NEW YORK — For Los Angeles trio Foster the People, much of 2011 has been spent in a whirlwind of hype. After the band emerged as one of the most talked-about bands at the SXSW festival in March, the buzz continued to build behind their Top 10 single “Pumped Up Kicks.” Even though the band’s debut full-length, “Torches,” was only released this week, several shows on their upcoming tour, which stretches into the summer and includes a performance at the Sasquatch Festival in Washington, are already sold out.
“Torches” is an eclectic blend of pop, funk and soul influences, with most songs defying conventional categorization. In fact, according to frontman and chief songwriter Mark Foster, it’s the complexity of the songs that led to the group’s formation in the first place. While writing material for what he intended to be a solo endeavor, the singer realized additional musicians were needed to bring the songs to their full potential. He recruited keyboardist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius in 2009, and Foster the People was born.
Blast chatted with Foster in April before a sold-out show at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. Though the excitement surrounding the group was starting to reach a tipping point at that time, the frontman seemed to be taking it all in stride.
BLAST: You’ve said that you were on a sort of hiatus from music before forming Foster the People. What prompted you to start the band?
MARK FOSTER: Well, I’d been in bands in the past and just had a couple bad experiences. It’s so much work. It’s so hard to find the right people to play with. And you know, musicians tend to be such unhealthy people in general. It’s really hard to find people that are dedicated and healthy and just have their act together. So I guess I was just kind of burned out on it. After the last band I was in, I was just like, screw this. I’m just going to be a solo artist for the rest of my life. I just don’t want to deal with this anymore. So I did that for a few years, and really just buried myself in the studio and taught myself how to produce, and just kept writing songs. And eventually I got to a point where I was like, man, I can’t play these songs alone. There’s way too much going on. I need to put something together. But I put an emphasis on, I really want to create this band around friends. I don’t want to just go out and, like, find someone that can play. Personality was the most important thing. And we all jell really well together.
BLAST: Does that relate to your name, this sense of fostering camaraderie?
MF: Yeah, yeah. You know, our first couple gigs were for charities. We did a thing for Tom’s Shoes … and then we did a thing for Venice Beach Homeless Youth. And we were kind of just talking about, like, you know, we want to play music, sure. But we also want to help people. And my last name’s Foster. There’s that aspect of it. I think just the charity and everything that we set our sights on, it just made sense.
BLAST: Is charity still a focus for the band?
MF: Yeah. We’re just trying to figure out how to do it. You can be bleeding heart over so many different issues, but finding something that really means something to you that you kind of focus on … we’re still kind of figuring that out.
BLAST: How did you all connect and start playing music together?
MF: I met Mark (Pontius) just through a mutual friend of mine, and just really liked the way that he played. We were buddies and we just messed around. Every couple of weeks, we’d just jam. We were kind of working on this avant-electro two-man, like, weird performance art piece together. I always kind of had in the back of my mind, if I ever start a band again, I want to call this dude. (Cubbie and I) were just friends. We didn’t really play together, but we’d hang out. I didn’t even know he played bass and then (when I) saw him play, I was like, oh, that’s got a good feel. So I just kind of brought them together.
MF: The Beach Boys was the first band that I heard as a little kid that nobody showed me, that I gravitated towards and fell in love with. And that was a monumental moment in my musical life. Growing up, Nirvana played a big role. I started learning how to play guitar the week I heard Nirvana for the first time. And then later, New Order and The Clash. Aphex Twin early on was a pretty big influence (for Foster the People). And Motown. So just kind of pulling from a lot of different genres. That’s how I write songs.
Mark (Pontius) is just a really good pocket drummer. He understands dance music really well, but he also really understands soul and is just a very soulful drummer. And Cubbie’s background is pretty diverse too. When I met him, he was playing in, like, a country band. Pretty roots-y. But again, he’s just got a lot of soul. And he’s a multi-instrumentalist as well, so during our show he’s playing keys, and he plays bass. When we do acoustic sessions, he’ll bring his acoustic guitar and play guitar with me. It’s just nice to have a couple different tools in your toolkit.
BLAST: When did you actually know that you wanted to pursue music as a career, and were your parents supportive when you decided to move out to LA?
MF: Music was always very natural to me, and I always loved it and I always excelled in it. I sang for the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Choir when I was a kid, and that was a pretty big thing, and just a big indicator of like, oh wow, there’s something here. But I always had this preconceived notion that musicians were losers. As a little kid, I remember just thinking that. Every time I’d walk into a music shop, I’d see, like, some washed-up musician shredding on his guitar, all greasy. And it always freaked me out. As a little kid, that’s what I associated with pursuing music. So I never thought about it seriously. I wanted to be, like, an attorney or something.
