Written by Jason Buhrmester | Photographed by Jonathan Chu
“A really pathetic L.A. is much more interesting to me than actual California sunshine,” says Jonathan Rado, sitting in Dream Star Studios, the garage studio of his Woodland Hills home. The 27-year-old Rado, one half of Los Angeles band Foxygen, is a devotee of the city’s ’70s music scene, and the influence of that era is the sheen that covers Hang, the band’s fifth and most grandiose album. From the old Hollywood horns and piano tinkering of “Avalon” to the throbbing balladry of “America” on which Foxygen singer Sam France croons “And the movie girl said, ‘You’re wanted on set’/But you only play yourself when you’re in Hollywood,” this is the album on which Foxygen spit-shined the wild noise of its previous work to reveal the Warren Zevon-worship that has always lurked beneath Rado’s writing.
“Los Angeles is such a positive place. I love that. I love driving into Hollywood and seeing palm trees. I still get off on that L.A. shit,” Rado says. “But the things that are really interesting to me are not upbeat in any way. Like Charlie Manson—just the dark underbelly of L.A. is really interesting to me. And I love the Valley. I love Valley imagery.”
A native of Westlake Village, Rado, along with France, formed Foxygen in high school, recording songs with a single microphone and a mixer plugged into Rado’s PC. The band’s early days also marked the beginning of Rado’s production career. (“In high school, I was always the guy who would tell bands, ‘Hey! Come record at my house,’” he says. “I always had a drum set, and not everybody had a drum set.”) The duo slipped a demo to Richard Swift, producer of The Shins, Damien Jurado and others, at the Mercury Lounge in New York and found themselves with a record deal soon after. The band’s album, Take The Kids Off Broadway, appeared on Jagjaguwar in 2012, and its 2013 follow-up, We Are The Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, produced by Swift, earned rave reviews from Pitchfork to Entertainment Weekly. Thrust into indie-scene stardom, the duo, barely into their 20s, found themselves on the road with a growing reputation for being out of control after a string of canceled performances and a couple of public meltdowns. Rado and France pulled themselves together for ...And Star Power, a 24-track concept album about a band named Star Power, which the duo recorded across L.A. in locations such as the Chateau Marmont and the Beverly Hilton, before delivering their L.A. opus Hang in January of this year.
These days, Rado runs Foxygen and Dream Star Studios from his Woodland Hills home. A beat-up van in the driveway stands as the only telltale sign that the nondescript home is the headquarters of an exciting reimagining of the Los Angeles sound as Rado leads through the house and into a small but efficient garage studio.
“Foxygen’s Star Power was the first record that I did in this space,” Rado says, glancing around the studio overflowing with microphones, keyboards, cables, various instruments and a weathered paperback copy of The Big Beat: Conversations With Rock’s Greatest Drummers by Bruce Springsteen’s drummer Max Weinberg. “That album was a huge learning experience. I didn’t have any recording gear before that. With that record, we bought some proper recording gear, but I didn’t know how to use anything.”
Recording the hundreds of songs that Foxygen wrote during Star Power gave Rado a crash course in producing and helped him hone his own signature sound. “There was a lot of trial and error with things until it got to a point where I felt like I had developed a sound,” Rado says. “I always had a style of playing instruments, but I wanted to have a style of how to record, and I didn’t want to copy anybody. I think over the last three or four years I kind of honed in on something.”
That honed-in sound is the reason why Rado’s growing reputation as a producer has attracted work with rising artists ranging from the Lemon Twigs and Whitney to the Tim & Eric Awesome Show’s Tim Heidecker. The sound Rado has developed working on Foxygen and his own 2013 solo album Law & Order is bright, multilayered and sweeping, a glossy L.A. sound from classic AM radio updated for the BandCamp age. The fingerprints of this sound are evident in Rado’s production work on the Laurel Canyon-country-tinged Chicago act Whitney, whose album Light
Upon The Lake opens with the lines, “I gave up drinking on the city train/To spend some time on the road/Then one morning I woke up in L.A./Caught my breath on the coast,” and the synth-pop of the Lemon Twigs, a Long Island duo, whose Rado- produced debut album is aptly titled Do Hollywood. It’s obvious that a new California sound is emerging—or at least a growing fascination with creating one.
“I like the idea that bands can go to a place and get a little bit of that place,” Rado says while discussing the growth of Dream Star Studios and his producing career. He is currently at work on his first major- label production, co-producing the new Houndstooth album for Warner Bros. with Grammy Award-winning producer Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes, Perfume Genius).
“We both just attack it in a very free way but from two totally different angles,” says Rado of the collaboration. “He’s handling a lot more of the engineering and shaping of the sound, where I’m involved more in the actual playing of the instruments and getting the right tones out of the instruments.”
Many of the artists who Rado wants to work with arrive via email. As an artist who got his start after handing off a demo, he feels compelled to listen to the demos that clog his inbox. “I owe my whole career to listening to other people’s music,” he says, mentioning Jungle Green and Cut Worms as artists he found via an incoming message and whom he plans to collaborate with. While Rado figures out how to navigate the world of bigger artists, budgets—and presumably egos—he is also still formulating his personal definition of success.
“There are things that are monetarily successful,” he says, before stopping himself. “That’s a weird, shitty thing to say, but there are things that are monetarily successful—like, that record did really well or I actually got paid for that. But I feel like I’m mainly in it for the creative satisfaction of things. I’ve worked on projects where I didn’t feel 100 percent in the game, and it didn’t feel as good as when I’m totally creatively invested. So, I’m trying to really only work on the things that I want to work on.”
Later this year, he plans to work on a new Foxygen album, which he claims is already “80 percent” written. “Foxygen is such a conceptual group in my mind that there really isn’t anything that we’re bound to,” says Rado. “There’s no sound that we are bound to. We could easily go and make a really high- fi, like a Daft Punk-sounding record, or we could make an instrumental noise record. In my mind, both things could happen. I really don’t have the interest in being in another band outside of Foxygen. For me, it’s the perfect vessel for making records that don’t have to sound like what came before it.”
So, if a major label arrives with a sack full of money, a super producer and a plan to turn Foxygen into the next arena rock band?
“I feel like artistic integrity is not actually that real anymore,” Rado says, laughing. “It was really easy for Neil Young in the ’70s to say ‘I’m not selling no more songs to movies or commercials’ because he had millions of dollars. If I was a millionaire, maybe I’d be ... I don’t know. I’m always going back and forth on myself with these things. It’s so situational. If [Katy Perry/Taylor Swift producer] Max Martin writes me an email and says he wants to write and produce a song for Foxygen, I’d at least consider that. That’s at least interesting—as long as it’s interesting in some way. Where I never want to go is boring. Middle of the road does not interest me in any way. I don’t ever want to work on anything that doesn’t challenge me in some way. I don’t ever want to make an album that is for the sake of making more music. It needs to be inspiring in some way.”
Somewhere behind us a set of chimes topples over, ringing through the studio, and Rado stands up to retrieve them.
“The chimes fell over. That’ll sound good on the tape though.” MM