Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and Sam France like the “fishy” smell of Manhattan’s Chinatown. They once lived in Astoria, Queens. They have a song called “Brooklyn Police Station,” and lyrics in another tune that proclaim,“There’s no need to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore.” And at present, the duo are perched on stools in the kitchen of a light-filled Airbnb in rapidly gentrifying Bushwick.
But make no mistake: The shaggy California natives have decidedly West Coast musical (and lyrical) sensibilities, as the eight buoyant cuts on Hang, Foxygen’s new album and their fourth for Jagjaguwar Records, make clear. Opener “Follow the Leader” is a quietly joyful ‘70s-am radio-influenced infectious confection, perfect convertible-driving music… which Foxygen actually do in the video “On Lankershim.” Taking its title from an unremarkable boulevard that bisects L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, the clip is a travelogue around the city, while the jazzy, bouncy, even Abba-esque“Avalon” might be better be titled “Babylon,” given its lyrics, the duo’s interest in the 1959 sordid history book Hollywood Babylon, and L.A.’s own notoriety as a Babylonian-style fallen kingdom.
Keyboardist Rado, 26, and frontman France, 27, have a deep fascination for decadent history, L.A. style. But it doesn’t manifest in a dark Manson (Marilyn or Charles) gruesomeness. Hang actually shares more than a little of the Technicolor cinematic grandiosity and sense of place redolent of the current hit musical La La Land. Hang’s eight-song cycle is dramatic, lofty and often charming, managing to be referential and reverential (musically and lyrically), and (mostly) non-schmaltzy. Much, perhaps, like Rado (Ray-dough) and France themselves. The high school friends’ teenage turn in ComedySportz improv at Agoura High in LA.’s eastern Conejo Valley set the stage for a musical collaboration, that, over 11 years, has seen the pair create layered, flamboyant, psychedelic pop that’s often transcendent, sometimes indulgent, but always deliberately and meticulously crafted.
Indeed, the duo’s work exudes a studied insouciance that led one YouTube fan to accurately observe of the “On Lankershim” video, “The effort gone into this to make it look like no effort was put into this is what Foxygen is all about?.”
Hang is big-screen indie pop-rock, with its shades of Bowie, Beck, Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson—an aural La La Land for discerning, left-of-center ears. Like guests on the album—neo-glam brothers The Lemon Twigs and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips, Foxygen are often delightfully outre. “I think we exist in a completely different universe than most people,” says frontman France, who, at once goofy and slightly snarky, comes off like a West Coast version of Bryan Ferry in his tie-less black suit and shoulder-length dirty-blond hair.
Hang, recorded and mixed entirely on 2″ tape (i.e., edits done with razor blades), was tracked at the L.A.’s storied Electro-Vox studios, operating since 1936 directly across the street from Paramount Studios. “They did a lot of radio plays there, and demos of songs for movies, like they cut ‘Moon River’ there,” says Rado, the tech-geekier member. “A lot of the things in there were used, as cliché as this is, on Pet Sounds. The floor tiles were from Gold Star, Phil Spector’s studio, and a lot of stuff was from Capitol.” There’s a 40-plus-piece symphony orchestra on every track, who were recorded in another, larger studio. So to achieve the sonic vibe they were after, France and Rado offered the musicians semi-subliminal inspiration.
“We had Hollywood Babylon, the Kenneth Anger book, in the studio, and we’d get disturbing images of Marilyn Monroe dead and prop up the book for the orchestra players,” explains France.
“It’s not like we told them, ‘Oh, by the way, this is a picture of a dead Marilyn Monroe,” Rado says. “We’d just put it in the corner and maybe they’d see it and be, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ To have Jayne Mansfield’s arm hanging out of a car in the corner, it just brought a little bit of that dark Hollywood energy for the studio players.”
Foxygen’s sense of noir stems from both personal research—they stayed at the legendary Chateau Marmont and Beverly Hills Hotels in making 2014’s ...And Star Power—and cultural media touchstones. As millennials, the duo couldn’t possibly have every old-school reference down pat, but if they don’t know Day of the Locust, they do know Sunset Boulevard.
Their own ultra-cinematic song “America,” with its hints of Busby Berkeley pomp and circumstance, is emblematic of the duo’s aural goals: “We wanted the intro to be like the Bernard Hermann theme from Psycho. We wanted Disney, and a little Big Band Jazz, like Star Wars cantina music at the end. We wanted it to be pretty all over the place.”
“I think it’s a fully realized record,” says France. “We’re pretty good at achieving the sounds that we hear in our heads. It’s pretty easy for us.”
“When we go into albums, we know exactly how it’s gonna turn out in the end before we press ‘record.’ We know the track list, we know what the songs are called, the parts, how everything is going to go. It’s just executing it. Maybe we’ll add a ‘the’ in a title,” says Rado says.
Which begs the question, is Hang Foxygen’s magnum opus?
Slight pause. “What’s that again?”
Like, a crowning achievement.
“In the eyes of many people I think it will be like that. I hope so,” says France. “For us, it’s just another concept. Maybe for other people, it looks like some sort of climax of our talents and skills, everything coalescing.”
Foxygen may have come a long way since Jurassic Exxplosion Phillipic, a “30-track space opera” made when Rado and France were 15, but the friends’ prolific creativity is undiminished, and 2017 touring finds them keeping good company on the road with Dinosaur Jr and Bon Iver. As for the difficulty of an exceptionally creative duo on tour and in the studio? In the last few years, there were Internet rumblings that France dismissed as “people writing things about us for their own motives,” and certainly no Oasis-style fisticuffs.
As Rado notes, “We really don’t have too many disagreements that are actually meaningful at all,” as his compatriot concurs:
“They’re all productive. And constructive.”