Foster The People: “We live in a supermodel culture”

Sitting in his car outside the band’s rehearsal studio, Mark Foster speaks to PERRI CASSIE about Foster The People’s second album Supermodel, travelling alone, and the chemistry of consumerism.

Not many bands find international success writing up-tempo music about school shootings. But just like The Boomtown Rats, Foster The People hit it big in late 2010 with their breakout single ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ from 2011 debut Torches, which was written from the perspective of a homicidal teen. The synth-tinged indie-pop trio worked hard touring the album, hitting Australia on three separate occasions in its promotion, and then when all was said and done, they went quiet.

Three years on, the band have returned with an introspective second album Supermodel inspired by lead singer Mark Foster’s spiritual journeys across the globe. Foster has called his early, attention seeking years in LA his “Hunter S Thompson phase”, but success and travel has changed his outlook. “I’m pretty calm now,” he tells FL. “I’m a pretty shy person. I don’t really go out that much, I hang out at home a lot. I’ve got my small group of friends. I’m pretty tame now to tell you the truth.”

Tell me a little bit of the origins of Supermodel?

I guess the record is kind of about the culture we’re living in now. One of my favourite things to write about is culture and how culture is developing and what makes this generation different from the generation before, and even further back like a hundred years and then even like a thousand years. I just think people are fascinating. So we called this album Supermodel because we live in this supermodel culture where social media and technology, the ways we communicate with each other now, mean that we’re able to create an online identity of ourselves and shape it in a way that we want to look to other people. I just feel likes it’s a really interesting thing with Twitter or Instagram or Facebook that we’re able to show people the face we want them to see as opposed to just walking in our shoes and owning who we are.

There has been quite a delay between Torches and Supermodel; what were some of the reasons behind this?

I think we toured a lot on Torches. Maybe we toured too much, I’m not sure. It’s hard to get perspective on that being in the band. The interim theory is that it was important for us to take our time and make a record that we wanted to make and not to rush out music just because people wanted it. Also I scored a movie [ Little Boy ] between records as well, and unfortunately, looking back I think that pushed back our album a little, and that’s the truth of it.

“This record is much more about confronting your thoughts and being introspective”

You’ve talked about this album being polarising. Where do you think you’ll lose some people and where do you think you’ll gain some?

It’s hard to say… and I look back when I said it was polarising and I take that back. I feel like I was kind of surprised by that interview because I was at a music festival with friends and I ran into a [Rolling Stone] journalist that I had talked to before. At that moment in time I was still so deep in to editing this record that I really had no perspective on what the album really felt like. Especially at that moment in time I was kind of working on more of the rough-to-centre songs, trying to cut them back. I cut probably 30 minutes off this record of music. It was a really, really long record when we finished, and now it’s much more digestible than it was when we originally wrapped.

I think lyrically it’s a really vulnerable album. There are a couple of songs that will be a good bridge from Torches to some of the other songs on the new record that are a different feel for us. Torches to me was an about escapism. It was a record that you could put on and it would lift you out of whatever mood you were in and just kind of let go. I think this record is much more about confronting your thoughts and being introspective, and challenging the thing in the room that’s bothering you as opposed to running from it. I think tonally that’s one of the biggest differences between the two records.

You have said that your travels through India and Morocco were the catalyst for Supermodel. Are any specific moments that made the trip so influential?

Yeah, the most profound thing that happened to me on that trip was when I first started that trip. I was little bit nervous. I had travelled alone before but never to a place like India. I remember starting in that country and one of the things that first struck me was hearing the call to prayer. I had been in Muslim countries before, and the call to prayer had always made me feel uneasy. I think because of the propaganda of growing up in the United States, and especially in the last 15 years the US has really demonised Muslim culture. Their musical scale isn’t a western scale, and it was kind of a dissonant scale that I would hear five times a day with the call to prayer.

The most profound thing that I took from that trip is that three-and-a-half months later the call to prayer became this source of comfort to me. It switched from being this thing that kind of came from propaganda that turned into this thing that I used five times a day as an auditory reminder to check in with myself and with god. When I got back to LA finally after being out of the country so long, I really missed it. I really felt it highlighted a beautiful part of that culture. It made me see clearly a big part of the culture that we lacked in the United States. That was the fascinating thing for me that something so foreign that made me feel uneasy in the beginning became something I ended up embracing. It completely changed my thinking on a culture on those outside the bubble of propaganda.

I was looking at your Instagram before and some of the photos of your travels were pretty great man, I loved the one of all the octopuses hanging up.

That was in Greece. I love traveling alone. I travel alone as much as I can now. Going to places like New York alone, you’re going to absorb it in a way that you never would ever be able to experience with somebody else. For me, travelling alone is like laundry for my thoughts, it becomes this visual, internal experience because you’re not having to talk to the person next to you or do what they want to do. You’re just all eyes and ears and I find it very stimulating. I’m kind of jealous that I’m not able to see New York for the first time.

I looked up some of the chemical compounds that are woven into the tapestry of the album cover [click here to see the cover], we have things like LCD screens, milk of magnesia, nicotine, sedatives/antihistamines … and that’s all my terrible eyesight could make out. What are some of the other compounds and the story behind why they’re on your album cover?

On the hands that are holding up the girl on the gold bars, they’re things that represent the world to her, they’re man-made for ways of control. They’re compounds that have been made for consumption and consumerism, I guess. You’ll find things like weapons grade uranium, agent orange, plastic, gold, diamonds, silver, anthrax. Then on the hands that are holding the cameras, all the compounds on the hands that are pointing the cameras at the girl all represent a form of vanity. Milk of magnesia is the main ingredient in laxatives, you’ll find cocaine, nicotine, you’ll find the chemical reaction that creates the silver that makes a mirror reflective – so a mirror. That’s a chemical reaction which I didn’t know until I started researching.

You visited Australia three times when you were touring Torches. One of those was for Splendor In The Grass, can we expect you back for a return set at this year’s festival?

We’ll be back this year. I’m not exactly sure when, but Australia is really important to us, and so we’re looking for ways to come back soon. I don’t know, I have some many other things I’m trying to pull together right now that I don’t generally get involved with the touring schedule.

Supermodel is out tomorrow through Sony.