Catching Up With Foxygen: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


In a relatively short period of time, Foxygen has managed to please, vex and elude a lot of listeners. Needlessly so, it seems. Over the course of a afternoon in conversation at member Jonathan Rado’s Los Angeles home, what emerges is that in spite of anyone’s desire to nail down outside influences, Foxygen is about two lifelong friends being on the same page. Almost four years since we last caught up with them, the duo of Rado and Sam France expounded on the conception and execution of their new album, Hang, how they’ve evolved as performers and record-makers, and the misconception that annoys them still.

Aquarium Drunkard: In 2012, when first speaking with us about Take The Kids Off Broadway, you were already plotting the release of We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, but you also said at the time that after that you planned to release a record called … And Star Power and then one called Hang. And now, here we are. So…how long has this record actually been gestating?

Sam France: Well, I guess it’s been a long time.

Jonathan Rado: It’s been probably since around that time. I would say that is pretty much around the time we came up with the title and the idea. Because we had recorded that song [“Hang” from … And Star Power] around that time, three-and a half years ago — the version that’s on that record, before we’d even begun recording for that record. And we knew then that we wanted to call an album Hang as well. That was a fresh idea when we brought it up to you.

AD: So how didactic was that planning? Did that mean that you sort of created a schedule, “we’re gonna do this, then this, then that” or was it more of a fun idea to kick around?

Sam France: Kinda like it’s our schedule, that’s how we do stuff.

Jonathan Rado: We’re lucky we were able to, we always planned on doing it.

AD: From then until the actual recording for this record, how did your vision and conception change?

Jonathan Rado: We actually wrote the songs back then — we had the idea that we wanted to do Hang and that we wanted to do it with an orchestra — that was always the idea, to do it with big arrangements and have it be a complete piece of music. The 21st album hadn’t even come out yet, so we recorded that, then we started making … And Star Power and focused really intently on that. A lot of these songs were really written during or before Star Power. We had the sound, conceptually, sketched out already.

AD: One of the things that came up when last spoke was that the material you were releasing and performing then had actually be completed for a while, and whether you were already over-it in a way. It seems like you’re still in that boat — it’s not like you could say you’ve had some nice down time in between records — you’re doing the same thing again. How does that feel?

Jonathan Rado: We’re constantly thinking ahead. We’re slightly more caught up than we were at that point. We’re already gestating the next couple of records, the next album at least is starting to form. At that point, back in 2012, we were anxious, we had too many ideas. Too many ideas to even begin to start to make. We’ve gotten a bit older and have caught up with ourselves, we have a more natural schedule but we’re still ahead of the game a little bit.

AD: Because you started working on this material so far back, what is your editing like? Do you store it away until it’s time to work on that specific record, or do you check in on it from time to time?

Sam France: A little bit of both.

Jonathan Rado: With Hang, by the time we got in the studio, at least 100% musically, it was written and done, demoed. There were maybe a few lyrical things that weren’t solidified, but we had a 99% idea of what we wanted. It depends album to album. For instance, … And Star Power, the demos were the album. Well, we made a lot of demos, but we were experimenting with the actual art of recording — just going with ideas and letting the recording dictate where the song was going to go. With Hang it was very, very structured. A lot of songs came out at once. One of the nights when we were recording that, I wrote, on piano, the basic ideas for, “Follow The Leader,” “Avalon,” “Mrs. Adams,” “America” and “Rise Up.” Those five songs all came out at once. I sent Sam all the voice notes that I’d made, and I said [laughs] “I think this is a lot of Hang.

Sam France: My contributions were from a little bit longer of a period of a process.

Jonathan Rado: I remember that “Upon a Hill” was a song that feels like you’ve had an idea for that type of song for around the same period of time — “Lankershim” too. Those songs developed over time.

Sam France: That’s true, they were floating around for years.

Jonathan Rado: And there were ideas that Sam put into “America” or “Mrs. Adams,” things that were moved around, we worked on the arrangements a lot together. But a lot of the ideas came out pretty much at once.

Sam France: It was almost like Hang existed and it was this big, grand thing that we were trying to figure out what it looked like.

Jonathan Rado: And one minute it just clicked.

AD: Was there something that finally made you believe that it had, or was about to, come together?

Jonathan Rado: Yeah. I was playing piano a lot when we were making Star Power and I was learning a lot about actually playing piano. It was finding these certain chords that weren’t Todd Rundgren-like, the stuff that Star Power was all about.

