"I've tried to live without regrets. I'm always moving forward and not looking back, but i tend to leave a trail of dead while moving ahead. And so I'm stepping away, 'cause I've got nothing to say."
The final lines of the first verse of Foster The People’s "Coming of Age" illustrate a moment of clarity for singer and songwriter Mark Foster. Coming off a two-year tour circuit of his band’s debut album, "Torches," Foster’s blinders were pulled from his eyes with the realization that he no longer had a set schedule in front of him, granting him a horizontal perspective for the first time in a long time.
Foster's pursuit of his goals has, at times, pushed a narrow rail, forcing him to block outliers from view, and -- intentional or not -- it has come at the cost of others. "Coming of Age" is a confession, an apology of sorts to those closest to Foster that he hurt during his meteoric rise. But more than anything, it is an admission to his greatest victim: himself. And so Foster set out on a three-month trip from India to Morocco, a journey that would redefine his perception of self, the world he lives in and ultimately, the driving text behind his band’s sophomore album.
"Supermodel" is a giant leap from 2011’s "Torches" for so many reasons. While songs such as the opener, "Are You What You Want To Be," and “Best Friend” are, in some ways, sonically cut from the same cloth as the band’s debut, "Supermodel" is far more dynamic and adventurous. "Torches" was filled with songs packed with as much sunny goodness as possible, making some nothing short of anthemic. At many points, though, there was a layer overload, working songs into a scattered and occasionally overwhelming state. "Supermodel" finds maturity and structure, and during the few times that the layers start to build, there is greater management and purpose. A major force behind this change was Foster’s switch from writing as a producer to writing as a live band.
"I wrote ‘Torches’ before experiencing touring as a band," Foster said. "I really had no idea what they would sound like live, and that was something we had to figure out along the way. After touring for two years on that album, one of the things I walked away with going into the second record was that I wanted to be more intentional with the melodies and the production I used. It was important to us as a band that these songs sounded like dudes in a room playing together. We wanted everything on our last record to sound perfect, but it was very important this time around that we brace our imperfections.
"I feel like this was our first album as a band," he continued. "I feel like 'Torches' was more a collection of songs. There was a few big changes we made. We worked with one producer instead of five. We created some boundaries. We decided that we wouldn’t use any software synth; that anything electronic would be analog, that all the instruments would be organic."
The most immediate and obvious change is the replacement of heavy electronic elements with guitar and percussion. "Goats In Trees," "Nevermind" and "Fire Escape" take a more intimate approach with stripped down acoustics, while "Ask Yourself" and "A Beginner’s Guide To Destroying The Moon" showcase some solo noodling.
"I didn’t intend for this record to be less electronic," Foster said. "It just happened along the way. I learned not to try to impose control in the writing process so much. If a song took a left turn or wasn’t a 'Foster' melody, but felt good, I kind of just let it go. When we started this record, we went in with half-ideas, and so this record came from having the freedom to explore, from going down rabbit holes.
"There’s a moment in ‘Goats in Trees' where you hear this weird crackly instrument, shifting vocal thing during an instrumental part," Foster continued. "It’s from this Buddhist prayer machine, and the vocals come in and duck back out. It’s only about one second, but to me, that one second, and the feeling of a Buddhist prayer, brings such a strong identity to that song. We would have never found that if we hadn’t just been messing around in the studio with any weird instrument we could find. We were just searching for something. We didn’t know what it was, but I think the whole record was made in that spirit. This record came out of wanderlust."
And venture into the burrow they did. "Pseudologia Fantastica" is a drugged-out number that stacks rippling synths on top of crackling riffs, reminiscent of something more likely found on a Tame Impala release.
"A Beginner’s Guide To Destroying The Moon" is the album’s most surprising and electrifying cut, and exactly what Foster was talking about when he said that this album had some anger. Deep, distorted bass rumbles over top of a Clams Casino sample, breaking out in a yell during the second verse, spitting out venomous lines like, “You'll never be whole until you lose control / stop drinking the wine thats been dripping from lips of gluttons,” one after another.
The vocals are another significant change in "Supermodel." Foster acknowledged that in his youth he relied on his falsetto as a crutch at times, and wanted to explore his full range on this record. "Coming of Age" proves that Foster is capable of crushing the high notes in full voice, while songs like "Goats In Trees" and "The Truth" find him settling into his lower register, very much akin to the baritone of The National’s Matt Berninger.
This variation in pitch and tone act as such vital ports for Foster to push different feelings and ideas that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Unlike "Torches," lyrics climb to the forefront of "Supermodel," pushing ideas that merge into cyclical themes of consumption and identity.
"During 'Torches,' I was more concerned with communicating the spirit of the song than the actual lyrics," Foster said. So this time I waited till the end of recording to write the lyrics so that the mic would capture the urgency. The freshness of a new idea; the continuity of capturing a moment in time. I was going through a lot of personal change at the time. A lot of volatile emotions, a lot of vulnerabilities, so I wanted to be as authentic as I could be about what I was join through."
