Hollywood’s Singular Vision: Foxygen Hang On to the American Dream
Following a release cycle marred by breakup rumors, Sam France and Jonathan Rado have reappeared from behind the velvet curtain, and they're more unified than ever.
Sam France has the inflection down correctly when talking about David Bowie’s last performance with the Spiders from Mars in 1973, particularly the part where Bowie says, “Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” France repeats this quote back to me and it’s clear this is a clip that’s worked its way deep into the singer. We’re talking about Foxygen—his musical project with Jonathan Rado—and how it appeared, at least to those not within their glammy enclave, that the band had broken up not too long ago.
He continues. “A lot of people thought that. Basically it was a conceptual breakup. We thought of Star Power as a band. We wanted it to be a band, like the Spiders from Mars. We sort of just broke that band up as a way of shedding that for ourselves. We never said Foxygen broke up. We said Star Power broke up.”
…And Star Power was Foxygen’s 2014 album, as well as the band that played it, all of which helped to strengthen—if not necessarily broaden—France and Rado’s considerable fan base while still hanging their ambitions on a cacophonic lo-fi aesthetic. This aesthetic is still palpable on their new album, Hang, but it’s not audible. For the first time, they’ve moved entirely into the studio to record—laying principle instruments down at Vox Studios in Los Angeles, and then moving to Spacebomb in Richmond, Virginia, where Trey Pollard and Matthew E. White worked together on orchestral arrangements. Rado (rhymes with Play-Doh) elaborates: “Star Power was all made in our garage. We did [We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic] with Richard Swift, but his studio setup is a home recording setup. So we never really recorded Foxygen songs in a recording studio before—like with an engineer and good microphones.”
The results are bright, dazzling, and orchestrated to the gills. As with each Foxygen album, there is at least one peerless pop song on here. But go back to the their first proper release in 2012, Take the Kids Off Broadway, and you hear a pretty insane mixture of jangling guitars and Stones-y posturing captured by recording techniques that sound cobbled together and scotch taped. Dropped in the middle of this album is “Waitin’ 4 U,” a track that nearly falls apart in the most glorious way; it’s as if Mick and Keith continued to unwind after Exile on Main St. and fell into complete disrepair instead of tightening up into the Great Rock Machine.
The first album is the “New York record,” Rado says. That was home base for a while, and most of the records they loved at that time were from New York. For the most part they’ve been in Los Angeles ever since then, and it shows—LA comes pouring out of the speakers, both sonically and lyrically. Hollywood is out in full force on Hang, but it’s not the new Hollywood, it’s the older one—the one about which Kenneth Anger wrote Hollywood Babylon. The one with all the mystery and magic.
“Follow the Leader” was one of the first tracks they put together for the new album. It’s a celebration that shows off their innate understanding of the great ’70s pop songs (punctuated by elements of Philly soul in the horn arrangements), and it helped define where the album needed to go.
“We’re not really a band… We’re like a singular vision.” — Jonathan Rado
“I sort of wrote the bare bones during the Star Power sessions,” Rado says. “So it was still kind of in that ’70s era—it’s the end of that Carole King ’70s sound. We did a few different demos of it and it kind of came into its own thing. The idea was to make it the hit single; we always think about which song will be the single. We put a lot of work into that song and [into] making everything on it have its own specific sound.”
This specific sound, one that encompasses a certain early twentieth-century razzmatazz, is decidedly out of step with the ABBA-like choruses and bombastic orchestration that may as well have been ripped from the Boston Pops.
“The basic tracks were built with me singing, Rado playing piano, and Michael and Brian D’Addario from The Lemon Twigs as our rhythm section,” France explains. “The orchestra was done in Virginia at Spacebomb; we just brought the tape across the country and laid it down there. It was a lot of single takes—beginning to end performances. We cut tape with a razor blade a few times, but that was basically it.”
The final product benefits hugely from the direct approach. The band’s willful experimentalism in the past gave previous records a sound like they might implode any minute. With Hang, they show off a dedication to creating a full suite of songs. While those looking to savor the newest strain of garage rock or moody synth pop might struggle with Foxygen’s Great Gatsby–esque vision of American grandeur, there is a freedom in the band’s unrepentant flying of their own freak flag.
Rado nails the appeal as we wrap things up. “I think that’s what helps us stay within our own vibe is that we’re not really a guitar band,” he says. “We’re not really a band. We have images we concoct that we’re going to get done no matter what. There’s no one holding us back. We’re like a singular vision.” FL