[Rado walks over to his upright piano and begins playing a note to demonstrate, “A Major 7th” chimes in France. Rado then starts playing a sped up version of “Avalon”]

Sam France: Show tunes. Those two meeting in the middle somewhere.

AD: Were there pieces you heard along the way, or touchstones you shared, to demonstrate what you wanted.

Jonathan Rado: It came about naturally, but what we realized, maybe even after making the record, was that it was all American music. Ragtime, or Big Band Jazz. The things we were thinking of were like, the 30s, or the 1930s in American music. And doing a 70s version of that, bringing in a bit more modern pop.

AD: Obviously with this record, you brought in outside forces — how much of that was ceding control versus directing other musicians?

Jonathan Rado: It was all directing, in a way. We gave people creative freedom to explore the song. Especially with the arrangements that Matt and Trey did [Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, principal members of Spacebomb Records], there’s a lot going on there. There’s a lot of ideas that they contributed, but there was this… book, or guideline, we gave them, almost minute-by-minute, second-by-second, a breakdown of every song, of what we wanted, of what we wanted to evoke. “We want this to sound like a very American moment, or sound like Gershwin, or whatever. Calling for an intricate part and letting them explore in that. It was the same with The Lemon Twigs [brothers Brian & Michael D’addario, who play bass and drums, respectively, on the record] and the engineer Michael [Hegner] who made the album with us. It was all about setting a framework for people and then seeing what happens.

Sam France: You can hear it in the record, the arrangements were based on things that were laid down in the rhythm track, little melodies or guitar parts that Rado would do, or things I would sing. Trey would bounce around those little things to create the arrangements there, and it was really amazing. It’s the same thing the Twigs did with their rhythm. They’re just so good.

Jonathan Rado: We recorded all the rock parts first, and then sent it to the arrangers, who worked around that.

Sam France: Right, and then we went and recorded it all together.

AD: This is the first time you’ve outsourced this kind of stuff — you’d played with orchestration, but not like this. What was it like to actually have to execute it? — for the first time, you’re not the ones playing all the parts on all the songs.

Jonathan Rado: I think we had to find a common ground with them — we didn’t want it to fully be other people playing the parts. We wanted to do it live, we wanted to have that energy to the rhythm tracks. I was talking to Brian from the Twigs, he didn’t play any eclectic guitar on it, I did, because that was something that I felt would bring the… classic “Foxygen sound” to it. A lot of the keyboard parts are me. So keeping that element, that rough-around-the-edges bit, mixed in with the classical stuff, and virtuosic performances, was our way of keeping it a Foxygen record, and not a Steely Dan record. A Steely Dan record would just be the best players, and Fagen doesn’t do shit. We were still really involved in every part of the process.

AD: You guys went to Richmond, to Spacebomb, to record there. How did you choose Trey and Matthew?

Jonathan Rado: The thing that they did that blew me away was this Natalie Prass song, the really Disney one, “It Is You.” Really just classic Van Dykes Park arrangements. And I was just like, those are the guys. They have the whimsy, but they clearly know what they’re doing. They were cool, like the new kids in town. We’d been thinking about actually getting Van Dykes Park, or people who have done those types of things, or Jeff Lynne or something, people who have done crazy arrangements.

Sam France: It wouldn’t have worked.

Jonathan Rado: No, it wouldn’t. It was serendipitous that they were recommended to us and that they did such great work.

AD: One of things that we asked you previously was, essentially: what do you want? What does success look like for you? You were basically like, “money, so we can do more.”

Jonathan Rado: [laughs] Yeah, we’re pretty much sitting in the product of what I wanted and luckily got.

AD: When you were at that point, were you looking at those kinds of things as necessary to execute what you wanted to do? Or, if you had not attained that success, would you still have found a way to make an orchestrated record?

Sam France: It’s interesting, it did happen to coincide with getting to a point where it was a “third record,” and that’s a decent album budget with most record deals, so… in a way I think we were just smart.

Jonathan Rado: I feel like we would have done it either way, but I think that waiting a while, and letting it be the third record, it seemed like a build to us. We wanted to do 21st and we knew what Star Power was going to be — deconstructing the band completely — and then doing the most put-together record we could possibly do. Not to fuck with people, not necessarily to fuck with people, but like… this is all planned. This is all a part of…

Sam France: The movie.

Jonathan Rado: Yeah, the movie we’re making here.

