Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado: Law and Order
Despite only being on the indie radar for a year, Foxygen have already packed in a career’s worth of drama: crazy onstage antics, cancelled dates, band member romance, onstage injuries, breakup rumors and an artful, exceptional album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.
Band leaders Sam France and Jonathan Rado, who co-founded Foxygen in 2005 at the tender age of 15, have also planted the seeds for their own side-projects and, if Rado’s Woodsist debut Law & Order is any indication, their outside projects will take the members deeper down the psychedelic rabbit hole. Shortly before the album’s release, Rado spoke with Relix and Jambands.com about his unintentional solo career, friendship with France and Foxygen’s long, strange year.
Let’s start by talking about your solo album Law & Order. Given that Foxygen are only this year truly busting out on the national scene, I think some readers were surprised that you decided to release an album under your own name. What was your initial vision for the project and how does it relate to your primary band?
I guess I never really had a vision for it ‘cause I was never really making an album. Sam and I live in different places. I live in New York most of the time, and he lives in Washington most of the time so we were in our respective places [for a while]. Both of us, individually, are into making music because we can’t stop it. So we had all these songs, and we were both writing for Foxygen. I had a lot of these songs which didn’t really fit for Foxygen—they were just throw away things that I would just play for my girlfriend or something. We’d laugh and that would be it. But some of them were pretty good and I actually just sent it to Woodsist and said, “Here’s just these twelve tracks. Do you think you want to do something with it?” They were like, “Totally!” They loved it. So that was pretty much when it became an album.
There’s really no vision for it. That is kind of apparent when you listen to it because it’s really distracted [Laughter.]
[White Fence’s] Tim Presley plays guitar on one song, and he sings some background vocals, too. My girlfriend Jackie sings “Hand in Mine” or whatever. And yeah then that was it. And then I played all the other instruments myself.
Over how long a period were these songs recorded?
The first one I made that’s on the record is called “Pot of Gold” which is the last song—I did that probably right after we did the 21st Century record, the Foxygen record. I did that right within that same month so when I got back to New York. And I think the last one I did was “Faces.” That was the last one. That was about two or three months ago. So I don’t know, yeah it’s the better part of this year probably is how long I’ve spent on that.
As you mentioned, the album is coming out on Woodsist. I know you have a connection with them dating back to before Foxygen’s recent success, and you are playing their Woodsist Festival this fall. How did you first hear about Woods, Woodist and [label and band founder] Jeremy Earle’s various projects?
Well, the first time I ever heard of their label actually—I knew the band Woods, but I didn’t know they had a label—was when I was talking to [ We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic producer and noted experimental artist] Richard Swift. This was before we were signed to Jagjaguwar, and he was exclaimed, “Oh! Woodsist might want to put out the Foxygen record. And I asked, “Oh, what’s Woodsist?” And that’s how I figured out what the label was. And then I started digging in really deep. I like a lot of the stuff on there. I mean, the White Fence record is one of my favorite records of the last like twenty years—next to Richard Swift’s. Those are like the two, my two top modern records. Family Perfume by White Fence is like a Bible to me.
I don’t know, yeah it’s hard to find a true independent label like them, which is just the best because it’s a complete passion for them and driven by an artist’s vision. They pretty much know that I can’t really tour behind this record because Foxygen has so many shows in the next year. I can’t really play a lot of shows and they’re totally fine with doing business with a passion project because they like it and I really, really respect that.
Given the success of so many of their recent releases and Woods’ own touring schedule, I think people forget that Jeremy still oversees every aspect of the label. He even draws a good amount of their art himself.
It’s true. It’s really inspiring. It’s pretty amazing that they do that and they do that so well. The quality control is great—everything they put out is awesome.
Given that Tim and Richard Swift are responsible for your two favorite modern records, it must be quite the head trip to work with both of them in the past two years. I know you gave Richard Swift a copy of your Foxygen demo outside a show but how did you come in contact with Tim?