The album’s opener, "Are You What You Want To Be" -- Foster originally wanted to title the song "Diary of a Revolutionary" -- is written in character through the eyes of a young revolutionary, professing, "I'm afraid of saying too much and ending a martyr, but even more so I'm afraid to face god and say I'm a coward." Inspired by those whose ideals trump their own self-preservation, when Foster asks, "Are you what you want to be?" he isn’t asking his listeners, he’s questioning himself.
In the penultimate track, and easily the most beautiful, gripping song Foster The People have written, "The Truth," Foster seems to find some resolution as he trembles, "The purpose is needed before you know what you know, to never wonder what you are, and not forget where you come from."
"This song makes me very uncomfortable," Foster said. "I didn’t want to put it on the record because it’s too close to home, I guess. It exposes a lot of me, and so does 'Goats In Trees.’ I wrote those songs in order to express something I couldn’t fully articulate with words. To express something I couldn’t extract. I don’t know how to talk about them because they rare abstract emotions that come from a guarded place in my heart that people don’t normally get to see." Foster continued:
"After touring on ‘Torches’ I was on information overload. I had very little time to digest anything during the whole process. I had had no time for myself. I had a lot of questions, so I kept traveling and went on what I called my three-month trip through the Middle East. I went to places where nobody knew who I was and nobody could get ahold of me. For the first time, I got perspective of what it was like to live in the U.S. I was out of the L.A. bubble long enough to actually look in. Being in that foreign environment was so inspiring, and it found its way into the music consciously and subconsciously. I experienced feelings that I had felt before, and I don’t know what it was exactly.
"Their devotion to spirituality was what rocked me the most. In Morocco, a Muslim country, I got to hear the call to prayer five times a day. At first it felt kind of scary, kind of dangerous because of the propaganda towards anything Muslim in the U.S. subconsciously coming out in me. By the end of the trip it was so beautiful, and then not hearing it when I got back to L.A. really threw me off. I didn’t get on my knees and pray to Mecca, but I used it as a time to check in with myself and check in with god.
"When I’m in L.A., and when the band is in full motion, it’s really hard to check in with myself. When i said the trail of dead, you know, thats how I am. I hyper-focus on my goals, and everything around me slips into a blur, so having that audible reminder throughout the day was a really powerful and beautiful thing. It would break through all the noise in my head five times a day from the crack of dawn to the setting of the sun. When i started to connect with that, that’s when things really started to change for me. To see the flip side of something so ingrained in you. I got to see the flip of side of the coin and fully realized that no matter where you are and no matter what you believe, people aren’t that different. It sounds so cliche for me to go on this trip and say it changed my life, but it really did.
"I also had a driver in Morocco who helped me get around during my time there, and the one day he invited me to eat dinner with his mom and his family. I have good friends in L.A. that don’t invite me over for dinner, and heres a stranger inviting us into his house to break bread with his family. It broke my heart in the best possible way. It showed me the difference between a culture that values its community more than themselves and a culture that values themselves more than their community.
"This record is really about the grey area in-between the western world and the eastern world, and a lot of the ideas on this record are about exploring what the truth is, the idea of god, and the idea of beauty. Part of the reason that this record is called 'Supermodel' is because of the way that we define beauty, and how that differs between the western and the eastern world. I’m not taking a side either way, I’m just looking at how people perceive beauty in different ways all over the world."
On the cover of "Supermodel" there is a poem that Foster wrote after hearing the album as a whole. It reads:
I ate it all / plastic, diamonds and sugar-coated arsenic / We danced in honey and sea-salt sprinkled laxative / Coral blossomed portraits in Rembrandt light / Cheekbones high and fashionable / Snap! goes the moment / A photograph is time travel / like the light of dead stars painting us with their warm, titanic blood / Parasitic kaleidoscopes and psychotropic glow worms stop me dead in my tracks / Aphids sucking the red off a rose / but for beauty I will gladly feed my life / into the mouths of rainbows / Their technicolor teeth cutting prisms and smiling benevolently / on the pallid hue of the / working class hero
"I'm really into the recycling of art," Foster said. “That one piece of art inspires another piece of art, which inspires another piece of art. I really like that idea. This record's about consumption. This girl, this supermodel, is vomiting this poem that she consumed, that she couldn’t hold down. Vomiting this poem about consumption while photographers around her capturing that moment, consuming her, and then vomiting those photos out to the public. It’s this back and forth, this cycle."
Explaining the power that the word "supermodel" has in our culture, it was important to Foster that the album art perfectly capture its emotional potential. Stressing over what the art would be for days on end, when the idea finally came to him, he called the artist and spewed out the details at a million miles per hour. Now, when he passes by the giant mural of the cover on a building in Los Angeles on almost a daily basis, the result makes hims feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. But, according to Foster, that’s a good thing.
In a time when album artwork is often generated without real concern, more than content with just throwing on something that looks cool and calling it a day, I congratulated Foster on devoting so much time and care towards it.
While we were speaking on the phone, I could almost see the grin on his face as he spoke four words: "You only live once."
"Supermodel" will be available on March 18. Watch the first installment of the band's video series discussing the recording process above.