Foxygen
Foxygen
Nicky Giraffe

Foxygen Talk Funky, Reflective 'Breakup' Album 'Seeing Other People' -- And Why They're Not Touring

"It's a breakup album, of sorts," says Jonathan Rado of Foxygen, chilling on the phone in his backyard two weeks before the April 26 release of Seeing Other People, the Angeleno indie rock duo's latest. But the multi-instrumentalist and producer is quick to add that does not mean he and his longtime musical partner, vocalist Sam France, are splitting up, or that it will be the last Foxygen record, ever. Still, the reflective, rhythmic, '80s-evoking LP -- three singles have already preceded its release, "Livin' A Lie," "Face The Facts" and "Work" -- certainly marks the close of a chapter for the pair: their final album for Jagjaguwar. Foxygen have been attached to the A-list indie imprint since 2012, for a wild rise and four releases of boldly experimental, stylistically referential, melodic glam rock and avant-pop that's managed to challenge and exhilarate.

"We're seeing other people, and that's fine," France sings on the new album's slinky, soulful title track. It's a lyric that has several connotations, including his and Rado's increasing number of projects apart from one another -- Rado is an in-demand producer and writer who's collaborated with the likes of Weyes Blood, Cut Worms and Houndmouth, while France has both a solo album and book in the works -- as well as their split from Jagjaguwar. "It just felt like such a good title for our last album on Jag," explains Rado. "It's the finale of the four albums, for sure, and so it felt like a nice kind of end point. The title works on multiple levels. You can just really delve in there if you want, just as with every song on the album, you can sort of pick out things -- however you want to interpret that stuff."

While both musicians still express love for the label they've called home for the better part of a decade, the parting with Jag hasn't been without its disagreements, due largely to France and Rado's decision not to tour the new record at all. Normally at this point in the calendar (release week) the duo would be well into staffing up an over-ambitious live show without quite the budget needed to fully realize their creative dreams, and working out how they would summon the stamina for another long stretch of time away from home. Touring for 2013's extraordinary We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, its follow-up, 2014's audacious, conceptual …And Star Power, and 2017's vaudevillian Hang (for which they brought a horn section on the road), packed halls and built the boys' unpredictable brand, but left them spent, and kept them too long away from creating new music. This time, they said no.

"The way we want to tour has always been completely un-doable," explains Rado. "We always manage to pay our band, and also pay for the mode of transportation for touring our large fucking band -- because it's always been these big productions that we want to put on -- but in the end we come home and we've made zero money. So, on this, for this album, I think we were just a little sick of it." He adds that Foxygen has always been more studio project than band, for whom touring was a necessary evil. "We've always just thought about the albums," he says. "We've never really been a touring band, and playing live shows is something I've never really felt totally gratified doing. There have been good shows, for sure, but most of the time I just feel like I'm just playing some piano chords or guitar chords on stage. It doesn't feel like a transcendent experience for me. A little bit torturous. Also for our mental health, I think not touring is gonna be good for us." Still, the move didn't sit well with the label or the band's management at the time. Seeing Other People has been done for more than a year, and it's only now coming out. "I think there was a little bit of a delay on it, because it stopped being such a priority for a lot of people, because it wasn't going to be this continuous source of income. So if there was a delay, I think that's probably what it was."

Sam France concurs. If Rado is Foxygen's studio savant who's more measured in his comments, France is its unfiltered showman, equal parts Broadway baby, serpentine rocker and post-modern provocateur. A less-wicked Ariel Pink has often come to mind. His shoot-from-the-hip tongue and at times irascible ways have made him the lightning rod for the duo's haters, while his wry lyrics, natural gifts as a singer and performer and try-anything attitude have also made him the focus of much love. Sam's a wild card -- and when I jumped on the phone with him shortly after my conversation with Rado, I wasn't sure which Sam I would get. Turns out, he's in a sincere and contemplative mode these days, taking stock of what Foxygen have achieved, eager to get Seeing Other People out, but like his bandmate, equally excited for different challenges ahead.

