Foster the People Enters a New Era

In an extensive interview with Mark Foster, the frontman discusses the changing music industry and the band’s latest single, The Things We Do.

Mark Foster

Hearing the name Foster the People may conjure up memories: sounds of early 2010s indie pop, and the song “Pumped Up Kicks”—a hit track that propelled the band into the spotlight and resulted in a major-label deal in 2011. But much has changed in the past nine years; and lead singer Mark Foster, guitarist Sean Cimino, drummer Mark Pontius, and pianist Isom Innis are now entering a new era, both as a band and as individuals.

In March, the band was going through major changes: they’d just parted ways with their longtime label, and were on track to release two songs independently, Lamb’s Wool, and The Things We Do, the latter of which comes out today. (The band is donating 100% of the proceeds from The Things We Do to four charities: 25% is going to Black Lives Matter International, 25% to The Bail Project, 25% to Rebuild Foundation, and 25% to The Underground Museum.)

Speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Foster, quarantined with his wife, the actress Julia Garner, talked through his personal shifts one by one. He’d seen the music industry transform; the purpose of the band was different, in his mind, than it was when they first burst onto the scene. And he’d done a lot of growing up. “The perspective shift inside of me has changed everything,” Foster said. “It’s amazing to see where the wind blows me when I’m not anchoring myself down, being stubborn.”

I’d like to hear the story about why you left your label. What spurred your decision to do so?

We had a four-record deal when we signed nine years ago. We didn’t technically put out a fourth LP, but the singles we’ve been releasing throughout the year counted in completing our deal. We didn’t really go through any of those horror stories of labels trying to force us to do a collaboration with somebody that was just a bad idea. They were always really supportive. It was just kind of time for us.

The music industry has changed so much, even from when we signed with Sony in 2011. The income streams have changed, the way that music’s consumed has changed. There’s a fluidity with streaming that’s really powerful: to be able to go direct to a fan, to cut out the middle man, to not worry about having hard sales, making CDs, and getting them on the shelves in stores. None of that stuff really matters anymore. For us and for any artists out there that might might be reading this, if you have a creative vision and you are able to make your own album art, make your own music videos, anything else that comes with it, merch or whatever, you can be a one-stop shop. What do you need a label for anymore, besides having a bank with some experienced bankers that can tell you what they think you should do next?

Our label is really good to us, so I’m not disparaging them. They let us operate in our vision. But the last few years, I fell into the trap of feeling comfortable, knowing that I had other people with experience that would come up with ideas for us. It’s easy to rest on your laurels and let somebody else, talented people, bring good ideas. It allows me to do other things. But I think after a while, I started to notice that the core of the identity of the band was starting to get diluted because we were letting other things in to influence it. I think the fear of stepping away from that safety net and knowing that we’re going to have to figure out what to do every bit of this ourselves is very exciting. On one hand we’ll have to work harder, but our vision is going to be more pure. And at the same time we’re going to retain all of our rights. Whatever music we put out moving forward, we’re going to own the master to, which is very important. And on our own, the mobility is really exciting for us. We can finish a song and put it out. And it takes about a week to get that song out, and living, and breathing, and into people’s hands. There’s something punk rock about approaching things DIY.

It’s interesting to me that you’re talking about going into this DIY territory now, after years with your label. I feel like most people come up the opposite way.

That’s what we did in the beginning. We were DIY. We put out Pumped Up Kicks independently, on a website that we built with the photos that we took of ourselves, with South by Southwest shows that we booked with a rented van that we drove out there. That song being the anomaly that it was, very quickly we got out of the DIY game and signed to a major game.

The last couple of weeks, the band’s been on Zoom calls, talking about the release and watching everybody creatively powwow and come together and making our own visualizers. Mark Pontius, our drummer, experimented with shooting techniques at his place in Nashville and did the special effects and his own treatments. And Sean Cimino, our guitar player, having this idea of how we can take new band photos, even though the four of us are spread around the country in different places. Isom Innis is doing FTP radio, which is a new idea of different playlists that we put out on YouTube and Spotify. We’re figuring out how to do a live version of Lamb’s Wool remotely. It’s the difference between being on a giant cruise ship or being in a dinghy. Right now, it feels like we’re in a little speed boat. That part feels fun. It’s just the four of us, and we get to decide.

It also sounds like 2019 in general was a pretty big year of change for you. You’re having these revelations about what you want to do with the band, and you got married to Julia Garner at the end of 2019.

Yeah, it was a beautiful year. The last two years have been incredible and life-changing. I’m constantly surprised by how life can quickly evolve—when I think that I’ve got it figured out, everything changes. But everything has changed in a really positive way. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. I lost my stepdad in the last two years, I lost my uncle a few months ago. I was very close to both of them. It hasn’t all been been rosy, but I think the perspective shift inside of me has changed everything. I think that’s something that I’ve been learning on a personal level is that I can only control the way I respond to the things around me. I’ve battled with that my whole life, since I was a kid. I always tried to control the external environment and would try to pull the strings and force things, and push and push and push. When I finally surrendered and let go, and started living life on life’s terms—it’s just amazing to see where the wind blows me when I’m not anchoring myself down, being stubborn.

I think that that’s something a lot of people struggle with, especially now, in the context of quarantine.

