Jonathan Rado of Foxygen on field recordings and what he learned from listening to Brian Eno
Jonathan Rado and Sam France met as teenagers and formed Foxygen in 2005. After releasing a handful of EPs on its own, the band, which plays a cross breed of collage sound art and psychedelic pop that recalls "White Album"-era Beatles and Obscured by Clouds-era Pink Floyd, signed with Jagjaguwar, which released its debut full length, Take the Kids Off Broadway, this past summer. We recently spoke with Rado about the use of sound effects and field recordings on the album, why a live show should be different from a record and the influence of Brian Eno.
Westword: What inspired your initial forays into writing original music?
Jonathan Rado: I think Sam [France] and I have both been making little bits of music for a long time before we met each other. I'm not sure what sparked that stuff. I think Sam used to make a lot of tapes of kids screaming. He would take a tape recorder around with him and record a bunch of stuff. I feel like I did kind of similar things in my room just playing with old four-tracks. We were '90s kids, so I think we still had cassette tapes to play around with in the early '90s. We weren't raised completely digitally.
You and Sam met in your early teens. Do you remember how you met?
We met in math class in sixth grade. He sat next to me.
Was there something that you bonded over?
Kind of music, in a way. I remember Sam used to wear to wear a Ramones shirt, and I was pretty into the Ramones. I had a band called Sharp Razor, and I used to post things in the back of the room like homemade CDs and stuff. I guess Sam thought that was kinda cool. So I think we initially sort of bonded over music before we were in the band.
Your lyrics have a literary quality to them. Are there works of literature you discovered together or shared at that time?
I think we both read a lot of books, but I don't remember showing each other books. We were both into this guy Adam Green. He was in the Moldy Peaches. He published this book called Magazine that we were both really into. I just picked it up the other day. It's still great.
What is about that book that makes it great to you?
I don't know. It's not really like a book of fiction. It's a book of, I guess, poetry. But mainly it's just a series of short sentences that are kind of funny or amusing in some sort of way. Reading it the other day, it was kind of like he invented tweeting before there was Twitter. It reads like a series of really good, poetic tweets or something. I think it was only published in Germany. I remember the first half of the book is in English and the second half is in German. I had to order it from Germany so I wonder if it's still in print.
There are a lot of interesting and varied details across all the songs, pretty much. Were you influenced by records that have made use of accidental sounds that made it on to tape and field recordings?
Yeah! Definitely. I think that's been a really big inspiration for this album for us. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a big one. But a lot of those '60s records that were just using a lot of sound effects, almost like stock sound effects they found at the BBC or something, just kind of cutting up nature sounds and putting that over stuff -- I think we were really into that idea because it seems like a common thread between those sort of very psychedelic albums of the '60s.
Like Pink Floyd's "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict."
Exactly. Or [Rolling Stones'] Their Satanic Majesties Request. We love that stuff. We love the kind of jokiness of some music from the 60s.
Related to that the song, "In the Darkness" has a blurring effect on your voice in the middle, and you only seem to use it once or twice on that song but nowhere else on the record. How did you do that and what made that interesting to include?
That's just a [Roland] Space Echo, and we turned up the intensity on it during that one part. It just loops into itself into oblivion, which is a cool effect you can do on that thing. It's on that one song and "Bowling Trophies" a bit, too. We recorded everything through a Space Echo on the album. So everything is actually running through that more or less.
Why did you want to run the whole recording through the Space Echo?
I don't know. You know, even if it's not doing any echo, it's still hitting tape, and I like that warble effect. Just from a completely recording standpoint, it has pre-amps that they build really solid, and it sounds really warm even if you're just using it as a straight pre-amp.
For "On Blue Mountain" near the beginning you have a voice counting. What made that an interesting element in the song? It shifts sonic gears pretty quickly after that.
That was just Richard Swift who produced the album, and he played drums. He was just counting the song off, and there's that organ part in the beginning. Initially, he just looped a "1, 2" like a metronome to play, too. We were going to cut it out, but he slowed it down and put some echo on it, and we thought it sounded really cool, and left it in there. There's a lot of stuff on that song. That one probably took the longest to make.