And then I was like 17 years old and all my friends were applying for colleges. And I had a terrible GPA and didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was just kind of freaking out about it. I mean, I was looking at the military. I was so close to joining the Air Force. I was just looking at all my options. And I was like, man, what am I going to do?, in turmoil about it.
I had that conversation with my dad one morning. He was like, “Why don’t you move out to LA or New York and pursue music, just give it a shot? If it doesn’t work out … after a year you’ll know where you sit. You’ll know whether you’ll be able to make a career out of it. And if it’s not something that you want to do, you’ll still be young enough to do something else.” And the second he said that, it was literally like he opened my mind up to something that I’d never even considered or thought was possible. I was 18 when I moved out to LA (in 2002).
MF: I mean, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. That was the moment in my life where I realized that this is what I’m meant for. And it was so weird that it just took, like, one word to free that thought and put that into motion. Just that little bit of encouragement showed me, this is exactly what I’ve been created to do. Whereas before, it was completely hidden from me. It was just something that I enjoyed.
BLAST: So how did you spend the time between 2002 and forming Foster the People in 2009?
MF: Just growing up. (Laughs). It’s like, you leave your parents’ house and you realize, oh, food doesn’t just appear in the fridge. Your laundry. Just all the little things. I pretty much couch-surfed for the first two years. I was a vagabond in LA. I lived in so many places, just met so many people. Brought my acoustic guitar with me everywhere I went, and would go to parties and show up and start playing. Just meeting people and having crazy experiences and just kind of growing up. And then it got to a point where it was like, all right, I need to get serious about this if I’m ever going to make something of this. I can’t just fuck around and think that it’s just going to happen on its own. And so, I started to just really, really buckle down and started writing songs, and just really working at it. I eventually got a computer and a little studio set up and started teaching myself how to produce music. I started playing piano again after not playing since I was a little kid. I kind of re-taught myself how to play piano and started making more electronic music. And that was sort of the genus of where this started.
BLAST: How are you dealing with the sort of explosive fame after SXSW? Were you prepared for that at all?
MF: I don’t know. It’s kind of a blur. What’s so funny is that it’s like we’re in a glass bubble. You know what I mean? It’s like we’re in a glass bubble and it takes shape in the form of a 15-passenger van. And so, that’s our universe. Our universe is just, we’re always together and we’re driving around playing show after show, from city to city. It’s so busy. All that stuff is happening and yeah, it’s exciting. But I don’t think when you’re inside of something like this you really have any perspective on where you actually sit or what the perception of you is.
I just watched the Blur documentary (“No Distance Left to Run.”) It was a really, really good documentary. They were talking about when they were a band, starting out and starting to blow up, that they just had no idea. And I just related to that so much, because it’s like, you don’t have any idea of really what’s going on around you. We know that our shows are selling out, and we know that people are excited. But I think at the end of it, we kind of just have our sights set right in front of us. Like, how are we going to go out there and play a great show tonight? Just keeping it simple.
BLAST: Have you seen the dog skateboarding video set to your song “Helena Beat”?
MF: Yes! I love that. It’s so great. It’s become super viral. It’s just cool when people get inspired and do something. That’s the great thing about YouTube, or just about the age that we live in. Everybody has a video camera. Everybody has an idea. And everybody in their own right is a star, whether it’s a four-year-old kid that’s dancing in the kitchen or whatever. It’s like, anything can strike that human chord, and just become viral. That video’s awesome.
BLAST: You mentioned your solo material and your avant-garde project with Mark. Are there any traces of those projects in Foster the People songs?
MF: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I definitely developed a style. Even when I was doing my folk stuff on acoustic guitar, I learned the fundamentals of songwriting. And the way that I look at songwriting for this project now, it’s like, there are electronic influences, but at its bones, it’s very classic songwriting. I’m not, like, trying to reinvent the wheel with the songwriting. You could break it down to a piano and it’ll sound like a good song, just stripped down. It’s pretty classic songwriting that’s done in a way that’s more modern.
BLAST: The songwriting may be a common thread, but the range of influences that can be heard on the record is kind of astounding.
MF: That’s kind of what we set out to do. I’ve watched people try to pigeonhole us in this or that, and I think all of those labels are going to be shattered when the record comes out. I never want to be painted into a corner. I hate boundaries. I would hate to make everything sound the same. This record’s really versatile, and it gives us the perfect opportunity to do whatever we want on the second record. And I think people that are fans of something that’s different … they don’t wake up in the morning and have their same, like, turkey bagel for the last 15 years … those people are going to just be excited and want to follow us on the journey that we’re on.