It’s a story that feels as old as dirt: a band gets thrust into the spotlight after a successful record and begins to crack under the pressure. Drugs. In-fighting. Canceled tour dates. Maybe some sort of Yoko Ono situation. Too much too soon. It’s the plot of that Tom Hanks movie, That Thing You Do, and it’s the premise of pretty much every episode of Behind The Music. We know this story because we’ve seen it a million times, and we know how it ends.
It’s not Foxygen’s story though—not really.
When we first decided to name the group the breakout band of 2013, we had to double-check to make sure they weren’t…well, broken up. Lead singer Sam France and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado have had their share of public differences over the course of the year, and although they had played shows recently and appeared to be in a good place, on Nov. 4 a cryptic message was posted on the band’s Facebook page:
we are currently functioning as Foxygen And Star Power under orders of Breakfast Horse INTNL. and in agreement with STAR POWER Radio. Our band lineup has changed greatly and the new recordings will feature this new band. Thank you, and watch out on the HiWays, you may see THem, BEWARE
Then, in the comments section, this non-clarification:
Due to contractual issues we are not sure what we can reveal at this time except that the new record features our new band, that the record is under way, it is a double album, and the record itself deals with “controversial” paranormal issues which has forced us to re-nogotiate [sic] with certain establishments the fabric of the Foxygen enterprise
Rado is reluctant to give more details, but he assures that he and France are both still in the group and happy. “I don’t wanna say too much,” he says. “I think it’ll all become clear soon who we’re talking about. Me and Sam are still the core of the band. I don’t think that statement is negative in any way. I wouldn’t have anyone perceive it in a negative way. I think it’s a very positive thing. So yeah, I’ll just say that.”
The new record (tentatively slated for a summer release), which Rado says will draw inspiration from Todd Rundgren and Fleetwood Mac, is in many ways a fresh start for Foxygen, a return to something they lost sight of over the course of 2013.
“We wanted to make it you know, last February. And we recorded tracks here and we recorded tracks there, but it’s gone through so many changes and the band has gone through so much emotional change and things like that, that we’re starting, officially starting now,” he says. “We’re starting the new record, and it feels like all of last year, all the bad vibes, all the things that went down never happened. I’d really actually like to start over. We both would. We’re not embarrassed about anything. What happened happened, and all that stuff went down, and unfortunately whatever stupid bullshit, it was public because people were looking at us.”
Since Rado and France are moving forward and looking to the future, it may seem counterintuitive to rehash the past, but in the interest of separating fact from fiction, of distinguishing that classic rock ’n’ roll burnout story from Foxygen’s story, we do have to talk about all the stuff that went down.
After the hype surrounding their album, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic (released in January), reached a fever pitch, the band headed to Texas in March for some high-profile SXSW performances, but after an onstage meltdown early in the week, they canceled their remaining showcases for the week, as well as a European tour.
“I feel bad about that decision, but the thing was we never booked that European tour,” Rado told me in July. “It was a giant miscommunication because that information was never communicated to us, but it got communicated through management, booking agents, somewhere they got confused and then now those are shows. And we had to look like the assholes like, ‘No, we’re canceling it.’ We never really wanted to do it and it was sort of booked without us ever really knowing about it. It was like a big shock. We didn’t know we were going to Europe. And we were just coming off of a really long tour, which was really exhausting for us creatively as a band, and it wasn’t worth it for us mentally.”
The summer would continue to be a trying time for the group—sort of. At the end of July, France climbed a monitor during a show, fell and broke his leg, requiring surgery and resulting in more canceled dates. And of course, a few days before that, less than an hour after that first interview of mine with Rado, where he admitted that “things are still kind of tough in Foxygen,” the Internet exploded with rumors of the band’s breakup after touring member Elizabeth Fey (who was dating France at the time) wrote an extensive Tumblr post that went viral, painting Rado as cold and controlling. But in actuality, instead of breaking up Foxygen, this led to a period of healing—and some really strong shows.
