Born and raised in the well-mannered dairyland of Wisconsin, John moved to Brooklyn in 2003 to face his fear of large crowds and to pursue a career in music and audio engineering. After two years working a major recording studio, the now defunct Right Track Recording, John began his freelance career at WNYC. He contributed sound design to American Icons: The Great Gatsby. (He also found himself unwittingly tasked with preventing a tempestuous Courtney Love from smoking in the studio.) After a stint as the Technical Director for PRI’s Fair Game with Faith Salie, John worked with On The Media, Soundcheck, Freakonomics, Radiolab, Spinning on Air, Radio Rookies, and WNYC’s newsroom, before joining the staff of Studio 360 in 2012. John writes and performs literary folk rock as The Reverend John DeLore. He enjoys reading Dostoevsky by moonlight, and still dislikes large crowds.
Foxygen: Ambassadors of Peace, Magic, & Really Good Music
Tuesday, June 04, 2013 - 12:00 PM
"On Blue Mountain, God will save us. Put the pieces back together."
So sings Sam France, frontman of the young, psychedelic rock band Foxygen. "Blue Mountain" is a track on their killer album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. Maybe "Blue Mountain" is based on some real mountain, but listening to the album in my headphones I'm in no need of a factual landscape. Closing my eyes, I picture an altar on top of Blue Mountain made of discarded Adderall jar, with Sam France standing on top of it, singing through a distorted microphone. As he repeats that line, you hear the head-on collision of the Stones' "Under My Thumb" and Elvis' "Suspicious Minds." France keeps singing as he examines the wreckage.
Listening to the album for the first time, I had to ask myself, is Foxygen stealing? Borrowing? Well, Elvis is dead, Mick Jagger might as well be, and the dead don't own anything. Besides, the first and only commandment on Blue Mountain is simply "Thou Shalt." At least, that's what I think it says on the tablet.
Foxygen's album is a magpie's nest of homages and genre-borrowing, but it remains refreshingly original from beginning to end. There are tempo changes, hand claps, sing-along parts, and soul-affirming lyrics delivered with an audible wink and eye-roll. But most refreshing of all is that Foxygen sounds like a band having fun making their art — without the sense of irony that stains so much music these days.
If Foxygen are the ambassadors of any kind of magic, it's the magic of not taking themselves too seriously, while simultaneously taking their craft very seriously. The album has only left my turntable twice in the last month (once for A Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, once for a Judy Garland and Liza Minelli live album I bought for a dollar). In fact, I recently moved to a new apartment, and Foxygen made the transit on the turntable.
At a show at New York City's Mercury Lounge show a few weeks back, the songs and melodies I've grown to love were there, but in the live show they were unbridled and chaotic. The amps were loud, the arrangements frayed, and yet the harmonies were spot on. At the center of it all, Sam France was the king chameleon, switching voices, manipulating his own vocal effects, climbing on amps, pouting, breaking parts of the drum kit, and tearing cables out of the back of Foxygen co-founder Jonathan Rado's keyboard.
At the end, just as Rado announced, "All our shit's broken, so there's no encore," I saw Wayne Coyne wander in wearing his signature gray suit, with little jewels glued below his left eye. As the crowd dispersed, fans approached Coyne, and he shook hands like a dignitary from another planet. And that's about right. Coyne and Foxygen are ambassadors from that same faraway landscape — the future? the past? — where music and magic live side by side. A blue mountain where musicians can be artists without the expectation that they also be sad, troubled poets.
As France came off stage, he came over to greet Ambassador Coyne who put out his hand. He had arrived too late to hear more than the end of the last song. But still. He had made a point of coming to greet this junior ambassador of peace and magic. They shook hands. Maybe with a shared understanding that on Blue Mountain, no note is ever dead for too long.
Exclusive video: "Cosmic Vibrations" live