Foxygen: The Golden Age of Madness
By Matt Fink
Jonathan Rado remembers it like it was yesterday. One night during the recording sessions for Foxygen’s sprawling 2014 sophomore release …And Star Power, his brain fried and his body exhausted, he sat down at the piano. He started to fumble around the keys with no particular intent and found a few chord progressions that sounded decidedly different from the material he was currently working on, like some cracked version of 1930s jazz and old-timey American pop music. The chords were grand and theatrical, classy in a way the sweaty, druggy experiments on …And Star Power were not. Almost immediately, he had sketched out the basic skeleton of “Follow the Leader,” the track that would assume the first spot on the band’s next album, Hang. But he wasn’t done. The melodies kept tumbling out, one after another. Before he left for the night he had the first half of the album. “It’s like Rado got impregnated by something, like another spirit,” says Foxygen frontman Sam France. “Mozart just came in on him and made this thing.”
Rado and France would have to wait two years before they came back to those tracks, but they were never far from their minds. To hear them tell it, since the days when they were high school kids plotting out their future careers as rock stars, they had known that their third album would be their orchestral release. Once they wrote the remaining half of the album, they contacted Matthew E. White at Spacebomb Studios and set up sessions to work with him and producer/arranger Trey Pollard. Soon, New York retro-rockers The Lemon Twigs were brought in to be the duo’s rhythm section, and a 35-piece orchestra was assembled. Rado and France had never attempted something quite so ambitious, musically or conceptually.
“The vision is a man, like a crooner, sitting in front of an orchestra, smoking a cigarette, singing on a BBC special,” Rado says of the album’s inspiration. “Rather than a specific album or something like that, it was trying to recreate that more filmic imagery. We were thinking of it a lot more like a film and what the soundtrack to that film would be. That’s where a lot of the big band Dixieland, Tin Pan Alley-style stuff comes from, the really jaunty jazz shit. That was like a little soundtrack to a ’40s film or something.”
If Hang is designed like a film, France is the leading man, and he provides no shortage of scene-stealing performances as a vocalist. As a lyricist, he says he took inspiration from Christian Bale’s character in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a film about a restless screenwriter who is struggling to find some meaning in his life. The end result is an album that feels like a nightmare version of a Las Vegas dinner theater show, with beautifully arranged songs that reveal their ugly edges with each listen. Even the album’s title revels in the ambiguity of it all.
“I think it’s like somebody’s testicles hanging down,” France says, causing Rado to mutter “Oh, God…” under his breath. “I think the point is that it means nothing,” he continues. “It’s just this evocative image that we had in our heads. I’m honestly going to say that it came from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. We just liked this weird, anonymous word that you could put your own spin on. So ‘hang’ has negative vibes. It has positive vibes…” he says trailing off, before Rado breaks the silence.
“I always thought of it more as a noose,” he replies.