You can’t keep Mark Foster away from art.
The “Pumped Up Kicks” frontman flew to Los Angeles from Italy the night before Substream reaches him by phone toward the end of July. The end of a European tour allowed him a few days to spend scoping out an art exhibition in Venice.
Now, on the eve of Foster The People’s newest album release, Sacred Hearts Club, Foster sits in the home he’s been building for three years. No more than 24 hours ago, Foster took a cab from the California airport to his new L.A. residence, where he slept for the first time the night before.
“I’m talking to you from my bedroom right now in a mostly unfurnished, empty house. It feels fuckin’ great,”
Foster laughs.Whether it’s visiting art galleries in Italy or finishing constructing a house in the City of Angels, it seems art is inescapable for the musician. Yet, this time, his band’s most recent piece of art, Sacred Hearts Club, was crafted through one, simple idea—pure happiness.
“I felt like every morning when I woke up, before I would go to the studio, I’d read the news and there was something that happened around the world that was tragic,” he says. “It was the crisis in Syria or the refugee migration into Europe or the political turmoil in our own country or the rise of the idea of nationalism that seems to be a cancer growing around the world right now. As an artist, I just felt the weight on my own shoulders, and I felt the burden on people’s shoulders just being hammered by the darkness that we’ve all been living in over the last couple of years. I felt like making a record using joy, but joy as a weapon in defiance and as an escape with something that it was important for us as a band to really try to create something that unites people in a time that feels more divided than ever.”
Sacred Hearts Club is the result of that feeling of joy.
The 12-song album, which Foster refers to as “this idea of not wanting to let societal boundaries or societal rules apply to the way we live our lives,” finds Foster The People sealing the envelope to the frontman’s vision of locking out performance or commerce pressures and ditching the key. The result combines various music genres, like hip-hop and indie rock, perfectly overlapped with electronically-infused drum beats. That’s not to mention Foster’s melodically intelligent lyrics as icing on one giant cake.
Courtesy of Columbia Records, the album was co-produced by Foster and drummer Isom Innis with the help of John Hill (Bleachers, Phantogram, Portugal. The Man), Lars Stalfors (Cold War Kids, Matt And Kim, Saint Motel), and others while working at various studios throughout Los Angeles.
Then there’s the album title—Sacred Hearts Club.
In a separate interview from the comfort of his downtown L.A. apartment, Innis, who became a permanent member of the band this year, touches on the album’s meaning.“Sacred Hearts Club are people who celebrate life who aren’t afraid to exist outside of societal norms,” he says. “People that aren’t afraid to push boundaries and people that push the status quo.”
Foster takes it a step further, specifically listing people such as Leonardo da Vinci, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski and Patti Smith, who “lived life through a different lens that challenge societal norms and have that want to see, touch, smell, feel, hear everything that life has to offer and squeeze it like a sponge.”
He dives into a brief story from a few years ago while traveling in between tours on Supermodel through Mayanmar, also known as Burma. He crossed paths for one day with his friend Jena Malone, an actress, musician (she actually lends her voice to FTP’s “Static Space Lover”), director and photographer, who was also traveling solo through Burma. The two met at Inle Lake and hopped on a boat that took them hours down the river through ancient Burma as they passed rice fields, jungles and “oxen the size of dinosaurs” pulling wooden wagons full of crops.
“We were reflecting on people [who have that different lens on life] and she was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a Sacred Hearts Club,’ and we both started laughing,” he reflects. “It stuck with me and became a mantra for me going into making this new record—that idea of not wanting to let societal boundaries or social rules apply to the way we live our lives, which I think can put us as humans in such a box mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, constantly asking ourselves, ‘Are we okay? Are we doing the right thing?’ It’s not that clear, and I think wanting to break outside of that and wanting to test the boundaries and wanting to explore every corner of what life has to offer to me is defined by this idea of Sacred Hearts Club.”
Innis gives all lyric credit to Foster, laughingly saying, “I try to make a good beat and then not screw it up.”
“When a spirit comes in the room Mark gets on the mic and starts responding to the aesthetic of the music,” Innis says. “There was a moment on this record when we were working on that song ‘Doing It For The Money,’ and we were searching, we were trying to crack it. He went to the booth and started singing what would become the bridge. He went in there and said ‘It’s a silicone rush and I’m addicted’ and some of it was mumbling and then there’s these incredibly descriptive words that came out, and after the take, I was just like, ‘Dude, yes! That’s it!’”
Foster says the most political song on the album comes in “Loyal Like Sid And Nancy,” which boils down to a metaphor from the controversial Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.