Yeah, it’s mind-blowing, dude. I’ve loved Swift for so long and then, we made that record together and it was awesome. We just handed him the Foxygen [recording] and said, “Take this or just throw it away.” It was weird because I didn’t really know Tim that well when we did that song together.
I met him, we hung out and had coffee once or twice. I was like, “Hey Dude!” I texted him, I was like, “Hey! You should come over to my house,” which is my parents’ house. “You should come over to my parents’ house and play on this song.” And he drove all the way from Echo Park to the West Village in California, which is kind of a long drive, but he came to like my parent’s house at 12:30am, and we recorded that shit in my bedroom—my childhood bedroom. That was really cool.
That’s awesome. It must be something of a challenge having an equal working relationship with an idol. What did you learn from working with Richard that you’ve applied to your solo recordings?
I wouldn’t say I’ve stolen a lot of things from Richard Swift, but he was definitely a really big part of my “growing up musically” years—when I was just deciding that’s what I wanted to do for a living.
I was listening to all of the Woodist records and it really affected me a lot. Working with him and seeing how he works, it’s kind of weird I didn’t actually take that much from him. I feel like why I connect with Richard Swift in the way that I do is because we work very similarly. He doesn’t run like a studio that’s nice. It doesn’t have a lot of gear or like anything, which is kind of similar to what I am, and it’s pretty basic. He was doing what we would do. He just has his ears, which are beautiful, beautiful ears. That’s really something I can’t take from him and I could never really reach that level of what he could do. I didn’t really need to take that much from him—our influences are the same and we work in very similar ways.
What was your gateway into this classic psychedelic music then, given, as you said, you hadn’t been to live shows it was more of the studio stuff. Just in general, like psychedelic music?
It probably really started with the thing that every eighth grader goes through, being into the Doors, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, wearing tie-dye shirts to school. That was sort of a thing that happened when I was ten to thirteen. Everybody got really into classic rock. Classic rock meaning “Purple Haze” and “Light My Fire.” It’s really like cheesy, like everybody knows these are psychedelic songs, like psychedelic montage movie, tie-dye songs. I think that held my interest for not that long you know.
I would listen to those songs and be like, “Ok.” But I loved the sound of them, like a lot of things they were doing, they were fascinating. I think you just go down the rabbit hole starting with those big guys like Hendrix or the Beatles or whatever and then you sort of just get deeper, and deeper, and deeper, deeper and if you’re curious enough you find the wonderful little gems, you know? Arthur by The Kinks you know is not something that most people, most eighth graders are listening to. But that’s something that you just kind of stumble onto as you dig deeper. Even though The Kinks are a huge band, I don’t think a lot of people know what Arthur is. It’s like my favorite record.
It’s all the ‘60s garage. I mean, Richard Swift and White Fence are two gods of mine and everything else is ‘60s and ‘70s. As far as the Dead goes, American Beauty is one of the best records I’ve ever heard. I’ve never gotten too into Phish or anything, and I love all the Grateful Dead live stuff that I’ve heard. But I haven’t really dug really deep into it. I feel like I should, but I mean as far as studio records go, which is what I know of the Dead, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are like fucking masterpieces.
I agree you know, it’s like the gateway and then you realize that the rabbit hole started with The Beatles and now look where you are and how crazy all this stuff underneath this kind of like huge pop venire was there.
Totally. I mean you know, that’s how I found out about Nilsson. Like how everyone found out about Nilsson—because of The Beatles, and so did I. But then it turned out that I actually fucking love Harry Nilsson, like so much. Not just some eighth grader who’s like, “Oh, Harry Nilsson! I like those three songs.” I’ve heard those three songs, and now I am going to listen to everything this guy has done. That’s sort of been the way I’ve always dealt with anything. If I become interested in something I will do all of it. I will learn every Nilsson song.
I was really into cars and I learned everything about cars. And all that shit was sort of replaced by music but when I get interested in something I will go completely into it.