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Foster the People interview: Time to kick on from torch songs

The LA band finally have a new album after touring for two years

You would suspect that after travelling the world in support of your debut album that saw you play 300 shows in 20 months, you’d be pretty up for some downtime on the sofa. Perhaps catch up with family and friends. Not so for Mark Foster, lead singer of Los Angeles-based indie pop band Foster the People. When touring for the Grammy-nominated Torches came to an end in 2012, the singer instead decided to take off for Africa, India and eastern Europe.

“I didn’t want to go home so I kept on travelling alone,” recalls Foster, munching on a cookie in a swanky west London hotel suite. “I was searching for something I think. There was an internal desire to find something.”

You can hear the results of his wanderlust from the moment you press play on Foster the People’s new record, Supermodel. The first track “Are You What You Want to Be?” might include the uplifting chorus that fans of the band are familiar with, but it is also punctuated with African-inflected rhythms (Foster also spent some time writing with producer Paul Epworth in Morocco).

“I love exploring music,” says the 30-year-old frontman. “When I’m writing songs my favourite thing to do is to try and rabbit-trail and go places I’ve never gone to before. Just like exploring a new terrain or a new country or something.”

There certainly is a lot of searching on the album. “Ask Yourself” posits the question, “Is this the life you’ve been waiting for?” And it would seem it’s a query that has very much been playing on the frontman’s mind. “When we stopped touring and I stopped charging forward, I was able to process everything. I was able to feel things. I just had a lot of questions… I was not at ease with myself, even though, in a sense, I was where I’d wanted to be after so many years of trying.” And Foster certainly had to wait for his success.

An only child, he moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 17 at his father’s suggestion. Foster then spent the best part of a decade trying to make it as a musician. Opportunities came tantalisingly close, but never quite worked out. There were dark years of excessive partying and dead-end jobs delivering pizzas. Then in 2009 he secured a position writing jingles at a company called Mophonics.

“The jingles saved my life,” nods Foster. “When I got hired to do that I was on top. I finally was making a living doing what I loved. Before that it was so bleak; it got so dark in LA. I was 25, been living there for seven years trying to make it, and getting really close to getting signed with different bands and as a solo artist only to have my hopes dashed. “

It was then that he started Foster the People, recruiting drummer Mark Pontius and bassist Cubbie Fink to join the band. And it was in Mophonics’ studio that Foster wrote “Pumped Up Kicks”, the smash-hit single that would go on to soundtrack hundreds of moments: everything from first kisses on teen TV to sofa ads. It was the sound of summer 2011, a seemingly blissed-out sunny track that was never off the radio. There were times when it looked like the song would eclipse anything else the band tried to do.

“That song went viral pretty quickly,” he recalls. “From the moment I signed to be a full-time composer at Mophonics to the moment the band got signed was nine months. It was just ‘bam bam’.”

But the jangly indie pop belied “Pumped Up Kicks”’ dark narrative: about a schoolboy fantasising about gunning down his classmates (“You’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet”).

And it wasn’t long before the song was being cited as irresponsible in the light of various US school shootings.

“It was hard for me when young kids would sing it,” he now says. “Because they wouldn’t have the discernment to know what the song was really about and how to navigate it. But I also saw the larger conversation that the song was creating which I thought was really healthy.”

Despite receiving Grammy and Brit nominations, and enjoying a burgeoning fanbase, the band are still yet to win over a number of critics, some of who have accused them of being faux-edgy. Foster had to expel all thoughts of who was going to hear Supermodel when writing it.

“The biggest head trip was knowing that people were going to hear it, which opens up doors for all kinds of fears to come out,” he laughs. “What are they going to think? What did they like about the first record? What did they not like? How can I make a record that’s going to turn critics into fans? How can I win over the haters?

“One of my biggest jobs on this record, one of the hardest battles, was to throw all those voices out of the room. Once they were gone, the songs flew out.” Being a naturally friendly guy, Foster, who lives alone in LA, says he finds it curious that the record industry tends to treat affable musicians with suspicion.

“Culturally it’s really funny to me that people respect the weird guy as an artist,” he observes. “There can be a curmudgeon in the corner with spiders building nests in his hair and he hasn’t bathed for three weeks but for whatever reason he’s more creative than the guy sitting next to him that’s showered and is talking to everybody. I think it’s bullshit… I’m not going to try to be someone I’m not in order to try to be taken more seriously. I’m beginning to think that there’s nothing more courageous, and nothing harder, than actually just being yourself: the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Although the band will be touring Supermodel and are due to play numerous festival slots this summer, Foster is not planning to spend as long on the road for this album. “We won’t do that again,” he says. “I don’t want a lot of time to go by between the second and third record. I want to start putting out a new one every year and a half. It’s not going to be like it was with Torches. But it was important at the time for us to do that. We had to show people that we were a band, you know? And not just a song.”

‘Supermodel’ is released on 24 March