Foxygen's tension has our attention

Foxygen frontman's antics add energy, discomfort

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Foxygen's "San Francisco" is about as perfect a piece of baroque, groovy '60s pop as you're likely to hear all year, and if you know little more about this young LA band than that sunny tune and perhaps the laid-back lope of the Velvets-like current single, "No Destruction," you may be in for a jolt when you see the group live — which Chicagoans have two opportunities to do this weekend.

Led by childhood friends Sam France and Jonathan Rado, both now 23, Foxygen doesn't attempt to re-create its intricate arrangements onstage, opting instead for a more stripped-down, aggressive approach. This makes sense in that, as multi-instrumentalist Rado said in a phone conversation from Bloomington, Ind., replicating the studio versions would be "kind of impossible, at least for us, because we're kind of lazy and unfocused and don't want to sit and sample in all the noises or figure out how to play a string part on a different instrument or something. We kind of decided to do it like a band in the '70s would, or a punk band, before samplers."

But the real surprise is the can't-take-your-eyes-off-him quality of singer France, whose sweet voice belies his maniacal onstage presence. His eyes wide and wild, his hands constantly running through his Syd Barrett-like tangle of dark hair, France puts across an unhinged state that teeters between entertaining and discomforting.

At last month's Wilco-presented Solid Sound festival in northwestern Massachusetts, Scott Waldman of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., wrote that France leaped off monitors; climbed the stage corner, prompting a security guard to pull him down and confront him; wrapped the microphone cord around his neck like a noose and kept singing all the while. Waldman called the set "the type of musical performance that leaves your mouth hanging open, that makes your heart race, that makes you excited to dissect over and over with your friends what you just witnessed."

But Waldman also wrote that France's behavior caused concern: "In the crowd, people wondered if he was on acid. They wondered if he was schizophrenic. They wanted to give him a hug, to calm him down."

"I probably just needed a hug, yeah," France — on the phone from Olympia, Wash. — said with a laugh upon hearing the passage read to him.

Some folks at Foxygen's Lincoln Hall set in March also wondered whether France was having some sort of bad trip. France yelled at drummer Shaun Fleming at the end of "On Blue Mountain" and for the rest of the set was scowling, rolling his eyes and aborting songs as Rado and the other three band members shot one another nervous looks.

"Yeah, it happens a lot," Rado said upon being reminded of that show.

The following week France had what was widely deemed a "meltdown" during a South by Southwest festival showcase meant to capitalize on the rave reviews that greeted the early 2013 release of the album "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic." France confronted an audience member who told him to quit whining after the singer had complained that he and his voice were worn out, and France stormed off stage, returned, apologized and finished the set, but the band canceled its two subsequent SXSW performances as well as its European tour dates in May and June.

The take-away of some critics and industry folks: Foxygen wasn't quite ready for prime time.

Rado said the European tour actually had been canceled before SXSW; the band had never wanted to do it, its scheduling was due to a miscommunication, and the announcement's timing was unfortunate because "it made it seem like we just freaked out at South By Southwest and canceled everything."

As for South by Southwest, Rado said the festival came at the tail end of this relatively inexperienced band's longest tour ever — a month and a half of performing between Wampire and headliner Unknown Mortal Orchestra — and they weren't prepared for playing so many sets over the festival's compressed time period.

"That could drive someone crazy, and did, and it made (France) lose his voice," Rado said. "We canceled the last two shows because he literally could not sing. He couldn't talk."

Of South by Southwest, France said, "That was bad, but that was still not the worst vibe at a show I've seen. I don't know. That was OK. I was just a little frustrated."

The singer also said he didn't recall what happened at Lincoln Hall. But, when reminded that he introduced one song by saying something to the effect of, "This next song is going to (expletive) suck," he responded with an embarrassed laugh.

"Oh, my God," he said. "That's terrible. See, that's bad. That's just bad. You should never say, 'This sucks' onstage. You should never admit to any sort of fault of yourself up there because it just makes the audience feel even worse. I don't specifically remember that show, but it definitely does not sound like I was in a good mood."

Still, France said, he is putting on a performance, even as audience members worry about his stability.

"Yeah, people always think that I'm really on drugs or something, but it's not true," he said. "I just kind of act kind of funny up there."

Part of the reason, he said, is that as the frontman he feels an obligation to seize the spotlight.

"We're not extremely talented, so I end up doing whatever the hell I can do up there to keep people's attention, which sometimes is really anything I can do," he said. "If the song sounds terrible, then I'm like, I'm going to climb up this side of the stage here or do something weird. I don't know if it's really a good technique, but it's been interesting so far."

His role model onstage is someone whose offstage fate he'd certainly prefer to avoid.

"I was just always into the Doors, so when I was young, I'd pretend I was Jim Morrison or something like that," France said. "It sounds really goofy, but it's been coming out recently, like just this ridiculous vibe or something. The other day I was onstage, and I was doing this Indian shaman dance. I was like, 'This is, like, Jim Morrison (stuff), like this is ridiculous.' But it was funny."

That France would be drawing inspiration from a '60s musical icon is no surprise. "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors," produced by singer/songwriter/producer Richard Swift and released by the Bloomington, Ind.-based indie label Jagjaguwar, is the product of two guys who bonded over '60s rock as kids and let their cool record collections inform their music in playful ways.

"On Blue Mountain" scene-shifts from the verse groove of the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" to the melody chorus of Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" but also visits other contrasting landscapes while somehow making the big picture coherent. "In the Darkness" bathes in sweet harmonies and psychedelic touches, while "Oh Yeah" includes chants out of Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff" yet ends with Rado playing what he calls a "faux hair metal solo" that, in their one disagreement on the album, France hated.

It's hard to say what number album "21st Century Ambassadors" is for Foxygen because "Take the Kids on Broadway" (2012) had been the only previously released one, but then an earlier one, "Jurrassic Exxplosion Phillipic," was made available, and Rado said he and France recorded several more albums in high school.

The prolific pair said they're about to begin recording a sprawling double album in a studio that Rado has set up in Bloomington. France said the material will cover "Fleetwood Mac-style songs with female vocals," electronic experimentation, reggae, "weird tripped-out country stuff" and "typical '60s vibes. It's going to be wild."

Rado also has a solo album, "Law and Order," coming out Sept. 3 on the indie label Woodsist that contains "stuff that I wrote that I didn't feel comfortable bringing to Foxygen." Rado noted that some of the songs wouldn't have fit France's voice, but also he's constantly writing songs and feels a "need to record music always."

"I didn't know anything about it, really," France said. "I read about it on Pitchfork. I was like, 'What the (expletive)'?"

"No, I told him about it," Rado said. "He forgets things."

So the energy that Foxygen will bring to a Friday late show at Schubas and a Sunday afternoon set at the Pitchfork Music Festival will be anyone's guess. Just know that France isn't concerned about making audiences feel uneasy.

"I think that a lot of live shows nowadays are just absolutely so dull," the singer said. "I really love it when there's some personality or something happening onstage. I really want to make people uncomfortable, but I don't want to turn them off. I don't want them to dislike me, so it's kind of a fine line."

"Even I go on stage really not knowing what's going to happen," Rado said, "but I think that's something that makes our shows a little special, that there is this sort of tension because Sam is a little bit unhinged onstage, and there have been incidents" — he laughed — "you know?"

Foxygen plays Friday night at Schubas (10 p.m. show with two openers, 3159 N. Southport Ave.; $14, $7 at door with Pitchfork Music Festival proof of purchase; 773-525-2508) and 1:45 p.m. Sunday at the Pitchfork Music Festival, in Union Park.

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

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