How Foxygen Turned a Study of Genre into the Sound of the Future
PopMatters spoke to Sam France and Jonathan Rado about the themes that dominate the album, their work with a 40-piece orchestra, and their strange connection to the POTUS.
California duo Foxygen made a splash with their breakthrough album We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, which in songs like "San Francisco" showed their mastery of genres, and how they were able to make something sound both like a rediscovered gem and the sound of the future. On ...And Star Power they once again pushed boundaries by creating a double album about a fictitious band, which saw them at their introspective best. If so far, the duo has been experimenting with where they want to take their sound, in Hang they might have created their first bonafide masterwork. At around 30 minutes, the album is a chronicle of American music with an encyclopedic scope. What's better, its ambition isn't undermined by an overly conceptual approach, meaning it's an absolute joy of a listen.
The delightful opener "Follow the Leader" sets an uplifting mood that segues beautifully into the rousing "Avalon" which sounds like the theme song from a disco era cult classic. The first three tracks pave the road for the "America suite" which expands the album from a study of genre, into what feels like the sound of the future, a combination of respect for the past, with excitement about the malleability of the future. Billed as their "first proper studio album," Hang boasts a majestic 40-plus piece symphony arranged and conducted by Trey Pollard with additional arranging by Matthew E. White. The record was made without using any computers, which adds to its sense of grandiosity, one which the band more than lives up to easily.
PopMatters spoke to Sam France and Jonathan Rado about the themes that dominate the album, their work with the orchestra, and their strange connection to the POTUS.
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You've mentioned that in ...And Star Power you were trying to deconstruct Foxygen and in Hang you have eight tracks so perfectly divided that it's as if you made two albums and combined them. Does this make Hang the ultimate of your albums?
France: Part of what makes it feel like that is we thought of the album as a condensed suite, or whatever the term is, but yeah, we thought of it as a journey through American music and history.
Right, the album made me think of a Broadway musical, to be honest. Is doing a theatrical narrative piece something that would appeal to you?
Rado: Yeah, we would do like an American Idiot thing.
"Avalon" made me think of "Xanadu", as well as "Waterloo" by ABBA. Was disco a big influence on this particular track?
France: It's definitely the vibe of those songs, I don't think it occurred to us when we wrote it that this is what it sounded like. "Xanadu" is about the '70s but being sent back to the '30s, so I think that's an exact description of what that song is.
Rado: ...and the album possibly.
Can you talk about what it was like to work with a 40-piece orchestra?
Rado: It was terrible, we hated it ... no, it was wonderful, it's amazing to hear proficient musicians play your music. It's a once in a lifetime kind of experience.
Did you let the conductor play with the concepts you presented them or were the orchestrations very strict when it came to interpreting them?
France: Trey definitely conducted the orchestra, but the first couple days we tried hyping everyone up by letting them know what we wanted, I feel they knew, though because they had the music in front of them.
Rado: In terms of composition we had a little bible that had minute by minute, bar by bar, little notes for each moment, and how we wanted everything to sound. Trey used that but also took inspiration from each of the songs.
Something that surprised me about the album was to realize it's only half an hour long, but the songs are s rich and complex that I felt I'd been listening to it for hours. It's like you're opening wormholes or something because of the journey each song takes you on.
France: A lot of our compositions in the past, in We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic and Star Power, we tried out different variations on writing and unconventional song structures. With certain albums, we just don't see them as a series of first course, first course.
Rado: It's just the style of music we always work in, it's never conscious, we just see the different paths a song can go to. We start with a basic idea, with "Avalon" for instance it starts one way, but we can take it to tap dancing, or ragtime piano, there are so many different options, that we often wonder why not do all of them. Sam has an idea, I have an idea, so why not try them out?
From "America" on it feels like a single majestic track, it's impossible to listen to the album and skip songs in the second half. How does this complicate finding singles?
France: We knew "Follow the Leader" would be our main single, you should listen to us talk about music in the studio, it's pretty insane. We give songs names like "this is our Pixar opening credits song," or this would be the theme song to Despicable Me 3 [laughs], so we knew "Leader" would be the single. We knew "America" would be a good song to introduce the record as a first listen, but not as a single. It's strange, because "On Lankershim" turned out to be a really good single, we didn't know that at the time, and it's part of that suite that doesn't end, but you can hear it in the video when it cuts off because the other song begins there. It's strange, but we make it work.
You guys have mentioned having a database of songs from which you work on, was this the case with this album as well?
France: We were more specific, pretty much all the songs we wrote, we recorded and are on the album.
That sounds easy enough. The "America" suite reflects the state of the country perfectly, you start off talking about heroes and then go into trauma, there's this line "how can I love you if I don't know who you are," that made me think this is how many people feel about the country right now...
France: [laughs] I love it.
...many people referred to it as a love album, but I saw so much dark political content in it too.
France: And you're right, it's not just a happy album, a lot of the concepts and instrumentation would suggest that but we did the other side of that, there are lots of elements at the beginning and end of "America" that sound like they're out of a horror film, or Sweeney Todd interlude music. We were trying to capture both ends of that, a lot of people are processing their disillusionment with what's going on in the country and the world through our music. I think we're good poets, we don't write anything pertaining to modern events, Foxygen has its own world, but we pick up on people's subconscious and write poetry, I think good music and good poetry can get to the heart of things.
You could've perfectly ended the album on "Trauma" and been like, OK you're on your own people. Instead, you end the album with "Rise Up" which is such a beautiful, hopeful anthem, how did you select that to finish Hang?
France: That song was written first as part of this concept Rado had which was the foundation of the album. I wrote "Trauma" after that…
Rado: I always pictured it as the opening of the album actually, like a big Lion King opening, but then Sam had the idea to put it at the end, which is a better move. Every Foxygen album ends with a big optimistic hug.
France: I like what you said, though, perhaps "Trauma" is the end, and "Rise Up" is like the curtain call, where everyone comes out. It's almost third person, I go into this weird third person narrating voice. It's a weird one, but it's a nice little closer.
So "Trauma" is where Scar kills Mufasa and "Rise Up" is when Simba returns?
France: [laughs] Exactly.
All these cartoon references are making me really curious about what other nicknames you give your songs...
France: There's always one song we're obsessed with as a single, so we try to make it the poppiest thing we can make, the rest we treat with a little bit more respect.
So if you were asked to make a song for one of these animated series what would it be?
Rado: I'd like to make a song for Star Wars which isn't really animated and doesn't have songs, but that would be kinda cool.
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a new version of the "Cantina Song", so who knows?
Rado: Didn't John Williams' son wrote the original? But yeah, a Star Wars theme song would be cool for Foxygen.
Can you talk about the artwork for the cover? The font and the art made me think of something like Nosferatu.
France: Totally, we wanted to do a Gothic vibe, something like Disneyland and Nosferatu, while we recorded, I was painting a lot and just had this laying on the floor. I would walk over it, let stuff fall on it, I worked on it for a long time nonchalantly, then it was done, and I thought it was a good summary of the album because I painted it during the making of the record.
I mentioned the dark political undertones in the album, and strangely enough Hang was released on Inauguration Day. Was that a coincidence?
France: We have this weird connection to Trump, weirdly last time we were on TV on Letterman he was the guest too, so we always end up in the same place at the same time.
Maybe he'll tweet about you guys next!
Rado: I'd be honored. No, I'm just kidding.