The time slot was an unforgiving one and the venue even worse. When Foster the People ambled onstage at noon on the final full day of the nearly weeklong South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, in March, it was exhaustion rather than excitement that filled the convention center hall. The scant and weary crowd was hardly befitting for a band that would soon have a top 10 album in “Torches” and become the hottest thing going in Los Angeles.
“To a spectator who knew nothing about the back story, we are a band that came out of nowhere,” said the trio’s leader, Mark Foster. Indeed, Neil Schield, owner of Echo Park’s Origami Vinyl, said Foster the People “kinda bypassed” the local scene. It’s a point that’s hard to argue when the band’s slinky, digitally enhanced single “Pumped Up Kicks” is infiltrating Top 40 radio less than a month after the album’s release.
Also, Foster the People isn’t exactly an act that comes out with guns ablazing. The band has a genre-hopping musical finesse, characterized by Isaac Green, who signed it to his Sony-affiliated StarTime International, as “endearing.”
The charm worked on those in Austin who saw the band in the cavernous, nearly empty convention center ballroom. Foster the People’s mix of Euro-chic electronics, snappy choruses and soulful beats soon had attendees dancing in the aisle. It was upbeat, multicultural left-of-center pop, and it served as aural caffeine, with the crowd responding to each of Foster’s slide steps and hand claps.
“My favorite band of the last 15 years is Blur,” said Foster, referring to Damon Albarn’s pre-Gorillaz Britpop outfit. “I see us as a less rock, more electronic version of Blur.”
Word of mouth and a merry melody have helped propel the band’s “Torches” to No. 8 on the U.S. pop chart. However, as with most music industry soap operas, this tale comes complete with missed opportunities and court papers. For Foster, it’s the rare second chance in a town where few get one, and perhaps that’s why he speaks with a confidence just short of cockiness. Not many, after all, would have the gall to walk away from the chance to work with Dr. Dre’s label, Aftermath Entertainment.
“I would have been miserable,” Foster said in the back of a tour bus en route to Irvine from Santa Barbara. The 27-year-old Foster sat for much of the interview as if he were on offense, gripping a reporter’s recorder as he answered questions and firmly planting his elbows on his knees. “Music is the great equalizer. I don’t care if it’s Dr. Dre or Dr. Luke or Brian Eno. When you’re in a studio and making music together, it becomes pretty apparent if you see eye to eye.
“It’s like showing up at a city basketball court with chain nets,” added Foster, whose sleek frame is scruffed up with a little rock ‘n’ roll stubble. “All of a sudden, a pro basketball player steps on the court, but if he gets dunked on, he gets dunked on. Nobody gets treated any differently. It’s about the game.”
Tip-off for Foster was in Cleveland. The most likely post-high school option was the Air Force. Foster said he “aced” his vocational aptitude test, but with the nation on the brink of invading Iraq, he hesitated. His father, a veteran salesman, suggested Foster move West and give his music ambitions the ol’ college try, so Foster left to live with his uncle in Sylmar. “I worked odd jobs delivering pizza, folding chairs, telemarketing, selling kitchen cutlery door to door,” he said.
At night, Foster attempted to cozy up with young Hollywood; before too long, he found himself at parties with B-level celebrities and the daughters of rock legends. “I felt like an 18-year-old Hunter S. Thompson,” he said. “I was just diving into this Hollywood Hills subculture and taking it all in. I wasn’t shy about taking my guitar out at a party. I wanted to be the center of attention.”
Networking came naturally to Foster but being in a band didn’t. Attempts at getting a project off the ground started and stalled numerous times, but when Foster turned 22 he scored what appeared to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Back then, Foster was writing heavily on the piano, and he said he received a call from the A&R team at Aftermath. In Foster’s telling, the label envisioned him as “a white crossover soul artist.”
Before this goes further, it must be noted that attempts to confirm Foster’s account with representatives of Dr. Dre and his label hit a dead end. Dr. Dre’s personal publicist, Lori Earl, said she was “unable to verify” with anyone that Foster showcased for the label, and she requested that it be left out of the story.
Whatever Foster’s interactions may or may not have been, the singer said they were short-lived. “I kept digging in my heels the whole time,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a soul singer. It would have been a dream to work for Aftermath, but I wanted to make what I was making, which was glitched-out electronic music. So I didn’t follow up on things.”
What followed instead was a job at the Alcove Café in Los Feliz, a room in a $450-per-month hotel in Hollywood and a year or two of writer’s block. A job at Mophonics in Venice scoring commercials ultimately kept Foster in L.A.; it also gave him the confidence to start performing again.
