It was about 10:30 p.m. on a Monday night in February when I first heard of Foster the People, and 10:31 when I realized that they were going to be colossally, gigantically famous. At a tiny strip-mall bar in suburban Orange County, a line of kids who looked like they'd rushed from an Intro to Comp Lit class at the local JC stretched from the door all the way back into the dark and lonely parking lot. Inside, I could feel my hair frizzing after a 30-degree temperature jump thanks to a crowd so tightly packed people were afraid to even think about trying to make it to the restroom. I'd been sent there to review the local resident band, but I wondered if the local band had even been able to get into their own show. Instead, this was all for Foster the People — a band barely 2 years old with a barely-there discography based on one EP and one YouTube video.
As soon as the lights went down, photographers with enormous fancy cameras and fans — mostly women — with enormous desire to get really close to the band started battling to get at the stage. (“Now it's MY turn,” shouted a brunette halfway through the second song, ducking under an SLR lens.) Every time a song finished, they'd scream. Scream scream scream. The walls were sweating. “My boyfriend thinks you're a reporter,” said one girl, noticing how I wasn't screaming or attacking people. I would have explained, but then came the simple loping riff that both starts and sustains “Pumped Up Kicks,” the song that pretty much defines Foster the People as a band: catchy, cute, possessed of mysterious power to capture a certain kind of person's mind.
If you want to know what it looks like to watch a band at the moment they understand they've got it made, you can look at the “Pumped Up Kicks” official YouTube video and see what I saw, because it was shot at that very show. At 2:27, singer Mark Foster looks up — the words “Detroit Bar” behind him — and the exhaustion on his face dissolves completely into elation. It's a three-second clip. But I can tell you that after that shot, he sank happily into his performance and surrendered the mic, standing onstage in front of hundreds of superheated fans. They sang every word he wrote right back to him.
Four months later, Mark Foster is still exhausted. It's 4 p.m. local time, but he sounds like he's ready for bed. “We're in Lawrence, Kan.,” he says, unmistakably weary. On this single day, he'd talk to several reporters, and then go on to play a sold-out show at the Bottleneck with bassist Cubbie Finke and drummer Mark Pontius. (Perhaps he was allowed a break to pick from a backstage deli tray.) They'd play another sold-out show the next day at the Fine Line in Minneapolis. Then on to Chicago's Lincoln Theater the next day to play another sold-out show, then to Cleveland's Grog Shop for another sold-out show. And so it would go for most of the tour as they hop-scotch across the country from one sold-out show to the next.
This orgy of success was ignited by “Pumped Up Kicks” — the song that went from YouTube to the eager forebrains of very dedicated fans and then an after-the-fact three-song EP. Simply searching for “Pumped Up Kicks” and “song of the summer” — a cliché as applicable as it is adorable — yields hundreds of results from local newspapers, national media outlets, radio station websites and blogs.
“When I wrote ['Pumped Up Kicks'] I didn't know that it would be the type of song it has been,” Foster says. By that, he means that he didn't know it would become the impetus for launching the band into a major label deal and all these sold-out shows and the trappings of pop fame circa 2011, etc. “I produced 'Pumped up Kicks' myself and to me it was just a demo. A week or two later it started to go viral.”
Foster started out as what we might call a dreamer. He moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles — after his dad suggested he try to start a career in music — about 10 years ago, when he was 18 years old.
He was living paycheck to paycheck and making lattes before he was hired as a house composer for a company that made commercial jingles. “It was awesome,” he says. “I could go there in the middle of the night and record songs for the band and it was great. The band wouldn't be where it is now if I hadn't worked there. It was the first job in L.A. where I stopped drowning in bills and got to make music all day long.”
One of the songs he recorded was “Pumped Up Kicks.” The band put it on their website in January 2010; a month later NylonTV used it in their coverage of Fashion Week. In early March, the BBC made “Pumped Up Kicks” available for download in time for SXSW, and in May, the track was praised in The Guardian. It was at around this point that Foster the People was signed to Columbia — as the Buzzbands L.A. blog reported in early June 2010 — and that's when the song really started to “go viral,” as Foster says.
That was something he didn't expect, since it was a kind of a downer song about gun violence. It's got a strange, almost melancholic undertone underneath an earworm-y hook that just won't stop. And although it's an easy sing-along, it's really about a kid warning everyone to “run run run/Outrun my bullet.”
“I've written so many songs that are hopeful — songs that are, like, about an old man that gives all his possessions away because he wants to help people. I wrote 'Pumped Up Kicks' just to tell a different type of story,” he says. “Initially, I was pretty freaked out because the song is powerful. It's like an anthem. It's a sing-along, but it's dark.
“I was definitely afraid that some 13-year-old would relate to that and flip out but … I don't have control over that. I wrote the song and it's art. Art is observing society around you, representing it through your eyes.”
Currently, the official version, made available on YouTube by Sony Music, has about 4.3 million views. Compared with Lady Gaga's “Born This Way,” which has 62.3 million views, it doesn't seem so impressive. But alongside the kinds of bands that normally would have played the indie-size venues where Foster the People started — say, “T.O.R.N.A.D.O.,” a 2010 single from fellow Columbia band Go! Team, with only 149,900 views — it seems a little more significant.
In a world where more than 75 percent of the 13 million songs available online never sell a copy, “Pumped Up Kicks” sold more than 200,000.
Even though I saw it happen, I couldn't quite tell you exactly why. But Foster can — or at least he can tell you what he's really trying to do.
“I've been on a journey,” Foster says. “I think seven years ago I started to want to write the perfect pop song — like I wanted to figure it out, and I started chasing that. Really I just wanted to conquer the pop song. I realized probably when I was, like, 20 years old that the hardest thing to do is to write a pop song — not like a candy pop throwaway pop song. A timeless pop song is the hardest thing to do as a songwriter.”
Goldenvoice presents Foster the People with Garden and Villa on Thurs., July 7, and Fri., July 8, at El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd.; 8 p.m. Sold out. All ages.