Foster the People

Foster the People Gets Pumped Up Again

Frontman Mark Foster tells Playboy about returning to the charts with surprise hit "Sit Next to Me"

Courtesy: Foster the People

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.”

Quite simply, Foster wanted to make sure his band didn’t become another side note in music history. He’d seen it happen too many times before. “People love a big song but might not even know what the artist looks like,” he says. “And then after a few months, they don’t give a shit.”
As it turns out, Foster need not have worried: Sure, Foster the People hasn’t released another track nearing the global dominance of “Pumped Up Kicks,” but with “Sit Next to Me,” their recent single, the band is experiencing its biggest moment in years. “I think it surprised everybody,” Foster says on a recent afternoon of the surprising success of the long-bubbling single off their 2017 LP, Sacred Hearts Club. Over a year after being released, the song—now certified platinum—recently peaked at No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been played nearly 50 million times on YouTube and more than 80 million times on Spotify.

“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.”
Writing music without taking commercial success into consideration, says Foster, 33, is more or less his band’s current mantra. “Put creativity first, and keep commerce and any thoughts of trying to chase commerciality or what’s hot on the radio, out of the room,” he says of he and new bandmate Isom Innis’ mindset when hunkering down in an L.A. studio for nearly 18 months to write Sacred Hearts Club. It’s not that Foster doesn’t want his music to generate money. Rather, he says he’s observed enough acts burst onto the Top 40 and then promptly disappear, to know that sort of success is typically fleeting.

“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.
This art-first mindset goes a long way in explaining why, despite the band’s 2014 album Supermodel never spawning a radio hit, Foster is far from disappointed by how things played out. If anything, he says, that album, which he describes as “more introspective and personal,” solidified Foster the People’s fan base: “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.
Still, Foster is quick to admit that having a popular song like “Sit Next to Me” makes the road a lot smoother. “It’s amazing when a song is working for a band, how much easier the doors open,” he says with a laugh. "And when it’s not, you just have to grind.”

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.”
“With this record, it was important for us to make something joyful in opposition to the oppression,” he says. “Look, I was really angry going into this record. I’ve been reading like six different news sources every single fucking day, just trying to get the truth because everything’s so slanted now.”

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.”

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