"As for not touring," France begins, "it's not that heinous to us not to tour. To all of management and everybody else, they're like, 'You're insane, what are you -- throwing this thing away?' But we've been doing this forever, we'll do it forever. It's not a big deal." France also cosigns the idea that calling Foxygen a "band" is reductive. "I think Foxygen itself is like an extremely developed performance art project," he asserts. "I think people don't really understand that or get the subtlety of that. Yeah. We've thought of ourselves as a recording project, or even a theatre group, or almost filmmakers of sound."

They're conceptual artists, and proud of it. Each Foxygen release has had a theme -- musical, lyrical, or both -- and in the case of Seeing Other People you might say it's the funky sound of self-reflection. In a letter written in a very "Sam" voice (riding a line between sweetness and irony) accompanying advance copies of the LP, France calls it Foxygen's "adult contemporary" album, and a "yuppie-pop masterpiece." A band that has long drawn on classic sounds is this time eliciting comparisons to '80s artists -- "Face The Facts" already has listeners name-checking Rick Astley, owing, Rado says, to the guitar lick on it -- and France offers some insight into the record's retro vision. "We wanted to capture the feel of great artists from the '60s and '70s, but, you know, the albums they made in say, 1986," he says. "Maybe not their best work, but when they were trying to move into these adult themes and stuff. That's kind of more what we were going for."

Rado describes the new album as Foxygen's "groove-iest" to date and cites a specific touchstone for it, a record that's long inspired the duo musically and stylistically: Sly & The Family Stone's seminal 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On.

"At some point on the Hang tour like it became a very relevant record to us, again," he recalls. "And [Sly's 1973 follow-up] Fresh as well. We were listening to that song 'Time' -- the first song on Fresh -- and the drums on that song are my favorite drum performance of all time. It's so funky and so complicated." Getting the drums right became key for Rado on Seeing Other People and led him to two drummers from different ends of the demographic spectrum: 76-year-old legend Jim Keltner, whose ridiculous CV includes work with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Conor Oberst; and 27-year-old Kane Ritchotte, ex-Portugal. The Man drummer and L.A. session whiz. Keltner took the reins on what Rado calls the album's "looser" songs like "Flag at Half-Mast" and "The Conclusion," at one point drumming on a collection of trash found in back of the studio and even working in a giant African shaker given to him by Tom Waits, while Ritchotte held it down on the funkier tracks, and indulged Rado experiments like playing an all-snare drum kit on "Face The Facts."

Another ex-Foxygen drummer may -- or may not -- figure as an inspiration elsewhere on Seeing Other People. In February, the album's first single and video, "Livin' A Lie," had fans on YouTube and other sites speculating wildly about the target of the song. It's as dark and embittered a lyric as France has ever written, calling out an unnamed, clout-grabbing, style-biting former friend who's "going all over the globe, stealing my act and my show," even adding, "I seen you taken all my clothes." A potential candidate for the muse seemed to be Shaun Fleming, who toured with the guys on 21st Century and has, post-Foxygen, gone on to similarly glittery indie pop success under the glam alias Diane Coffee. When I offer my theory to Rado, he punts to Sam, who in turn declines comment, except on the broader idea behind the song. "When you're in a young buzz band and you're touring around, you have people who are in your entourage and stuff," he offers. "And it's a fairly common phenomenon nowadays, thanks to the internet, if you're part of that entourage, to sort of take it upon yourself to create your own kind of social media presence, or persona, along with the band itself. Everybody is so opportunistic -- my generation is just disgusting. [laughs] It's just so fake, but I will say that the song itself is based on real experiences of mine."

Elsewhere, lyrically, France has never been more meta. Rollicking opening track and recent single "Work" appears to be a peek behind the curtain at creative tension between him and Rado, who've been creating art together since they were 14. "I'm doing all the work, if you've got something to say then say it," he bitches, before leaning into his rep: "If I'm such a fucking jerk, then why don't you write it all down?" While France says he and Rado "love each other to death," he admits they are known for friction not unlike those battling brothers of Britpop, the Davies or the Gallaghers. On the song "News" France asks, "Is this how our story ends?" On closer "The Conclusion" he concludes, "I think that we should just be friends." And on "Flag At Half-Mast" he even name checks his band: "She ain't got any notion of who I am/ She surely don't listen to Foxygen." It's not in France's nature to write anything that would ever be deemed "emo," but he's never released anything as up in his feelings as Seeing Other People.

