Q&A w/ Foxing on the masterful art rock of new album ‘Nearer My God’
In the Stereogum interview with Foxing that went up the day after they announced their third album Nearer My God, there's one quote that really stuck out: guitarist/backing vocalist Eric Hudson said producer Chris Walla would always tell them something along the lines of "let's make a classic record." Chris Walla was in Death Cab For Cutie for their first 17 years as a band, and he produced their first seven albums, as well as such albums as The Decemberists' Picaresque, Tegan and Sara's The Con, and Nada Surf's Lucky, so I'd say he knows a thing or two about making a classic. It also sounds like Foxing themselves have a pretty good idea about what they think makes a classic album. When I called up singer Conor Murphy recently, he talked about going into Nearer My God with the mentality that it could end up as that kind of album. "This is our first try at that idea, where it's like, we know what it takes to attempt it: you really try as hard as you can to write some songs that you think are good, and then you really try to implement all these different things to make it an experience that you haven't had before."
And I think it's safe to say that, whether or not you like Nearer My God, it will be an experience that you haven't had before. There are individual parts of the album that bring to mind other artists, but Foxing bring these sounds together in a way that really hasn't been done before, and they end up sounding like no one other than themselves. At various points throughout Nearer My God, I'm reminded of a long list of bands from the past two decades of rock music, including but certainly not limited to TV on the Radio, M83, Radiohead, Mew, Brand New, Bon Iver, Portugal. The Man, alt-J, Cursive, Sigur Ros, Bloc Party -- not to mention a handful of electronic and R&B influences -- and sometimes three or four of these pop up in the same song. When I asked Conor who was influencing him when they made the record, he mentioned Frank Ocean's Blond ("gonna go down as one of the greatest hip hop/R&B records of all time"), Mitski's Puberty 2 ("a total turning point in the way I think about music"), the latest WHY? album Moh Lean, and The Notwist's 2014 album Close to the Glass. But the album he talked about most during our conversation was Sufjan Stevens' 2010 glitch pop masterpiece The Age of Adz. "I have no idea how many times I've listened to it, and it would never be the same record twice, because there's always another little thing to notice that's different."
The Age of Adz is less canonical than other Sufjan albums like Illinoise or Carrie & Lowell, but it makes sense that this is the one Conor's had on his mind while Foxing have been rolling out Nearer My God. Both The Age of Adz and Nearer My God see artists forcing themselves to go outside of their comfort zones, both albums completely ignore the confines of any one given genre, and both make for unforgettable, awe-inspiring listens. The Age of Adz may not be the most popular Sufjan album, but those who love it tend to really love it, and something tells me that will be true of Nearer My God’s fans too. The difference is that The Age of Adz was an oddity that Sufjan released a decade into his highly established career. Nearer My God has all the makings of a massive breakthrough.
Nearer My God is Foxing's best album yet by a landslide, and already a frontrunner for the strongest rock album of the year. It's not every day that you come across rock music this inventive, this thought-provoking, this expertly performed, and this easy and fun to listen to all at once. It's modern-day art rock with the ability to unite the kids who frequent basement punk shows with the ones who flock to Coachella with the ones who sit at home and dissect Radiohead albums. It's an album that fully embraces the electronic and R&B direction that indie rock has taken over the past decade or so, but it's not an album by people who think guitars are dead -- "Lich Prince" has one of the most blazing hot guitar solos you'll hear on any album this year, and Foxing do it without sounding retro or pastiche. Lyrically, the songs are often fueled by the paranoia induced by the current state of the world, but they aren't blunt or explicitly political. The songs are often vague or full of imagery and metaphor, making it so you can feel the unrest that's driving this record while still leaving room for interpretation.
