Last month Foster The People returned with second album Supermodel. However despite the title's glamorous connotations, the band's Los Angeles-dwelling leader Mark Foster tells Q why making the record was in fact a torturous journey that took him halfway round the globe... and deep into the darkest corners of his own mind.
How the devil are you? I'm well.
After the success of your first album you were quite clear you wanted to be here for the long term and the band hadn’t really achieved anything yet. Did that attitude mean you were you well prepared to make this album or was it harder than you thought? Ah, man, that’s a good question. I’m trying to think where my headspace was at the time. I was afraid of the sophomore slump even before our first record came out. It was a very real fear because I’d watched so many bands I’d loved in the past not deliver. I knew it was a very real thing. I didn’t know why it happens but I’d been thinking about it a lot. A big part of that whole head-trip was trying to find ways to toss off that pressure and quell that fear. I had to play head games with myself. And I was playing a master chess player at it, honestly.
Chess? I was in a chess game with my own subconscious trying to keep fear out and allowing the joy of creation and the joy of making music to be present. I feel to be in a free place to create the eccentricities and the quirks of personality have to come out, but I could see myself just playing it safe. One of the things with the second record, a word I held close to my chest, was “brave”. To take chances to go outside the box and explore. To continue to toss off any expectation that our fans or anyone else might have of us, to just tap into who I am as a writer and artist and really just operate within that freedom of creation. I don’t know, does that sound really pretentious? It’s a really hard thing to explain, man.
Did you manage it? The album started off with [producer] Paul Epworth and I going to Morocco. We really liked working with Paul on the first record and we felt to achieve what we wanted on this record he was the right guy. We had conversations beforehand and we were on the same page. From percussive African rhythms to listening to a lot of 70s punk. We were gelling this Sandinista! type vibe with something that was modern and organic. So we decided to go to Morocco to chase that sound. We just went to the source to see what would happen. We were there for eight days and there was just output. We didn’t edit ourselves, we just creatively purged and out of that we came away with the identity of the record. After that some of the pressure lifted, after that I could feel what the tone was and that helped to provide some context of how to write the rest of it.
"My heart loves to write music for everyone but my head’s a different story. That’s what you’re hearing."
Was that outpouring of ideas inspired by your surroundings or was it the fact you were isolated from everything else that could influence the record? I think both. There’s something happened during that week that isn’t a discernable thing, that I’ll never be able to put my finger on. It will always be one of the most special weeks I’ve ever had creating because there was just something in the air. It was being away from everything else – I hadn’t written a song in a couple of years because I’d been on tour so that creative well was ready to burst. It was the fact Paul and I hadn’t written together in several years and we really liked writing together. Also we’d flown all this gear out there and we knew if we didn’t come back with anything the label would fricking kill me! [laughs] And then the other part of it was we were in this foreign land that wasn’t like any other place in western culture. There’s something about that country because of the influences from France and Portugal and then from the north and west areas of Africa. There’s just really interesting facets of culture just swirling in Morocco. They all have slightly different colours so it’s just an inspiring place to be.
Along with collaborating on the music, you also worked with artist Young & Sick on the artwork, which eventually you turned into a mural in Downtown Los Angeles. Why is that such an important part of the process for you? One of the main themes on the record is consumption and consumerism so that’s one of the main driving themes. There are a lot of themes within it that I don’t want to talk about because I find it’s more of feeling and the art can explain that feeling better than words can. So I’ll leave it at that, I want people to derive what they will from it when they look at it.
Is that a bit like Pumped Up Kicks, on one level you can take it purely as a pop song but if you delve into the lyrics a bit more you realise its actually quite dark. It’s about a teenage gunman... I haven’t thought about it too much. At the end of the day I use music to be able to communicate to people. So part of it is an invitational thing, we want to be part of culture and have a relationship with people but sometimes the message is not something that mass culture might hear. It’s not an intentional thing, but I’m glad that it’s being heard on a bigger scale because I think it’s important.
You’re not sneaking bigger, darker ideas into the pop landscape? It’s really not intentional. My heart loves to write music for everyone but my head’s a different story. That’s what you’re hearing. I think the music comes from my heart and the lyrics from my head. Then there’s whatever in between. Maybe that’s what it is...
"We’d flown all this gear out to Morocco, Paul Epworth and I knew if we didn’t come back with anything the label would fricking kill me!."
Which is winning on this new record? Head or heart? [pause] Erm, that’s a tough one. I don’t know, I think they both are. I know this record was a much harder record to make because I had to dive deeper into both. It was very raw on my heart and very taxing on my head.
Are they in conflict then? You said you were playing mind games against yourself earlier... Yeah, with creativity in general. I had an experience a few years ago, before Foster The People, when I was in my apartment making music, just writing tons of songs. Song. Song. Song. Song. I had no friends. I was just locked up writing music. I became so obsessive about it I didn’t listen to the fact I needed to take a break and I got writer block for almost two years. It really scared me. I didn’t realise it could happen like that. I think the head games now are to stop that from happening again. It was allow that creative, spiritual element to stay in the room. Sometimes if you try too hard it will just leave. I feel if your creativity thinks that you’re just capitalising on it - if you’re not feeding it and just taking from it - it will just bounce and it won’t come back for a while. It’s like a little kid. Under a high-pressure circumstance I find myself having to really cater to my creativity and treat that little kid as a little prince - to not let that little kid run out of the room. Also that little kid lives in the subconscious so it’s a tricky place because the subconscious mind is a deep, cavernous maze. It’s so hard to understand. You can only live within it when you’re in that state between waking and sleep, it’s a really difficult world to manage. I spent a lot of my energy trying to pay attention to that while making this record, which is where the head games came in.
So it almost sounds a relief to go out and play live for a bit. Yeah! [laughs] It is! I couldn’t be touring at a more perfect time. Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Fosterthepeople.com.