AD: When you set a plan like you did, three plus years in advance, do you ever bump up against other musical desires? Rado, you’ve worked on some producing projects outside of the group, but do either of you ever find it to be in conflict? What you wanted to do then versus what you want to do now?

Sam France: I think Foxygen actually helps me with that conflict. I write a lot, but Foxygen sort of gives me that thing to go to, a little bit of direction — I know what a Foxygen song is. So a lot of the time it becomes that. It’s easy because we developed a concept that we share, we both know what that is, we’re constantly playing with it. We’ve wanted to do other things…

Jonathan Rado: There are some ideas that have fallen off the table, that didn’t feel right at the moment. There’s a certain thing that makes up a “Foxygen song” or a “Foxygen album” — I don’t know exactly what that is. But it just feels right. I also write a lot of songs, and I’ll sometimes go, “that is not a Foxygen song… clearly.”

AD: Sam, in an interview recently you spoke about your writing as poetry. Is that writing, and what you sing, interchangeable for you? Obviously you’ll pick what is for Foxygen and what is not, but do you need to be in a certain headspace?

Sam France: I don’t sit down with a sheet of paper. My process is a little more long, drawn out, over years even. Things will gestate in my head, and then it roots me as a poet to do Foxygen. Like, “okay, gotta do a vocal take now” and it’s like, “I’ll use my brain for a second and put some things together.” But it all is just this soup of shit, of words, that I store in my head or in my notes, or on my phone. And the songs just evolve along with that. I write songs very slowly. We both have our own process and bring it together, but for me, it’s a thing that slowly comes out and finalizes when I have to put it to tape.

AD: So where do you two meet? Where’s that first place where you can share to the other person what you’re thinking?

Sam France: Normally it starts with musical ideas, melodies or chords. Either he’ll give me something that sparks me, or I’ll bring him some chords to spark him. That’ll just remind me of things that I already had stored anyways, and because we’re on the same wave-length anyways a lot of the time, it’s like, “I literally wrote that same song.”

Jonathan Rado: I think we bring specific things to the table. My ideas might be lacking, but they’re musically complex – but there will be no vocals, or just one idea of a word. And then Sam’s ideas are more complete, lyrically, but need arrangement or to fit into a melody. And then we just meet in the middle on everything.

AD: I’m sure with the time you’ve spent together, you know your cadence and how to get a good take. But now that you’ve gone into a studio for recording, what has changed in the collaboration? How do you get something great out of one another?

Jonathan Rado: I think our way of keeping it fresh every time is always just changing up what the end goal is. We were in the studio and had that pressure, but we had The Lemon Twins and Steven Drozd in there to keep the energy level up, and doing it live was really exciting. I think everyone had that common goal of making each take the definitive take of that song. With … And Star Power it was like, anything goes. There were no rules on that. Sam played a lot of guitar on that.

Sam France: I don’t play guitar on Hang.

Jonathan Rado: Right, you don’t really play guitar on records, but it was just like, “Sam plays the guitar, why not?” The environment we do it in keeps it exciting. Collaborators are good to have around, and an engineer that is on the same page and wants to make something good. I think we do a good job of getting people excited.

Sam France: And when we work with other people I feel like we’re just the parents. We’re on tour, we’re in the studio — there’ll be periods where Rado and I don’t talk, we each manage different parts of the band. But then we’ll meet up, exchange a few words, whatever. It’s pretty psychic.

Jonathan Rado: There’s a lot of trust. When Sam was doing vocals, I wouldn’t always be in the room, or vice versa if I was doing a guitar take. Sam’s not looking at the guitar the whole time. Sam knows I can do a guitar take that he’s going to like, and I know that he’s going to do a vocal take that I like. And we’re not gonna have a problem with any of it. We know our strengths — it’s immense trust.

AD: In spite of the deluge of outside forces and people, be it band members, labels, people you’ve toured with, etc., – it really seems that if none of that had ever happened, there would still be Foxygen, still be that psychic connection. But you did meet those people, and have enjoyed success — how has incorporating those people and elements into things flowed?

Jonathan Rado: I’m not sure, but I think we’ve always had faith in the project as this very pure thing that regardless of whatever people write about us, or what people think of the record — it’s not going to impact what the next record is going to be. Every project exists outside of what people have thought about us.

