There were times in 2013 when Foxygen, seemed in danger of becoming a story that ended too soon. Sam France and Jonathan Rado’s exceptional debut, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, was a crazy quilt mash-up of classic pop and rock sounds that recalled fellow Angeleno Ariel Pink in both its magpie approach, subversive streak and frontman France’s camera-mugging panache. Boy, was it thrilling. But boy, was there controversy.
Some of it was generated by the band itself. There were endless uneven live shows (including a well publicized, heckler-induced meltdown by France at SXSW), rumors of an impending breakup prompted by a former bandmate’s Tumblr post, and France falling off the stage and breaking his leg midway through the year, which sidelined the band for months. The best of times seemed to have run into worst of times.
But that was then. Not only have Foxygen lived to see another day, they’ve flourished. They return in October having doubled down on the audacity with …And Star Power, a homespun 24-track lower-fi monster that’s all over an exhilarating sonic map: glam and garage rave-ups, ’70s soft rock and soul sweetness, noisy screamo squalls, psych-lite, a grindhouse movie reference, cameos from The Flaming Lips, of Montreal, White Fence and Bleached, and a concept involving an alternate universe.
Rado and France spoke with Wondering Sound about this wild ride of a record, cleaning up their live act and looking to Jeff Lynne for inspiration on their next release.
There is a lot going on here. Twenty-four tracks, 82 minutes. Was the idea always to have a double album?
Sam France: We probably planned it about a year ago, and a long time ago when we were a lot younger we had made another really long album [2007's Jurassic Explosion Phillipic], and it was actually kind of similar in some ways. It was a long album about aliens. So it’s something that we’ve done before.
Every side is named. You’ve got “The Hits,” “The Paranoid Side,” “Scream: A Journey Through Hell.” Did you also always envision it having these four distinct sides and personalities?
France: Shortly before we started working on it, we thought it would be smart to group the more accessible songs on the first side. And I think from there, we thought it would be cool to have every side be thematic.
I don’t need to tell you that conventional wisdom says we live in a time when people can barely sit through a three-minute song, much less 82 minutes. I know you guys love the idea of a complete album, but were you ever concerned that you could overwhelm people and lose them by giving them this much to digest?
Jonathan Rado: Yeah, of course it’s something that you think about — what people are gonna think of your crazy double album. But I don’t think we ever really took that into consideration too much.
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.
July of 2013 was an eventful month in the history of this band. First, the infamous Tumblr post from Lizzy about the state of the band, and then Sam breaking his leg, which meant you guys had to stop touring for months. Were you able to make use of that break and work on this record?
Rado: We weren’t recording. We were both writing, so I think that time was really good for getting writing done. In between that time and when we finally started recording, I had gone back to New York, ’cause I’d been living there, and I was finally moving out. I went back to LA in October, and we started recording in November.
France: It was actually good. Everything kind of came to a halt after I broke my leg, and I think we needed that time to get back to what we love. Once we really started making the record, everything was great.
All the speculation surrounding the state of the band, prompted by her post, and the fact that people may have had this negative perception of you, Rado, as a certain kind of controlling guy, was that weighing on you?
Rado: Yeah. It got to me initially, for like a month, but then I decided “Well, there’s nothing I can fucking do about that.” I didn’t really feel the need to respond to it, and sooner or later it would be clear that it was all fake, you know?
[We reached out to Elizabeth Le Fey for a response. She writes: "What was fake were the headlines used in articles citing my tumblr that said things like, "Foxygen are breaking up!" which I never said in my post. Unfortunately, what I wrote on my personal Tumblr was not fake, although I wish it was, because what happened in the band was not fun. If one goes back and re-read what I wrote, I think it's pretty self-explanatory about my introduction into Foxygen, and how I was received by all of the individual members. My Tumblr post was called "my tour memories" and that's what it is, my tour memories."]
So was there ever a doubt in your minds that there would be another record?
France: No, it was never in question. I mean it was all we were ever talking about.
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.
The spirit of those people?
France: Right, or I don’t know, some weird…
Rado: Like an alternate universe thing.
France: As the record plays, this band is kind of slowly taking over the record, and turning Foxygen into a fucked-up experimental punk band, or something like that.
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.”
I was at your “infamous” South by Southwest show, and a bunch of others last year. And there were a couple where I felt that you guys played with maybe a little bit of a chip on your shoulders.
But then there were other times where you, and particularly Sam, would be in this great place, as though whatever cloud might have been at one show had totally lifted.
France: Yeah totally, it was just inconsistent. We hadn’t figured out our live formula yet, so we were frustrated, a lot. We were new to that whole thing, and I think we took a lot of stuff for granted, took the audience for granted a lot. Plus we would play stuff up anyway, just for theatricality. So it’s just more consistent now.
Rado: It was a sound thing too. A lot of the time it was really frustrating for us. We couldn’t get the music to sound the way we wanted it to live, and that would end up kind of sabotaging the show sometimes. But now that we have a crack band of musicians it’s a lot easier to feel good every night.
Are you already thinking about the next record?
France: Yeah, we’re gonna try and record it in a few months after touring, if we can.
Rado: The music’s pretty much written.
And, another huge record like this?
France: No, it’s gonna be a little more accessible again. We’re gonna try and collaborate with an orchestral kind of thing. It’s kind of like Electric Light Orchestra, kind of really poppy, but also some like middle of the road, like [early] Scott Walker vibe. Kind of like an opera, but not very long. It’s pretty accessible.
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.