Foxing waste no time letting you know just how much of a leap they've taken on this album. Nearer My God opens with "Grand Paradise," a song powerful enough to knock you off your feet on first listen. It opens like an R&B rework of the first alt-J album, with maybe a little of Radiohead's Amnesiac in the mix, and Conor showing off a newfound knack for alien-pop falsettos. This goes on for about a minute and a half, until, without warning, Conor screams and the song turns into pounding post-hardcore fury. This album can be pretty cerebral, but the moment that fury hits is the moment you stop thinking about the music you're hearing and just get sucked into it. It's also the moment where a new bar is set for Foxing. The album would be much too top-heavy if it started with an extraordinary song like that and never returned to those heights. But over the course of Nearer My God's remaining 50+ minutes, Foxing never lose steam. Sometimes, they even reach greater heights.
From "Grand Paradise," Foxing take you on a journey through all different kinds of moods and sounds. There are Coachella and Alt Nation-ready crowdpleasers like the title track and "Bastardizer," the former of which rivals the poppiest moments of M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming and the latter of which manages to successfully work bagpipes into a non-Celtic alternative rock song. There's "Slapstick," which goes from glitchy minimal R&B to soaring indie rock to a noisy, Bon Iver-ish fade-out. There's the clubby goth-pop of "Heartbeats," the moody acoustic rock of the first half of "Crown Candy," the fiery dance-punk of the second half of "Lambert." There's a nine minute song, "Five Cups," that mostly consists of ambient, atmospheric pop, and it earns all nine of those minutes and flies by in what feels like half the time. And there's the dizzying, frenetic "Gameshark," one of the wildest yet strangely accessible songs released in recent memory. It's a groovy, psychedelic freakout with Portugal. The Man-style falsettos, circus rhythms, noise guitar and more all swirling into a paranoid acid trip. And somehow it's super catchy.
There's so much happening on Nearer My God that it could never be fully absorbed in one listen, but it isn't challenging music for challenging music's sake, and it doesn't require you to let it grow on you. It's instantly satisfying on first listen, and it just reveals more and more thrills from there.
Nearer My God comes out this Friday (8/10) via Triple Crown (order yours). Catch Foxing on tour soon with Ratboys and Kississippi (dates below).
UPDATE: The album is out now and you can stream it:
Read on for more of our Q&A with singer Conor Murphy...
BrooklynVegan: It sounds like you guys really pushed yourselves as a band to take a massive leap with this one. Would you say that's true?
Conor Murphy: Yeah we tried really hard with this one to try to take on more than we can handle, more so than we had done with our other two records, or anything I had ever done musically before. This one we really all kind of sat down together and said, "let's really try to bite off more than we can chew here, let's really challenge ourselves to do something hard." So we wrote a lot of parts that were too difficult for ourselves. Jon [Hellwig] -- our drummer -- allowed Eric [Hudson], Ricky [Sampson] and I to try to write parts for him sometimes, that ended up being extremely difficult for him, because, you know, we're non-drummers writing drummer parts and not taking into consideration how hard it's gonna be to play it. So we did a lot of that, writing each other's parts and challenging each other. And aside from whether or not they're good songs, we're really, really proud of it because we finished it. It feels like an accomplishment to finish a song that was very difficult to play or write.
Was this a more collaborative album than the first two?
Definitely. Our first record, we were kinda just guessing at everything that we did. It was collaborative, but it was so much guessing. We really didn't know the formula for a song, we never thought about choruses or verses, we just kinda wrote part after part. So it was collaborative in that we were kinda just doing the classic jam session songwriting. And then for our second record, we really tried to make real songs, in the radio, classic sense, you know? Choruses, verses... and it was our first time doing that so it was kind of a strange thing. The way that everything broke down ended up being a lot of everybody doing their own thing. But on this record -- first off, it was the first time that we recorded ourselves. Eric, our guitarist, was our producer. He co-produced it with Chris Walla. And the way I think of it is Chris was Eric's producer and Eric was our producer. So it was like, Eric has as much say as anyone else in the band in terms of the democracy of writing, but he's also the one behind the board. He's the one that's actually pressing play and pressing record. So, because of that, I think we were all forced to be a lot more collaborative, and that was really healthy for all of us. The responsibility was shared by everybody -- it felt really good at the end because we had all kind of had our hands in on this thing, which was as much mine as every other person's in the band.