Yeah. The trend of where things were going, socially, economically, and politically, really scared me. I was really on edge. There’s so much division: you’ve got the protests in Hong Kong. You’ve got the nationalistic, giant divide between people in America. England, Brexit.

You’ve been always very politically and socially active. Are you still leaning into that, or are you pressing pause on checking the news?

I always read the news, but I have taken a step back from using my voice right now. I’m very careful with what I say, because I think a lot of other people are saying it now. Right now, for me personally, I don’t want to divide. I don’t want to use a sword with words that are giving people reasons to go further into their shells. There’s been so much noise that I’ve realized that nobody’s going to be convinced otherwise. This isn’t about reason anymore. People have made their decisions, and nobody can change my mind about how I’m voting or what I’m going to believe.

As the situation gets more complicated and continues to get more complicated socially and politically, it’s better to be quiet until you have a position. I want to just sit back and process it and waiting for direction of like, what’s the best way to help? How can I help people in the best possible way right now? And until I know that, I don’t want to do any harm by trying to act out an idea of something but not truly knowing the end goal. But, in the meantime, what I’m doing is trying to provide some escapism because we all need some levity and like some joy in our lives.

I wanted to ask you about Lamb’s Wool. To me, it’s tinged with loneliness and sadness, but at its core, it seems like a love song. Would you categorize it that way?

Yes. It’s a love song, but there are so many different forms of love. It was a hard song to write. Isom, who I wrote the song with, produced it. He wrote the piano part and the drum part, and played the demo for me, after his grandmother died, a few years ago. The feelings were kind of mourning the loss of his grandmother, channeled into the music of what the song feels like. So when he told me that story, it really touched me because you feel it in the instrumental, you could feel that mood. You could feel the love, you could feel the loss, you could feel the gratitude of the time that he had with her. We sat on it and we kind of messed around with it for a few years, going back and forth. And we do that all the time. Then my uncle got sick, who I was really close with. He lived with us for a number of years when I was in middle school and high school. We found out in the beginning of last year that he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. It was a huge shock to the family. I revisited the tune and I wrote that song with him as inspiration. It stayed in the concept of what Isom originally came up with four or five years ago, which was loss.

How does it compare to the process of making The Things We Do?

Totally different. The Things We Do is a song that is written more in character. The spirit of that song, I think there’s a sneakiness. The song’s a little bit more of a troublemaker, like a four-year-old walking around, coloring on the walls of the house.

So that’s the character that you were embodying when you thought of this song.

A little bit. That song’s about how everybody’s a weirdo when nobody’s looking. Lamb’s Wool was a very personal, deep subject that needed to be handled with very loving, gentle hands. Whereas Things We Do is like, let me put on like a Star Wars mask and sing the lyrics with a fog machine.

I hear a lot of the Tame Impala sound in Lamb’s Wool.

It’s funny, ‘cause after the song came out, I was on Twitter watching people reacting to it. Cause it’s so exciting for me, putting something out and getting to see the feedback. I saw that a number of times, people comparing it to Tame Impala, and that’s fine. The younger me might have tried to fight against that. Obviously an artist doesn’t want to be sound like anybody else, or be compared to a contemporary. It’s hard not to live in their shadow. But I can just be like, you know what, thanks, that’s cool. It’s human nature to compare things, so I don’t take offense to it. I’m like, well, at least they’re not comparing us to a shitty band.

The Things We Do Cover Art

I hear that you’re writing a horror film. Can you tell me more about it? Is this your first time writing a film?

I’ve always been a cinephile, since I was in high school, and since I’ve lived in LA. I’ve always been on the fringes looking in, like, I really want to do that one day. Last year, I decided to take the plunge and teach myself how to use Final Draft. I started looking into writing scripts and screenplays. I’ve been working on a horror film with a good friend of mine. And I’ll tell you, the first couple of months when I was writing, it was so dry. It was really hard. I would come up against the wall and I wouldn’t know what to do. I had to force myself to sit in that chair.

I get stuck all the time in songwriting. But if I get stuck on lyrics, I’ll pick up a guitar and add a melody. Or if I get stuck on a melody, I’ll go into the EQ and mess with the drum sounds and the mix. And sometimes when I’m doing that, it’ll inspire a new idea. With writing, you don’t have any of that. If you’re in a hole, you have to write your ass out of that hole. There is no other way around it. You have to sit there and push through it with words. And then one day, it changed. I found the patience and the stamina to sit in that chair for hours, just writing words and not having melodies to play with. That was a big moment for me.

Did your wife help you, or give you guidance?

Oh, yeah. And the funniest thing is, when I finish, if I write five or 10 new pages, I’m so excited to share whatever I just wrote. But because she has read hundreds of scripts for the last eight years for her job, she hates reading scripts. So there’s this funny dynamic where I walk into the kitchen or the living room or wherever she’s at. I’m like, “Baby, baby, I gotta show you this, read what I just wrote.” And she’s like, “Can I just, like, wait until it’s done?” But it’s been super helpful, she has a totally different perspective and she’s such a brilliant artist. When she reads something, she brings a perspective that I never would’ve considered, really. She truly is really talented with human psychology, and the way that people think and feel. She’s a savant when it comes to that. In terms of character development, she’ll say one thing to me that’ll completely flip my perspective on something and help guide the rest of the process. So yeah, it’s been really fun—when I can get her to sit on the couch with me and read.

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