Sam France: People ask a lot, actually, “was this album a response to the last one?” And I don’t know, I guess we don’t really base anything on people’s reactions. I mean, do people do that? A little bit is good, maybe? It’s good to play with the public and that’s kind of what we did with Star Power, it was conceptual… so we reacted negatively in that way… we were trying to make people not like us…we’ve never tried to make people like us.

AD: Why do you think that is? It’s different than just saying, “I hope people like us,” but you don’t seem to want to change your ideas at all.

Sam France: If we did it would be a totally conceptual reason, like, “wouldn’t it be funny to interact with modern music now.” “Wouldn’t it be interesting to get a hit song?” Or try a different genre.

AD: Rado, has your work outside of Foxygen informed your playing or producing, or confidence level?

Jonathan Rado: A lot, because recording other bands is the best practice you could possibly have for producing. I know how to get great sounds, and know the intricacies of technical shit. It’s mostly influenced things technically. Foxygen is the same in how we work, even in how we record, stuff it’s pretty much the same and always has been.

Sam France: The circle of musicians and friends who come in and out grows too, which is nice. And I get exposed to great music because Rado produces a bunch of good music. That’s a really cool part, that this studio has become a nice…

Jonathan Rado: Scene.

Sam France: Yeah, this really nice thing.

AD: Do you face any trouble moving between the projects, or any lingering qualities that you find pervading into Foxygen?

Jonathan Rado: I don’t feel that anything I’ve done for anyone else was informed by Foxygen. I have a different concept for every band. With Whitney, I was just going to try to make this sound like The Band in a garage, or with The Lemon Twigs I wanted a dry, Beach Boys, surfs-up sound. And for Foxygen its always something else, because there’s such a defined concept for what the record is going to sound like. I don’t feel there’s much crossover for any of the records that I’ve produced.

AD: Would you say that the skills you’ve learned in those situations influenced this record specifically?

Jonathan Rado: That I can communicate with the engineer, or other musicians, in a way that they can understand. I know what everything in the studio does — I want to use this mic, into this thing, to that tape machine, on that channel. I can work on that level, and that helps a lot.

Sam France: Also, we literally took the Lemon Twigs from your production and said we’re going to use them for our record.

Jonathan Rado:  They wouldn’t have been the backing band if I hadn’t produced that.

AD: Live, you’ve already done a couple of shows, are you doing the same set-up as you hit the road this year?

Jonathan Rado: Yeah. Drums, bass, two piano/guitar players, then a horn section.

AD: You’ve had numerous members of the band, several folks have come in and out. The tour behind Star Power had a much bigger stage production. So what has been the thrust of those changes over time? Solely to accomplish the sound you wanted?

Jonathan Rado: Totally. This group right now are some amazing studio musicians.

Sam France: The previous band were amazing rock and roll.

Jonathan Rado: Yeah, a great a rock band. That’s not what this record calls for.

AD: Do you think that’s part of the advantage of your partnership? You’re not four people with competing interests who all need their part on stage — you can adapt the live show as your studio work demands.

Jonathan Rado: Right, yes. I never want to be in a band. Like an actual band that’s more than, just…us.

Sam France: Bands are cool – bands that really become one unit – that become one singular beast. Like metal bands, that’s cool as hell. If you can to this point where you’re just a machine as people. But different songwriters, or this guy wants to play this bass part, or “oh, I wrote this in my journal.” I don’t know, that’s just what I see other bands being like. At least that’s my idea of what it’s like. I’m happy that we’re not my own caricature of what a band is like, which is probably not accurate anyway.

AD: I can see how in your partnership, input from folks outside of you two would be incongruous to the thrust.

Jonathan Rado: Right. It’s simple. Foxygen makes sense to me. At this point in our career it just makes sense: it’s just two guys, and they constantly mix up their shit. That’s how you sum up Foxygen; we’re not like, a 60s rock group — we’re just two guys that make a different record each time out.

Sam France: “Two guys who make music.”

AD: When you went out in support of … And Star Power it was the first time you’d really done something totally different live, as opposed to simply 4-5 people playing the songs as best they could. Now you’re changing the whole dynamic again. How has your enjoyment of performing, or just your willingness to go through the paces of rehearsing and teaching a group of musicians the older material you’ll be playing, evolved?

Jonathan Rado: This might sound lame in writing, but we hired a band that could teach itself. They’re good enough, we can show up and they know all the chords and all the changes, and all we have to tweak is minor, minor stuff. We really are Steely Dan on this tour, we’re just hiring hot, hot players.

