Spotlight: Foster the People

Mike Greenhaus on November 30, 2017

Isom Innis has a day left of his “summer vacation” between albums, and the Foster the People multi-instrumentalist plans to use his final hours of downtime wisely—by staying as close to home as possible. “We’re shooting a couple of videos tomorrow and the next day, and then we head over to Budapest for our first show,” Innis says with a palpable sense of excitement. “So I’m kind of soaking up as much as I can in my apartment.”

It’s a hot, late-June afternoon and the Los Angeles-based musician is getting ready to kick off the next era of Foster the People’s career in support of Sacred Hearts Club, their third LP and first since 2014’s alt-rock chart-topper, Supermodel. The band’s founder and namesake Mark Foster initially conceived Sacred Hearts Club as his group’s ‘60s/‘70s-inspired, psychedelic-rock opus, but the album quickly took a turn and ended up as a genre-crossing, playlist-approved blend of styles very much in-line with this season’s festival sound. So it isn’t surprising that Innis has A Tribe Called Quest’s own freeform comeback, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service on his mind. “‘We the People’ samples a break from Black Sabbath in it,” Innis gushes. “It’s like the fist of God is smashing you in the face when you hear that groove over and over again.”

Foster and Innis started crafting Sacred Hearts Club during the fall of 2014, near the end of the Supermodel support tour. They were eager to get back into the studio after a few rounds of road duty and ended up hunkering down at a friend’s converted garage space in the Beachwood Canyon section of LA. At first, they kept the sessions casual intentionally, crafting beats and grooves without actually discussing their ultimate goals for the project, and then writing songs around those instudio improvisations. About a year and a half into the process, Foster started combing through their recordings and decided which sonic experiments they wanted to finish.

“We didn’t know what the aesthetic was gonna be,” the frontman admits a few weeks later, after his band has finished whipping its live show into shape. “This hip-hop stuff threw a curveball when I heard the beats for ‘Pay the Man’ and ‘Loyal Like Sid & Nancy.’ Isom was working on those ideas by himself, and I was like, ‘We have to work on this for Foster the People,’ even though it was a completely different palette than what we’d done in the past. They became pillars for the record.”

Though the rest of the band came in and contributed their parts, Foster and Innis remained the album’s core brain trust. “We’ve done remixes together for other artists,” says Innis, who joined Foster the People as a touring musician in 2011 and has since grown into one of the band’s primary creative forces and Foster’s closest partner. “The first remix that we did was for Grouplove on a plane from LA to London. I was somewhere in between staying up on Ambien and a couple of glasses of red wine. From there, we started remixing a bit more, and then we started producing other artists so our writing relationship developed from there.”

Near the start of this decade, Foster the People burst out of the gates with their infectious single “Pumped Up Kicks” and quickly established themselves at the head of the electro-influenced, hipster-approved indie-scene once navigated by MGMT and Passion Pit. Foster, who had a brief career as a jingle writer and began applying those techniques to his original material, has never been shy about marrying pop hooks and darker, lyrical imagery. When Sacred Hearts Club started veering from his loose blueprint, he followed his muse. “Music was genre-specific and very much in a box when I was a kid,” he says. “Now, you put a playlist on and you’re going from Kendrick [Lamar] to Aphex Twin to Mura Masa to The Growlers, and that played into how we decided what was gonna be on this record and how we sequenced it.”

Eventually, Foster realized that he had written what was shaping up to be two very different LPs. One set of songs embraced this new frontier of hiphop, electronica and dance, while the other nodded to his interests in more guitar-driven psychedelia. “Throughout the process, it was a huge question of what we should do,” he admits. “Do we put out a record that is really seamless and has this identity that lives in a genre-specific world? We ultimately decided to pick the songs that would complement each other, but came from completely different worlds and sequenced the record like a roller-coaster.”

Hip-hop has long emerged as a dominant force in pop music and, in recent years, those production elements have gradually started to shape the indie-rock aesthetic that inspired Foster the People. While the group aimed for a slightly more grassroots approach on Supermodel, at times utilizing instruments from around the globe, Foster considers the new LP an older, wiser sibling to the band’s debut, Torches. “‘Life on the Nickel’ is based in hip-hop off a Cold Crush [Brothers] beat,” he says of one of his early songs. “You can trace a line and see an evolution from that song to ‘Doing It for the Money’ and ‘Loyal Like Sid & Nancy’ [which are both on our new album].” 

“Hip-hop is the bravest form of music right now, especially pop music—it’s never apathetic, it’s never complacent, it’s always pushing boundaries and you can see a cultural shift in bands,” Innis says. “It happened before in the late-‘70s, early-‘80s with Blondie, Talking Heads and these post-punk bands that were influenced by punk and disco. Hip-hop was going on in New York and had this exciting sound that was being made with drum machines. The grooves are rooted in soul, and soul is so important. It’s so spiritual; it’s so special. And hip-hop makes you wanna move. For a band, that’s the holy grail if you can achieve it and be inspired.”

After Foster the People figured out their new sound’s blueprint, they brought in a variety of voices to help them fine-tune their vision, including OneRepublic singer Ryan Tedder, rappers Justus and K’naan and tastemaker/ producer John Hill. However, Foster was careful to maintain the project’s band feel. “We’re still the same band we’ve been—obviously, minus Cubbie [Fink],” he says of the group’s founding bassist, who left in 2015. “We’ve always taken this postmodern approach to music, weaving these things we grew up with together into something new.”