Eric sings more on this one than he did previously, right?
Yeah! I don't think he sings enough on it. He has two mini parts that he sings on, on "Slapstick" and "Bastardizer." And then there's a couple sections of other songs where he sings backup vocals. It's the first time that he actually sung on any of our records, and it's really good. And I hope the next thing we write has a lot more of him on it. I think it was kind of a late addition, where it would be weird to like, shoehorn him in to all the rest of the songs, but now that we know how nice it is for him to be on there, it's definitely a thing that we want to explore more.
I was listening to the Nearer My Pod podcast that you made with Dan Ozzi, and on that first episode, you break down piece by piece all these different background parts in "Slapstick." It sounds like all the songs on the record have a lot going on in the background the way "Slapstick" does -- when you were writing, did you go into these songs knowing you wanted them to be so complex, or did they evolve over time?
I think because of the music that we all like, we assume that the only way a song can be really be good is if it's got complexity to it. My favorite songs are the ones where you can listen to it 100 times and every time you listen to it, you hear something new. Like one of Sujfan Stevens' records, The Age of Adz -- I have no idea how many times I've listened to it, and it would never be the same record twice, because there's always another little thing to notice that's different. And that's always in the back of our minds, that like, this is never going to just be a guitar and vocals song... unless that is completely what we are intending to do from the very beginning. If at the very start, we're saying like, "this is going to just be guitar and vocals," then we'll go for it -- but I don't even think we've ever made a song that that's even been the intention. And honestly I think a part of that is confidence. I think to write, like, an Elliott Smith song, takes a ton of confidence, where you're like "my lyrics and my vocals and my guitar part is enough to carry the weight of listening," so that somebody could actually listen to it and be entertained by it. I don't think we have that. We're much more on the side of: "layer a ton of things and make it interesting to pick apart later."
I feel like that takes confidence too. I mean, like... could Sufjan have really written the 25-minute "Impossible Soul" without the confidence of "I think I can actually pull this off"?
[Laughs.] Yeah, totally. I mean, I would never discredit Sufjan, ever. I think the man is absolutely incredible. But I think... Okay, when he wrote "Impossible Soul" it was probably like this very intentional, like, this is going to basically be five songs in one and they're all going to be this seamless, connected, amazing thing. For us, we wrote a nine minute song for the record, "Five Cups," and with that song, we got to the end of a three minute song, and we were like "this doesn't feel over, I guess we should add more" [laughs]. Going back to like, guessing, on some things -- we definitely want to challenge ourselves and bite off more than we can chew, but a lot of it is still just guess work, like this song isn't over, it isn't done yet, we need more stuff on it. I think there's like a level of respect that I give Sufjan that I don't give us [laughs], just because for us it truly is hoping that there's enough things to keep somebody interested in listening to the song. But I totally agree with you, I think that there's a level of confidence that Sufjan Stevens has that should definitely not go unnoticed.
For me, the song on this record that does that is "Gameshark." Every time I listen to it, I just think "...how did humans figure this out?"
