Photography: Jingyu Lin
Jonathan Rado has had a big few years. Aside from producing two of 2016’s biggest indie records, The Lemon Twigs‘ Do Hollywood and Whitney‘s Light Upon The Lake, his band, Foxygen, returned to the studio to create their fourth album, Hang. But unlike most bands, Foxygen tapped a complete orchestra and recorded the whole thing on tape. The result is a conceptual baroque pop opus filled with gritty old Hollywood references and glam rock hooks, part ELO, part Lou Reed’s Berlin. Along with Sam France, Rado crafts catchy outsider anthems rife with existential lyrics and Americana riffs, turning Bowie-style classics into a full-fledged rock opera.
Underneath all of Hang‘s theatrics, the duo delivers eight nearly perfect pop hits. Album opener, “Follow The Leader,” is an over-the-top ’70s ballad, while “Avalon” channels the upbeat indulgence of Rubber Soul. “On Lankershim” is a cinematic country crooner, and on “Trauma,” the band harnesses the dark pop of Bowie’s Low. Fusing heavy choruses with epic string arrangements, Rado and France create their own brand of irreverent pop that gets endlessly stuck in your head. With Hang, Foxygen succeeds in referencing the past while always remaining their own.
BULLETT caught up with Rado to talk about the album and life in L.A.
Tell me about Hang.
The idea of the record was to take our sound and adapt to sounds of the past that aren’t being used much anymore.
What inspired the record?
Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin—that was a big touchstone in terms of arrangement, songwriting and vibe. But we were focused on old Hollywood—1930’s, 1920’s Hollywood. We’re really into Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Enger, where he talks about a lot of tabloid scandals. That was always around in the studio and was a big theme.
A lot of people describe the record as an ode to California. But to me, it doesn’t sound at all like the stereotypical Beach Boys, sunny day, LA sound.
There’s different types of California—the sunny California and the darker side. With this record, we’re not doing California in the same way a lot of people think of it we’re trying to capture the underbelly.
You’ve produced quite a few records over the last few years, including some of our favorites, The Lemon Twigs’ Do Hollywood and Whitney’s Light Upon The Lake. What’s it like returning to Foxygen after working on other people’s music?
It’s really easy—Foxygen is sort of a learned thing. We’ve just been doing it for so long that we’re so good at working with each other, and we can snap back into it really easily. Working with other bands, The Lemon Twigs, and Whitney—those records helped me find a certain type of command in the studio, and taught me how to make things happen from a producer standpoint rather than as a musician making my own music. So I think that helped—learning the basics of what things do.
Does your approach change when producing your own music versus someone else’s?
They all have different concepts and I’ll attack everything differently, which helps keep everything fresh. I never want to be pinned down to a sound or something that’s too easily identifiable.
How does Hang compares to previous Foxygen releases?
It’s a more mature record—it’s the most complete thing we’ve ever done and there’s not any fluff. …And Star Power was all about being self-indulgent, and following every little path you can possibly follow with a record. This one is still overindulgent, but in a completely different way.
Why did you decide to use an orchestra?
I just love the sound of orchestral instruments—you get really sick of electric guitar after ten years of playing it.
I grew up playing the violin. It’s a beautiful instrument, but it’s also the easiest to fuck up. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to put a violin in a rock song, but it’s a whole different thing to write a song for a whole orchestra that works, and sounds good.
But that’s how we wrote the songs—we were thinking about the arrangements ahead of time, thinking about where everything was going to sit and how it was going to come across.
Is there a reason why you didn’t use any computers and recorded the whole thing on tape?
Tape just sounds better. And I also hate looking at a computer when I don’t have to—if there’s another way to make art, I will always choose that because we already spend enough time looking at screens. Sitting in a studio and staring at ProTools, analyzing a drum hit being on the beat—that’s a dangerous road to go down, because you sterilize your music. It’s supposed to be human. You don’t want to take those elements out of music, or else why are you making music?
What do you want people to take away from the record?
I just want people to love the album like I do. We put a lot of work into it. It wasn’t just another Foxygen album—it was a big part of our lives.