Foster the People: Moving beyond 'Pumped Up Kicks'
For about a year, locals Foster the People have existed as little more than "Pumped Up Kicks," a sly little single that masks its venom with playful electronics, cheerleading hand-claps and an easy-going danceable groove that seems built for a skip down the Venice boardwalk. The single's success put the band on the map, and no doubt helped debut album "Torches" land in the top-10 on the U.S. pop charts. The full album shares the single's upbeat effects, but also takes a broader stylistically approach.
"If I was looking at it from a business perspective, I’d ask myself what kind of career do I want to have," said leader Mark Foster recently. "I could have pigeonholed us and wrote a whole record like 'Pumped Up Kicks,’ and we would have been this breezy, nostalgic West Coast Beach Boys recreation band. That’s not the type of writer I am. Once I try one style, I move on."
As described in the Times' examination of Foster the People's rise, "Torches" is not short on versatility. The hard-luck tail of "Life on the Nickel" sounds as if it were recorded in a futuristic pinball machine, while "Helena Beat" takes a more rock-driven approach and accessorizes it with Parisian pop accents and a techno-meets-South Africa breakdown. The band also has a weirder, MGMT-influenced side, as "Miss You" could be a modern R&B cut before its electronics get all schizophrenic.
The 27-year-old, Cleveland-bred Foster has actually been in L.A. trying to make it since he was 18. He came close, he said, when Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment envisioned him as what he described as a "crossover soul artist," but Foster shied away from the opportunity. Peers and friends, however, told him he was making a mistake to do so.
"I didn’t want to be a soul singer," Foster said. "It would have been a dream to work with Aftermath, but I wanted to make what I was making, which was glitched-out electronic music. It was multi-genre, and a little funky. So that all went away."
The soft-voiced Foster was encouraged by friends to try out for "American Idol," but the mere suggestion frustrated the young artist. "I was like, 'No, no, no, no," Foster said. "I’m not in this to make money. I would not have sold my soul to be on American Idol.' Who cares if I’m successful? I’m way happier doing what I like to do being a starving artist."
A job at Venice's Mophonics writing compositions destined for commercials put food on the table and re-energized Foster. It was at Mophonics, which gave Foster the freedom to explore in a top-of-the-line studio, that Foster said he sharpened his melodic craft.
"I had been trying to work on a sound, which was combining electronic music with Motown with rock with ‘60s with classic songwriting with South African rhythms. It’s all been left-of-center pop. That’s what I loved to write, and it was at Mophonics where it started to hit a stride."
It's also where he wrote "Pumped Up Kicks," a song that appears on "Torches" in what was something of a demo format. Foster played all the instruments, and cut the single soon after he had begun working with bandmates Cubbie Fink and Mark Pontius in early 2010. Lyrically, it's more demented than the music foretells, with the loner narrator proclaiming that the in-the-know hip kids better "outrun" his gun.
Said Foster: "'Pumped Up Kicks' is written from the perspective like Truman Capote wrote 'In Cold Blood' or Dostoevsky wrote 'Crime & Punishment.' It’s psychologically breaking down someone's state of mind, and diving in and walking in their shoes. Maybe your average music listener would never get to the lyrics, but for people who dig in and find the story, it’s a slap in the face."
Asked to further describe his musical ambitions for Foster the People, Foster went straight for an image. One that, like the band's sounds, is a little offbeat, but also a tad goofy and jovial.
"If I were to paint a picture of the record, it'd be a big black monster devouring a field of flowers -- just standing there eating flowers," Foster said.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Cubbie Fink, left, and Mark Foster at KROQ's recent Weenie Roast. Credit:Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times