BY CHARISSA CHE
Foster the People are set to hit The Complex stage on Tuesday, September 5. Audiences who have been with them since their 2011 debut will certainly delight in the familiar catchiness of “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Helena Beat” and performances from their slightly trippier follow-up, Supermodel. Their third album, Sacred Hearts Club, takes a cue from their second: Mark Foster’s songwriting is even more personal and confessional, and the instrumentalization aptly reflects the new discordance in his psyche. It’s sure to reign in a new following to complement its already strong indie-pop fan base.
In anticipation for what promises to be their most eclectic tour yet, I spoke (see: wax philosophical) with keyboardist Isom Innis on the band’s goings-on and the exigence behind their new album.
CHARISSA CHE: So I saw you guys perform here two years ago after the release of Supermodel, and I remember Mark (Foster) saying how it was one of his favorite shows because of the audience participation. What do you feed off of when you perform?
ISOM INNIS: The energy from the crowd is everything. It helps you bring your all to the performance, and when you can tell the audience is there with you, it’s just a rush; it’s a buzz, and it’s infectious. I feel like the more energy you get on stage before you give back, and it’s just amazing.
CC: Any recent memories of a favorite crowd experience you’ve had?
ISOM: We were just in Amsterdam the other day and we played a venue called Paradiso, which is in this really old church, and there are four stories, but it’s still kind of small. So everyone’s packed in there, and you can just feel the energy from everyone. It was just radiating.
CC: This is actually kind of related. I noticed in your last album and especially this new one that there’s a lot of themes of spirituality, like mentions of prophets and god. Has that been a big influence on your music lately?
ISOM: For us, music takes you to another place. Like, our favorite music and the records that have really touched us, they let you know that something else is out there. When we’re writing music, we call it “when the spirit enters the room.” And it’s when you open yourself up and this spirit of inspiration comes into the studio, it’s a buzz. For us on this record, we chased that. We didn’t put constraints on the recording process; we’d show up every day and most days, it doesn’t come. But when it comes, it pushes you to the finish line.
CC: Do you feel like you started out with more constraints?
ISOM: The music on Sacred Hearts Club came out of experimentation and improvisation in the studio. And we didn’t set out to make a specific sound or make a specific song, whereas Supermodel was more of a conceptual record where certain sounds were conceptualized before the recording process took place.
This record is a beat-and-groove-driven record with hip hop, psychedelic ‘60s, and dance music influences, so the foundation to the songs started as a beat that I would make. A lot of times I would sample Mark Pontius (drums) or Sean Cimino (guitar) or us as a band. In classic hip hop production, you search through hours and hours of material to find a break or a loop in the drums that you can repeat over and over again, and through that process of repetition, a beat becomes hypnotic, and that hypnosis makes you move and takes you out of your head. It makes you feel incredible.
So the music was written in response to the beats, and then the vocals came as a response to the music. Mark would go into the booth and he would, stream of consciousness, just start to sing. Sometimes the words would just come out as gibberish; vowel sounds with scattered words. Once that was captured, he would go in and really, under a magnifying glass, start to finish the lyrics.
CC: This sounds really transcendent. Not often I hear music described as hypnosis.
ISOM: For us, it’s different. For a songwriter, if you sit down at a piano or with a guitar and approach writing a song, it’s gonna sound a lot different than writing a song as a result of experimentation. I think for us, a lot of our favorite records, even Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, or J Dilla’s Donuts are all albums that are a result of experimentation. And it takes you to another place, when you can transcend your ego and be open to creativity. It’s absolutely spiritual.
CC: Do you think that the keyboard has taken on a different role throughout the course of your albums?
ISOM: I never really approach it like “What’s the role of the piano?” It’s kind of like abstract painting. I’m a big fan of Gerhard Richter. I can’t describe his process exactly, but in abstract expressionism, you’re putting paint on the canvas, and I don’t know if conceptually, he was trying to paint anything specific, but you’re just letting the colors – you’re throwing all these ideas on the canvas, and once you’ve put it there, you start to deconstruct it; you realize what the through line is, and you let that dictate how you’re going to finish the painting. I approach recording and whatever instrument I’m playing in the same way. It might make the album or it might not. I feel like we’re always playing musical chairs.
I keep getting philosophical but songs to us are like these living, breathing organisms that have genetic coding, and each song has a special genetic coding that you have to crack, and for us, we’re [asking] “Okay, should the drums be sampled? Live? A cut of the live take and then put samples with? Should it be an analog synth sound or should it be piano or electric guitar or dulcimer?” It’s just an endless combination of textures.
CC: I read that you guys wrote the songs on Sacred Hearts Club in reaction to the times that we’re living in. Can you expand on that a little?
ISOM: The lyrics are absolutely a reaction to what’s going on in the world right now, and for the last few years, people have really been going through it. You wake up every day and you read the headlines in the news, and there’s a new tragedy of some proportion. It’s hard not to have a heavy heart. We just wanted to extend an arm; to make music that unites people and just brings people joy.
CC: How has it been received so far?
ISOM: It’s been incredible. We started our first tour a couple months ago here in the U.S. a few days after we released III, which was the precursor to Sacred Hearts Club. And at the first show, people already knew the lyrics to the songs and were already anticipating it, and as people have been digesting the music, it’s just been growing. We’ve even been playing certain songs that haven’t been released, and I think people have been looking at bootleg YouTube videos and learning them.
CC: What’s been your favorite track to play on the new album?
ISOM: I really like “Sid and Nancy.” It’s really fun to play live, and we’ve been opening a lot of shows with it. To me, it has the primal energy of the Sex Pistols, mixed with avant garde synth textures of Krautrock and hard-hitting beats. It’s such a rush to play that song live.
Getting to play new songs is the most exciting thing, and now that we have 3 albums worth of material, getting to choose different setlists every night and mix and match songs – we’re playing for about an hour and 45 minutes, so we’re really playing a good amount of material from all 3 records. It’s just been a new experience getting to rework old songs, seeing how new songs fit with both records. It’s been really fun.
To get tickets to the show, go here.
*TICKET GIVEAWAY: We’re giving away tickets to the show! To enter, please comment on this article with your name. We’ll randomly select 2 lucky winners and announce them a week before the show.