Interview: Foxygen – “We’re suckers for rock and roll”

With 2013’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic and 2014’s …And Star Power, California’s Foxygen melded psychedelic constellations of scattered genius and pop music ephemera.  Latest LP Hang represents the pair’s most elaborate collage of ideas yet.  While Hang’s elements of baroque pop and swinging vaudeville may prove a little more challenging than previous helpings, it’s difficult to deny that with their loftily conceptual album the duo’s tangled brilliance fires off like never before. Sounding wearied but enthusing at moment’s notice, frontman John French talks about political interpretations of lead single Follow the Leader, his intuitive songwriting dynamic and a shared affinity with other like-minded bands passing through bandmate Jonathan Rado’s L.A. studio.

Foxygen has been together now for over a decade. Starting out, did you ever think the group was something that would last this long?

I don’t know, I think that we always thought we would do it until we were old men or something.

Your albums are always quite distinct and have all gone in different as well as interesting musical directions, but for me, Hang really came as sort of a left turn with the Golden Age of Pop era LA treatment you’ve given tracks like Up On the Hill. What drew you into this new direction?

It’s hard to pinpoint now where everything comes from, we test so many ideas. I think somewhere along the line we just had this picture of a crooner in front of an orchestra and we kept shifting towards that until it appeared.

The lyrics of Follow The Leader struck me having this really coy sense of pop ambiguity. In the way that it’s invoking these slickly sweet songwriting staples of love and romance, but given the current political climate it almost leaps out as a protest song. What was yours and Jonathan’s intention when you were putting the song together?

Our records are kind of experimental in a sense, but we always kind of ground them all with a single or two, that’s just what you have to do. That’s really what we were going for at the time, but you know I have a tendency to write these broad and inspirational sort of songs, I don’t really know why specifically, maybe for me to get through my own life or something. I was just trying to create an inspiring, fun song. But it and the whole record has taken on a whole lot of meaning since then. A lot of people interpret it in really cool ways that I keep hearing about, so in a way, it’s always unfolding for me too.

Some artists are very strictly protective of the intention they put into their songs, but it sounds like you’re really receptive to what other people are reading in…

Thanks! My favourite lyrics are always inferred lyrics. When I find out what the actual lyrics to a song are I always feel like my first interpretation of it was better. I think that’s what is great about listening to music, that random element.

To me your work, even going back to the older albums, has so many ideas musically and lyrically. But at the same time everything always somehow hangs together really well. It always gels. How do you determine what works and what doesn’t?

Well I appreciate that. You know honestly for me as a songwriter everything just gestates in my head like a soup. I never like sit down and write. [Jonathan] Rado and I rarely have to sit down together to figure stuff out and put in the elbow grease. I think it’s because our music’s so conceptual, our music has evolved over such a long period of time. There’s a lot of trust and intuition, it’s all intuition I guess.

In a past interview with Aquarium Drunkard, Jonathan talked about this idea that a lot of elements of the album that were inspired by “American music.” Leading single America not withstanding, it’s a common theme running through the album. Hang is full of touches of vaudeville, country, soul, big band, Tin Pan Alley, 70s FM rock and jazz. What is it about all these sorts of music that ties them all together as distinctly “American”?

I think inherently because we grew up in L.A. there’s a lot of the Hollywood imagery already embedded in our minds. We were trying to view Hang as a kind of Hollywood album and therefore an American album. It was concocted by a city that was built to make movies. It was about trying to interpret American history in this weird way. We were trying to concoct these images and I think that inherently ended up being us interpreting ‘20s and ‘30s music through our lens of the ‘70s.

In December I was talking with Max Kakacek from Whitney whose latest LP, Light Upon the Lake, Jonathan produced. Max described how he thought there was this affinity for what his band were doing and what Foxygen had been doing before them. Do you feel there is this sort of shared affinity between the two bands?

I learn about a lot of good music just because Rado produces so many great bands. So many people are just in and out of his studio. I lived a sort of enclosed life before Rado started producing but through him I’ve been introduced to such good music, Whitney, Alex Cameron and The Lemon Twigs, people like that. So yeah, I do have an affinity for all those groups who come through Rado’s studio. He tends to work with people who are looking for a specific aesthetic. Rado’s main project being Foxygen, I sort of just relate to all that music, it’s cool.

You were talking before about how your writing flows really easily with Jonathan. I’ve been reading up on and talking to other artists a little bit lately about writing on the road, on the move. Most people don’t seem to be able to pull it off (except Neil Young apparently). What’s your take?

I feel like a lot of people, they sit down with a sheet of paper and guitar and say “I’m going to work now.” That’s not really how it works for me and Rado. At this point, we’re just able to bounce things around in our heads. I write on piano, but I don’t need to most of the time, I just bounce things around in my head.

It’s interesting that you compose with piano considering that, going back to the whole The Beatles sing-songwriter thing, a lot of the great rock and pop songs have come from guitar…

Well the guitar is kind of a weird instrumental, it looks kinda medieval or something! It seems like a weird instrument to end up being this thing that makes all this music. But the spirit of rock and roll has always been something we believe in, we love those elements! We’re just suckers for rock and roll.

What’s coming next in 2017?

We’re just gonna tour until people don’t want us anymore. We’ll just tour, we’ll go wherever people wanna see the show and then some recording maybe.

Any plans on coming down under?

I’d love to, I love all the Australian people that I know and I love a lot of music that’s from there. I’d love to come soon.

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