In 2011, as Foster the People was riding what at the time felt like a never-ending wave of momentum behind its breakout single, “Pumped Up Kicks,” the band’s frontman, singer-songwriter Mark Foster, was already preparing for his group’s potential demise. “We had to show the world we were more than a song,” he tells Playboy, looking back. To Foster, it mattered little that the band’s debut album, Torches, had sold upwards of two million copies and spawned other charting singles, including “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)” and “Helena Beat.” He can admit now, “For any other indie band, that would be a huge success. But because ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ became such a monster, it dwarfed the success of the rest of the album.”
“There was something very honest about it,” Foster recalls of penning the synth-pop jam, which “was written very quickly, very non-judgmentally and not necessarily with our critical hats on. We kind of just got in the studio, and the first idea that came out was what ended up being recorded. Which is a rare thing. But,” he adds, “those are often my favorite songs because they just come from an honest place. It’s almost like channeling something, rather than trying to put my dirty little mitts all over it and fucking it up.”
“I make art for myself, but I really make art to connect with other people. And that’s never changed,” Foster says. “To me, with every record and every song, I’m trying to connect, and music happens to be my medium. And if it wasn’t music, it’d be something else. But I want to connect with people. In that sense, I want everything to be commercially successful because that means it’s connecting. But if you start from an honest place of just wanting your music to connect to people, then there’s going to be honesty in what comes out.”
It weeded out some people who were fair-weather radio fans.
Supermodel also “took away the pressure” that came with “Pumped Up Kicks,” he explains. “It was a record that was important for me to show the world that we were artists, and we weren’t a fucking boy band, and we weren’t pop stars.” With the band’s meteoric rise following its debut album, and specifically its success at pop radio, “I felt the perception of who we were dangerously drifting into [the pop] category,” Foster adds.
He pauses before adding, “I don’t want to throw Maroon 5 under the bus ‘cause I’m friends with some of those guys, and they’re super talented. But you look at that band, and the perception of what happened is that they became a pop act.” Foster didn’t want a similar trajectory for himself. He doesn’t crave critical recognition, but then again, “Maroon 5’s never gonna play at Coachella,” he says.
Mainstream success or not, one constant for Foster has been his gift to bury his sometimes-dark thoughts into generally upbeat tunes. The most prominent example, of course, is “Pumped Up Kicks,” written in response to a school shooting. “I think that is how I naturally write,” Foster offers. “My head probably lives in a place that’s maybe a little bit more logical or cognitive or cynical, and my heart is a diehard optimist.”
Many of the songs on Sacred Hearts Club, he offers, follow this model. Yes, many of them are jangly, feel-good listens. But Foster insists they were written largely as a response to what he describes as the “dark current social and political climate.”
Foster says he recognizes that other artists—like, say, Father John Misty—might offer a more dour or satirical take on modern society. “But for me, I was like, Where does Foster the People fit in this climate? I think something that has resonated with people for our band from day one is that there’s a breeziness and that there’s a joy [to our music], even if I’m talking about dark subject matter. We’re in tune with what’s going on, but my response to it, to pull myself out of a depressing zone, is to do something that’s joyful. To kind of just turn the lights on and let all the mold and mildew wither away.”
And does the success of “Sit Next to Me” lead Foster to believe he’s once again tapped into the cultural zeitgeist? The singer says he’s learned to never make any assumptions. “Because it is a grind,” he says with a laugh of the music business. Still, he won’t lie to you: “It feels good,” Foster says, “to have momentum on a big level again.”