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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.”

Foxygen gained some traction on the New York art-rock circuit and signed with Jagjaguwar, who rereleased Take the Kids Off Broadway in 2012. They partnered with Swift once again for their true calling card, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic—a tight, trippy riff on the age of Aquarius’ precious sounds and idealistic themes that became a hallmark of this decade’s post-jam experimentation. Recorded in a home studio in just a few days, with the three musicians playing a soundscape’s worth of instruments, the album walked a fine line between serious and self-referential. Even Foxygen’s Bandcamp page description danced on that tightrope: “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is a precocious and cocksure joyride across California psychedelia with a burning, bursting punk-rock engine.” Lines like, “I left my love in San Francisco/ That’s okay, I was bored anyway/ I left my love in the room/ That’s okay, I was born in L.A.” in “San Francisco” and “There’s no need to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore” in “No Destruction” clearly were cut straight from Frank Zappa’s Sgt. Pepper spoof We’re Only in It for the Money. But, like that classic, Foxygen’s breakthrough was just as infectious and carefully constructed enough to send acts ranging from Guster to Marco Benevento to Nathaniel Rateliff in sea ch of that that thoughtful—but never-over-thought—Swift sound.

“There’s an obvious chemistry between those guys,” Swift says. “There’s also that silent member, which, in this case, was the producer, but that is definitely their sound. More than anything that I’m proud of—besides the fact that I could actually pull off those drums because their arrangements were so complicated—is that I really discovered them and pushed Jagjaguwar to sign them.”

But life started to imitate art on the road. Foxygen put together a live band capable of recreating their studio cuts but also earned a reputation for their brash, unreliable shows, where it was never quite clear whether they were mocking arena-rock excesses or reveling in them. At several early gigs, including a high-profile SXSW showcase, France was visibly hostile to his audience and, another time, they cancelled their European tour in order to maintain “the creative health of the band.” Then, on the road in July 2013, France sustained complete fractures of the tibia and fibula that were severe enough to require surgery, forcing the group to cancel more shows. Around the same time, his girlfriend, touring member Elizabeth Fey, put up a blog post exposing a different type of fracture in France and Rado’s friendship. Rado released a solo record on Woodsist, the psych-friendly indie incubator founded by Woods’ Jeremy Earl. (He recorded the material on an eight-track and signed on a handshake deal.) Many wondered if Foxygen would fall victim to the same unruly behavior that ultimately caused the demise of their early influence Jim Morrison.

“I think it’s a little bit of both, like a lot of things we do,” Rado says when asked whether those early antics were part of a performance-art piece or a sign of things actually becoming unhinged. “Part of that was just not being able to play music and just working within our inabilities.”

France agrees, noting, “We are really just big fans of the mythological aspects of rock-and-roll, aside from just the musicality and the record making process of it. We think of records as little art pieces, like most people do, but we like observing it from a standpoint that’s a little more self aware than some other bands.”

Rado and France bounced back from the drama and retreated to their home studio, as well as various destinations like Chateau Marmont and the Beverly Hills Hotel, to record an even headier concept piece, 2014’s ...And Star Power—a 24-track double-disc album that embraces its grandeur and tells the story of the fictional band Star Power. Despite coming off of a genre-defining record, the core Foxygen duo decided to tweak their formula, mixing live performances and studio wizardry and inviting a festival’s worth of fellow psych-freaks to make cameos, including members of The Flaming Lips, of Montreal and White Fence. They even toyed with the idea of releasing the album under the Star Power pseudonym, though they eventually decided to share the billing with their alter-egos.

“I don’t think it ever crossed our minds to do another ‘60s Kinks record,” Rado says with a laugh. “That’s the beauty of being someone like Beck or The Flaming Lips—a one or two person band that can morph styles much more easily because of how a democracy works. It’s not like we have a drummer saying, “I don’t want to do this.”

France sees a clear through line connecting the characters on their two proper full-lengths. “It made sense for that to be the natural progression, even from a career standpoint,” he says. “It was all meta and mixed together, but that’s where those [21st Century] guys would have been in 1972, or a few years later, when they were rock stars with a little too much money. That was an archetype that we wanted to play around with, so it just made sense for it to be the second album.”

“They had a very successful first record and spent too much time working on the second one,” Rado interjects.

...And Star Power starts off, sonically, where its predecessor leaves off, with the groovy “How Can You Really.” But then it consciously moves deeper into Rado and France’s—or maybe Star Power’s—record crates to weave in elements of punk, prog, psych and pop, as well as nods to Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Todd Rundgren and maybe even Foxygen themselves. Tracks like the meditative “Coulda Been My Love,” the folk ramble “You & I” and the garage jam “Cold Winter/ Freedom” proved that Foxygen hadn’t lost their creative chops, and they managed to hold it together during their support tour. But once again, things got loopy when France and Rado announced a “farewell tour” for Star Power in 2015 that fans and critics alike saw as Foxygen’s own breakup. Adding to the confusion, the members of the group seemed to fade into the Internet, except for live drummer Shaun Fleming, who released the soul-psych favorite Everybody’s a Good Dog under the name Diane Coffee later that ear.

