Jonathan Rado Lays Down the Law
ABOVE: JONATHAN RADO. IMAGE COURTESY OF CARA ROBBINS
When we spoke with Jonathan Rado from a Minneapolis hospital last month, he was having a pretty hard week. Physically speaking, Rado was in good health—he was at the hospital to visit his Foxygen bandmate Sam France, who had broken his leg onstage the previous night only a few minutes into the performance. The broken leg was one of a handful of crises on Rado’s plate that week, as headlines circulated about a tell-all Tumblr post from a former touring vocalist, a festival “meltdown,” and a subsequent string of canceled festival dates while France’s leg healed. While this particular week was probably one of Rado’s most stressful in recent memory, scrutiny from the music press is familiar to him and his band.
When we do get around to the purpose of the call, his upcoming solo record Law and Order, Rado describes the album and its writing process as “stuff I would laugh at” and that he “doesn’t think much about it at all.” It’s easy to take those pull quotes out of context, but he’s actually describing a pretty organic songwriting and home recording practice, which takes place entirely—including a full drum set—in his current bedroom in New York and his childhood room in California.
MATT PUTRINO: I feel like I should start this interview with just, how are you doing this week? It seems like it’s been a rough one.
JONATHAN RADO: It’s been a rough week. I’m just at the hospital right now in Minneapolis. We had to cancel a bunch of Foxygen shows. It’s sort of rough. I didn’t think there could possibly be backlash from something that’s really not our fault at all —not wanting to perform in extreme pain—but I’m constantly surprised.
PUTRINO: So you’ve been in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices?
RADO: Yeah, Sam is in the hospital. I’ve just been here visiting him every day. We’ve stuck around in Minneapolis for a few days.
PUTRINO: It seems like every detail of this tour has been covered by the music press. It’s probably good from a publicity perspective, but it means things like the video of you canceling a show after the injury gets posted. That’s got to be a hard thing to say to an audience.
RADO: I mean it was really one of the worst moments. I can’t—it’s one of those things you can’t really believe. You have nightmares about that. It’s equivalent to the nightmare of going on stage and you don’t know your songs anymore. It was that feeling. I had this dream once that I was a Jimi Hendrix impersonator, but I didn’t know how to play any Jimi Hendrix songs. I only knew how to play the beginning of “Purple Haze” and I didn’t have a wahwah pedal. And it felt so similar to that. “Sorry guys, we’ll come back!” And we will. But it’s been pretty rough.
PUTRINO: Have you kept track of how many shows you’ve played in the last year or so?
RADO: It’s over 100, for sure. I don’t know exactly. I think I’d probably hate to know how many there were.
PUTRINO: The reason I ask, and I know it’s kind of a tired solo album question, but when did you have time to write this record?
RADO: I didn’t ever really “start” it with the intention of putting it out or it being a solo album. In between tours, we had a month off, I would just record stuff like I always do. I’ve done this shit forever. We finished the tour and I had all these songs and they weren’t Foxygen songs. So I decided to randomly send it to Woodsist to see if they’d be interested in putting it out.
PUTRINO: So when you were making the record, you weren’t thinking it was going to be a Woodsist release.
RADO: No. I wasn’t even making a record. I was just fucking around in my room. We were sort of writing Foxygen material, and whenever Sam [France] writes a song, it becomes a Foxygen song. He’s writing for his voice, in his mind it’s him singing it, so of course it’s going to be a Foxygen song. But I’m not the singer of Foxygen, so there’s stuff that I’ll write and I’ll know Sam won’t want to do the song. It doesn’t sound like him. Not really appropriate for that. That’s where most of the stuff came from. Stuff that wouldn’t fit with Foxygen. The only one that could have been a Foxygen song, but I liked the way I sang it, was that song “Faith.” That’s the only one that could have been a Foxygen song. I just had a really fun time recording and singing it.
PUTRINO: You’re playing every instrument?
RADO: Yeah, everything on the record is me. Except Tim [Presley] from White Fence played on “Faces.” My girlfriend sings on a few songs.
PUTRINO: Did you record it in New York?
RADO: Yeah, I made most of it in my closet-sized apartment in New York, and the rest of it in my childhood bedroom in California.
PUTRINO: Some of the drums and louder stuff?
RADO: No, actually I played a lot of the drums in New York. The room that I was recording in was so small that when I set up the drums, they’d take up the whole room. I’d have to record, and then break down all the drums again because I couldn’t move.
PUTRINO: The record has these interludes. Songs like “Dance Away Your Ego,” that organ tune. Are you a fan of the rock instrumental as a pacing device on an album?