[Laughs.] It was definitely interesting the way that one came together. It's kind of the odd man out on the record -- all of the other songs started with an idea that was kind of put together by either Eric, Ricky, or me, where we would write out kind of a song on a program like Logic or Pro Tools or something, and kind of track most of the parts or filler parts, bring it to the rest of the band, and the band would either say "yeah okay let's work on this" or "nah it's not there yet." But "Gameshark" is the only song on this record that... we just needed a break, we had been recording this album for like three years, and one day Jon wasn't there and we needed a break, and we were like "let's just hang out, let's play some music together" -- which is such an important thing to do, like, "hey let's remind ourselves that we like playing music for a second" [laughs]. And, so, Eric just programmed a little beat on a sampler, which is that beginning beat that you hear in the song, and then I just started playing a bassline over it, and then we just looped the beat and then Eric and Ricky just started jamming over it, like playing noise over it. And I just kept that one bassline going for a really, really long time, and we were just hanging out having a great time playing it, and at a certain point we were like, "we have all these mics set up, let's just track this thing, just to see if we like it later." And then it just never went away as being one of our favorite things that we made. And like, the vocals came extremely naturally to it, it was just like, this weird thing where everything just fit together. And it was like, as we were playing the song the first time, I could hear the vocal melody. The lyrics to it just... it's really weird because they're some of my favorite lyrics I've written, and some of the easiest lyrics I've written as well. I think when you just have parts that are so weird and moving together, everything just kind of feels intentional without it being difficult. So really, that song "Gameshark" was one of the easiest songs that we've ever written that had like, the weirdest results of any song that we've written. But it's also the most difficult song for me to sing, for Jon to play drums on, and for Brett to play bass on [live]. When we put it in our set, we have to like sandwich it between two songs that are extremely easy to play, because it completely wears Jon and Brett out.
I was gonna ask how you planned to translate that one live.
We've played it live a bunch, and it is always a bit of a nightmare. Whenever it comes up in the set, I feel like everybody kinda looks at each other like "okay here we go... it's either gonna be awesome or it's gonna be a nightmare."
You mentioned that you recorded the bassline for that song. Did [former bassist] Josh Coll contribute at all before he left the band?
Oh yeah, he played bass on almost all of the songs. He moved to Philadelphia... currently he's at NYU, he's full time doing videos and film stuff, and eventually he'll be getting into actually working on features. And with this record, it was so time consuming on the recording front, that it was like, at a certain point, we really needed to be tracking stuff so that song, for instance, the bassline that I recorded originally -- the one we jammed out -- that one is the bassline that's on the record. There's times like that where it was kind of like, there was no reason to re-track it. Josh is not a vain person so he's not a person that would be like "well I need to be the one who plays that bass part." And then when he left the band, it was kind of like, we just finished out all of the basslines that needed to be filled back in, rather than having him fly back in from Philadelphia every time to record something.
Are you planning a permanent replacement for Josh or are you thinking continue as a four-piece?
That's actually a really tough thing to think about, because for so long it was the five of us as a band. For the bulk of being in this band, it was the five of us. Josh leaving became a thing where it was like, everybody just has these roles, and then he left and we filled in those roles, we shared the responsibilities that he had. And it's like, to bring in a new bass player permanently... right now, I don't feel like we have to bring somebody in for the sake of logistics in the band. Like I don't think we would say "oh we need a fifth person because we just can't handle all of like, the business stuff in this band." And in terms of writing, it will all depend on the next record that we write. What I think that will happen is we'll start writing the next record at some point, and we'll know really quickly if we're capable of like... you know, Ricky, Eric, and I all play bass -- I played bass in my old band, I played bass in Foxing actually for a small amount of time -- it'll probably be a question of "are we capable of writing these bass parts, or do we need to bring somebody in for it?" So, until that gets answered, we have Brett [Torrence], our touring bass player, who's a great friend of ours. He's a really great bassist, and he's truly just like -- he completely brings all of us together in terms of positivity. So for now it's like, a really, really great relationship that we have in the band, where it's like the four of us are just kind of in charge of all the business stuff and the writing and everything, and then Brett comes in to learn the bass parts, improvise over things, and fill in where he needs to, which is awesome. For the time being, this is a great relationship that we have going.
So, for the new album, what was sort of the moment or the song where you realized, "okay this is the direction that this is record is going to go in"?