Sam spent some time in Olympia, Washington. Is that how you know Lizzie Gomez? She's in a band called Meowtain with Joel Davenport-Cass from Larkspur, Colorado, and he's married to the photographer Sarah Cass-Davenport.
Oh yeah! I never lived there. Lizzie, Sam and Justin in our band all live in Olympia. I've only been there briefly.
What do you feel she brings to the band as a live unit?
It's nice having feminine energy on stage because we're a band of men. Plus she's a great musician.
Beyond just being able to focus on just one or two elements of the musicianship of the live show, what do you find appealing about playing as a full band?
I'm not sure what's appealing. It's a completely different thing from the record. There's no way we could possibly recreate all those sounds live, so we just think it's fun to play as a live band because it's a more rock, punk version of our record or something. We're a completely different band live. That's the fun part of having the two sides of things.
A lot of people don't understand that when you record an album it is going to be different from the live presentation and probably should be.
Yeah, totally. I've read a few reviews or something that have been kind of disappointed that we don't sound exactly like the record. I think at that point, you might as well listen to the record. I think most people want to go out and see something a little different from the record. I don't think I'm breaking any ground by saying that. But I think it's pretty boring to go see a band that sounds exactly like the record.
For Interview magazine recently, you spoke to the Bowie comparisons and said something about how your references weren't really him at all but rather Brian Eno. What would you say you learned from and learned to appreciate from hearing Eno's records.
I think Eno was a big influence: Take the Kids Off Broadway more so than the new one. The new one has some different influences. Obviously there's still that Eno-ish element to it. But what I really love about Eno, and what I think you can learn from Eno, is that he's not a musician. He doesn't really know how to play any instruments or anything, but he can create these amazing pieces with not a lot of technical knowledge of how to play music.
I think this is really inspiring for me and Sam because we're both self-trained musicians. I know how to play a lot of instruments, but I always keep that mentality of not knowing what I'm doing. I like to know how not know how to do stuff. I think that that's what creates the spontaneity of records. That's what I feel like about Here Come the Warm Jets. Those first three Eno albums really capture a new, spontaneous sound.
Yeah, for those first three records, he had amazing musicians, but they didn't play like technical wizards so much.
Exactly. He just sort of conducted them. I really love that.
There is a lot of sonic diversity on the new record. Was part of the impetus behind that an attempt not to bore yourselves and a potential audience?
I think so. I also think that me and Sam have a lot of ideas, but sometimes they're not full ideas. I'll have an idea for a chorus or a verse or something, and he'll have an idea for something completely different, and we'll decide to combine those two ideas, and that's where that sort of hopping around comes from.
Part of it is we want to make something different and something that changes because I really like music that goes places and surprises you. I think it comes from two people writing two completely different things and smashing them together. Part of it is conscious; part of it is completely unconscious.
Was there anything you did for this record that you discovered in making it in terms of sound and production? Perhaps that you hadn't explored before.
With this album I think sonically we went in knowing what we wanted. We had a very clear vision of what we wanted. But we learned how to make a record professionally. We went into a studio and had an allotted amount of time and made a record, which we hadn't done before. I think that's where we learned the discipline to actually make a record like a professional band, like real people making music rather than do it in our house or something.
What got you interested in playing a twelve-string guitar and what do you see as the virtues of that instrument versus maybe a six-string?
I had the twelve-string for a little bit and played it live. It was strung a little weird. I took away the D and the G double strings. Which I dubbed the "Mr. Tambourine Man Strings" because it made no matter what you were playing sound like the Byrds. It's the thing that makes it really jangle-y and not every song can be jangle-y.
It was interesting, but it became too hard to tune. It was an old Hagstrom twelve-string, and it could not hold [up], so I had to stop playing it. When it worked, I really liked it. It had the double notes and I thought that was really cool and it would fill out certain parts on the higher strings.
The advantages are that it has a more full sound. But playing it live on every song, you can't really bend the strings. You have to bend two at the same time, which is sort of hard to do. I went back to 6-string because it's easier to play. I play a [Fender] Jazzmaster now.