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After breakout debut, Foster the People gets real

Mark Foster of the indie rock band Foster the People.
Mark Foster of the indie rock band Foster the People.

Band’s second album takes on social ills

LOS ANGELES – In 2010, Foster the People’s Mark Foster lived the dream for an aspiring songwriter.

Buoyed by a light-stepping danceable beat, “Pumped Up Kicks” was electronic bubble gum pop with a dark lyrical undercurrent and a carefree tone that quickly went viral and was inescapable in summer 2011. It would go on to sell 5.3 million downloads in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Then came the fear. “I have been afraid of the sophomore slump since before our first record even came out,” Foster says.

The dread existed even as the band was awash in good fortune. “Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster admitted in 2011, “rolled out the red carpet for us,” earning the trio a management deal after it had played only about six shows. A debut album, “Torches,” sold more than 1 million copies and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s rock albums chart, bringing with it a bit of dance culture to modern rock radio.

Despite efforts to control a phenomenon, such as purposefully booking the band in smaller venues than were offered, Foster the People took off quickly. “It was almost harder for them,” says co-manager Brett Williams of L.A.-based Monotone Inc. “You had to fight against how fast it was going.”

Two years of aggressive touring included a high-profile appearance at the 2012 Grammy Awards with the Beach Boys. All of this was delaying the inevitable, nagging question: How does a band marked by instantaneous, social-media-driven success write not just a second album but one that proves the group has staying power?

“I have seen so many bands that I love fail on their second record. I couldn’t listen to the fear that I had to have a song be a follow-up to ‘Pumped Up Kicks,’ ” Foster said. MGMT, an electronic-focused pop band that Foster the People has long been compared to, had a breakout album with 2008 hits such as “Electric Feel” and “Kids” but has seen its audience become increasingly niche since.

“There was pressure,” Foster said, “from what my fans would want to hear next. There was pressure from what the label would want to hear next. There’s pressure from what our non-fans are going to want to hear next – the voices of skeptics. I tried to leave all that at the door.”

Indeed, there is no clear successor to “Pumped Up Kicks” on Foster the People’s “Supermodel,” which debuted last week at No. 3 with 54,000 copies sold on the U.S. pop charts. The band still genre-hops among pop, dance and rock with effervescence, but the lyrical concerns are of the worldly, sociopolitical variety.

Foster says he’s now uncomfortable with the very facets of modern pop culture that made him a star and turned his band into an overnight success story. In turn, Foster has moved away from the more storytelling approach that marked the songs on “Torches,” singing now about “dissidents with the fire” who will “rip apart the marrow from the bone of the liars.”

“For me, a lot of the record is about Western culture, consumerism and the ugly side of capitalism,” Foster said. “I don’t want to hit you over the head with it, but those are the major topics. One thing I find really interesting is our worship of celebrity or politicians. We love to put people on pedestals. Look at reality shows. These people become giant stars. I find that fascinating. ‘Supermodel,’ for me, represents the age we are living in.”

Recorded largely in Morocco with Adele collaborator Paul Epworth, the Columbia Records release boasts Afro-Cuban rhythms, falsetto choirs and playful electronic effects. Guitars rather than synths are up front, and although Foster the People still graces its tunes with friendly electro-pop beats, now a track is more likely to be thrown for a loop with disarming banshee howls – or samples of monkeys. Topically, self-doubt and helplessness abound, as in the spry single “Coming of Age.” The album-opening “Are You What You Want to Be?” sets a fast-moving tribal beat, within which Foster wrestles with class concerns.

“Before the band took off, I lived a quiet life,” said the 30-year-old, who at 18 moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. “I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen. I lived paycheck to paycheck. Then suddenly my life changed. We had people helping us. We had money. We could see the world. I traveled and saw how other people lived, and it left me brokenhearted.”

“I felt guilty for how my life had changed,” Foster said.

Foster says this outside the rooftop penthouse of the Santa Fe Lofts, the historic core building that now features a seven-story mural depicting the artwork for “Supermodel.” The mural exists in part to promote the new album and in part because Foster says he wants to “communicate something outside of music.” It’s a psychedelic drawing by visual artist and musician Young & Sick of a high-heeled model vomiting a poem while paparazzi click their cameras.

It’s also representative of Foster the People’s ambitions. The band, rounded out by Cubbie Fink on bass and Mark Pontius on drums, wants to do pop-art but on a grand, easily accessible scale. When it comes to creating a 125-foot-by-150-foot mural, Foster claims ignorance at its cost (“I don’t deal with numbers,” he says), but getting it constructed wasn’t easy.

“Suddenly,” says co-manager Williams, “there’s a guy across the street who has a building who says you’re somehow disrupting his business, so you have to give him some money. Then there’s a guy who lives across the street who said our lights were too bright, so you have to give him (money). Then there’s the parking lot. There was a lot of that.”

Foster, for his part, discusses the mural only through the lens of altruism. The artist takes a moment to lean in and contemplate each question, but once the words come he speaks in an excitable rush that takes a big-picture approach. Ask, for instance, about the mural’s inspiration, and he expresses concern that school art programs are losing funding.

“Our country is losing touch with the idea that art is a vital and important part to the evolution of a society,” Foster says. “Art plays a huge role as to how a culture develops. When you cut the knees off of art, there’s no way to even articulate the long-term ramifications that has on a culture. I just want people to be more creative. I want someone to look at that wall and go, ‘Wow, that’s awesome. I’m going to go draw.’”