Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Method and Madness behind Foxygen

Jonathan Rado (left) and Sam France (right)
The band Foxygen consists of Sam France and Jonathan Rado as a powerhouse of creative talent and unrelenting spirit. Many have joined and left the roster over the years, but France and Rado survive as a team. According to interviews, the two have been playing together since nursery school, and recorded a thousand albums before graduating high school, but the human record of the band begins in "2004 or 2005, we aren't really sure". Rado says that the two left a band called the Fionas together after Sam's experimental vocal stylings didn't go well with the band, but caught Rado's attention. " He did the vocals and all these crazy sounds. I listened to it and thought it was genius. " Rado said in an interview with Andrew Lawrence. A few EPs exist in various places around the wep, such as "Electric Sun Machine," which was recorded the week of Foxygen's formation, but the first album with an official release from the band (although the release occurred online years after the recording, only after the band gained traction) is titled "The Jurrassic Exxplosion Phillipic," and it is here that I start my examination of Sam France as a creative.

Young Rado (left) and France (right), the only image
associated with "The Jurrassic Exxplosion Phillipic"
"The Jurrassic Exxplosion Phillipic" is a 36 track monster of an album described by Rado as a "space opera." Recorded when the two were only 15 years old, this album is as close as we get to a fossil for theorizing exactly where the sound of Foxygen came from. The album utilizes early forms of plenty of the techniques and stylings that would come to define Foxygen, from incoherant babbling to the inexplicable sampling of droning voices. The tempos shift unexpectedly, the songs run together, all things that make Foxygen who they are, but the album lacks a certain madness. The album's skeleton could easily be the same as that which makes up their "debut" 2012 release "Take the Kids Off Broadway," but where that album shows feathers and fur, "Phillipic" is bare. So what makes "Take the Kids Off Broadway" any better? I argue that is it the madness within Sam France taking the drivers seat in his career. Where "Phillipic" sounds like two 15 year old Beck fans who got into the medicine cabinet, their later career feels like the soundtrack to a descent into madness.

Album art for "Take the Kids Off Broadway"

"Take the Kids Off Broadway"... what an album. Like a war-flashback to a Kinks concert. A horror flick starring The Zombies. An oil spill of 60's influence caught alight by a flicked cigarette. In this album, the systematic Rado barely controls France as he bobs back and forth between madness and genius. The album flows from start to finish pretty seamlessly, with a uniform sound and attitude. At this point in the career, it is hard to tell who is doing what, but it is easy to tell in retrospect where the sanity lied.

Full disclosure: due in part to a near-breakup of Foxygen in 2013, we get to see how Rado and France operate as independent musicians. Rado's "Law and Order" is aptly named, sounding frighteningly similar to Paul McCartney and Wings, offering a frozen form of the Foxygen sound: blockier and stabler, with little to no surprised. France's solo work was worked into their 2014 release "...and Star Power," and shows how much he relies on Rado to get things done. With wonky out of key parts, and repetitive and mildly interesting and best keyboard lines as the main driving force behind France's voice, France completely abandons recognizable song form and structure. For those who appreciate the method and madness of the two, the works are great windows into the chemistry of Foxygen, but I fear they may leave much to be desired from a casual listener.
Album art for "We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace an Magic"

In 2013, Foxygen released an album written clearly within the tight grip of Rado, as he reigned France in to appeal to a more entry-level audience for psychedelic rock (if that is what it is to be called). The album is called "We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic." Here we see the possible potential for the two, as they appear in music videos to be mildly quirky, fun loving 20-somethings. This is when things start to dissolve.

In the tour following the albums, many complaints surfaced. France was climbing stage equipment. France was getting in shouting matches with hecklers, losing emotional control. France was storming off the stage mid-set, never to return. In late July, during a show in Minneapolis, France broke his leg after falling off the stage during the first song of the set, and the show

Album art for "...and Star Power"
Foxygen (after a turbulent period during which the near-breakup occurred) returned in 2014 with an album entitled "...and Star Power". This hour-and-a-half long album is dominated by France's screams, falsettos, monologues, and general chaos. France appears in music videos and on tour wearing makeup, looking strung out, with bleached and colored hair. He stumbles around stage like a marionette doll with a drunken puppet master, singing only when he wants to. The album has been criticized as a step backward for Foxygen when really it is simply France stepping in front of Rado. Noise and dismay rule the sound of the album...listen closely, though, and you just might hear genius. This album flows stylistically well from "Take the Kids Off Broadway," because it is a France-dominated record with Rado just barely holding things together at the seams.

France, in his songs and his attitude, makes direct allusions to Mick Jagger, Black Sabbath, and the general trope of the mad-lead-singer attitude. Is France able to create the works that he does through a deeper understanding through madness, as hypothesized by Andreason, or is he simpy putting on an act? Some say the entire near-breakup of the band was only an act, part of the large-scale performance piece that is Foxygen. Is Sam France slowly slipping into madness, letting us experience it through his music, or is he creating a plot for us to follow? Perhaps only time will tell.

Sam France, 2012
Sam France, 2014

Foxygen Video Interview with KEXP
Interview Magazine with Foxygen
Portland Mercury on Young Foxygen
Leg-Breaking story
N. Andreasen (2010) A Journey into Chaos: Creativity and the Unconscious


  1. I must confess that when I first heard Foxygen's sound on "We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic" I did not like it. However, the more I listened to this album, the more I could see the genius in it. For me, it is not only the genius of the music that sticks out, but also the genius of the lyrics. The stories that they paint on this album are so vivid that they take you on a musical journey. My favorite song on the album is "In the Darkness" because of the journey that it takes you on with the lyrics as well as the music. Lyrics such as "So maybe late at night there's an elegant land" take you immediately to the picture that they are painting of "the darkness." I think their true creative genius lies in the poetic lyrics. I mean, who thinks of writing "I'm talking to my grandma who lost her arms in the war
    The aliens and armory that bombed her cigar store." Lyrics such as these call to mind Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five and the creative genius that plays out in his story. Although I admit that I have only listened to this album in depth, I absolutely adore it. The music industry has a lot of music produced on a large scale by outside writers and I think that bands such as Foxygen deserve more credit due to the way they mix lyrics and music.

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