"It's been a fast incline, so we've had to just work really hard," Mark Foster says
"The last time we played in Dublin, we ended up at Bono's house," he says
"The whole youth violence thing hit pretty close to me," Cubbie Fink says
Foster the People has done what many bands strive to do: make commercial indie-sounding pop, which is kind of an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or “daily special.”
“We’ve grown up on the Beach Boys and the Beatles and Blur and Bowie and the Clash. Also E.L.O. and Hall and Oates,” said the trio’s frontman, Mark Foster. “Those are all artists who write songs that are accessible but still left of center. It’s intelligent pop. There’s still something different and complex about it. That’s our favorite type of music to make.”
Foster’s old day job as a jingle writer proved to be great training ground for creating punchy hooks. The Los Angeles-based group is now up for a pair of Grammys: Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group for their smash single “Pumped Up Kicks” and Best Alternative Album for their debut CD, “Torches.”
On the evening CNN interviewed Foster the People backstage at L.A.’s Wiltern Theater, the guest list was an inconceivable mix of Taylor Swift, a couple of kids from “Glee” and Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains.
While the other guys looked forward to seeing Swift at their show, Foster seemed more impressed by Cantrell.
“When I was a kid and started playing the guitar, that’s who I listened to, and I learned how to play the guitar because of that guy. So it’s crazy that he’s coming,” he said, shaking his head. “But you never know who’s going to be here, especially when you play L.A. Gene Simmons (of KISS) was at our last show, which was pretty crazy.”
But counting a couple of hard rock icons as fans isn’t as random as one might think. Lurking beneath the shiny bubble-gum surface of Foster the People lies a dark theme or two – particularly in “Pumped Up Kicks,” in which a teen shooter tells potential victims they’d “better run, better run, faster than my bullet.”
Other songs seem to be an internal running dialogue in Foster’s head. The band’s current single, “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls),” is a pep talk to push creative boundaries and seize the moment.
Foster, bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius recently spoke with CNN about what this moment in time is like for Foster the People.
CNN: You guys got together as a band in 2009. It’s been a fast ride.
Mark Foster: I think it’s funny, because we’ve all worked towards a career in music for a long time. For so many years, it was slow, playing in front of rooms full of 10 people and trying to get your friends to come – begging your friends to come – telling them you’ll pay for their parking. Just whatever you could do to get them in there. And then all of a sudden, it kind of took off. It’s been a fast incline, so we’ve had to just work really hard, keep our heads down and just stay grounded. At the same time, we’ve had a lot of fun during the process.
CNN: I hear Bono is a fan.
Foster: Yeah, the last time we played in Dublin, we ended up at Bono’s house and had dinner with him and got to hang out with him for a few hours. We just talked about music and art and poetry and just all the things that you maybe expect Bono to talk about. We walked away and were really inspired.
Cubbie Fink: I missed the Bono experience. It was on our day off in Ireland, and I just turned my phone off and kind of relaxed. I ended up turning it on in the afternoon and seeing 25 missed calls and a hundred texts saying, “Hey, we’re going to the BBQ. Come with us.” I missed it.
Foster: But you did get to watch a rugby game, didn’t you.
CNN: Are you critical when you hear your songs on the radio?
Foster: I think now I just kind of turn the station off when the stuff comes on. I was hanging out with a girl in New York, and we were in a cab, and “Pumped Up Kicks” came on, and she told the cab driver, “Hey, can you turn this rubbish off?!” It’s like, “Thank you. She’s reading my mind.”
CNN: On the surface, your songs sound pretty happy-go-lucky. But some of them are pretty dark, like “Pumped Up Kicks,” which is about a teenager with a gun.
Foster: I like to write about real-life topics, and I like to write about different walks of life. For me, that song was really an observation about something that’s happening in the youth culture these days. I guess I wanted to reveal that internal dialogue of a kid who doesn’t have anywhere to turn, and I think the song has kind of done its job. I think people are talking about it, and it’s become a point of conversation, which I think is a really healthy thing.
CNN: Did you feel like outsiders in high school?
Foster: I experienced bullying a lot. I was an only child, and I was kind of a small kid with a big mouth, and so I always got myself in trouble. So I grew up kind of having to scrap. And I grew up in Cleveland. It’s pretty blue collar, and kids know how to fight there, so that was a real thing, for sure.
Fink: The whole youth violence thing hit pretty close to me. My cousin was part of the ordeal at Columbine. She was actually in the library when everything went down, so I actually flew out to be with her the day after it happened and experienced the trauma surrounding it and saw how affected she was by it. She is as close as a sister, so obviously, it affected me deeply. So to be able to have a song to create a platform to talk about this stuff has been good for us.
CNN: What’s inspiring you guys these days?
Foster: I’ve been thinking a lot about the political state of where we’re at right now. There’s a lot I’m not happy about and would love to talk more about it. I think that musicians have a voice that is sometimes louder than anyone else’s voice, in a sense.
Also, doing charity work and humanitarian work is something that we’ve been really into on this last tour. We’ve teamed up with the Do Good Bus, which followed us around. We’ve done something with local charities in every city that we’ve stopped in, so I think going into the (next) record, we’ll see where things are at. But we’re also a new band, and we don’t want to get too bleeding heart too early. I think you have to keep it about the music for a while before you start preaching too much.
CNN: What do you have up your sleeve for Foster the People’s second record?
Foster: We’re going to try to continue to push the envelope. A lot of what we’ve learned touring this year is that the percussion element of what we do live is something that we’d love to bring into the studio and do more of on our second record. And just pushing the envelope with the electronic music and also working on some classic songwriting, which we haven’t really put our much of yet. I like classic soul, so we’ll see. It’s going to be interesting.
CNN: Before Foster the People took off, you all had some odd jobs.
Mark Pontius: We were delivery boys at one point, funny enough, delivering coffee and cheese to Larry King sometimes just down the street. We all had weird, odd jobs, and living in L.A., struggling to be a musician is tough sometimes, and you just want to give up. But you gotta stick to it.
Foster: At the same time, those odd jobs, sometimes looking back, were the most fun times that I’ve had, as well. But when you’re in it, it sucks.