As with so many Foxygen records, you'll spot influences here and there on the new LP. Magpie-ism comes naturally to them, so much so, says Rado, that they often don't even realize it when they're writing. Only days ago, Jagjaguwar itself likened "Face The Facts" to Deniece Williams' chestnut "Let's Hear It For the Boy" -- a similarity reinforced by the Footloose-evoking blue script on the album cover -- and "Flag At Half-Mast" brings to mind The Band. But the boldest borrow of all has to be "The Thing Is…," a piano and horn-fueled rave-up that so recalls a certain New Jersey giant that the boys should re-brand themselves the "F Street Band" for the track. "That song, initially, was dead-on 'Glory Days'," concedes Rado. "And we just didn't realize it. I guess we thought, 'Well, I that sounds kind of Springsteen-y…' But the thing is, I like Springsteen a lot, but I actually wasn't that familiar with the song 'Glory Days'! I never listened to the Born In The U.S.A. album a lot. Anyway, we had the song, finished it, and we played it for our managers at the time, and they were like, 'You guys, that's "Glory Days,"' you know? And we were like, 'Aww! Damn!' We were just like, 'Let's just call it a sample!' So we went to Springsteen's publisher, and we were like, 'Hey, we have this song, it's "Glory Days" and we'd like to clear it as a sample.' And apparently, Springsteen doesn't clear samples. So we were like, 'Shit!' because the record had already been mastered. But we went back in, and I just changed it a little bit. I took out the riff. It's just a little bit different, a little more simple. And so now it's just evocative of Springsteen, without being an exact Springsteen riff."

It's an album with potential hits -- at least to my ears, and to Foxygen's, but they've been wrong about such things before. "I wanted to make a very accessible record," insists France. "When I was writing it, I was thinking, 'Yeah, I've got to write the pop album.' And then by the time we'd finished I was like, 'I don't have the energy, fuck it.' It would be a misread of Foxygen to think they haven't wanted wider appeal, and they're perfectly capable of generating their own form of "hits": "How Can You Really," "Follow the Leader" and the lilting, sweetly fractured and evergreen "San Francisco." But like many left field creators before them, their music is likely to always be a little too knowing and skewed for the masses -- precisely what makes it irresistible to many fans. "I think we've been trying so hard to follow the steps that most bands follow, of trying to be a crossover band," says France. "That's what I've tried to do with every record. But I was delusional! Even …And Star Power [Foxygen's very extra 24-track hydra from 2014]. I must have been on too many drugs, cause I thought Star Power was gonna be this huge record! It was insane, and we recorded it so lo-fi -- and a double album. In no dimension would that ever become like a mainstream record! What was I thinking?"

The baked-in conservatism of the mainstream and its general cluelessness about how to handle an act as iconoclastic as Foxygen is only one of the hard lessons France has learned during his near-decade in the public eye. Multiple times in our conversation he comes back to his disappointment with the industry. "The business of everything has been extremely disheartening for me," he admits. "I've been really traumatized by the music industry. It's been really hard for me to deal with becoming a business person, and I don't think a lot of people realize that you have to do that. All these young artists, you trust the people who are telling you what to do, and then you realize, 'Oh my God. They took all my money. Holy shit.' And that's a big theme of theme of the record too."

