Mark Foster and his band Foster the People have had the kind of year usually reserved for dream sequences. From the explosion of their freshman track “Pumped Up Kicks,” which bombarded the radio waves last summer (and still hasn’t let up), to the band’s Grammy performance with his childhood idols the Beach Boys, Foster has hardly had time to stop and take it all in. Now finishing up a South American tour in support of their album Torches, Foster has recently spent time making remixes for bands—love letters of sorts to the music groups he admires. The Ohio native is one of those musicians who can’t stop, constantly taking on new projects: DJing with his remix partner, collaborating on tracks with other bands, and scoring music for friends’ short film projects, all the while working on a sophomore album that promises to chart new territory for Foster the People.
Just before the release of his new song for Converse’s “Three Artists, One Song” project—”Warrior,” out today, which also features Kimbra and A-Trak—we sat down with Mark Foster in a Hollywood recording studio, complete with fresh-baked cookies.
VERA NEYKOV: What are you working on?
MARK FOSTER: We’re starting our new record.
NEYKOV: Is that what you are doing here?
FOSTER: We’re doing a few things here: we’re finishing up some remixes for other people. I’m also finishing up this track for Converse that I’m doing with Kimbra and A-Trak. Converse has been doing this thing for a while where they put together three artists and have them collaborate on a song. The Gorillaz just made one with André 3000 and James Murphy. You also make a music video—we just finished ours a few days ago.
NEYKOV: How did it turn out?
FOSTER: It’s gonna be crazy! We actually shot it in the same warehouse where we shot “Helena Beat.” Me and A-Trak weren’t even there for so long, Kimbra was out of the country so they are going to superimpose her head on a body double.
NEYKOV: Do the three of you write the song together?
FOSTER: Me and A-Trak started it in New York from the ground up. We had three days to write and produce it. Kimbra was in Europe, so I sent her the rough track, and she sent back vocal ideas. It has been a transatlantic collaboration.
NEYKOV: Can you tell me more about the remixes that you have been working on? They are a side project, right? Do you remix existing songs or your songs?
FOSTER: Existing songs. We finished the Little Dragon remix just a few days ago and are now working on a Lana Del Rey remix, a Florence remix, an “Internet” remix, which is the side project to Odd Future. Right now they are all under Foster the People but I think Isom (who is in the band, but we also make these together) and I are going to branch out and do it under a new name, Smims and Bell.
NEYKOV: Where did that come from?
FOSTER: It’s an inside joke—one of my friends, a long time ago, was going to open a coffee shop and was asking a bunch of us at lunch for some names. We were throwing out different ones and she was shooting them all down. And I said Smims Coffee and Tea, the most ridiculous name—we both started cracking up! Later when I signed up for a publishing company, there were all of these names that were unavailable, so I ended up naming it Smims Coffee and Tea Publishing. It just has evolved into my DJ name: Smims. It’s nothing, just a palindrome and sounds funny.
NEYKOV: When did you move to LA?
FOSTER: I moved here in 2002 from Ohio, right after high school, with a friend. I came out to do music stuff, it was a real adventure. The first two years were some of the craziest years of my life. I couch-surfed for a couple of years, would just go where the wind blew me. I dived right in. I call these my Hunter S. Thompson years. I grew up in those years, that’s when I learned how to write songs. I didn’t know how to write a song before.
NEYKOV: Did you have a mentor?
FOSTER: Everyone was kind of like a mentor. Everyone was older than me, and everyone knew more than me, so I just soaked it up from wherever I could. I would bring my guitar to every party I went to and would just… wait for the moment and bring it out. I would play anything, from covers to a new song I had written, I would even play that.
FOSTER: Yeah, I guess so, or ignorant—one of the two.
NEYKOV: Did you have a band before, or was it always you doing your own thing?
