Volatile Creatures

mus FoxygenOn-stage meltdowns aside, Foxygen discusses their recent new album

Live performances and studio recordings have always been two entirely different art forms, but Southern California-based psychedelic rockers Foxygen have spent the last year and half traversing the extreme differences between the studio and performing.

Their second LP, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, a well-composed, multi-layered and even-tempered psychedelic-pop record, was a breakout hit last year, prompting the group to hit the road and tour. Their shows have been a completely different animal, though: a furious explosion of energy befitting a raging punk rock band, including fights with the audience, self-abuse, climbing all over the club’s equipment and on-stage meltdowns.

“We have an unpredictable aspect to our show. We have tons of energy on stage, so much that we don’t have any energy to do anything else during the day when we’re on tour. We’re just completely exhausted all the time,” says multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado.

Their follow-up record … and Star Power, which hit shelves Oct. 14, seems like an odd attempt to marry their two worlds. For starters, it’s a whopper of an album at an hour and twenty-two minutes, and is divided into four movements. It begins as a collection of mellow psych-pop songs, which moves into eerie, paranoid tunes, then into full-blown noisy, messy audio chaos, and finally ends in what can best be described as a short, dreary hangover.  

The concept of the album is about a fictitious punk rock band called “Star Power” that is slowly taking over the record. Though they’ve never stated it, Star Power, it seems, is the embodiment of their unpredictable live shows.

There’s greater musical diversity on the album. The songs bounce around to every conceivable sub-genre of rock ’n’ roll from the ’60s and ’70s (psychedelic, doom-metal, soft-rock, AM pop tunes, space-jams, glam-rock and country-rock) and digs into the campiness of it in a new way that’s both playful and endearing.

“Back then, they weren’t trying to make a cheesy song, they were trying to make a good song—I think it’s the same mindset that we have,” Rado says. “We were theater kids raised on show tunes. It’s built into our blood—that campiness. A lot of my inspiration for my piano comes from show tunes.”

When they got all the attention last year for their second LP, they weren’t completely ready to become a full-time touring band. Even before their official debut album, Rado and Sam France had been crafting albums in their bedrooms together since high school. Famed L.A. producer Richard Swift heard some of those recordings, and both connected them to the right people, and produced their breakout album.

“We owe our whole music career to him. He got us a record deal essentially. He’s amazing and a very important figure in the Foxygen universe,” Rado says.

However, going from a two-piece, mostly-studio project to a touring band proved challenging. They enlisted a couple of musicians to join the live band, but it was basically a guitar- bass-drums act.

“It just wasn’t really working. There’s not a lot of guitar on the record. We were doing these stripped down, half-bullshit versions of the songs,” says Rado. “A song like ‘San Francisco,’ we would play that last year and it would sound like shit. It has flutes and strings and we would do it with guitar, bass and drums. It sounded like we were trying to cover a song.”

The answer, they realized, was to build a nine-piece touring group that included keys and backups singers. While their current nine-piece is a little less rage-fueled, it’s no less explosive.

Unlike their breakout record, … and Star Power was recorded without the help of Swift. The duo worked mostly alone, occasionally bringing in guest musicians. They actually had the vision of the album’s sound and concept before beginning the recording process. They wrote out a track list of the 24 tracks, and did their best to record each song in order of the album, to really feel the changing mood of the album as it progresses.

Without Swift, the duo worked much in the same way they did when they were 16, bouncing crazy ideas off of each other and going with them, but it was done on a much larger scale. As much as they are pushing this as a concept album, it’s not like a Rush album with an elaborate universe and characters involved. The concept is more a vehicle for their sonic experimentation.

“We just wanted to do more. We wanted to show different sides of our music,” Rado says. “We wanted it to start out lush and then go into complete trash. That was kind of the idea.” 

Foxygen plays at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 23, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 423-8209. $20. PHOTO: Foxygen plays the Rio on Thursday, Oct. 23, on the heels of their recent release … and Star Power. CARA ROBINS

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