Polarising opinions surround Californian duo Foxygen, but mystify them just the same. Nothing they do is satirical, but instead a deliberate product of enjoying music and understanding themselves.
Their formative years shaped by adolescence and status successively, Sam France and Jonathan Rado started writing songs in high school and in the humblest sense. So, when their second record We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (2013) propelled them into the limelight, it also came with some lowlights. Spirited, frenetic and unlike anything else, their follow-up record …And Star Power (2014) took disparate opinions and turned it into a 24-song chronicle of a band working out their musicianship, friendship, and an unyielding stance for standing out.
Admittedly, the pair defiantly owns their evolution, something that acts as an exemplar for artistry – their uniqueness. Such inimitable quality is fully realised on their new record Hang, released 20th January via Jagjaguwar. The first album made outside of Rado’s home studio set-up had to be an exceptional and fitting experience, so they went big. The duo recorded eight tracks to tape along with a 40-plus-piece orchestra at Electro Vox Studios in LA. Take the big band scope of lead single Follow the Leader or the pertinent musings of America, and Foxygen sound like they’ve found their groove somewhere between the past, present and future. Inspired by Old Hollywood and the philosophy of escapism, their latest effort is grandiose and uncompromising.
Clementine Zawadzki: What did you guys get up to after …And Star Power?
Sam France: Rado was doing a lot of producing. I was writing poetry.
Jonathan Rado: Ironically, a lot of the Hang songs were written while we were making …And Star Power, so what was happening was just recording the album, mixing it, doing the album cover and getting ready to release it. In the meantime, I worked with some other artists. It seems like we’ve been working on it for quite a while but we had it finished in like March or April, so there’s just been a long time where we’ve just been sitting on it, waiting for it to come out. It’s the industry, you know, like it takes years to making a fucking movie, so you’ve got to be in it for the long haul.
Clementine: How do you not let that industry aspect become greater than what you’re creating?
Rado: I think pretty early on Foxygen kind of got a bit of notoriety for stuff other than the music, which was hard for us, but simultaneously we always kind of liked. I think very early on we had a lot happen and it put things into perspective for us, at least as a band, we were kind of able to evaluate our priorities.
Clementine: What were your priorities when working on Hang?
Sam: I think we were really interested in creating something that was a musical spectacle. That kind of music isn’t being made today and it was something that we really believed in and thought would be magical.
Clementine: You had a 40-plus-piece symphony orchestra on every track on this record. How did that come about?
Rado: We had this concept that we wanted to make a record with an orchestra for quite a few years. We didn’t know exactly how we’d do it but eventually our old manager told us about this group of people called Spacebomb, which is this modern Wrecking Crew style group of musicians in Richmond, Virginia, who all do really amazing studio work. They all get each other jobs constantly and a lot of them own the company and they’re kind of just this self-entity. So we eventually discovered that and teamed up with Trey Pollard and Matthew E. White, who are somewhat the leaders of that group – I think – and we worked with them.
CZ: And The Lemon Twigs are another name that worked on this album…
Rado: Well I recorded their album [Do Hollywood] that came out… I discovered them.
Sam: It’s true, he did.
Rado: I became friends with them and we recorded all the stuff for Hang before they’d even been signed, like they were still really fresh at that point. They’re just our friends.
“I mean something that’s been bothering me lately is I’m seeing the word ‘ironic’ pop up a lot talking about us, and we’ve never done anything ironically, ever. This is our music – wholeheartedly – because we love it.”
Clementine: Did you know what sort of music you wanted to make as teenagers?
Sam: I think a lot of the time with music culture, you know, a kid who’s into hardcore music for example, not to diss that type of music, it is what it is and it’s great, but I think a lot of the time kids are attracted to the culture of it, or you know, “my friends are up on stage, I can do that,” which is never what we were doing. It was just me and Rado recording in a bedroom. We didn’t even know home recording was a thing.
Clementine: What were you listening to at the time?
Sam: We liked 60s and 70s music, we still do, but then there was a lot of 90s and 00s psychedelic stuff like The Flaming Lips that we were actively inspired by.
Clementine: Do you think those influences merge on Hang more than on your previous releases?
Rado: It’s interesting, it all kind of came full circle with this one. Steven Drozd from The Flaming Lips is on this record, and for us he’s one of the reasons we started the band, so that was incredible. We did want to go for our own version of a wall of sound, we didn’t want to copy Phil Spector or anything, but sonically we definitely wanted it to have that feeling where you can’t necessarily discern what is playing what, it just comes in full force.
Clementine: And this is your first record outside of a home studio. How did it affect the result of Hang?
