When listening to Foxygen for the first time, it’s apparent that a particular lack of focus runs throughout their songs. That’s a good thing, through, as the Los Angeles duo’s frenzied psychedelia possesses the ability to soothe the ears in one moment before ascending into an extravagant buildup the next.
Within any given song, the mighty pair of Sam France and Jonathan Rado bursts out with chaotic-yet-precise sonic constructions, which emerge as both captivating and enthralling. It took years to get to that point, however, as they first started Foxygen in 2005 after playing in another band called The Fionas. The two spent their early years together recording, learning to overdub, and understanding the finer points of songwriting. Now at ages 23 and 22 respectively, Rado says that their current sound has “evolved into what [they’re] doing now.”
On Foxygen’s freewheeling 2011 debut, Take the Kids Off Broadway, the duo meticulously layered hundreds upon hundreds of overdubs over the better part of an entire year. Rado says the final count ended up somewhere in the “300 to 400” range over its seven tracks. And these emerge as overflowing experiments from a bygone era that include classic influences from the Velvet Underground to the Rolling Stones. David Bowie’s spirit also rears its boisterous head.
“I think sometimes we didn’t really know when to stop,” France says. “I think the only reason we stopped is because we had this weird deadline for ourselves, which was the day Richard Swift was going to be in town playing a show.”
The duo’s self-imposed goal was simple: finish the record before their beloved songwriting hero played in New York in May 2011. France put the final touches on Broadway that fateful morning and the two hand-delivered the album to Swift at the Mercury Lounge. They gave the record to no one but him.
“We were just like, ‘We’ll give it to him then,’” France says, “We never intended to have a music career or anything. We got signed to [Jagjaguwar] just because we gave our CD to Richard Swift. We just wanted him to hear it.”
“There’s something so interesting about him and the sequence this record has come out in and just his progression as an artist,” Rado continues. “The fact that he does it all himself, that he plays every instrument, is something that Sam and I [do]. We like things where singular people are doing everything because that’s the way we do it as well. He’s a fucking absolute genius. There’s no one that’s better than Richard Swift.”
Twelve months later, following Swift’s natural obsession with their CD-R, Foxygen signed with the Bloomington-based label. They quietly released Broadway and wasted no time getting to work on their follow-up record, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. While the latest album’s title initially suggests another gloriously indulgent effort, it’s actually a far more stripped-back affair—one that’s furthering their reputation as infectious psych-pop purveyors.
“We only recorded it in nine days so there wasn’t really time to sit there over six months,” Rado says. “We sort of let ourselves be inspired by how little time we had to do it and decided to make a record that was maybe more stripped down or a little less cluttered. There’s still a lot going on at certain points on the record. There’s still some crazy moments.”
France and Rado got their wish this time around as Swift lent his production skills in the comforts of his National Freedom studio. With his help, Foxygen’s follow-up was made in a more streamlined fashion given both its time constraints and professional approach.
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic comes out today (Jan. 22). As both members look back at the making of the album, they still can’t believe to a certain extent that their plot to collaborate with Swift actually worked out. Once timid admirers of their favorite California songwriter, they now see more similarities between his work and their own.
“I had the idea that he really knew what he was doing,” Rado says. “It’s not that he just knows what he’s doing, but it sort of seems like he was doing what we were always doing, just to a different degree. He’s just sort of turning knobs until it sounds good. I don’t know if that’s actually what’s he’s doing, but it sort of seems like that, and we connected a lot on that sort of thing.”
“I think he really liked our music is because it was kind of lighthearted experimentation, and that’s just kind of what he’s about,” France adds. “He’s a delight to work with. He’s hilarious. He’s just a really funny guy. He’s kind of like this big eight-year-old boy producing your album.”
As for what’s next beyond their partnership with Swift, France and Rado plan to open for Unknown Mortal Orchestra during a two-month tour that includes their SXSW debut. While Foxygen has toured in the past, they will likely earn their stripes on the road in search for the consistency that comes with being a seasoned touring act.
“We’re not like professional band; we don’t leave our shit offstage,” Rado says. “There are bands where no matter what’s going on with them, they can get on stage and just play the same fucking show. They can play the same seven or eight songs, flawless, then go back and just feel like shit afterwards and play a great show. But if we feel like shit and we go onstage, the audience is going to kind of know.”
Although Foxygen will likely improve in that regard as they continue to play shows and find the right supporting cast—be it band members, touring managers or sound engineers—they’ve learned something even more important. And that’s a simple reaffirmation of how much they’re obsessed with recording music—something that they’re convinced will always be their primary focus.
“I think first and foremost, Foxygen has always been a recording band and that’s what we’d like to keep doing forever,” Rado says. “I think touring is something that’s fun. I guess it’s fun…but I think records are what we’re in it for.”