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Foxygen: Through the Doors of Perception

February 20, 2017
Jonathan Rado is pretty sure he knows where he left the only copies of Foxygen’s early albums—or at least he hopes he can find them. It’s an early December afternoon, and the Foxygen multi-instrumentalist is sitting in the sleek Bushwick Airbnb he’s renting with his musical partner and frontman Sam France, while in New York preparing to rollout their latest LP for label tastemakers Jagjaguwar, Hang. Foxygen have just finished a photoshoot and, in a few hours, they’ll preview Hang’s tracks at the Brooklyn record store/venue Rough Trade. But, at the moment, the duo are taking their album’s title quite literally. They’re sipping coffee from a nearby artist-friendly café, noshing on some snacks and tracing their friendship from high-school classmates making music that poked fun at classic-rock tropes, to trying to avoid those very same clichés as they’ve become not so tongue-in-cheek 21st-century ambassadors of peace and magic.

“It’s always been the same dynamic between the two of us,” says France, who is outfitted in a stylized vest and jacket, with some nail-polish residue still visible on his fingertip , while discussing the bedroom recordings he made with Rado when they were teenagers.

“We made some great records when we were in high school,” adds the more genial and chattier Rado—who is wearing the same brown overcoat he’ll sport onstage at Rough Trade a few hours later—emphasizing that, long before they could drive, they were crafting tried-and-true records, not just demos.

“Most of the ones I want to hear, I can’t find ” France adds. “I think they’re on an old computer somewhere.”

“I still have the old PC tower—it’s in the back of my parents’ closest,” Rado assures his collaborator. “At least, I hope it’s in the back of my parents’ closet.”

Since they burst out of the DIY hipster scene with their Richard Swift-assisted breakthrough Take the Kids Off Broadway, it’s been difficult to tell where Foxygen’s jokes end and their genre-defining sonic-experimentations begin and, in certain ways, that was always part of the plan. Their 2013 psychedelic-pop opus We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, which was helmed by Swift, did more to bring ‘60s-inspired stoner sounds back into the general indie-pop consciousness than any album since the 2009 smash by another duo, MGMT.

But, at least according to social media, Foxygen’s time in the spotlight has been plagued by inter-band turmoil, debaucherous behavior and a few technical breaks that might actually have been breakups. And despite its slacker name and whatever knocks remain about rockers invading the classical world, Hang is an honest attempt to blend indie hooks and orchestral arrangements. With a tight horn section recreating Hang’s strings and France fine-tuning his Iggy Pop-like moves into more nuanced, over-the-top theatrics, as well as a pair of dark sunglasses that would make David Bowie proud, Foxygen’s new live band is also perhaps Rado and France’s best to date.

“We knew pretty early on what each album would be,” Rado says of their surprisingly planned-out trajectory. “We know where we’re going because we always think of things as a grand discography and looking at our albums like that really clears things up.”

Rado first met France in math class when they were sixth-grade students in Agoura Hills, Calif., a Los Angeles County city best known in entertainment circles as the breeding ground for nü-metal acts like Linkin Park. At the time, Rado played in the Doorsinspired band The Boscos. “We had a lead singer who thought he was Jim Morrison and wrote lyrics like Jim Morrison, and we covered a lot of Doors songs,” Rado says. “Eventually, we kicked that guy out and Sam became the singer of that band. We took these recordings that we had made and Sam did a bunch of overdubs on them. The rest of the band didn’t like the overdubs, but I loved them, and we decided to make an ‘overdub band.’”

The duo settled on the name Foxygen right off the bat and recorded those seven possibly lost albums before graduating from high school and moving to New York. Rado relocated across the country to study screenwriting at the School of Visual Arts while France was, in his words, “just bouncing around” for a little while, but they spent most of their creative energies recording Take the Kids Off Broadway in their Astoria, Queens apartment. In a move seemingly out of a rock-and-roll-inspired SVA film, Rado and France handed their hero Richard Swift a CD-R of the record after a show at Mercury Lounge in 2011. The album already had his fingerprints all over it—in fact, they named the final song on that first widespread recording “The Middle School Dance (Song for Richard Swift).”

Swift—who, in addition to his own lo-fi recordings and work with craftsmen like Damien Jurado, has clocked in time as a member of The Shins, The Arcs and The Black Keys’ touring lineup—gave the album a listen and signed on to help the nascent musicians.

“In high school, we were really into experimental music but, when we were in college, we got a little more into songwriting, and we started taking ourselves seriously as a group—just focusing on our craft and production,” France says of the songs they were writing at the time. “It was conceptual and we were really influenced by ‘60s music.”

“We write separately and then, we each put our mark on the songs,” Rado interjects, demonstrating some of the communitive shorthand that comes from more than a few semesters of playing together. “We each bring a basic song,” France replies. “It’s just osmosis.”