Interview – Foster the People
– by Rachel Fox/photos by Ryan West
I suppose my enthusiasm for jumping at the opportunity to interview indie-darlings Foster the People and review their show at Venue on May 31 can be directly linked to my being influenced by that Sassy magazine column, “Cute Band Alert”.
Now, before you sneer and turn up the volume on the Shonen Knife album you love so much, just know that that column also banged the drum for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Guided by Voices, Superchunk and Sloan (among others). There is nothing wrong with cute boys who play instruments. I digress.
It also doesn’t hurt that Foster the People’s current hit single, “Pumped Up Kicks” is on constant rotation in the invisible radio station in my brain. It has everything I like in a catchy song – it’s a little atmospheric, sonically interesting and multi-layered, and contains both whistling and hand-claps. If there were “woo-woos” or “la-las” it would be overkill, but thankfully there are neither. That being said “Pumped Up Kicks” has garnered the band a lot of attention of late, and their Vancouver show sold out weeks before ahead of time. They’ve done SXSW, Coachella, and Sasquatch – needless to say I was intrigued by the chance to see “the next big thing” on the cusp of, perhaps, being it.
The Los Angeles-based band is comprised of ex-commercial jingle writer Mark Foster (vocals, keyboards, drums, guitar, programming), Mark Pontius (percussion) and Cubbie Fink (bass, backing vocals). Onstage, this Cute Band was absolutely frenetic and full of energy, racing around and switching instruments with a kind of vigour Weezer hasn’t displayed since that Buddy Holly song. Yeah, they’re young. But I can’t hold that against them, because as one who is in possession of zero musical ability, I am in awe of those who are and seem to exude such an infectious level of joy when they play it onstage, live, in front of a crowd.
Foster is in possession if a remarkably capable vocal range (recalling Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) that defies his relatively small stature and rather demure appearance. He wore a porkpie and a collared shirt, and if I were more cynical I’d paint him with that horrid “hipster” broad stroke. He is also the lead songwriter in the trio, moving easily between instruments between and during songs. I found myself wondering what he was like as a young lad, and who his equivalent would be on the TV show Glee. Pontius and Cubbie are just as capable here – the band (accompanied onstage by two additional fellows for most of the show) sounded really, really tight, light, and poppy.
As a new band with few songs the variety of sound was somewhat limited and the songs, sonically, did blend a bit. This is entirely forgivable for a Cute (relatively new) Band. The show borrowed almost entirely from their just-released album Torches, save for one song, “Broken Jaw”, from their Foster the People EP. The last three songs had a decidedly different tone once Foster picked up the guitar; it was rougher, edgier, darker, harder.
Those tracks were the most interesting; they were somehow groovier. I like up-tempo pop as much (if not more than) as the next person, and the show would have felt more dynamic had they spaced those harder songs out a bit more. Foster is undeniably adept at crafting a catchy, structured, thoughtful hook and this skill needs to be challenged and pushed over time in order for his songwriting to grow into something truly significant. I have no doubt that the band will evolve in an unexpected direction.
Perhaps the success of “Pumped Up Kicks” lies in that song’s marriage between a darker, atmospheric feel and the overarching, jammy-synth sound of the band, which is decidedly summer-y. For the first third of the show I didn’t feel like I was hearing a distinct, signature sound from the music, unlike when I hear a Raveonettes song and know exactly who it is.
It was a delightful eye-opener to see them live and there was such a palpable joy between the enthusiastic crowd and the hyper-smiley band onstage. I felt like I was witnessing a coming out party (the Atlanta kind, not the San Francisco kind). That being said, I can’t help but hope that this Cute Band suffers some sort of collective heartbreak and trauma – a bit more of the dark mixed with the endless summery sounds of surf mightn’t be a bad thing. (Set list below.)
Earlier in the day, I had a chance to interview all three Foster the Peoples in the lounge of Vancouver radio station The Peak.
Rachel Fox: Let’s get the introductions out of the way. So, Cubbie, like what? Of the Mouseketeers? Explain.
Cubbie Fink: (Laughs). Kinda. It was actually the nickname that was given to me at birth. My dad thought I looked a little like a bear cub, when I was born.
RF: Awww…. What’s your real name?
CF: Jacob. Which is ironic, because a lot of people think it comes from that… Ja-cob, Cub-bee…
RF: And do you go by Pontius, or…?