I think finishing the initial version of "Slapstick" was the first time that I realized we could make something that sounded that way. That was one of the early songs that we had written. Eric and I had put together the truly initial version of the song before anybody got involved with it, before we had live drums on it or Ricky's guitar parts or anything like that, or even the final lyrics. It was all just temporary parts -- we kind of put those little vocal samples in there, and we had put some synths and some electronic drums, and Eric did the original guitar part that starts the song -- and just having that skeleton of the song, it was the first time that I was like "hey this is actually something that I would listen to if I wasn't in our band," and that's a feeling that I don't think I ever had with the songs that we had made on our other two records. Which sounds... bad [laughs]. It sounds like I don't like our music, which is not true, but it's the first time that we made Foxing songs that I truly would go out of my way to listen to. Like I'm not only proud of this, but I also enjoy it. And that set this precedent of like, "let's just keep that going, let's make all of the songs on this record songs that we would wanna listen to." Songs that like, if somebody put it on, rather than us blushing and being like "oh how dare you put our own song on!", we're like "oh cool, I like this song." And now there's a "no turning back" kind of feeling with it, like from now on, I don't ever want to release another song that I don't like.
What are some artists or albums that influenced you while writing this album?
A huge one is that Frank Ocean record Blond, which came out while we were writing this. That's another classic moment where I thought "wow I've never heard anything like this, and also all of these songs are incredible." I was listening to The Notwist's record Close to the Glass a lot, and their other records like Neon Golden. The new WHY? album Moh Lean was a huge one. Probably the biggest one that influenced me personally -- and if you asked anybody else in the band they wouldn't say any of those same ones, maybe Frank Ocean, but we all have extremely different opinions of music -- but for me the biggest one was that Mitski record Puberty 2. The biggest thing for me was hearing that one, which also came out while we were writing these songs. That's one of those records where it's like, you actually only needed like four parts to make a song incredible. There's a lot of things going on in that record, but at their core, there's only ever like four things happening at once. It's a really deep record.
It's interesting to hear that you mention so many very recent albums.
Well obviously there's always old records that everyone's listening to also. There's like standards that you listen to, that you're always gonna love and listen to, but for me it's like, I think listening to new things that immediately feel like classic records really give you the feeling that should inspire you. For instance, Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Belle & Sebastian is one of my favorite all-time records, but it's like, I've heard it so many fucking times that it's not gonna really inspire me now. Or like Kid A, there's not that much left on that record that I can soak up. I mean it's obviously beyond my comprehension, but I've heard it enough times where at this point it's just fun to put on. But newer albums like that Mitski record, it's like, the first time you hear something and it's just blowing you away. For me, all the records I mentioned have been out for a couple years now, and those are classic records for sure. Like Blond is gonna go down as one of the greatest hip hop/R&B records of all time, or at least it should. It's cemented its place in music history. And that Mitski record, for me it's like a total turning point in the way I think about music.
So, working with Chris Walla, what did he bring to the table? How did his process compare to previous producer you've worked with?
For our first record we worked with Ryan Wasoba, who actually also engineered on this record. Him and Chris Walla are good friends; he's actually the guy who introduced us to Chris. And we did the second record with Matt Bayles, who's an incredible producer and engineer, and when we worked with Matt, we kind of the assumption that a producer was going to come in and change the songs and turn them into radio hits or something. For some reason that was in our heads, I guess 'cause of like, TV and movies [laughs]. Like it's the producer's job to come in and make you stars... which is so far from what happens. He's just there and he's like "well this would sound better if we did it this way, this is the mic we're gonna use" and that kind of stuff. He's incredible at what he does, but at the end of the day, it's like, it's still completely reliant on our songwriting. So knowing that going into this one was really helpful, because we knew what to ask Chris all the time. And Chris' answers are just insane, 'cause he's like a really spiritual guy. A lot of times it feels like he's speaking in riddles. He's a big fan of Oblique Strategies, which are these cards that when you hit a roadblock or you're at a point where you're asking yourself questions, you draw a card, and it says a really weird, oblique thing, like "twist the spine" or something. You'll be at a point where you're like, "I don't know what we should do with this chorus, if it should be big, or if we should strip it down to a quiet chorus thing," and he'll pull a card that will say, like, "courage." And it's like, "okay what does that mean?" [Laughs.] Maybe it means stripping it down to guitar and vocals and being confident in it, or maybe it means make this big, triumphant, uplifting thing. But it's really cool, because he's just constantly pushing you to be thinking all the time, rather than being like "shut up and play the parts." It's really cool. He indulges everything that we wanna do. If we're like "oh we wanna put bagpipes on this song," which we did on "Bastardizer," he just indulges it immediately. He's willing to go down any weird hole with us.