RADO: The funny thing is I hate the instrumental songs. They’re always my least favorite parts of records. I don’t know. I can’t help myself from doing them. I think that those two work because they’re at least interesting. I think a lot of times instrumental songs are not that fun to listen to.
PUTRINO: I think length plays into it, too. An instrumental over six minutes gets a little self-indulgent.
RADO: Yeah. “Dance Away Your Ego” is maybe too long. I was listening to it the other day, and I was thinking, “This could be shorter. This doesn’t need the drum solo.” I think it’s kinda funny, too, because it’s just me in my room trying to coordinate all these different solos and things. I think that’s what a lot of the album is, me trying to find funny things. Or finding little funny things inside of you that can make [yourself] laugh.
PUTRINO: Can you tell me a little bit about Raw and Odar?
RADO: Oh yeah, it’s “Rado” and “War” backwards. That’s just more of the same stuff. I have a lot of recordings, more than what’s online. That’s some stuff that didn’t make the cut for Law and Order for whatever reason. I don’t like the way I sing on most of those songs, but there is the song “Alien Dreams” that I like. And the two songs that are like hip-hop jams are pretty cool. I made those maybe a month ago, right before I put them up. It’s a companion piece to [the LP]. A little free giveaway.
PUTRINO: The last time you spoke with Interview, you mentioned there were about 100 songs already written.
RADO: Yeah, for the next Foxygen album.
PUTRINO: It made me think if you were a songwriter in a pre-Bandcamp, pre-SoundCloud, pre-Internet era, you’d have a very different experience.
RADO: What would you do? There are artists in the ’60s and ’70s who did make an extreme amount [of recordings.] Like Todd Rundgren, all of his albums are like 30 fucking songs. There were artists who wrote so much and put out so much material, but it was way harder to do. If the Internet didn’t exist, I probably wouldn’t be putting out the fucking companion piece to the bullshit record that already exists, you know? I don’t think it’s absolutely needed. So yeah, the next Foxygen album is going to be super long, because we’ve had forever to write it. We haven’t been recording. Both Sam and I… we’re really extreme about writing songs. We’ll write a song a day, individually or together. Unless we’re on tour, because that creates dead space. We’re in a van, we’re not playing guitar or anything.
PUTRINO: Are you good at editing yourself with that much material? Or do you pass it on for other opinions?
RADO: I’d say we’re pretty good at editing. We’ve cut stuff from albums. We’ve recorded stuff and just decided it wasn’t—a song from the last Foxygen album ended up as a B-side to “No Destruction” called “Where’s the Money?” But even that, this is going to sound super egotistical, and I don’t know how to say this without sounding egotistical, but I don’t think a lot of the times Foxygen songs require much editing. We rarely record a song and go, “God that sucked. We shouldn’t show that to people.” We’re pretty confident in the way we make music, that rarely falters. We’ve just been doing it for so long, it’s like a science between us. There’s not a lot of times where we cut something or decide to not record it.
PUTRINO: Do you think that comes from being a two-person unit instead of a larger band?
RADO: Yeah. I like Sam’s opinion, and he likes mine. There’s nobody [else’s] opinion that we hold equally. There’s no drummer to be like, “Oh man, I think this drum fill should be here.” Or, “Can we play that slower?” We’re just both the musicians in the band and we rarely argue about any sort of musical decision, because we respect each other in that way. And that’s probably why it rarely falters.
PUTRINO: Is Sam involved at all with these solo shows?
RADO: No, I don’t think so. I don’t know what the live show is going to be. I just threw it together very recently. It’s just a few friends. I don’t have a live thing permanently going on at all, so I don’t know. Maybe at some point Sam would be in the band if he wanted to be, but not currently.
PUTRINO: Have you put a lot of thought into taking over the frontman role?
RADO: No, not really! The theme of this whole solo album is I haven’t really put any thought into anything. A lot of the songs were written and recorded at the exact same time with very little thought put into it. There’s sort of a relief [of not really thinking about it]. There were a lot of things I didn’t really think about and I’m still not thinking about it. I feel like if I do, that’s where I’ll start to question if I’m doing something right. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m taking it that seriously. The whole point of this solo album is to escape taking things seriously for me. I wanted to have something, this is my little project. These are the things I do in my spare time. It’s not my main project, just something that’s always been a part of my life that I’ve done forever. And maybe now I have enough confidence to show it to people.
PUTRINO: You get that vibe listening to the record. It doesn’t feel overwrought. It doesn’t feel like a million people had their hands in it. It moves pretty seamlessly from the fuzzier tracks to the Nancy and Lee stuff like “Hand in Mine.”
