“I love Kanye and I love Beck, so it would be hard for me to choose a side,” says Jonathan Rado a few afternoons after the Grammys. “What really confused me was the whole Paul McCartney, Rihanna, and Kanye song. I was just wondering to myself, ‘Why is this happening?’”
If anyone has an intriguing comment on Kanye’s diss and retraction, it’s Rado. As a native of Los Angeles, he’s lived among both the gears of the “music industry” and the mythical bohemia of the Sunset Strip. He’s got a good grasp on both celebrity and “art.” Foxygen, his band with high school chum Sam France, is a perfect encapsulation of those extremes. Since they were 15, the duo has been cultivating its own mythos of confounding psychedelic pop and folk with a self-released discography massive and unheard. It wasn’t until 2013’s much lauded We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic that a label took interest and Foxygen’s star finally began to ascend to the heights set in their songs.
That record was an instant classic of stunning Stones-ian jams, hazy acoustic ballads, and glammed-up fuzz, creating a rollicking trip through rock’s more esoteric histories. The success also brought a spotlight, and in the months following its release, Foxygen’s antics became just as newsworthy as the music. Riotous live shows (including one where France broke his leg falling from the stage), stories of egos clashing, and general prima donna behavior suggested Foxygen was
about to implode.
Fortunately most of it was media fabrication. Last year’s …And Star Power, though, certainly has the feel of a band that has been through a lifetime of the “lifestyle.” As an 82-minute concept album about rock and roll excess and aliens, it’s an ambitious and unwieldy collage that takes a few listens to completely unfold—pretty ballsy in an age when attention spans are the size of an mp3. It’s also packed with guest “stars” including Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, who each added their talents to the kaleidoscope spectacle.
As I came to find out in my interview with Rado, at one point Stevie Nicks and the aforementioned McCartney were sent requests to participate, but both declined. Still, in this conversation filled with talk about writing songs for country stars and the Top 40, or hiring an 80-piece orchestra to play on their next record, it’s hard to not imagine those two finally obliging, or better yet, handing Foxygen a Grammy one day.
The whole turmoil within the band after the release of your last album is something that you’ve publically refuted, but I’m curious to know if you think that was something that helped or hurt the band in the wake of releasing …And Star Power? Do you believe in the whole idea that “any press is good press”? I think there’s bad press. If one of us killed a person that would be bad press. Or like that band that had that guy who was a child molester—that’s bad press. For us though, I don’t think it hurt record sales or people appreciating us. The time right after that was a really weird time where it felt like we were under a microscope. It felt like high school and the way I reacted was like high school, where I was asking myself why people hated me so much. For a few weeks it was pretty dark, but in the long run I think it added to the mystique of the band. Now people just assume that we are f*cking crazy and we are always lying.
Is there any truth to the extremes in personality between yourself and Sam, with you being the more quiet, reserved side of the band and Sam being the wild, outlandish counter? That’s the way it is for us offstage and the way it’s always been. The stage personas and the way that the press has painted us, though, is a very embellished version of ourselves. On this album, we didn’t intend to do that on purpose, but as we’ve grown older, those characters have definitely become more pronounced.
The idea of a double album was in the planning stages for some time. Was there ever a conscious decision to whittle it down to just one record considering all of the success you had with Ambassadors and how immediate that album was compared to this one? We never entertained that idea. It always had to be two discs—that was the selling point. We wanted to write enough songs to fill a double album. It got to the point where we had too many ideas. I had a ton of demos and Sam had a ton of demos. I think it was maybe a bit cocksure of us to put out a double album and expect everyone to immediately love it. I think it takes longer to get into it, but once you do I think it’s a much more satisfying musical journey than the last album.
And looking toward the future, Foxygen seems like a band that is always writing, always recording, so is there a plan for what comes next? Yeah, it’s already written. It’s going to be even bigger than …And Star Power, and it’s going to be done with a full orchestra starting in September. I guess it’s kind of like an Electric Light Orchestra-meets-Disney musical.