Sam France: We had a lot of players come in and out over the last several years of this rock… genesis, this rock archetype of a band. So people didn’t always know the parts, and we weren’t always teaching. So this is the first band where we’ve hired people, hired pro’s — “here’s sheet music.” It’s kinda awesome.

Jonathan Rado: We’re thinking of the live show as kind of a Broadway production. Less of like a rock band, where it’s about the main guy’s performance.

AD: The record has huge sonic flourishes and themes. Is there a greater, Broadway like story or flow here, or is it about just making it sound like those big productions?

Jonathan Rado: It definitely has a flow. It starts positively – there’s this theme on Foxygen records that start overly optimistically, like, “Follow the leader, and the leader is you,” some “We are the world” like stuff.

Sam France: I guess we just have a penchant for being bipolar with our themes.

Jonathan Rado: But the album itself definitely slowly gets darker, and literally sinks with “Trauma.” The ending strings are supposed to sound like song is drowning. And then we throw in another positive one to end it.

Sam France: Like a hero’s journey, if that could be applied to a record. Hang is like the “Odyssey” but I don’t really know why. [laughs]

Jonathan Rado: The album to me feels like some sort of hero’s journey that doesn’t really end well. Like, “Rise Up” was more like the encore where the cast came out holding hands.

Sam France: It’s from a weird voice.

Jonathan Rado: The album, to me, kind of ends with “Trauma” – there’s just one more bow.

Sam France: It’s weird because it’s all this advice from this third party. It’s like a capping off of the whole thing.

AD: How do you go about sequencing something like this record?

Jonathan Rado: It was all sequenced before we recorded it, like, we knew what it was going to be. It’s all very purposeful. “America” is like the centerpiece. “Lankershim,” “Upon a Hill” and “Trauma” are all the songs that Sam wrote and are sequenced together as their own little suite.

AD: When you perform this material, what is it you want to convey?

Sam France: We’re really proud of how the record sounds. So we’re just presenting it this time. That wasn’t what we were always doing before.

Jonathan Rado: We’re playing it in order, to demonstrate that. It doesn’t work not in order, which is strange when you have to pick singles. I’ve always thought of it as one big piece of music. We’re doing some older stuff, but ones that I always thought would be good with horns, so they’re like, Hard Rock Café versions of those songs, peppered up, Vegas-arrangements.

AD: That puts you in a very different place; of course you’ve always wanted to do the songs justice, but does that mean that, for you Sam, that your performance is more reined in, even if as expressive as you usually are, because you have certain points you need to hit?

Sam France: Exactly. Like…exactly.

AD: Jumping back a second, about your criticizing each other in a positive ways. Have you had trouble, or enjoyed, bringing in collaborators and exposing them to your vulnerabilities, either individually or as a duo, and allowing that psychic connection to be shared?

Jonathan Rado:  What I think was appealing about bringing in The Lemon Twigs was that they have their own psychic thing — they’re the greatest rhythm section because they’re brothers. They speak to themselves as much as Sam and I do, but the other thing is that they’re longtime Foxygen fans, and know what our other records sound like. There’s a certain flow to Foxygen songs that I think does carry over from record to record, and they understood what that was. They were the best people we could involved in the project because they knew what we were going for without having to discuss it. Most people get it; we tend to involve people that we think get it, to start with.

AD: Lastly, the first question we asked you in 2012 was what misconceptions or mischaracterizations you wanted to dispel. I’d like to give you that chance again.

Jonathan Rado: I think there’s a misconception that our music is ironic. I hear that word in a lot of interviewers, or in articles — that’s probably the thing I hate the most. I’ve never done anything in irony in my life — I couldn’t possibly sit and make music and make it sound ironic. It’s funny in certain ways, because we have sense of humor and we don’t take ourselves so fucking seriously. But it’s never ironic.

Sam France: We take different bits of lots of pop culture and different things, and people aren’t used to seeing that always. Like, “Oh, can you do that?” So I get why people think that, but it’s not who we are as artists. We’re not trying to make some kind of commentary or something, or even participate in anything modern at all, or modern ideas of art, or irony, or irony as a modern type of music.

Jonathan Rado: We know what we’re doing. We’re not these prankster, slacker kids. We just spend a lot of time working on our music. That’s the main one. We’re not doing anything in jest; we’re just making the music that we make.

Sam France: And it should be respected as such! As fine art, not as click-bait. words / b kramer

Previously: Foxygen :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview (2012)