FOSTER: I was doing my thing for a while, and then I played with a few different bands. When I was 21, I was in a pretty serious band, and we almost got signed—went to New York, showcased, all that—but didn’t end up getting signed, and we broke up. I went back to the drawing board; I really took a hit from that whole experience. And then two years later, I got a call from Aftermath that Dr. Dre wanted to hear me play and meet with me. There was a producer/A&R guy I had met a couple years before, Alonzo Jackson, actually he called me up and originally wanted me to song-write for Detox. I played him music that I was working on and he said, “I want you to play for Dre.” That was an amazing experience, but then we didn’t really see eye-to-eye for the record. They wanted a soul album, and I was moving out of that phase and into the electronic stuff. When that didn’t work out, it was one of the hardest things. I mean, I thought it would be the coolest thing to put out a record for Aftermath, especially not being a hip-hop artist, and Dre being one of my favorites.
Again, I had to go back to the drawing board, but this time I was ready to leave, pack up and move away. I was really burnt out, nothing was working out. I was working at a coffee shop in Los Feliz and trying to pay rent. I moved into this $400-a-month apartment, no kitchen, walls falling apart, but I could save money. I actually wanted to move to Turkey, or Romania… just somewhere off the grid.
I was going to move in May 2010, but then I got a job offer. I had been doing freelance composing for a company that does commercials in Venice. They gave me a studio, put me on a salary, and I was able to make music again for a living. I got to quit the coffee shop. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to try this for a while, see what happens.” That really kept me in LA, and put some wind in my sails, creatively. That was where I began writing a lot of the songs that ended up on Torches. When I wasn’t composing for commercials, I would write. Four months later, I started the band, and eight months later, we were signed. I went from one of the lowest places that I have been in my life and within a year was in the best place I’ve ever been.
NEYKOV: What has this last year been like, besides busy?
FOSTER: Well, it took about five months to make the record, and I didn’t really know how it was going to be received. “Pumped Up Kicks” started blowing up, but the rest of the record doesn’t sound like it, and I didn’t know how people would react, if they would like it or hate it. Seeing what has transpired after the record came out, it has been a super steep incline. We had to work really hard to catch up with what was happening around us. We hadn’t really had time to gel as a band before things took off, so it was really stressful for the first six months. I felt like this tidal wave was coming, the most epic wave of my life—and if we didn’t swim fast enough, we weren’t going to catch the wave. And a wave like that only comes around once and if you miss your opportunity, then it’s done. That was kind of the mindset we all snapped to. Also, we went from playing in front of a couple of hundred people [in March of last year, with Grouplove] to the end of that tour when we played Coachella… and that was the first time we played to over 3000 people. And it’s been moments like that, landmarks. Coachella was one, Glastonbury was another [in front of 15,000], and then Lollapalooza, where we played for about 50,000 people and that was the peak. I remember walking out there, and looking at the guys and feeling that we had caught the wave.
NEYKOV: Tell me more about the next record.
FOSTER: I got a studio, and got Mark [Pontius] and Isom to do drum tracks, and we got Radiohead’s engineer. We brought in six drum kits and drums from around the world and just had them jam for three days. It was an experiment: playing different loops, different beats, sampling drums, putting them through synthesizers, so now we have an arsenal of the best drums I’ve ever heard and that’s going be the starting point for the next record.
NEYKOV: Is that how you usually do it?
FOSTER: Yeah, every song I write begins with drums, but I felt like I had exhausted all of my drums sounds. I’ve always used everyone else’s sounds, so going into this record, I said, let’s make our own sounds, let’s get creative, throw this against the wall and see what happens, and so far it’s completely exceeded my expectations. I think when this record comes out, it’s going to have the freshest-sounding drums of any record of 2013.
NEYKOV: And how are you thinking of this record—conceptually, as a whole album? Will it be very different?
FOSTER: I don’t really know yet… it’s going to be much more evolved. I’m going to take more liberties with space, space in the music itself. You know? With Torches, I wanted to make a great pop record, I wanted every song to be exciting, not to have too much space, no long pieces of music without vocals, I kind of wanted to write the perfect pop album. And now, I want to make something with grit. Really push myself artistically as a writer, and not feel like I have to smash it out of the park with some massive vocal hook. And the band feels the same. Now we’ve been together for over two years, and we played 140 shows last year. So we now gel as a band, unlike the first record, and I think it’s going to be an exciting process to really be able to collaborate.