“I did a residency at Molly Malone’s with my electronic stuff,” he recalled. “It was just me and a laptop. Really, it was terrible. I knew I needed a band.”
Enter Foster’s burgeoning friendship with Mark Pontius. The latter had long been working with locals Malbec, a band that merges scratchy hip-hop beats with orchestral indie pop. He jettisoned Malbec to take a chance on starting a band with Foster in 2009.
“I remember when we first started playing, we sat in a room and Mark played me 30 songs,” Pontius said. “Some were on the guitar, and some were on the computer. But it was this really awesome singer-songwriter thing with a tricked-out beat, and I felt we could go wherever we wanted with this.”
Indeed, “Torches” is not short on versatility. The hard-luck tail of “Life on the Nickel” sounds as if it were recorded in a futuristic pinball machine, while “Helena Beat” takes a more rock-driven approach and accessorizes it with Parisian pop accents and a techno-meets-South Africa breakdown. The band also has a weirder, MGMT-influenced side, as “Miss You” could be a modern R&B cut before its electronics get all schizophrenic.
The next piece was adding guitarist Cubbie Fink, a longtime friend of Foster’s who until about two years ago was working with budding pop songwriter BC Jean. Said Foster of his bandmates, “They’re not pretentious, they’re not alcoholics, they’re not crazy, they’re not egomaniacs, and that’s hard to find.”
The three weren’t working together long before Foster brought home “Pumped Up Kicks,” a song that appears on the album as it does in its demo format, with Foster playing all the instruments. It’s all toy-like effects and handclaps, but underneath it seethes, with the lonesome narrator warning that the hip-outfitted targets of the song’s title better “outrun” his gun.
“You look at a rock, and it’s this beautiful rock,” Foster said. “But if you flip it over, there’s a bunch of cockroaches that run into the ground. That’s what life is like. That’s what my songwriting is like.”
Just how exactly “Pumped Up Kicks” went viral — the single has sold more than 360,000 downloads — is a matter of contention, one that will be decided among lawyers. In May, Brandon Dorsky, who runs the website Supergoodmusic.com and describes himself as “an attorney, filmmaker and talent buyer,” filed a breach of contract suit against Foster the People and its management, Monotone Inc.
Foster and Dorsky had become friends, and Dorsky, in court papers, takes credit for the name of the band as well as licensing “Pumped Up Kicks” to a Nylon Magazine online video. Foster said that the band was not paid for the placement, but that after blogs started writing about the song, he gave it away for free on the band’s website.
Dorsky’s lawsuit contends that he was promoting the band through social-networking sites and lining up gigs for Foster the People at venues such as the Viper Room, essentially acting as the group’s manager. No contract was ever signed, but Dorsky’s attorney, Nathaniel G. Kelly, said there was an oral agreement backed up by email exchanges. Monotone’s lawyer, Bert H. Deixler, has dismissed the suit as “meritless.”
Foster addressed it like a wizened industry veteran. “When you’re on the road to success, you can try to be the best person you can be and treat everyone the right way, but there will always be casualties. That’s the sad truth.”
StarTime International’s Green has known Foster only since early 2010 but is struck by his commitment to remain positive. “There’s a certain sense of joy to what Mark does,” Green said. “I love joyful music. If you look at everything I work with, it’s not very dark. There are dark themes, of course, but I think Mark’s music is very life-affirming. It was also sort of fearless. He wasn’t concerned about what other people thought.”
And one should be careful to keep things in perspective, Green cautions. He’s worked with hip acts before — Peter Bjorn & John and Passion Pit, among them — and notes that buzz fades as quickly as it arrives. To avoid a burnout, the label didn’t rush the band to record “Torches” when “Pumped Up Kicks” first started getting notice last year. “You can’t control everything, but you can be meticulous about the music,” Green said.
The band has embarked on a largely sold-out club tour of the U.S., with sold-out dates July 7-8 at the El Rey Theatre, and then will head overseas before returning to America with a slot at Chicago’s three-day Lollapalooza festival in August. And after that, the band already has Oct. 15 booked for the Wiltern.
Such a schedule will keep Foster out of the studio for the foreseeable future, but the singer notes that he has a “deep library” of material he’s eager to record.
“I want to make music for everyone,” he said. “I’m not trying to start a super exclusive group. I don’t want a clique of people where you have to wear a certain type of clothes to come to our shows, or you have to be the ages of this and this. If there are 5-year-olds standing next to 90-year-olds, and they’re both having fun, I love that. A lot of my melodies tend to be hopeful. I think there’s a melancholy there too, but always a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.”