Foster the People: From cereal jingles to 'Pumped Up Kicks'
Lead singer Mark Foster talks about writing a ubiquitous pop hit
Foster the People performs Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. (Joseph Llanes, Handout photo / June 4, 2012)
"Kids hit me up on Twitter and I tell them to learn how to bartend," Foster said. "There are career waiters in Los Angeles and they're making over $100,000 a year."
Foster knows first-hand how difficult breakthroughs can be. After moving to Los Angeles from Cleveland at 18, Foster threw himself into the city's party scene, hoping to make any connections he could. Instead he painted houses and made empty telemarketing calls for years.
Music saved him from his fruitless odd jobs, but not the kind you'd expect: Foster landed a gig writing advertising jingles for companies such as Verizon and Honey Bunches of Oats. Maintaining a steady job allowed Foster to concentrate on the music that would eventually become "Torches," Foster the People's Grammy-nominated debut album from last May.
Foster the People, who play Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday, is an increasingly common example of an indie-pop band's hit-single overshadowing the artists who made it. If the band's name sounds unfamiliar, there's a good chance the indelible, strangely dark chorus of its biggest hit does not: "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / You'd better run, outrun my gun."
At the time, Foster admits, he did not realize he had penned what would become a triple-platinum, crossover hit and the sixth best-selling digital song of 2011.
"It was just another song out of the hundreds of songs I had written that I loved," he said.
Spoken like a true jingle-writer, Foster takes pride in writing a song so catchy that it transcends its grisly, school-shooting subject matter.
"The phrase 'pumped up kicks,' man, I was excited when I came up with that," he said.
Once "Pumped Up Kicks" infiltrated the mainstream, it spread everywhere. It fit on television shows as disparate as the stylish melodrama "Gossip Girl" and the terrorism-drama "Homeland." But Foster says he knew the song was a smash when a beloved band from back home played it.
"The [Ohio State University] Buckeyes played it during a game," he said. "My drummer freaked out because he played in drum line."
Foster the People's album has spawned other hits, too — "Helena Beat," "Call It What You Want" and "Don't Stop (Color on the Walls)," the latter being used in Nissan commercials. The success of "Torches'" singles has Foster wondering if the 10-song full-length album is an outdated model.
"For decades, an artist would make a great album and it was played front-to-back. It was an experience," Foster said. "But I didn't grow up like that. Honestly, with attention spans [these days,] people don't have it for 20 songs. An EP can say a lot more for an artist."
Work has begun on the follow-up to "Torches," but the band's heavy touring cycle has made it a start-and-stop process. Once touring ends in August, Foster and his two bandmates, bassist Cubbie Fink and drummer Mark Pontius, will get serious about writing. For Foster, the ideas swirling in his head have yet to slow down.
"I'm not really worried about writer's block," he said. "I've written some other songs with other artists and I'm doing remixes. I'm still pumping out music. It's still flowing."
If you go
Foster the People performs Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. The Kooks and Kimbra will also perform. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-$45. Call 877-435-9849 or go to merriweathermusic.com.