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Foster the People: Pumped up, indeed

First, Mark Foster & Co.'s bouncy single 'Pumped Up Kicks' went viral. Then its album 'Torches' hit the Top 10. It's left it the hottest band in L.A. Now, about that court case …

June 26, 2011|By Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times

What followed instead was a job at the Alcove Café in Los Feliz, a room in a $450-per-month hotel in Hollywood and a year or two of writer's block. A job at Mophonics in Venice scoring commercials ultimately kept Foster in L.A.; it also gave him the confidence to start performing again.

"I did a residency at Molly Malone's with my electronic stuff," he recalled. "It was just me and a laptop. Really, it was terrible. I knew I needed a band."

Enter Foster's burgeoning friendship with Mark Pontius. The latter had long been working with locals Malbec, a band that merges scratchy hip-hop beats with orchestral indie pop. He jettisoned Malbec to take a chance on starting a band with Foster in 2009.

"I remember when we first started playing, we sat in a room and Mark played me 30 songs," Pontius said. "Some were on the guitar, and some were on the computer. But it was this really awesome singer-songwriter thing with a tricked-out beat, and I felt we could go wherever we wanted with this."

Indeed, "Torches" is not short on versatility. The hard-luck tail of "Life on the Nickel" sounds as if it were recorded in a futuristic pinball machine, while "Helena Beat" takes a more rock-driven approach and accessorizes it with Parisian pop accents and a techno-meets-South Africa breakdown. The band also has a weirder, MGMT-influenced side, as "Miss You" could be a modern R&B cut before its electronics get all schizophrenic.

The next piece was adding guitarist Cubbie Fink, a longtime friend of Foster's who until about two years ago was working with budding pop songwriter BC Jean. Said Foster of his bandmates, "They're not pretentious, they're not alcoholics, they're not crazy, they're not egomaniacs, and that's hard to find."

The three weren't working together long before Foster brought home "Pumped Up Kicks," a song that appears on the album as it does in its demo format, with Foster playing all the instruments. It's all toy-like effects and handclaps, but underneath it seethes, with the lonesome narrator warning that the hip-outfitted targets of the song's title better "outrun" his gun.

"You look at a rock, and it's this beautiful rock," Foster said. "But if you flip it over, there's a bunch of cockroaches that run into the ground. That's what life is like. That's what my songwriting is like."

Just how exactly "Pumped Up Kicks" went viral — the single has sold more than 360,000 downloads — is a matter of contention, one that will be decided among lawyers. In May, Brandon Dorsky, who runs the website Supergoodmusic.com and describes himself as "an attorney, filmmaker and talent buyer," filed a breach of contract suit against Foster the People and its management, Monotone Inc.

Foster and Dorsky had become friends, and Dorsky, in court papers, takes credit for the name of the band as well as licensing "Pumped Up Kicks" to a Nylon Magazine online video. Foster said that the band was not paid for the placement, but that after blogs started writing about the song, he gave it away for free on the band's website.

Dorsky's lawsuit contends that he was promoting the band through social-networking sites and lining up gigs for Foster the People at venues such as the Viper Room, essentially acting as the group's manager. No contract was ever signed, but Dorsky's attorney, Nathaniel G. Kelly, said there was an oral agreement backed up by email exchanges. Monotone's lawyer, Bert H. Deixler, has dismissed the suit as "meritless."

Foster addressed it like a wizened industry veteran. "When you're on the road to success, you can try to be the best person you can be and treat everyone the right way, but there will always be casualties. That's the sad truth."

StarTime International's Green has known Foster only since early 2010 but is struck by his commitment to remain positive. "There's a certain sense of joy to what Mark does," Green said. "I love joyful music. If you look at everything I work with, it's not very dark. There are dark themes, of course, but I think Mark's music is very life-affirming. It was also sort of fearless. He wasn't concerned about what other people thought."

And one should be careful to keep things in perspective, Green cautions. He's worked with hip acts before — Peter Bjorn & John and Passion Pit, among them — and notes that buzz fades as quickly as it arrives. To avoid a burnout, the label didn't rush the band to record "Torches" when "Pumped Up Kicks" first started getting notice last year. "You can't control everything, but you can be meticulous about the music," Green said.

The band has embarked on a largely sold-out club tour of the U.S., with sold-out dates July 7-8 at the El Rey Theatre, and then will head overseas before returning to America with a slot at Chicago's three-day Lollapalooza festival in August. And after that, the band already has Oct. 15 booked for the Wiltern.

Such a schedule will keep Foster out of the studio for the foreseeable future, but the singer notes that he has a "deep library" of material he's eager to record.

"I want to make music for everyone," he said. "I'm not trying to start a super exclusive group. I don't want a clique of people where you have to wear a certain type of clothes to come to our shows, or you have to be the ages of this and this. If there are 5-year-olds standing next to 90-year-olds, and they're both having fun, I love that. A lot of my melodies tend to be hopeful. I think there's a melancholy there too, but always a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel."

todd.martens@latimes.com

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