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Foxy Shazam sets out to write songs that are 'way too complicated for normal people to like'

An argument can easily be made for Foxy Shazam being the best glam band since Queen, whose early, more rock-driven style is an obvious touchstone in the Cincinnati group's sonic repertoire.

A six-piece amalgam of outrage, bombast and incurable eclecticism, Foxy Shazam recently switched from Warner Bros. to the more boutiqued-out I.R.S./Capitol for its fourth album, The Church of Rock and Roll. Produced by Justin Hawkins of the Darkness, it's a decidedly retro affair, but one with sufficiently idiosyncratic songwriting and arrangements that it avoids sound slavish to the past.

Meanwhile, the band's live shows continue to be the stuff of legend, with extraordinary musicianship and acrobatic showmanship virtually unseen since the arena-rock era.

Earlier this month, I checked in with Foxy Shazam keyboardist Sky White — recently ranked by BuzzFeed as one of the "15 Best Beards in Music" — to talk about the joys of making music, challenging fans and crying blood.

Indy: I noticed in a lot of Church of Rock and Roll reviews that the same word kept cropping up. Like Pop Matters calls it "a transitional album from a band looking where to go next." All Music says "the album has a transitional feeling." And some blog called Property of Zack says, "As transitional albums go, there's a lot to like here." All of which got me wondering: Is this, like, a transitional album for you?

Sky White: That's kind of a weird thing, because literally every record we've ever done sounds nothing like any other record we've ever done. So I think every record is probably a transitional record for us. Because, you know, we write a record every year and a half or two, and we're very different people each time. So yeah, I'm guessing this one was a transitional record, just like the other ones were.

Indy: What happens if you stop transitioning: enlightenment or stagnation?

SW: Stagnation. If you stop transitioning, that means you're not growing, you're not getting better, you're not challenging yourself. I can understand how a band can find a sound and stick with it, or find a cute little thing they do and just have that become their bag of tricks, but that's not who we are. You have to force yourself to keep being better and to keep yourself interested. You know, the greatest bands in the world, they have these very long careers where they go through all these different genres, different sounds, different feelings and emotions...

Indy: Like who?

SW: Like... I don't know... like the Beatles. Like Queen. Like Meat Loaf. All these people who just had lots of different sounds. And I've always respected that in people. People bash on Weezer for doing a little bit different stuff, but you know, they're not kids. It takes heart to do whatever you want, even if it's not what your fans are expecting. Or even Green Day...

Indy: Yeah, for Green Day to still be writing songs about masturbation at the age of 40 would be kind of embarrassing.

SW: Yeah, exactly. And it takes a little faith in your fans too, to be willing to go outside those boxes and see if the things that are different about you are different about them as well.

Indy: You guys are famous for your live shows being kind of, um, extroverted. There are somersaults, cymbals tossed across the stage, keyboards being thrown into the crowd. Who would you say gets punished more onstage, your equipment or yourself?

SW: Definitely myself. I can buy new equipment, but I can't afford new body parts quite yet. From the way I play piano, I've had tendonitis, I've also had carpal tunnel and tarsal tunnel, I've had my head split open a few times, I've had my eye hit with a bass tuning peg and cried blood for a set. I can go on...

Indy: Have you ever blacked out onstage?

SW: I've definitely played shows so sick that I couldn't see anything, but still played. Like I was just seeing colors and stuff the whole time. I kind of blacked out, but nothing so bad where I actually just fell to the ground.

Indy: Tell me about working with Justin from the Darkness on this record. I assume there are a couple tracks that stand out for you as something the band never could or would have done before. What would those tracks be?

SW: Well, when we were signed to Warner Brothers, we had a whole lot of people telling us the way it's supposed to sound. We worked with [multi-platinum producer] John Feldmann, who's a genius, I love the guy. But he has his ways he likes to make things sound. It was cool working with him and everything, but each of us had to bend to each other's ways.

With this one, I mean, it's Justin Hawkins! [Laughs.] Like, he made his career out of making pretty weird music. We'd go in there with just completely nuts ideas and he'd just go for it. And every single time we found a way to make pretty weird stuff sound pretty cool. But the two that kind of stick out to me is "Forever Together," because it's a cute little three-chord song, and we'd never done that. And that's probably one of the ways that we grew up a little bit, is knowing when to not do more.

And then I guess "Freedom" would be another one of those. It was a lot simpler than what we would normally put together, and we found a way to have the chorus to be pretty powerful and heart-wrenching.

Indy: Yeah, there's kind of a fine line that you can cross where it becomes clever for cleverness' sake. The band Sparks always struck me that way. You might love them, but there were times when I just wish they could have dialed it back a little.

SW: Yeah.

Indy: Do you feel that way about any of your stuff, or do you feel the diversity makes it work?

SW: Yeah, I do feel like the diversity is what makes it appealing. Because we are a witty bunch of dudes, and we're into a variety of musical styles. Like, I always try to write songs that are way too complicated for normal people to like.

Indy: Just like Primus.

SW: When I was a kid I was writing songs in time signatures that you needed a calculator to figure out. So I've been trying to back off that stuff a little bit. Because I've got vocalists that can actually sing, and can write words that are touching and appealing.

Indy: Yeah, Primus doesn't have any of those things.

SW: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]

Indy: There's a lot on the new album that reminds me of early Queen, of course, but "Holy Touch" struck me as sounding kind of like Meat Loaf, while the backing vocals on "Too Late Baby" remind me of Slade, which I mean as a compliment. What is it about '70s excess that attracts you guys?

SW: We definitely love the entire '70s rock and roll movement. The concept of rock and roll now means something kind of trite and kind of unintelligent. But back then, it feels like bands put more soul and passion into it. We're definitely all about doing creative and ridiculous stuff, being as eccentric looking or sounding as we feel like. And that's a period of time where that kind of existed in multitude.

bill@csindy.com

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