Rado: It adapted really well. I think we know what we want out of music and we’re pretty good at working with people who are on the same wavelength, and the engineer Michael Harris is really amazing, so he was able to take the shit we do in the garage, just silly stuff, and take that to a studio environment.
Clementine: Do you think there’s a common misconception that fun records – to some degree –can’t be taken seriously?
Rado: Absolutely. I mean something that’s been bothering me lately is I’m seeing the word ‘ironic’ pop up a lot talking about us, and we’ve never done anything ironically, ever. This is our music – wholeheartedly – because we love it.
Sam: Yeah, like we made an album that’s like a musical and maybe some people can’t comprehend why we’d do that, like, “that’s not cool, that’s not dark or cynical, and I don’t understand why they’d do something like that, so it must be ironic…”
Rado: Why would we hire a fucking full symphony orchestra for a joke? That sounds completely insane. This is not ironic music, I hate that.
Clementine: How has your writing process evolved?
Sam: The dynamic between the two of us has always been the same because it’s grown from a love and passion for music. I think we’ve just improved as songwriters, whatever that means. I think for myself, and Rado particularly, it’s really just been about learning to play instruments and bringing that in, the whole composing aspect of it. It’s kind of been beautiful to see Rado become a producer, literally working in the industry and stuff like that, and a lot of that has helped the group in recent years. Was that embarrassing, Rado?
Rado: No, no. I agree with you.
Clementine: You’ve said before that you’re not really into modern music. Has that changed much or are you still quite nostalgic?
Sam: I think we’re a little less likely to say something like that nowadays. You know a few years ago, yeah, I think it definitely reflects who we were that time, but we like modern things as well. I hear a lot of bands come through Rado’s studio, so I hear about a lot of good music that way. We appreciate a lot of things and all aspects of music. We find that Foxygen exists outside of time, so it’s not that we have to stay in the 60s or 70s, even though that was our philosophy the past few years. I think we just like to be outside of reality. We have our own world, our own place, whether you like it or not.
Clementine: That comes across visually too.
Sam: That’s kind of the fun of a band, like a gang. You want to think of them as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, like what are their different personalities… and we like the mythology of rock ‘n’ roll, so that’s always been a huge part of it for us.
“We think of Foxygen like a British TV show. You laugh the perfect amount of times and then it’s done.”
Clementine: What were you listening to while making Hang?
Rado: I don’t think we were listening to much except for the album itself. We were trying to immerse ourselves into the environment that we were making and not take too much from outside influences. With our last albums, they’re very heavy in influence, and to their credit. It was vague thoughts of what jazz would sound like, rather than listening to specific jazz records or theatre soundtracks.
Clementine: More like the idea of something…
Rado: Yeah, and then trying to recreate what you heard in your head.
Clementine: What about thematically?
Sam: It was always going to be a Los Angeles record, coming from Hollywood, I mean we live there too and buy into the mythology of old movie stars like Mae West, Sunset Boulevard, all these images from Hollywood stewing in our heads. Also, a book we had in the studio called Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger, it’s kind of about old Hollywood scandals, vaguely fictionalised even, he’s a very interesting person, so sometimes when we’d record something with the orchestra we’d take the book, open it up and prop it at the front of the studio for all the musicians to see, like Marilyn Monroe dead on her bed or something like that. We weren’t like, “Hey everybody, look at this picture!” We just sort of put it in the corner of the room and let the energy go throughout the room. That’s the dark side of it all. The album has its Disney side and then this do-it-in-a-bar kind of vibe.
Clementine: Is atmosphere important to you?
Rado: I think it’s pretty important to put yourself in an environment that you want to be in. I’ve got a great studio-come-garage, so it needs to be a pretty special place to do it anywhere else, for me. The studio we recorded at had old, really amazing gear that had been used on records in the 30s, like the piano on the record is the one they demoed Moon River on, you know, classic piano in this amazing old studio. So the instruments brought something out. I think that every instrument you come in contact with has something to offer you.
Clementine: You’ve already played a few shows at the end of last year. What’s the reception been like?
Rado: It’s been great. It’s just strange doing one-off shows, getting really hyped and then it’s like, “See you in six months.”
Clementine: Do you like touring?
Rado: We really like performing, and yeah, at this point in our career I think we enjoy it. The really long tours you lose your mind a little bit sometimes. You forget where you are and that can be surreal, but for me it’s about knowing when to end it, like when to end an album cycle. We think of Foxygen like a British TV show. You laugh the perfect amount of times and then it’s done.
‘Hang’ by Foxygen is out 20th January via Jagjaguwar.