Foxygen: Chasing That Hollywood Sound
Foxygen’s creative masterminds Jonathan Rado and Sam France have long juggled classic styles and a decidedly modern approach to rock music.
Their shared love for ’60s and ’70s rock brought the two together as a friends during high school. As artists, their wonderful breakthrough debut, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, released via the beloved indie-label Jagjuguwar, was followed by the the bold double-album … And Star Power in 2014. Touring extensively throughout, Foxygen earned a deserving the reputation as one of the most exciting live bands of their generation while dealing with reoccurring rumors about a supposed break-up.
More than a decade after founding the band, the Californians return with their dream project. Stylized in the big-band sound of Hollywood’s golden era, the pair have once again added yet another layer to Foxygen’s miraculous sound. On Hang, they present eight new tunes recorded together with a 40-piece orchestra and arranged by film composer Trey Pollard, with additional orchestrations by Matthew E. White and guest appearances by the Lemon Twigs and The Flaming Lips’ Steve Drozd.
We met up with Jonathan Rado and Sam France on a grey winter day in Berlin to learn more about their magical and colorful travels into Hollywood music history and back. Full of enthusiasm and passion for their music and collaborators, the relaxed band chatted candidly about the stories behind their newest record.
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Please introduce me to Foxygen in 2016/2017. Where are you guys at today?
Sam: We are older and wiser, that is for sure. I feel great. We just evolved as artists, we are doing a different thing and we’ve got a new album!
..which turned out great! When you started working on new material, did you already have in mind how huge the production would be or did that evolve later?
Jonathan: No, I think the idea was from the very beginning to do a giant production. We wanted to do a record with a symphony orchestra for a long time and we kind of knew that we had to go a little further into our careers because it wasn’t a possibility right away. So yeah, it was in our heads for a long time and we finally made it!
How did you find the orchestra that is performing with you?
J: The arrangers, the guys who did the orchestrations, Trey Pollard and Matthew E. White, they do a lot of arranging work and stuff like that so they have people they work with. They contracted all of the musicians out and then we went out there to the recording sessions. They got all the people for us.
What about the collaborations with members of the Flaming Lips and the Lemon Twigs? How did that happen?
J: Well, we wanted to do something we have never done: live rhythm tracks. We wanted to get a bunch of people playing together in a room. The Lemon Twigs, they are just friends of ours and they are also great musicians. They are also brothers and they have been playing together for their whole lives so they have a unique bond musically. So we had them and then Steven Drozd from the Flaming Lips just sort of played with them in the same room.
S: He played on drums.
J: Yeah, right! I was playing the piano and Sam was singing. We were these five people really going for it and I think there is a certain emotion that is conveyed through that. You can’t really recreate that. It was awesome!
Was that a moment that really stood out for you during the making of the album?
J: It was that and it was also the symphony stuff that was very exciting. Actually everything about it was really exciting for us. It was all new experiences.
S: It kind of fell into place. Nothing was too challenging even though it was hard work. It was all kind of magical.
The 40-piece orchestra is part of every song on the album. Did you have any experience with orchestral arranging before the album? What challenges and lessons did the experience give you?
J: Well, no. We didn’t have experience with orchestration. Maybe horns, or a having a little bit of strings on something. Never a full orchestra and that’s when Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard really came into place. They have a long history with that type of music and were able to bring it to life.
What did you learn in that process of working with so many people? Is there anything that you will take on into your future work?
J: I don’t know if we know at this time what we’ve learned. I am not sure yet.
S: We did learn that we are adaptable to the studio – we were always recording our albums in houses before. So it was a little nerve-wracking going into the studio, but once we did, we learned that the way we work is kind of perfect for that. I think we learned that we are capable of working in really any scenario.
J: I would also say that I learned a fair bit about orchastral arranging from Matt and Trey, too. Just seeing how all these things fit together was pretty fascinating.
I imagine it to be really complicated. You have to think about so many different layers in the music.
J: It is complicated, yeah!
S: That’s why Trey Pollard is a bit of a genius. He’s an amazing conductor, he writes the sheet music, he deals with each individual section and even has personal relationships with all individual musicians. It’s very impressive!
Previously when you wrote and recorded music it was usually just the two of you. Were you nervous that so many people were part of this process?
J: I always think, like, people who play the saxophone or the horn or any other instrument are really cool. So I wouldn’t say that I was nervous to show them our work, but to have all the people play the music and really enjoy it was very gratifying.
What’s touring this record going to be like? Will you bring the full orchestra?
J: We will play it with 9 person line-up. We have a horn section that we are touring with and that fills out the sound a lot. It sounds really good.
Do you read comments underneath your videos?
S: I mean, everybody does.. Everybody reads stuff on the internet. It is hard to avoid.
One comment under your newest video “Follow the Leader” says “this is very flowerpower.” People seem to associate to another time and mindset. Are Foxygen the antidote to our current fast-paced society?
S: Sure! I mean we never thought about it that way or made a conscious attempt to make music that’s not trendy. But like you said, we’ve always been in our own world, doing our own stuff.
J: We are doing things differently. And that sets us apart from a lot of other things. But it’s not conscious. We’re not trying to be different, or weird. It’s just the way we work.
The album was made without using any kind of computer. Why?
J: We just didn’t need to. There was no use for it. It’s so simple and I feel like it doesn’t need to be used. None of the great records that people love were made with computers. So there is no really use for it for our type of music.
Which song on Hang was the most difficult one to write?
J: They all came about pretty naturally. I wouldn’t say that one in particular was harder than the others. I’d say the song “Mrs. Adams” was the one we tweaked the most. We put a lot of work into that to getting it to flow correctly. It wasn’t hard though, we just had to put more thought into it.
Do you have a favorite song?
J: I like the song “On Lankershim.”
S: My favorite one is “Avalon.” I just think it’s really catchy. In a cool way.
What kind of music were you listening to while recording the album? What inspired you?
J: While we were recording we were just listening to what we were doing everyday. And when you get home after working on something for 13 hours you just want silence. And then you go back to the studio the next day. We weren’t really listening to lot, which, I actually think was kind of important for us. Living in the world that we were creating and not taking to much outside inspiration. Before the recording we listen to a lot of music though.
S: We’ve always done that. The idea is marinating our heads. The concept has to marinate in both of our heads for this long period of time. So it’s hard to pinpoint what kind of album we were going for because the idea evolves and we were just trying to create something that felt like a big production. We wanted a big Hollywood production so we naturally found ourselves drawn towards albums like that in the past few years.
And the title Hang – What do you hang on to?
S: My sanity. I try to hang on to my sanity.
Do you feel like you are losing your mind?
S: Nah, I just thought it sounded cool.
J: It did sound cool.
S: Thank you! I try to hang on to Rado. I mean, he is my partner here!
What will Foxygen be on the next album? Do you have ideas you can share with us?
J: We definitely have ideas. We’re always thinking ahead. But I guess this is all we should say right now. Where we’re going to go is always a surprise and I don’t want to spoil it. It’s going to be really good!
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