“It was a farewell to the Star Power concept,” Rado says with a mischievous grin. “We made a little poster and it said, ‘Star Power Farewell Tour.’ It didn’t actually say Foxygen anywhere on the announcement. We never said Foxygen was breaking up—ever. People take Twitter very seriously.”

Foxygen started working on Hang in 2015, about a month after wrapping up the promo tour for ...And Star Power, but the album’s lofty concept dates back even farther.

“We knew a long time ago, probably around the We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic album, that we wanted to do an orchestral record,” Rado admits. “We knew that it would happen after ...And Star Power, which was also a concept that we had very early on. Then, sometime while we were recording Star Power, I sketched out the basic songs one night for ‘Follow the Leader,’ ‘Avalon,’ ‘Mrs. Adams,’ ‘America’ and ‘Rise Up’ all in one sitting.” (...And Star Power’s track listing even ends with a tune named “Hang.”)

Hunkering down at LA’s Electro Vox Studios, Rado and France embraced their professional surroundings, working at a proper studio for the first time and utilizing a 40-plus piece orchestra on each of Hang’s tracks. Trey Pollard and Matthew E. White provided the arrangements and recruited many of the players from their pool of Richmond, Va., musicians. While the album’s press materials don’t take themselves too seriously and describe the album’s stars as “two young guys [who] are lookin’ good and bored and ready for some kinda seismic activity” and “the Big Bang of two combusting minds,” it proudly boasts that they didn’t use any computers while making Hang. It also notes that the album was recorded and mixed entirely on 2” tape and that the vinyl lacquers were cut directly from master tapes. The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd, who also contributed to ...And Star Power, lends a hand on a few songs, and members of The Lemon Twigs serve as the album’s rhythm section. Lead single “America” is delicate enough to seem fully realized, but also subversive with its lyrics, while “Follow the Leader” and “So Tough” embrace their over the top nature. “We always get a live sound and try to incorporate it, in some way, into our more recent stuff,” France says. “We just got into that tradition.”

Rado says that he and France recorded a comprehensive demo version of Hang before bringing in their collaborators. “We map everything out pretty intensely,” he explains. “I got really good at playing the guitar during the 21st Century tour because I was doing it everyday. But, for Star Power, I was playing a lot of keyboards and, for the sake of the record, I lost a lot of ability to play music really well, so I had to relearn how to play a lot of instruments proficiently.” (He also mentions that they talked about working with Swift again, but he was ultimately too busy. However, the producer did recently record with Rado for another solo project and says they’ve discussed working on some other studio sessions.)

The members of Foxygen realized early on that they couldn’t replicate Hang’s lush strings and brass on the road, so they put together another touring ensemble that uses a horn section to fill out their sound. At Rough Trade, France waited for Rado and the band to take their places onstage before making a grand entrance in a tank top and sunglasses. They showcased their new material, but also did a remarkable job of breathing new life into their catalog cuts.

“It’s conceptual— we want it to be more like a Broadway show, where it is less about a band and more about the performance of the main person,” Rado admits.

Both Rado and France have long since relocated back to Los Angeles largely because, as they say, space limitations make it hard for musicians to live in New York City unless they are DJs or, say, Sting. And despite whatever drama plagued the band during their post-blog-fame boom, these days, the duo seems genuinely healthy and invested in their musical partnership. Rado, in particular, has used his time off to fine-tune his production abilities and produced a Lemon Twigs album before releasing Hang. France appeared on the record but says that Foxygen remains his “main songwriting vehicle— Rado’s too.” Perhaps most important, they remain invested in sharing new music with each other.

“There’s a lot of common ground and some split off too,” Rado says of the records they’ve each discovered recently.

“There’s some stuff that I like, that maybe you aren’t so crazy about.”

“But that’s what our friendship was always based on—showing each other things and interpreting those things,” France responds. They both cite Ariel Pink, Sly & The Family Stone, Miles Davis, Roxy Music and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters as recent obsessions, though they are still a ways off from adding a jazz or funk album to their mythology.

“Star Power’s dead— but maybe they’ll come back,” France says. “Star Power 2!”

“Star Power reunion tour!” Rado gets out between laughs. “Everything’s very planned out for us. We work really hard on all the aspects of the record, and we’ll always just be incredibly hard to work with—very specific requests on every aspect of the album.”

Despite their grand vision, Rado is humble when looking back on Foxygen’s actual benchmark moments and choice festival sets, noting, “I’m never playing a show and thinking, ‘This is our Beatles at The Hollywood Bowl [moment]’—normally I’m just focusing on playing the right chords or something.”

“It’s still not a viable career path; I don’t know why I’m still doing it,” France jokes before offerin perhaps his deepest insight into his band. “It’s not the ‘60s or ‘70s anymore, and we kinda have to deal with that.”

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