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On Its Latest Album, Foxygen Keeps A California State Of Mind

Feb 26, 2017

Jonathan Rado and Sam France were in eighth grade when they first met and began making music together. Their tastes were simple at first — straight-ahead rock songs banged out on drums and guitars in a garage. But a dramatic shift happened when they decided to take a less linear approach to recording their work.

"I got really into buying cheap, cheap instruments on eBay — lots of xylophones and melodicas and kind of useless junk — and that was kind of everywhere," Rado says. "We'd just kind of play for like 30 minutes, and then chop the best bits down to a three-minute song."

"We would just get some idea and be like, 'What if we did that?' And it sounds insane at the time," France adds. "We don't always hit the exact vision that we have. Whatever we get is what ends up being Foxygen."

Foxygen, as the two are now known, released its psychedelic breakthrough album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, in 2013 — and had a hit with the song "San Francisco." On their latest project, they're still focused on California — but this time, on its dark side.

Rado and France spoke with weekends on All Things Considered about how the new album Hang, was inspired by a book about Hollywood scandals and murders. Hear the full conversation at the audio link.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for some music. We're going to hear about a band that's bringing classic rock into the modern era. This is Foxygen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLLOW THE LEADER")

FOXYGEN: (Singing) Hey, baby, you know it's true. I'm in love with you, Baby, but you never...

JONATHAN RADO: This is Jonathan Rado from Foxygen, multi-instrumentalist.

SAM FRANCE: My name's Sam France, and I'm the singer in Foxygen.

MARTIN: The duo met when they were just 15 years old. They were in the suburb of Westlake Village, Calif. That's just outside Los Angeles.

FRANCE: We were in eighth grade, and we were both in this band together, just like a silly little rock 'n' roll jamming in the garage. I don't know. I started doing more experimental stuff with the recordings and overdubbing a lot, and Rado liked it a lot. And he started showing me his recordings, so that, in turn, became Foxygen.

MARTIN: A little over a decade later, overdubbing has become a key component in Foxygen's music. It involves mixing and layering different sounds on top of each other. It was just one of the ways Foxygen has experimented with their music.

RADO: I got really into buying like cheap, cheap, cheap instruments on eBay, like lots of xylophones and melodicas and kind of useless junk. And we would start a song by just - Sam would play drums, and I would play guitar. And we'd just kind of play for, like, 30 minutes and then chop the best bits down to a three-minute song.

FRANCE: Right. This is Sam, by the way. Our ideas have always been so lofty, and we'll just get some idea and be, like, what if we did that? And it sounds insane at the time. We don't always hit the exact vision that we have. And, you know, whatever we get is what ends up being Foxygen.

MARTIN: The two-piece band has released an eclectic blend of indie and 1960s psychedelic rock for their last four albums, taking cues from bands like The Doors and Pink Floyd. Their biggest hit came in 2013 with their song "San Francisco."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAN FRANCISCO")

FOXYGEN: (Singing) Up in San Francisco where the forest meets the bridge...

MARTIN: In their latest project "Hang," Foxygen bands together with a 40-piece symphony orchestra to create a conceptual album based on the sounds of jazz and old Hollywood film scores. And they focus once again on California, but this time, its dark side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

FOXYGEN: (Singing) Merry Christmas from the pines.

RADO: I think when we were making the record, we kind of got interested in almost like the darker kind of tabloidy (ph) side of Hollywood, like, the, you know, the broken dreams aspect. We had the book "Hollywood Babylon" by Kenneth Anger. And it's a lot of, you know, possibly true, possibly untrue stories about famous Hollywood actors - scandals and deaths. We had that in the studio, and we'd just sort of go to that for inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXYGEN SONG "AMERICA")

RADO: We didn't show the orchestra the book, like, we didn't talk about it, but we would leave pages. We would leave it open in the corner of the room where everyone could kind of see it. It was far enough away from the orchestra where, like, maybe it was a little bit blurry, but I think it brought the Hollywood energy.

FRANCE: As much as we would like romanticize the idea of L.A., and, you know, like, the "La La Land" version of it, you know, I think we're just obsessed with the underbelly of it, too, for whatever reason. I don't know why. People have a fascination with, you know, Hollywood and thus, of course, with the grittier side of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

FOXYGEN: (Singing) Our heroes aren't brave, they just got nothing to lose because they're all living in America, whoa, in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXYGEN SONG, "AVALON")

RADO: There's an old Billie Holiday song that I learned to play on piano. I just kind of taught myself these chords. And then I started playing it in kind of a ragtime style, and then it sort of like spun into that little main "Avalon," you know (scatting).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVALON")

FOXYGEN: (Singer) In the gardens of Avalon...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Avalon, Avalon, Baby...

FOXYGEN: (Singing) It's in the garden of Avalon.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Avalon.

RADO: I think it was just trying to make something that was like ragtime music or old '30s jazz or something. It's kind of so complex and also goes by really quickly, like there's a small verse and then a chorus. And then that middle section, which we always just envisioned with, like, a tap dancing solo, just this crazy, like, zoom-out to a grand ballroom and sucks back into the chorus. And then it rides out.

FRANCE: Right. This is Sam, by the way. And there is an actual tap dance solo on that song. There is - we miked tap dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXYGEN SONG, "AVALON")

FRANCE: It's just another one of ours trying to channel this weird, flamboyant musical theater world that we were channeling. I don't even know. As long as we see, like, young people rocking out to, like, '30s jazz, it's pretty cool. So we're just going to keep doing it as long as people want to hear it.

RADO: This is Rado. It's crazy to think that we were making music 10 years ago on broken xylophones and melodicas and stuff. And now we're making records with orchestras. But it's also not that insane. It's still just experimenting in the studio, experimenting with sounds, trying to push the medium of recorded music in a certain direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVALON")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Avalon, Baby.

FOXYGEN: (Singing) In Avalon.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Avalon, Avalon, Baby.

MARTIN: That was Jonathan Rado and Sam France of the band Foxygen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVALON")

FOXYGEN: (Singing) Oh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.