Yeah the bagpipe thing was wild.
I was really nervous going into it. It was just a "wouldn't it be funny if..." idea, but it just kept becoming a reality. I have this habit of like, sticking to a really goofy idea until somebody puts their foot down. And on that one in particular, nobody put their foot down, it just kept happening. Before anyone knew it, the bagpipe player was there. He was just like, this old British guy that was hanging out with us and playing in our practice space. And it was like, "okay, well nothing we can do now!"
One of the things that you said on the Nearer My Pod podcast was that you kind of don't like to be upfront about what your lyrics mean, and that you don't love in general when any artist does that, because it kind of takes away from the mystique. Could you expand on that a bit?
I think that it's so much more important to listen to a song and take your own meaning away from it. I think it's the same with movies and books. I think we have this culture that has this habit of going on like [lyric website] Genius, or searching songs and their meanings, and I think it's a really important thing to just use your own brain on things and break them down yourself. And it's not only using your own imagination and your own critical thinking, but the song is gonna mean so much more to you if you were actually the one who broke it down instead of me coming out and saying, "it's about this!" If I'm like "this is about... deforestation," and you're like "ah shit, I thought it was about love, and now I can't apply it to my life." (There's no song about deforestation on the record by the way.) But it's happened to me so many times before, where I'm reading an artist's interpretation of what their lyrics mean, and I'm like "ah, fuck!", and it's like I can't even listen to it now. Because before it was about this thing that was so personal to me, and now it's just like... sometimes I don't even like reading the lyrics of songs, because I'm worried that the lyrics will be different. Like even that Phoenix song "1901," I thought the lyrics were "falling," and it's "fold in"! It's such a tiny change, but it's not... as good [laughs].
Yeah I have so many songs where I'm like "oh I love that line" and then a friend will be like, "you know that's not what he sings, right?" It's like, disappointing! When it's not what you always thought it was.
Yeah, there's this Kate Bush line on "Hounds of Love," and I always thought it was "I thought we'd be sharing a cab ride home," and I thought that was such a cool line, but the real line is "I've always been a coward." And it's like, that's still good I guess... but I like my version better! I wish I hadn't read the lyrics.
You should put that line in a Foxing song.
I actually have tried! That's funny that you say that because I've actuall tried to do that, but it's never really worked. But yeah, it's like, you misinterpret a lyric and you're like, "you know what? I'll take it then!"
Foxing -- 2018 Tour Dates
Aug 26 – Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
Aug 28 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Pyramid Scheme (no Ratboys)
Aug 29 – Ferndale, MI @ Loving Touch (no Ratboys)
Aug 30 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
Aug 31 – Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Place
Sept 01 – Montreal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz
Sept 02 – Boston, MA @ The Sinclair
Sept 04 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
Sept 05 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
Sept 06 – Washington, DC @ Union Stage
Sept 07 – Durham, NC @ Motorco
Sept 08 – Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade
Sept 09 – Orlando, FL @ The Social
Sept 11 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
Sept 12 – Austin, TX @ Barracuda
Sept 14 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge
Sept 15 – Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room
Sept 16 – San Diego, CA @ Casbah
Sept 18 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Troubadour
Sept 19 – San Fran., CA @ Bottom Of The Hill
Sept 21 – Portland, OR @ Hawthorne
Sept 22 – Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey
Sept 24 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
Sept 25 – Denver, CO @ Globe Hall
Sept 27 – Lawrence, KS @ The Bottleneck
Sept 30 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
8/26 – 9/30: with Ratboys and Kississippi unless otherwise noted.