Foster the People

How does a struggling musician and former commercial jingle writer come up with one of the most popular songs in 2011? “Pumped Up Kicks” was literally everywhere that summer the single released to kick-start the insane popularity of Foster the People. From being played while getting your groceries to excessive modern rock radio airplay, there didn’t seem to be a single person out there not humming along to the chorus of the smash hit. The band formed two years prior to their debut album, Torches, and consisted of Mark Foster (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), lead guitarist Sean Cimino, keyboardist Isom Innis, and drummer Mark Pontius. What I thought the band’s strengths at the time of their debut was their ability to make every note, every hook, feel like you were part of something bigger than yourself. Foster the People found early success that most bands could only dream of, and this album went on to sell more than two million copies in the United States. The irony found here was that the business Mark Foster was trying to break away from (commercial jingles) would only add to his band’s marketability, and he’d hear his music in commercials nonetheless.

The record rips open with the frenetic drum beat from Pontius on “Helena Beat,” and quickly brings in some samples of laughter and 80’s styled-synths, to lead into a great opening statement. Foster’s opening lyrics of, “Sometimes life it takes you by the hair / Pulls you down / Before you know it, it’s gone and you’re dead again / I’ve been in places and I won’t pretend / Yeah I’d make it out just to fall on my head” are instantly relatable and he brings focus to his words early on. The jam section of the song around the three-minute mark packs an additional punch to the song that has a ton going for it, and Foster the People typically extend this part whenever they play it live.

”Pumped Up Kicks” was the song that was originally pushed by Foster the People’s co-managers Brent Kredel and Brett Williams to build the rest of the album around, and it’s clear to see why. The track’s marketability led to the band signing a multi-album record deal and the song is filled with a summery, upbeat bounce to it, even though the homicidal maniac lyrics bring a stark contrast to the track. Lines like, “He’s a cowboy kid / Yeah he found a six-shooter gun / In his dad’s closet, boy, in a box of fun things / I don’t even know what / But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you” were dangerous in a country that is filled with more school shootings than we can count. Yet the undeniable single went on to be a raging success and came extremely close to reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100, nearly unheard of for an indie pop/rock act.

Other songs that still continue to be staples in their live set are the immediately gratifying “Call It What You Want,” “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls)” and the hazy allure of “Waste.” The first two songs mentioned are stead-fast marketable material, and would have been an easy choice for a lead single had the band’s management not made such a strong push for “Pumped Up Kicks” to be the introduction to their artist. On “Waste,” Foster began to get more complex and deeper with his lyrics, especially on the second verse of, “You know it’s funny how freedom can make us feel contained / Yeah, when the muscles in our legs aren’t used to all the walking / I know if you could snap both your fingers that you’d escape with me / But in the meantime, I’ll just wait here and listen to you when you speak…or scream.” The first line about freedom really stuck with me in this new context of the world we’re living in currently and the so-called “attacks” on our freedom by asking our fellow citizens to wear a simple additional layer of protection if they aren’t vaccinated. It really made me think about how music stands the test of time and how lyrics can be interpreted completely different from one observer to the next.

”I Would Do Anything For You” is 80’s-styled synth pop dance anthem about falling in love whereas “Houdini” entertained the limits society puts on us. Foster explains on the chorus, “Got shackles on, my words are tied / Fear can make you compromise / Lights turned up, it’s hard to hide / Sometimes I wanna disappear,” as he makes some good points about our own anxieties of living in our own head. Whereas “Life On the Nickel” brings into focus the struggle of trying to make ends meet. The second verse of, “You got to push, got to shove / I’ve got to eat before they eat me / Got the crown and the cup / I’ve got to write to my family / And say, ‘I’m calm and feeling warm’ / I’m not quite there, but I’m close / And it’s a world of a difference,” allows for Mark Foster to tell a story of someone fighting for their right to survive, especially when it seems like the odds are stacked against them.

The album closes out with the equally empowering “Warrant,” that starts off with a choir chanting until the familiar beat, synths, bass, and guitars kick into full gear. Foster admits, “Well I’ve been judged, I’ve been a bug unknown / I know all about it, but my heart is strong / I’ve been away been running to save my head / Yeah the warrant’s out, and I’m almost dead / I won’t say what I’ve already said,” and it may have been his way of saying that he’s not sure if will be exposed for being “just a jingle writer” and not a serious musician. The fact of the matter is, Mark Foster and his bandmates are more than capable of writing great songs, not just sections of music that magically happen to work out in the end. The cohesive nature of this infectious collection of songs that became Torches seem to burn a little brighter knowing that Mark Foster made his dreams come true.