some of the songs on the next album are gonna be just really raw, an acoustic guitar and like one cymbal or something, like sneakily recorded.
FRANCE: We like the theater of it!
NORRIS: And you’re already playing some songs live that will be on that record. You seem to write really far ahead.
FRANCE: Yeah, we have like a hundred songs.
RADO: A hundred songs for our next album.
NORRIS: Sounds like a double album.
RADO: [laughs] It’s gonna be a double album, if not a triple.
NORRIS: And what about the songs on this album, 21st Century, did they come together quickly?
FRANCE: They were written in a week, right after the EP came out.
RADO: Yeah, we wrote everything in like a week. Just like, one a day. We were living together and every day we would write, just demo a song.
FRANCE: We just got all of these ideas out of nowhere, like a few came later, like “San Francisco” was a little later, but they all just kind of came to us.
NORRIS: I’ve been raving about “San Francisco” for weeks now, which is just excellent, and it’s got your voice doing this thing that you don’t really hear anywhere else on the record. Anything you can say about when and how that song came about?
NORRIS: Or not?
RADO: [laughs] I don’t know, it was a lot different before. I can say that it went through some changes. The verses were kind of like a country part before.
FRANCE: Yeah, on the demo, there were like fart noises and stuff. Somehow, it became a nice, beautiful little pop song.
RADO: Yeah, the chorus was always there. Sam wrote that chorus.
FRANCE: But we just wanted to write a crazy little pop song!
NORRIS: And then there’s “No Destruction,” which has this honky-tonk piano, and again references San Francisco—but also of note, for those of us who live in Brooklyn, one of my favorite lines: “There’s no need to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore!”
FRANCE: [laughs] Yeah.
NORRIS: So, do you have some strong feelings about the infamous borough of Brooklyn?
FRANCE: I hate Brooklyn and all the fucking hipsters there! [laughs] No, I don’t know. I thought it sounded kind of controversial or something. No, I really don’t know anything about Brooklyn, I just thought, “That sounds like it will get somebody thinking!”
NORRIS: So you don’t mind pushing some buttons from time to time?
FRANCE: Yeah, yeah.
RADO: Everyone pushes buttons!
NORRIS: So to go back in time a little bit, it was around ’04 that what was to become Foxygen began?
FRANCE: Yeah. We knew each other from middle school, around 11 or 12.
NORRIS: And Foxygen was a spin-off from this other band The Fionas. What was that like?
RADO: It was kind of Doors-y, blues jams that 12-year-old kids do. We were in this band that was first called The Boscos, which is the name of my dog, and there was this singer John, and he kind of thought he was Jim Morrison. He was 12 years old but wore, like, red leather pants to school. And all of his songs were like, “I went down to the river…”
FRANCE: He’d get drunk and stuff. I wish I still had it. I loved it, dude, but I took his place. I came in, I was in the band, and then I made some Fionas recordings. I did some overdubs on them and everybody was like, “This fucking sucks!,” and I got pissed off.
RADO: He broke the CD in half.
FRANCE: Except for Rado, he was like, “This is genius!” So we were like, “We’ll start our own band!”
RADO: “We’ll do our own thing!” We literally left practice and made our first song that night.
NORRIS: So there were at least six full albums recorded before Take The Kids Off Broadway, right?
RADO: Yeah, pretty much. Maybe more. I mean, you’ve done your research, but you haven’t gone on my hard drive, that’s all I have to say. There’s only so much the Internet has to offer. There’s some really dark stuff.
FRANCE: Some live records.
RADO: Ghettoplastik is a good one.
NORRIS: Kill Art?
RADO: Kill Art.
NORRIS: I have read you say that over time the songs developed a bit more of a pop structure, that the early stuff was kind of all over the place?
FRANCE: Yeah, it was weird shit before. Rapping and psychedelic sounds.
RADO: I made a 30-track space opera. For real. It’s called The Jurassic Explosion Phillipic.
NORRIS: I’ve seen that title. That’s a great title.
RADO: Yeah we’re trying to find a way to get it out. It’s good.
NORRIS: And didn’t you have Cat Food, Dog Food, Motor Oil?
RADO: That’s some early shit. Electric Sun Machine. That was our first one.
NORRIS: So is there any way people can hear any of this online?
FRANCE: We’ll put it up soon.
RADO: We’re trying to find a way.
FRANCE: Maybe just put it on MediaFire and just be like “Here you are…”