“The title is a metaphor for our country,” Foster says. “It’s a political metaphor, where if Sid killed Nancy and then killed himself, there is a loyalty in that, but it’s a morose, morbid loyalty, where it’s almost a suicide pact. It touches on a lot of different things. It touches on Eric Garner and Black Lives Matter, ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ and ‘I can’t breathe.’ Talking about the U.S. being the new Rome before it falls. I think capitalism without morality is one of the darkest forms of government, and it feels like with this new regime change we’re going through, that a lot of the morality and a lot of the heart taking out a lot of the new ideas and legislations that are trying to be passed right now, and I feel like when you lose your heart in something that that’s the beginning of the end. In some ways, it feels like a suicide pact like Sid and Nancy.”
Yet, the subject of mortality makes its way into the album’s closing track, “III.”
Foster says Innis was born with a heart condition, which ultimately causes the musician to hear his heart “ticking” throughout every second of his life. The song finds Foster singing the line, “I know we’re not invincible so I want to live for something more.”
“It’s really shaped the way he has lived his life knowing every day could be his last,” Foster says. “When you meet this guy, you would never know it because he is one of the most present people I’ve ever met. I picked up on that and wrote the second verse of the bridge with that idea that we’re only here for a short period of time. Just like everybody that has come before us, the one promise we have is that one day we’re going to die. Not in a morbid way, in a beautiful way. I always think about that Nine Inch Nails song [“Hurt”] when Trent Reznor talks about building up his empire of dirt. That you can strive to build up this legacy of physical things and gather these belongings and have this name, and you can have your name in a star on Hollywood Boulevard and all these things, but I think the things we leave behind that transcend everything, our philosophies, our ideas, the way we treat people, the way we pass down what we’ve learned, the way we love people to the next generation, and that song is almost a conversation with God just saying, ‘I’m trying to do something beyond these materialistic things in my life, and I don’t know how, but that’s my desire.’”
“Lotus Eater” specifically is a gripe toward L.A. social life.
Foster expresses his complaint in the line, “My eyes are wandering, can we just eat the news? And dance around the room, in a scattered point of views.”
“The scattered conversations where it feels like everyone is kind of a parrot every night just saying the same thing in their own little bubble just repeating, almost like a mirror effect or an echo effect,” he says. “I felt like every conversation when I would go out and talk to people, nobody was really saying anything but rather repeating something they heard someone else say, and it was almost like a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, like on a VHS tape where it just starts to feel like static after a while.”
But this phase of the band’s career was achieved without intentions of recreating something that’s already been done.
“The ideas of wanting to stay relevant and the ideas of wanting to write a hit song or a record that goes on the Billboard chart, or whatever, those ideas are based in commerce and ego, and I’m not saying those ideas don’t want to push themselves into the process, but I think we tried our hardest to keep those ideas outside of the creative part, the writing part, because those ideas and those thoughts can be killers to creativity,” he says. “I would say this record is one of the most free records I’ve ever made. It was mostly me and Isom locked in a studio together. We would show up everyday, and we would write and see what came out. If a rock song came out or a hip hop thing came out or a dance thing came out, we didn’t judge it. We explored it and took it to the end of whatever that idea was and then moved on. We didn’t start putting on the critical hat until the last six months of finishing the record and editing and going in and starting to use deductive reasoning and taking things away from the album and pulling out the colors. For us, we wanted to make something brave. We wanted to stretch ourselves as musicians and explore with a new color pallete than we’ve never worked with in the past. As an artist, it was very alive stepping into new territory and not knowing where we were going to end up.”
For an Ohio songwriter native who started as a singer in the Cleveland Orchestra as a child, who played classical piano, to playing in hardcore bands as a teenager to writing songs like “Pay The Man” and “Doing It For The Money” currently in his career, Sacred Hearts Club finds Foster The People segueing into uncharted land working in their favor.
“I would call myself a songwriter more than anything else, more than a singer, more than a guitar player, more than a pianist,” he says. “At the core, exploring musical styles and genre as a songwriter and producer is something that keeps me alive as an artist. I think the challenges and the different colors to paint with and different genres are something that keeps it fresh. I would get super bored to create the same thing over and over again. Personally, creating the same thing over and over again and maintaining an identity that people know and like you for is based in commerce to me. I think that if I would try to replicate the sounds of Torches again, that as an artist, I would be dead. It would be rooted in something that wasn’t pure. Music is so infinite and so pure and to create it from a place that is genuine, I have to be present in the moment and have to be doing something that turns me on. That’s really where it comes from, just the desire to travel to new lands. It’s like space travel or something, just wanting to continue to discover is what keeps me alive.”