The alt-rockers on chaos, collaboration and making mockumentaries
California-based Foxygen have a fantastic new video which premieres today on WeTransfer. Watch Avalon below, and read on for the band’s thoughts on chaos, collaboration and their brilliantly toe-curling new mockumentary…
Mockumentary is hard to get right. From Spinal Tap to Best in Show to both the UK and US series of The Office, the fake documentary has an impressive cultural heritage, but it takes a lot of skill to pull it off.
That didn’t daunt Sam France and Jonathan Rado, better known as indie rock duo Foxygen. For their new video for Avalon, they worked with director Cameron Dutra to create a joyfully excruciating eight-minute short which stars Rado as a clueless wannabe auteur, and Sam as a pompous fun-sponge.
“I wanted to portray us not as the heroes of the music video, but in this messy situation which we didn’t know how to get out of,” Rado explains.
“It couldn’t be like Rado tries to direct the video and is good at it,” Sam agrees. “That wouldn’t be funny. It has to be a failure.”
“Yeah, no-one comes out of this well,” Rado says. “That’s teamwork!” Except, in true mockumentary style, the band and its collaborators prove they know exactly what they’re doing.
Let’s rewind. Sam and Rado met when they were 15, at school in Westlake Village, California. They were drawn to each other because of their musical interests – “I thought Sam was cool because you wore a Ramones t-shirt and I was pretending to be into punk rock at the time,” Rado remembers.
In an area famous for its nu-metal scene– home to Linkin Park and Incubus among others – the pair struck out as a determinedly two-man operation.
“We were really into the idea of not having a band, because we were the only people whose ideas we each respected enough in the culture that was Westlake Village,” Sam remembers. “We were obsessed by the idea of not having other kids join us, and just doing the whole thing ourselves.”
These experiments in overdubbing became Foxygen, who in the past 12 years have put out a range of mixtapes, EPs and now five studio five albums. The most recent, Hang, on which Avalon is featured, was recorded with a 40-piece orchestra. It also called on the talents of friends like The Lemon Twigs and Flaming Lips musician Steven Drozd.
Sam and Rado describe themselves as “curators of musicians,” working on the albums and then bringing in the people who can do the things they can’t. Sam says the duo have a “strong code we developed early on” and they know when to step in and step out of the process. “With Hang and the orchestra, it wasn’t like we were in the room telling the violins to play legato,” Rado laughs.
A similar thing plays out when it comes to the videos. Sam comes up with the concepts, develops the details with Rado, and they then choose a director they trust to make it happen.
“We have a pretty strict policy,” Sam says. “I don’t like music videos that look like it’s a director’s concept which the band have been tagged along to.
“I want people to be able to look back and be like, ‘Yeah there’s the band doing their thing.’ They are the best videos; they age well. So when I look for a director to work with, I look for someone who understands the band as the product it should be, and that’s us – that’s my face and Rado’s face – whether people like it or not.”
The Avalon video opens as Rado arrives on set, with a creative vision that is all self-confidence and zero self-awareness. (At one point he tries to sign the shot list handed to him by a producer, assuming he’s an autograph hunter). Sam rebels and stages a coup against Rado, but in the end they reunite for a swinging musical-theatre style finale.
That doesn’t do it justice, because the devil is in the detail. Although Sam’s character is kind of a d*ck too, Rado’s director steals the show.
“Whenever I write, I am interested in the slightly pathetic nature of people,” Rado says. “For the dialogue, I was thinking of Rob Reiner in Spinal Tap. He does this amazing move where he puts his hands on his hip and does this awkward little lean. It’s like he’s uncomfortable being in front of the camera.”
Then there were the logistical challenges of filming a music video about making a music video.
“It was funny on set because it was so meta,” Sam says, “and the dancers were so confused. They thought I was mad at first because we didn’t really tell them what was going on. Then, at the end of the video, we finished the shot and said, ‘Cut that’s a wrap,’ and everyone got super stoked. Then Cameron would say, ‘Cut’ again and they’d realise the day wasn’t over. Those dancers will never work with us again!”
Sitting above the chaos was the director, who at times seemed to be the only person not bemused by the two sets, the two crews and, on top of that, the band’s taste for the unexpected.
“There was a lot of improv,” Rado says, “and Cameron found all those little moments and put them together really beautifully.”
Sam agrees. “On set it was really confusing, but the whole time he was sitting in his chair not saying much. He had set everything up perfectly, so he was just watching this monster unfold with the zen-like grace that he has.”
It was crucial, both Sam and Rado believe, that Cameron has known Foxygen as long as it has existed. He went to the same high school as the band, and knows how to play with the overlapping and constantly scrambled lines between Foxygen as musicians, as actors, as characters and old friends.
“Him knowing the mythology of everything, he is able to understand the theatrical side of us,” Sam says. “We got lost in the layers of it, which was kind of the point. We are a good band for that sort of thing, because we’re always acting.”
Hang is available now and you can download an exclusive pack of demos from the album using the button below.