Watched on by his bandmates and a cameraman, Mark Foster’s face goes numb and his eyes bulge out. Staring into space as if his mainframe paused his human facade to reallocate power to the computer brain, searching a database for the right folder/file combination, the Foster The People singer takes 15 seconds to settle on the right phrase and refocuses. “It was a really painful record to make,” he states, then lets the words hang for several more seconds.
Sitting in a Toronto hotel room, Foster is describing the making of Supermodel—the follow-up to his group’s breakout 2011 debut, Torches, and its earworm-inducing calling card, “Pumped Up Kicks.” Written in a fervor as the frontman was battling substance abuse issues, Foster says Supermodel is more than just a compilation of singles, “it’s a conversation with God.”
Here he discusses his personal battle with “demons,” learning to resent the materialism of fame and how a trip to the developing world brought on a personal revelation.
: Torches was made quickly in the wake of the success of “Pumped Up Kicks.” How did the recording of Supermodel differ from that experience?
Mark Foster: It was very different. This record is a completely different animal. We wanted it to sound more like a band playing together in a room.
: Does that description extend to the creative process?
Foster: I wrote all the lyrics in a couple of weeks as to time-stamp what I was going through. The songs were written in a seven-month time period.
: What happened during those weeks that you felt was important to time-stamp?
Foster: I was going through a lot of personal struggle at the time. A lot of soul searching. It was a really painful record to make.
: What made it painful?
Foster: I was purging a lot of stuff. I was confronting a number of demons going into this record that had kind of grown in strength during the touring for Torches.
: You’ve admitted you had a pretty bad substance abuse issue when you first moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles. Did you relapse?
Foster: I don’t really want to talk about it.
: A number of the songs touch upon religion.
Foster: A lot of this record…a lot of it is a conversation with God. Trying to explore who God is.
: What conclusions did you come to?
Foster: That it’s a long and lonely road. But it feels better to stand on what I know is true for me then to try to mask it with the overbearing tide of social philosophy saying otherwise.
: Celebrity culture is also discussed in quite negative terms. As someone who lives in L.A. and has flirted with that lifestyle since you were 18, how did you come to that conclusion?
Foster: I think the most interesting thing for me is that, socially, in the western world (and quickly becoming the entire world) we’ve propagated this message to everybody that when you’re rich and famous life is great—that everything gets better, you can get whatever you want, your table’s never empty, your stomach’s always full, you’re with a beautiful mate—and I think it’s really easy to take that in hook, line and sinker like, “Of course, because you have everything that you’d ever need or want.”
I think living in L.A. for the last 12 years, I’ve got to see the other side of that; I’ve been in the room with people that have everything that society tells them that should want and need to be happy and they’re not.
Before making this record I was traveling in some more developing countries, and I got to see the other side of it: where people don’t have what they need, they don’t have the basics, but they were so rich in culture and love for each other, and internally they had a wealth of imagination. There was a richness and simplicity in how they live their lives. It was a big revelation for me.
: How do you express that lyrically?
Foster: That’s not a concept I was trying to communicate on this record; it’s the concept that was the creative wind in the sail of where these songs came from. I wasn’t writing about that concept. It was just what I was thinking about as I came up with these other songs. That really had to do with a first-person perspective, living in the grand scheme of that concept.
We’re all searching for something. For me, culturally, right now it’s fame. The whole world is searching for fame. Everybody wants to be famous and powerful and rich. You see it on American Idol. You see it in the Kardashians. Why is that show so popular? I guess it’s entertaining, but moreso to me it shows the hunger. [Viewers] are like, “I want that! I could be that!” And that’s the other thing, they think they could be [famous like the Kardashians]. These girls are fun, clever girls, but they’re just a family. They’re just girls. But now they have everything they want that they built on fame alone. They’ve built their house on fame alone—and the fact that their dad was a famous attorney didn’t hurt to put them into those inner circles.
After climbing this mountain of being in a band…I never wanted to be famous. I hate fame. I hate that idea. I’ve always wanted to make music, and if my music can be heard by a billion people? Great. That’s great. We’re not trying to just make music for our friends. But the idea of fame and celebrity has always been a terrifying concept.
: On that note, you thank the actor Emile Hirsch in the liner notes…
Foster: He named the song “Tabloid Super Junkie.” I thought that was worth a mention.