“Music websites picked up the rumor that we broke up, and all this happened in a day. ‘Foxygen Breaks Up, Here’s All This Drama, blah blah blah,’ you know? ‘Rado’s an asshole, blah blah blah.’ And there was this moment where we had to do a show that night, when all this drama went down,” Rado says. “And I remember I was checking my phone, and I looked down at something like, ‘Hey, look at Pitchfork right now,’ and going on there and it saying ‘Foxygen Breaks Up’ and me being completely confused about what to do and going and looking at it and just being confused and angry. We had to go play a show, and we played the show and it was simultaneously the best and worst show I’ve ever played. I could see at the time that everyone knew, or at least I felt in my mind that everyone had read that thing and they were judging me. I felt terrible. I just felt like I didn’t want to go on stage. I didn’t want to play. But I also because of that I think played really well, and then after that, me and Sam had a long talk, and then we played some shows after that and they were awesome shows. They were amazing shows.
“And then Sam broke his leg,” he continues. “And the public doesn’t really know that during that time was the time that we were the best, you know? We were just playing really, really awesome shows. We were really on our game. I think it was around that time we realized what was really important, which was our friendship over anger. I think it’s when we realized we got a little carried away.”
“Carried away” is a phrase Rado uses a lot to describe what he sees as the root of many of Foxygen’s problems; after reading characterizations of themselves online—France as “this crazy, drugged-out, incoherent rock star thing,” Rado perhaps as his foil—they began to buy into those ideas.
“People just made up this image of what the band was, and I think in a way, in some sort of demented way because Sam and I are actors, we sort of decided that that’s what it was gonna be, like we decided to kind of play into this persona that the public had created for us,” he explains. “That was the only way to keep it interesting. We never really wanted to be a normal indie band or something. So I guess as a way of dealing with all of the shit, the weird assumptions of people, was to actually play into that. And maybe it got a little too carried away. I can definitely say that on both of our parts, our roles that we were playing got a little too carried away…it’s not like we ever sat down and talked about it, but it sort of spun out of control…I feel like I lost myself a little bit in that last year.”
“But we stopped touring, we spent a couple months just like recuperating and then realized all of it,” he continues. “We realized we’re not actually this angry rock band; we don’t actually have these problems. This is just what people said incorrectly, they just made up about us, and we were kind of believing it. That was a big moment between Sam and I when we realized that we don’t hate each other. We got a little too carried away with that. That’s a pretty weird way of looking at it, but I really do think that’s it. We both do really feel that that’s what happened. We bought into not our own hype, but what people thought about us a little too much.”
It’s easy to do when you’re a buzz band, when what people think about you is seemingly all anyone wants to read about. Rado’s aware of the hype—how could he not be?—but, pointing out he and France have been in a band for 10 years, he says he found it to be a little “confusing.” But when you’re together for so long, you don’t just throw a decade of collaboration and friendship away because things get rough or perplexing. You work it out.
“When I look back on 2013, and I have, it’s definitely been simultaneously the best, most productive year of my entire life—and this probably goes for Sam too, the best, most productive year—and also just the worst,” Rado says. “I mean, I’m not gonna validate some of the things that were written about us, but I will say that for a good period of this year, we weren’t getting along that great. But I can also say that that has changed. Like a 180… Being friends as we tour was hard for us for a while, and now it’s not really a problem. That’s the biggest thing, learning how to be in a band and be around the same people all day and still be friends. Which we now are.”
So now that the 21st century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic are no longer at war, they can go back to the beginning, leaving this tumultuous year behind them and gearing up for bigger, better things. There’s no way of predicting what 2014 will bring, but Rado’s got a few ideas.
“I don’t intend on staying a buzz band,” he says. “I’m very aware that we are, and I would very much like to continue being a band. I’d ideally like to just be considered a band rather than 2013’s Hottest Young Dudes with Their Hit Single ‘San Francisco’ That Sounds Like The Kinks, you know? It’s not really like that. We don’t really intend on making these ‘San Francisco’ pretty Kinks songs, because that was just one album we did, a series of albums we made, since we were little fuckin’ kids. It’s a lot of strange stress to have people identify your band as one thing, calling us ’60s retro whatever. I mean, in a way we are, and we love those time periods, we love all of that, but we’re also interested in doing other things besides that. Which I don’t think some people understand.
“But they will.”