"Never gonna turn time back/ You can go forward but you can't go back," France sings on "Face The Facts." Not yet even 30 (he reaches that milestone in the fall) he's already in a mid-career reset, a moment to say "goodbye" to things like "beating myself up because I don't fit into those leather pants anymore," and "hopefully, to anxiety attacks." He'll get even more off his chest in what promises to be a page-turner of a memoir he's writing, cheekily titled Sam Francisco: Confessions of an Indie Rock Star. "I wanted to write something in the vein of like Miles Davis' autobiography, a really raw tell-all, told in the voice of the person who experienced it," he explains. "I can't wait for people to read it." That may not happen until next year, as the book is currently in a state he describes as "something I just vomited up, which seriously needs some editing." Never fear that it will be fearless, though. France has taken names and says he's ready to tell the tales, from Foxygen's highs -- in every sense -- to disappointments, broken promises and broken bones. Expect stories from the band's notorious meltdown at South By Southwest 2013 to a widely reported restraining order France obtained in 2014 against a former touring member of the band that he briefly dated and with whom he had an acrimonious breakup (that restraining order was recently renewed). "Yeah man, I talk about it all in gory detail," he adds. "It's TMI, frankly! That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to really be transparent. It's an opportunity for me to come out on my own terms and talk about the abuse I've been through and all the insane shit I've seen in this industry, basically."

If the book looks back, France is ready to move forward on his own. He has a solo record in the works, made with friends on "basically no money, and a lot of good will." "I don't want to say too much now," he offers. "It's just a fun art-rock record. But I've got a bunch of stuff in the can, and eventually I'd like to make religious music. I'd like to make a Christian record too. I've got all sorts of stuff waiting." While he's truly sick of the "rotating wheel of Lou Reed, Mick Jagger and Bowie" comparisons he's gotten over the years, he won't give up on being a "wild rock n' roller," either. A few months ago, France played his first solo show in Los Angeles, which he calls "the most intense show I have ever played." There was blood, accosting of the audience, and, he says with some satisfaction, "every A&R person there was like, 'thanks, but no thanks.'" But far from feeling defeated, more than ever Sam has something to prove -- to an indie scene that he says has gotten "boring," and "an industry and journalists who didn't take us seriously." "They'll see! I'll show them!" he predicts, only half-kiddingly. "I have my sights set on something different, and nuanced. And I don't know exactly what that is right now, but I want to use my abilities as an actor, and as a character. Because I'm not just a musician! I hang around a lot of musicians, and they're so inspiring to me, but I want to be Andy Kaufman. I want to be something else. That's what I am passionate about. I desperately want to make art that challenges."

The same can be said, though perhaps in a less fraught way, for Jonathan Rado. His production plate apart from Foxygen remains full: he's recently been in the studio with The Lemon Twigs, Matt Maltese, Alex Cameron and his wife, singer-songwriter Jackie Cohen, whose album Zagg, which Rado and Matthew E. White co-produced, drops next month. So yes, closing a chapter and "seeing other people" is not just fine for Rado, it's necessary. "Something that is nice about not touring this record is that I don't have to put touring Foxygen over making something new, which is very exciting," he says. "I think that's something that for me personally, one of the reasons I don't want to tour is that I don't want to pass up opportunities to put new art into the world."

Last summer, when word came of the death of musician Richard Swift, Foxygen quickly came to mind. No figure loomed larger in Rado and France's development and rise than the indie experimentalist who produced both 2011's Take the Kids Off Broadway and We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, and when I first interviewed the duo in 2012, they sang his praises highly. Swift's passing at only 41, due to alcohol-related illness, was a blow to Rado. "I stayed in touch with Swift up until a couple months before he passed," he recalls. "And yeah, it was really hard. Because -- as a lot of people have said, a lot of his friends -- it was hard watching him just kind of destroy himself, and really just disappear into alcoholism. It's a really hard thing to deal with. But yes, he was one of the most important people in my life. I learned so much from him. And you know, I feel like I do have a little part of him. So I feel good about that."

And although talk of legacy might be premature for an artist who hasn't yet left his twenties, as Rado looks forward to new and different challenges -- and yes, eventually, most likely, more Foxygen -- he does consider what he will leave behind. "I do think about legacy, a lot," he says. "About the way that albums that I work on will be perceived and looked back upon. And I think that's something that Foxygen has always done, too -- creating an interesting discography that you can, in retrospect, go back and listen to, that will continue to be interesting over time. Because that's what happens when you die! For better or worse, when you die, people go back and listen to your whole life and your record of things. But I also think there's something to be said for not worrying about that type of thing. I know people who absolutely do not care about legacy. I'm not a hundred percent sure that Swift cared about legacy at all. I think maybe he just wanted to do things that made him happy in the moment."

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