Mark Pontius: Everyone in the band calls me Poncy. Kinda came from Pontius.
RF: Is that kind of a diss, though – Poncy?
MP: No! I kinda like it, I think it’s funny when people call me Poncy.
RF: Because Pontius does sort of sound like a car, or the name of someone on the Starship Enterprise.
MP: … or a Roman leader. Pontius Pilate.
RF: I am in love with “Pumped Up Kicks.” Can you tell me a little about the process behind that song?
CF: The song was written and recorded in about three days. Mark Foster wrote it and recorded it early in the band’s cycle. I don’t think any of us really loved it, you know? It’s a great song; we didn’t know it was to be as popular as it was.
Generally the way it works with us is that Mark will demo them [the songs] out and bring them to us and we’ll workshop them and figure out how to do them live. We have a lot of gear with us onstage, because we wanna reproduce that sound. So we’ll sort of tear down the demo and bring it all back up with the various instrumentation and figure it out from there.
Mark Foster: I usually write like that; that song started off with the drums. That drumbeat makes you bob your head. And then the bassline came in. It was a journey. It’s really hard to describe. The drums and bassline made it sound like it was going to totally go in a different direction, then when I put the pads on – really, a breezy pad – all of a sudden, it took the whole song to sort of, “kick back and relax.” I think I surprised myself.
RF: What were you listening to while you were recording, and does it influence you when you are?
CF: I try not to really let music influence me when I’m trying to create music. My music tastes are so across the board anyway so I don’t really think you’d hear it in what I’m playing.
Just kind of being out and living life. You know, you can really trap yourself in the studio and get burned out. But if you’re out and experiencing good food and good people – that’s the thing that brings inspiration for bringing it in the studio.
MP: I concur.
RF: What is your go-to album?
CF: [Fleetwood Mac’s] Rumours is so good!
MP: Ace of Base, The Sign.
RF: No it’s not!
MP: I am not kidding. When I was a kid I loved it so much, and didn’t really know much about music. And now it’s like, every one of those songs is the exact same in song – but it works! It doesn’t matter that they did it, because it’s all so good!
CF: One album that I could really put on anytime, anywhere would be Yes, Fragile. That album from start to finish is just insane. There’s a lot going on.
RF: Best song to cry to?
MP: Wait, I know this one… what’s the name?
RF: It’s alright. You can sing it.
MP: Oh wait, it’s in Top Gun…
RF and CF: Berlin – “Take-My-Breath Away”! [Said in unison, it was awesome.]
MP: Yes! That song makes me want to weep and cry and hug my ex-girlfriend.
RF: Best song to sing in the shower?
MP: “Blame it on the Rain,” Milli Vanilli.
RF: Secret psych-yourself-up-song?
MP: Oh, that’s easy. The Rocky theme song. Cubbie plays it randomly all the time on the bus. It’s like, “We need to get pumped up!” Boom, Rocky theme song.
RF: What makes a great show for Foster the People?
CF: We all love playing music, we love being onstage doing what we love. I think that really translates; we’re just having a good time onstage and I think the people in the crowd really love that energy.
MP: There’s a lot of switching with instruments, too, which enables us to have a little more energy. One minute you’re playing a keyboard, the next minute you’re playing a drum. It opens up some freedom.
RF: What is the worst show you ever played?
MP: We played South by Southwest and we played at 10:00 in the morning. I wouldn’t say it was our worst show, but it was 10:00 in the morning and it’s like, “OK, there are two people here and they’re not even awake yet.”
RF: You have a background writing singles?
MF: Do you guys get California tourism commercials up here?
RF: We can through the magic of this thing called the internet.
MF: Muscle Milk? It’s a whistling thing… It’s really kinda dark, choral… it’s really cool. [Mark Foster then proceeds to whistle and sing into the recorder.]
RF: You know who else used to write jingles?
MF: Barry Manilow.
RF: Yeah, well. Damn it! OK, you knew that.
CF: I didn’t know that.
MF: [Starts to sing.] “Like a good neighbour, State Farm is there…”
CF: He wrote that? I didn’t know that. That’s awesome.
RF: Do you feel a kinship with Barry Manilow?
MF: Well, now I do! I mean, I never would have made that connection before and now he’s like a brother from another mother.
Foster the People at Venue in Vancouver May 31 2011 setlist:
Call it What You Want
I Would Do Anything
Life on the Nickel
Pumped Up Kicks