Homer Simpson once opined that only two kinds of guys wear Hawaiian shirts: big, fat party animals, and gay guys. Matt Popieluch, rope-thin lead singer of Foreign Born, is a floral-pattern fiend, and neither. This inability to be neatly categorized partially explains why his band — one of Los Angeles’ finest — has spent the past five years patiently waiting to blow up while lesser locals with superannuated style have been hyped.
“We’re in a weird place, we’re not experimental enough to be a critic’s darling, but we’re not poppy enough to be considered a pop band,” says the red moccasin–rocking Popieluch, while sipping an ice coffee at the Vista Café in Los Feliz, blocks from the home he shares with Glasser’s Cameron Mesirow. If they were based in Brooklyn, Foreign Born would already be huge by now — at least among the flannel-wearing and mustached masses. The Bay Area– and Hong Kong–raised Popieluch even admits that a location shift was briefly bandied about in the wake of their 2007 debut, On the Wing Now, an album that elicited plaudits from some quarters but gathered minimal momentum.
The false start also stemmed from the decision to release the record on electro-clash kingpin Steve Aoki’s label, an odd coupling worthy of Neil Simon — were Oscar Madison garbed in teal tank tops, lame head bands and brass Dim Mak medallions. Ever tactful, Popieluch won’t bash his previous home, but readily cops to artistic differences. Understandable, considering the shotgun-wedding nature of the union, with Foreign Born in hock after recording their album and perhaps too hasty to accept the first decent offer.
But after Popieluch and his songwriting partner Lewis Pesacov handed in the demos for their follow-up, the newly released Person to Person, Dim Mak wanted to hear more, ostensibly hoping for a MSTRKRAPP-influenced concept album or something. Instead, Indiana’s Secretly Canadian, one of the finest outfits in indie, snatched up the band, whose globetrotting pop fit nicely alongside label mates Jens Lekman and BLK JKS.
“When I first heard their song ‘Union Hall’ [from On the Wing Now], I was immediately floored,” remembers Roy Swanson, one of Secretly Canadian’s partners. “The song had all the gravity and anthem of some of the greatest rock songs ever recorded. It belonged in that strange nexus where the most bizarre works by Led Zeppelin, Roy Orbison and the Police cross paths. When we met them and found out they were working on a new album, there was no doubt in our minds that this would be a special band to work with.”
With newfound patrons, the quartet (which stretches to a seven-piece onstage) rented a plush pad with a balcony and a Jacuzzi up in the hills around Mulholland Drive. The result, Person to Person, offers brass-inflected guitar pop that earns that rare distinction of sounding the way Los Angeles feels: full of saffron sun and streaks of sadness, with fluid interplay between the exotic and the occidental — the blithe buoyancy of a place filled with “vacationing people,” as its lead single intimates.
“We were hoping to embody L.A. in the same manner as David Hockney,” says Popieluch, a former art student and sometime visual artist. “Music filled with bright colors, masking a darker façade underneath.”
Person to Person also finds Foreign Born’s sound increasingly tougher to triangulate. Whereas they were once dogged by facile U2 and Snow Patrol comparisons, their latest combines Popieluch’s penchant for the ’90s output of Chicago indie Drag City, classic Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, and an African music monomania that Pesacov offered way prior to Vampire Weekend’s rise. At times, Foreign Born’s new music recalls a combination of a Summerteeth-era Wilco, a less shaggy Akron/Family and a Cold War Kids that everyone can agree on.
Since Pesacov founded local afrobeat outfit Fool’s Gold in 2007 (in which Popieluch plays rhythm guitar), his increasingly polyrhythmic bent has paid massive dividends. While the band’s sound seemed occasionally straitjacketed by sexless indie orthodoxy, the East African influence allowed them to expand their lungs and loosen up their limbs; their new tunes are tinctured with a spiked-fruit punch-funk.
“On the Wing Now had a lot of good stuff, but it was flawed,” Popieluch volunteers. “We wrote it prior to Fool’s Gold and it just felt too stiff and uptight. When Lewis incorporated Fool’s Gold’s ideas into Foreign Born, it really helped relax our sound.”
“My problem with the first record was that we were writing emotionally dramatic songs that didn’t have any groove,” the Los Angeles–raised Pesacov says. “We sounded a bit soulless. Because I always thought people hated world music, I was scared for a long time to let my original influences in. The older you get, the more you revert to what you were raised on.”
Indeed, the parabolic guitars, harmonic horns and benga beats of Person to Person are neither dilettantish nor an attempt to carpetbag the indie trend du jour. Pesacov’s father moved to Los Angeles from Barbados in the 1970s with the hope of being a reggae producer, and exposed his son to everything from Fela Kuti to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In fact, the latter’s post–Dead Man Walking performance at the Universal Amphitheatre helped to galvanize a teenage Pesacov’s love of music.
Of course, Foreign Born haven’t been without their champions, most notably Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, who has been a fan since the band’s first EP. Recently, the acclaimed Brooklyn songwriter blogged that Foreign Born are a “great band,” hailing Person to Person’s “crisper sounds [and Popieluch’s] wonderful voice . I’ve listened to it 20 times and it hasn’t grown old yet.” (Droste, it should be said, is known to wear the occasional Hawaiian shirt.)
The band also scored a highly visible television appearance on the pilot for Silver Lake succubus Chuck, an experience that Popieluch describes as slightly bizarre, with an overexcited hype man who repeatedly screamed at the crowd, “OK, YOU HAVE TO BE MORE ANIMATED, THESE GUYS ARE YOUR FAVORITE BAND.”
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And maybe they should be. Popieluch alone plays in Fool’s Gold, Glasser and, of course, Foreign Born — in addition to managing Frank Fairfield, a sepulchral Southern bluesman trapped in the body of a banjo-playing 26-year-old. That’s four of L.A.’s finest this year.
“I feel it’s all the same thing, all the same cause,” says Popieluch, who also regularly books shows for his friends’ bands. “I really like making things happen, and setting up situations to help build a community. I hate when people bash Los Angeles as being the only place that has bad bands — there is so much talent here.”
And few more talented than Foreign Born. After all, you have to be pretty good to prove Homer Simpson wrong.
Foreign Born perform with Warpaint at the Hammer Museum on Thursday, July 16.