It's been over a year since Foster the People issued its Grammy-nominated debut disc Torches, featuring its irresistible (and decidedly homicidal) smash hit "Pumped Up Kicks." But the bubbly L.A. alt-pop trio led by keyboardist/vocalist Mark Foster is still out there on the road supporting it this summer, propelled by the latest ear-candy single "Houdini."
Writing catchy crowd-pleasers is all in a day's work for the frontman who spent years penning commercial jingles for a living while trying to figure out his band's sound.
"A friend of mine introduced me to this company a few years back, and I started doing spec work for them from my house," Foster recalls of his ad-industry employer. "I had a home studio, so I kind of learned the ropes, and then a year-and-a-half later they brought me on full-time and made me an in-house composer."
Why him? Foster chuckles: "I know how to build and deliver a chorus, whether it's instrumental or whatever. I guess I have a good handle on dynamics, which is what all commercials are about."
Foster cites his new Elton John-ish piano ballad "Ruby" as a possible direction for FTP's sophomore set. ("That's a big side of me that nobody knows about.")
His versatility was a big asset for the commercial gig, where assignments called for emo, hip-hop, bossa nova, even Danny Elfman-style orchestral numbers. His first week on the clock, in fact, he was instructed to do an electronic breakdown of a complex Billie Holiday chestnut, which turned into a real head-scratcher. "But I ended up getting there and making it my own, and it ended up being cool," he says.
Soon, the scorer was sculpting music for Verizon, Muscle Milk, T-Mobile, Pop Tarts, Bank of America, even California tourism. "And also Honey Bunches of Oats," he adds, helpfully. "It's a really good cereal."
Along the way, Foster learned techniques he ended up using in his group with bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius. "I really sharpened my tools as a producer working at that job, and I actually wrote and produced 'Pumped Up Kicks' there."
At first, Foster just threw "Kicks" up on the band's nascent website. But after it was immediately snapped up for an Anna Sui fashion campaign, the song caught fire. Ironic, given its Columbine-creepy lyrics: "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / You better run, better run, outrun my gun," set to handclap percussion, frothy basslines, vocodered verses and a fluffy falsetto chorus. Plus, there's the whistled part that was stuck in everyone's head last summer.
As for the lyrics, Foster notes that the protagonist doesn't really do the crime — he imagines it.
"The song is more about the psychology of what makes him tick, and him playing with the idea of doing something like that," says Foster. "I really wanted to just paint his world, his home life, his emotions, the conversation that's going on in his head. That's more interesting than telling a story about someone killing somebody — what is driving this person to think this way?"
Foster, meanwhile, is that rarest of animals: a literate, well-read rocker, like his idols David Bowie and Damon Albarn. "But I don't look up to 95 percent of the rock stars out there — they know how to write good tunes, but they don't really know who they are."
And he does? "Uhhh... I'm getting there," he replies. "I'm getting there."