One minute their tunes are as delicate as a drawing by Matisse, the next as nightmarish as something by Munch. They feature a singer with a lovely, clear tenor, and their songs reference Ray Davies, Brian Wilson and hallucinogens with equal fervor. They’re Foxygen and they’ve just made one of the most melodic and uncategorizable records of the year. We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic is a half-hour acid trip that sports sumptuous tunes, profound ideas and images that might just change your life. Happily, it induces neither flashbacks nor chromosome damage. In one song, vocalist Sam France brays like Bob Dylan backed by The Hawks. In another, the duo channels the aural beauty of the Beach Boys. The album’s closer proves them capable of being brilliantly Beatlesque.
Peter Gerstenzang spoke with these two affable music geeks on the eve of their upcoming tour about the sort of music they grew up loving, drugs they may (or may not) have taken and how they tried to assemble an album that takes you from the unsettling to the hopeful-in just a little more than 30 minutes.
On how to bring about their stated goal of world peace:
Sam France: I think if one country would fucking stop killing — if they just made one “no killing” rule…It may sound crazy, but if we could do something like that, if people just started thinking differently, basically, about killing…That needs to stop before anything else. Secondly, maybe we should stop killing animals, not kill the earth. But also, like, more abstract things. Which is kind of what our album is about. Abstract images that maybe you could contemplate. People need to use their imagination.
Jonathan Rado: Sensory overload is a problem. Then again, lots of people talk about our band as being sensory overload, so I don’t know. But maybe we could get rid of iPhones. I mean, I really do love my iPhone, but I think the world would be more peaceful if everyone weren’t completely glued to them. Short of that, they should buy our album. And all of (producer/mentor) Richard Swift’s albums. People need to listen to Foxygen. But Swift first.
On the fact that the album was given to them by “cosmic beings”:
France: Rado and I live together. I had all these conspiracy theories in my head, and I was telling him about them all the time. I would be just freaking out. But then I thought of this album title and these song ideas just came to us suddenly — like, cosmic beings gave them to us, and we wrote everything quickly. That’s also because we were excited to record with Swift. It all just came out of excitement, so we didn’t really think about this album much. It was very intuitive, very cosmic. Everything was just spur-of-the moment.
On the virtues of speedy recording:
Rado: We did it in nine days! We did it so fast because Sam and I have worked together for so long. Our instinct is to put a million things, a million overdubs on everything, but we’ve worked together for so long we can do that fast. Not over-thinking things is a plus — a lot of the stuff was first takes. There’s a part on “San Francisco,” where the guitar screws up and it keeps going and it fixes itself. You want to talk about how to fix the world? People need to go back to not overthinking.
On Bob Dylan’s influence on “No Destruction”:
Rado: We love Blonde On Blonde. Al Kooper on organ! The most amazing non-organist organist ever. That’s what makes those mid-’60s Dylan records: those ignorant, ignorant choices, played by people who were not playing their [usual] instruments. Kooper was a really good guitarist who was playing organ.
On Shuggie Otis:
France: Rado turned me onto [Shuggie Otis]. We were listening to him when we were writing this stuff. We had some hooks that sounded like him. We thought [the tune] was just a demo and that we’d change the title, but it sounded like Shuggie, so we just kept it.
Rado: I just hope he hears the record!
On the apocalyptic “Oh No”:
France: Yeah, it’s this sort of John Lennon-y thing we wrote. I think we liked the idea of having it as the last song on the album. It’s like this weirdly negative end to this mostly positive album. It’s like, “What the fuck is going on?”
Rado: I think though, that’s why we tagged on that choirboy ending.
France: I picture it as taking place on a Middle School stage — a boys’ choir, a Christmas tree, a piano.
On whether or not they’re “21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace and Magic”:
France: The title really means, “We all are.” It’s not necessarily The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. But, we are. You are.
Rado: I agree with Sam. It’s an optimistic title. It’s an optimistic record. There are, maybe, dark and scary moments. But overall? It’s optimistic.