How Foxygen Borrow from the Past to Make Music for the Future

Cara Robbins
On their newly released fourth album, Hang, Foxygen romp together through what they call “American music."
Few guitar licks have been as blatantly borrowed as the prominent riff from “Brown Sugar.” The Dandy Warhols practically copy-pasted The Rolling Stones’ song for their biggest hit, “Bohemian Like You,” it’s evident in King Tuff’s “Loser’s Wall,” and it briefly surfaces in Foxygen’s “Star Power III: What Are We Good For.”

In Foxygen’s case, the melody is just a 27-second appearance in a hyperactive album that shifts gears almost as much as a Girl Talk compilation. The Los Angeles duo are known to stuff as many classic rock and vintage glam references as possible into their prolific recordings. “On Blue Mountain” rings with the refrain from Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” while “Flowers” shares some song structure and lyrical themes of “Givin’ Up Things” by Skip Spence. See if you can guess the touchstones on “Abandon My Toys.”

"You can’t avoid the past. So we just embrace it."

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Is it uninspired? Lazy? Cheap? Not even close. Like the Brian Jonestown Massacre — not surprisingly, one of Foxygen’s biggest influences — Sam France and Jonathan Rado have found a way to wrestle retro harmonies to the ground, tame them, and make them their own. Their method for reinvention transcends time, yet feels crisp, youthful, and thoroughly modern. France likens it to the maestro artists of yore.

“They would be creating this new beautiful art, but they’d be making these tributes to these painters before them, studying them and trying to put that in their work,” France says over the phone. “That’s just what art is. You can’t avoid the past. So we just embrace it. We’ve always been very open with that.”

On their newly released fourth album, Hang, Foxygen romp together through what they call “American music” — a bombastic medley of ragtime, swing, and, perhaps most surprisingly, show tunes. Like their previous efforts, Hang has a condensed, singular mood to it — not exactly a concept album, but not far off, either.

“I’d say there is a definite story. It feels like a complete entity,” France says. “We wanted to make this story, we wanted to make something that could double as a musical soundtrack, but in there is a lot of poetry and a lot of stuff from my life, so it’s just a story — just a story about me.”

The bouncy sway of “Avalon” feels like the curtain has been tugged back, a bustling stage-scape revealed with frolicking, singing townspeople. With “On Lankershim,” Billy Joel- and Elton John-style riffs build and meld, but are then interjected by France’s strutting, burlesque vocals. He moans with Bowie’s dramaturgical intensity complemented by Lou Reed’s mordant mumbles.

In addition to working with The Lemon Twigs and The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd, the band employed a full 40-piece orchestra during recording — a bit difficult to tour with, but as France explains, Trey Pollard, who arranged and conducted the orchestra on the album, was able to whittle down and transpose the strings section into an orotund horn division.

Foxygen are never not planning their next move. In 2012, while pumping the release of Take The Kids Off Broadway (another musical reference) the duo were already preparing to release We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (2013), as well as …And Star Power (2014). At the time, they were even blueprinting Hang.

This abundant work ethic is not really surprising, given Foxygen began when France and Rado were freshmen in high school. They wrote roughly 10 albums before Broadway and, as France describes it, the band has “the psychic thing” that lets them compose effortlessly.

“Rado and I are always working,” France explains. “It’s just what we do when we hang out for the most part — we can’t really help it. It’s just so much fun, and always has been.”

Foxygen is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, April 11, at Crescent Ballroom.