RADO: It’s just whatever I was feeling like that day. I didn’t write a song saying, “This is a duet,” and then recorded it. I made a little instrumental track and thought, “Oh this would be funny as a Nancy and Lee song.” Every song on the album started as, “I think this would be funny as…” I’m trying to keep myself entertained. It’s a comedy record. I do really consider it a comedy album in a way. Not that any of the songs are funny, but for me it’s a comedy record.
PUTRINO: Yeah, it sounds like a record collector’s album. Pulling things from here and there.
RADO: Yeah, it’s stuff I would laugh at. I think it’s funny the way Ariel Pink can be funny. I’m still taking it seriously, I’m not writing about poop or anything. It’s just sort of funny in its own way.
PUTRINO: On that topic, are there any new albums that played a role with this record?
RADO: I got really into Todd Rundgren since the last Foxygen record. That’s something that I just discovered and took up. I got so, so obsessed with it for like a month. That’s probably right in the middle of making most of those tracks. That’s a big one for me, I’ve listened to Wizard, A True Star, and Todd so many times I can’t even hear it anymore. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop. Wu Tang. RZA. All the records that came out around the time of 36 Chambers. The ODB solo record, Ironman by Ghostface. That’s what I’ve been digging lately. I got an MPC and I’ve been making a lot of beats. That’s maybe something to expect.
PUTRINO: Do you want to tour this record?
RADO: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I kinda want to see the reaction to it. I’m still kind of self-conscious about a lot of the stuff. I have no idea whether people are going to even want to see that shit live. I’d like to see what the reaction is first, then maybe tour around it.
I’m into the idea now, [that] if I’m doing a show, it’s going to be a one-off thing. I’m doing this tour with White Fence because I love White Fence and I want to hang out for three days. I’ve never really been a front man or sang lead vocals live. I’m pretty nervous about it, but it should be okay. I’m excited, but I’m also kind of scared.
PUTRINO: Well, it’s something completely new.
RADO: It’s weird. I knew the record was coming out. And I knew the record was coming out on Woodsist, and it got announced and I was like, “Oh fuck. What have I done?” I had that moment. “Oh no. Shit! No, take it back!”
PUTRINO: I want to ask about the backlash you mentioned earlier. Every canceled show is a news story, when really canceling shows is a reality of being a touring band. It always seemed like ageism to me, because you guys started the band so young, and you’re only in your early 20s now.
RADO: Yeah. I don’t know if it has anything to do with us being young or inexperienced. I can’t deny that we started touring a year ago having never done a tour before. We had done one small tour playing really small shows to nobody from Washington to California for four days. And that was it. All of the sudden we’re out for two months at a time, trying to get along and figure out this band that doesn’t fucking sound that good live, and trying to figure out how to make it sound good. Practicing on stage, pretty much. Dealing with ourselves being unstable people a little bit. There’s a lot of hate being directed at Foxygen, and I understand how people think we’re a young band, inexperienced, on the road for the first time, dealing with these problems, because it’s true. But I don’t understand the hate and the anger towards our band. We’re not getting on stage and being like, “Fuck you!” Or anything that would really deserve that shit. We’re just trying. We show up to shows for the most part unless Sam breaks his fucking leg. Or the other show we had to cancel in Vegas, he was vomiting really badly and couldn’t go on stage because he had the flu. Unless we’re physically unable to go play a show, we’re going to show up and we’re going to try to entertain the audience. Maybe we’re not going to play that well, but we get a lot of fucking hate, and I don’t understand it, and it sucks.
PUTRINO: I guess that comes with the territory.
RADO: All of the gossip and shit going around right now doesn’t help. It’s all kind of backfiring a little bit. You know what sucks? Sam broke his leg and we have to cancel these shows, but I feel like two or three nights ago was maybe the first time as a band we sat down and we were like, “We’re getting pretty good at this. We figured out how to do this.” It’s sort of a bummer we have to stop right now. Maybe over every tour we’ve ever done, this is the one I’d want to continue, because it’s sounding great. We’ve been having fun.
PUTRINO: What was it like in the van when all the Tumblr stuff came out?
RADO: Here’s what I’m going to say about that. I’ve chosen to remain silent about all that stuff because I don’t want to play into it, or respond to it. What was written, some of it was true, some of it wasn’t true, and there was definitely a point when Sam and I were not getting along that well. But we’ve worked a lot of that out. It’s definitely not a true depiction of what our band is. Sam and I are brothers, and we don’t get along that well all the time. But it’s been a lot better.
JONATHAN RADO’S LAW AND ORDER IS OUT TODAY VIA WOODSIST.