We spoke to Mark Foster ahead of FTP headlining SxRTD2016 and SxITC2016
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Images: Supplied
Foster The People is one of those bands where, initially, you don’t know if you’re actually allowed to like them. They’re too upbeat, too poppy, too… catchy. I mean, their music’s on the radio! It's a pretty ridiculous way to live your life, if you think about it: believing that if something makes you feel this good, and everyone else likes it, then it has to be bad.
Well, if liking FTP’s brand of dance-infused pop and rock is wrong, then who wants to be right, right?
Having only formed in 2009, Foster’s meteoric rise and mass-appeal perhaps has something to do with frontman Mark Foster’s earlier career as a writer of radio jingles, with the band’s radio-friendly unit shifter ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ quickly garnering worldwide attention.
Maybe not all that radio-friendly though, as the alternative anthem’s catchy melody and singalong hook had a darker message that resulted in ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ being banned from some radio stations.
Still, the world was listening, but instead of cashing in on their viral fame the band headed to studio where they wrote new material for their debut album Torches. It went on to become a top 10 album on the Billboard 200, got a Best New Artist nomination at the MTV Video Music Awards and license deals to movies, TV, videogames and commercials.
Two years later the band released a second album, Supermodel, and, at time of interview, were busy with their third.
The Way of Us spoke to Foster The People frontman, Mark Foster, about happy accidents, the upcoming South African shows and being a band and not a song.
When 'Pumped Up Kicks' went viral you made a conscious decision not to cash in and tour straight away, focusing instead on writing your debut album, Torches. How has this decision served you in the long run?
It was really important for us to build a real fan base. We were racing against a song that was growing faster than we had time to catch up to. We wanted people to know that we were a band and not a song. I think when a freak thing like ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ happens in the music world, it’s really easy to get discarded just as quickly as it was consumed.
You went from virtual unknowns to a top 10 album on the Billboard 200, TV appearances, sold-out concerts, a Best New Artist nomination at the MTV Video Music Awards, slots at Coachella, Lollapalooza and SXSW… What were some of the things you learned about yourselves after all this success came pouring in?
In a lot of ways, I think we’ve always looked at ourselves as underdogs. Even in the midst of our successes and accolades, we never really looked at each other and felt like we “made it”. I think we’ve seen too many artists and bands lose what they have in a blink. It’s driven us to keep pushing to try and outdo ourselves.
You worked as a commercial jingle writer in a previous life – anything we’d recognise? - and then what are the similarities between writing a catchy jingle and a song that captures the public’s attention?
If there’s a jingle I wrote that you’d recognize, it would definitely be more subliminal than conscious. I’ve always loved melody. I think the one similarity between a catchy jingle or a catchy song is melody and a feeling.
What’s your songwriting process – is it a Nick Cave approach, where you put on a suit and sit at a desk from nine-to-five and treat your craft like a regular job; or are you more of a Lil Wayne where you’re leaning on cough syrup and making things up as you go?
That’s funny. I think I tend to be more like the latter. I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about when I sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar. I have no idea what the chords are going to be. No idea about the concept. I usually just start striking notes and putting chords together. When something sounds good or jumps out, I chase that idea until it’s either Good or Dead. My writing style largely relies on ‘happy accidents’.
Despite it’s cheery melody, 'Pumped Up Kicks' is a dark song. Since Pearl Jam’s ‘Jeremy’ in the 90s, we’re still singing about teen killers and school shootings decades later. You think this trend will ever end, or are guns as much a part of the American rock lexicon as Chevy’s, blue jeans and blondes?
Music should reflect the time that we’re living in. As long as guns are a main factor in society over here, there will be songs that talk about them. I don’t see the laws changing any time soon, sadly. It’s too big of an industry for a politician to have the guts to change. It’s a sad bi-product of living in a hyper-capitalist society. Cash is king, even to our own detriment.
Your first two albums were two-years apart, and it’s been two years since your sophomore offering, so we should get a third round about now, right?
We’re getting close to wrapping album number three. I always forget how hard it is to make a record. Records are hard!
How does the making of a third album compare to making numbers one and two?
One of the main differences with this album is that we have written way more than we actually need. I think we probably have about 70 ideas that we’re sorting through, as opposed to about 18 on the last record. Out of those 70 ideas we’ve picked about 14 to finish and out of those 14, we’ll probably put 11 or 12 on the actual album.
Whether you like it or not, you’ve been labelled indie-rock. Is this even a genre you identify with? Do you think it fits, or is there another term that’s more fitting?
I stopped worrying a while ago as to what people called us. I guess there needs to be a term for it though, right? Indie-rock is fine.
Are you familiar with any South African bands or music, and if yes who or what are you looking forward to hearing?
I like the traditional SA music like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and I’m looking forward to hearing what the local music over there sounds like now. Obviously some of it’s evolved since then. We’re all big fans of Die Antwoord and St. Lucia but I’d love to hear something new, so if you have any suggestions tweet them at us!
FTP does a lot of things for free – from free downloads to free shows to a free mural… Why is this part of your strategy and what do you have for your fans here?
I think early on we just wanted people to hear what we were doing. Everything is so saturated, so loud. We’ve always believed in trying to cast the widest net possible. Certain bands go through great lengths to alienate their fans and curate the type of audience they want to have. We’ve always said we want to make music for everyone. Music is healing. Music is communal. Music can change politics. Why try to limit the platform when you’re dealing with something so important?
The band met via the LA music scene. Can you describe that time, when you were still obscure and starting out, and how much things have changed since then?
When we were first starting out I’d say that there wasn’t much of a scene at all in LA. Living here, we’d hear about scenes of the past. There were the Doors, Joplin and Hendrix days. And then later on the whole hair band, glam rock thing happened here. Early southern California hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, The Germs, and The Circle Jerks were part of an era that people love to glorify and relive. When we were coming up though it was pretty quiet. I’d say that over the next year or two after Torches came out the LA scene started to actually form into something again. Best Coast, The Local Natives, Twin Shadow, Ariel Pink. I’d say it’s a pretty exciting time to make music here now. It’s hard to walk down the street without running into one of my peers. There’s synergy in that.
What’s on your tour rider?
It’s been so long since we’ve been on tour I don’t even remember what we have on our rider. I think hummus is in there somewhere. And bourbon.
The craziest thing you’ve ever seen at a music festival was?
Clint Eastwood, Usher and David Hasselhoff all standing in a circle, talking together.
What will you do before and after your shows here?
We’re not sure yet. I think we’ll probably catch a bit of surf, do some diving and explore some of the local markets. I’m bringing a couple cameras over that I’m excited to dive into. I think it’s going to be a bit of a photo expedition.
Anything to add, before we go?
I just want to say we’re very much looking forward to coming to South Africa for the first time and playing for you guys. I think we’re probably going to play some new material as well, so keep an eye out. Rather, an ear. See ya soon!