Foster the People's Mark Foster on "Pumped Up Kicks": "If Art [Has] Any Meaning at All, It [Is] Probably Subversive."

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Mark Foster's Foster the People are playing a sold-out show at the Showbox SoDo on Sunday, October 9.
Last month I shared my thoughts on Foster the People's mega-hit, "Pumped Up Kicks"--specifically, on the violent nature of its lyrics, which you should read before reading the rest of this article, juxtaposed with the sunny pop aura of the music itself. My conclusion in that earlier piece was that I was confused. This afternoon I had the opportunity to ask Mark Foster, the frontman of Foster the People, about the song. The transcript of our conversation follows:

Did you ever expect when you wrote "Pumped Up Kicks" that it would become such a huge hit on pop radio?

Mark Foster: No, not at all! I didn't even think that it'd be played on the radio.

Why not?

A number of reasons. I've been writing songs for probably 15, 16 years, and I've been writing songs for probably nine years as more of a career focus. I've been in L.A. for nine years working towards music. And so you pick up things along the way, and there's a lot of people in the industry, a lot of people who are professional songwriters who are like, 'All right, a perfect radio song is three minutes and 30 seconds, the vocal needs to come in after five seconds, you need to hit the first chord by a minute.' There's just little tiny things that kind of get embedded in your head when you think about a radio song, and "Pumped Up Kicks" is none of those. The vocals don't even come in for a minute and 30 seconds, I think. For radio to play it, and especially for pop radio to play it, it came as a big surprise.

But I'm glad. I love it when a song like this is successful in American radio, because these are the black sheep of what they normally play. There's a lot of times when DJs and program directors don't to take a risk, they don't think it's going to work. But to see a left-of-center song work hopefully will open up the door for more music like this to be played on American radio. The other example would be Beck's "Loser." That really paved the way for a lot of artists, or even Phoenix with "Lisztomania" or MGMT with "Kids." Those are artists who I feel like have paved the way for artists like us to be understood.

When you first wrote the song, did you have an intended audience in mind?

No. I don't really write like that.

I've heard some Internet chatter that the song's about Robert Hawkins . . .

No.

Is it based on anything specific?

No. Robert in "Pumped Up Kicks" is a fictional character.

I think a large part of why the song has gotten so big on pop radio is because it has such a great, memorable beat, and it's very light and danceable. Do you agree with that?

Sure, yeah.

What's the point of coupling violent lyrics with that kind of music?

If the lyrics of that song were bubblegum, then the song would just be a flash in the pan, and it would have no depth to it. I think timeless songs that you listen to, if you listen to a lot of '60s and '70s songs, a lot of the songs that are still in people's repertoire are songs that lyrically talk about something that was significant to that day and age. I think "Pumped Up Kicks" is tapping into a subject matter in our culture right now that needs to be talked about. And it is sensitive.

But the juxtaposition between how light and bubbly the song is and the dark subject matter is kind of jarring. You hear this song on the radio, it's so poppy, it's so catchy, and then you realize it's about a kid shooting other kids.

Well, it's not about a kid shooting other kids, by the way. It's about the psychology of a kid, it's really about bullying, that's a one-word answer. He doesn't actually do anything in the song. It's about his internal dialogue and what he's going through in his life. I wanted to paint a picture of his home life and really bring out the humanity in this kid and show that it's tragic to be on either side of bullying. There's violent fantasies. The song touches on things, but it's really about the psychology of the main character.

Earlier this summer I went to see Katy Perry, and there were a lot of young kids there. In the intermission the DJ played "Pumped Up Kids," and all these kids, who were maybe 11 or 12, were singing along with it. They're singing "You better run, outrun my gun, faster than my bullet." How do you respond to that? Can you at least acknowledge that this is a violent song that these kids are singing along to?

When the song first started to react, we put it on our website, and a week later it got blogged about, it started shooting up the charts and then it started spreading around pretty quickly. I was terrified. I've written so many hopeful songs and compassionate songs and empathetic songs, and yet this is the song that's putting us on the map. I was scared of it. I was scared of kids listening to the song and being influenced it and doing something dumb. And I had to remind myself that what I'm talking about in the song isn't encouraging people to kill people. It's written about something that's real, something that happens, something from the perspective of a kid that's going through a hard time that is having these violent fantasies, and that's a real thing. Art should not be scared of representing something that's happening societally. If you look at the history of art, you know, thousands of years, artists were always doing something subversive. If the art had any meaning at all, it was probably subversive. Van Gogh was subversive, and people hated him for it. He didn't get recognized for his work until after he was dead. Salvador Dali. There's tons of artists throughout the history of time that were hated for what they did, because it was culturally putting a finger up to something that hit too close to home for people. Kings and queens used to track down painters and cut their heads off. Diego Rivera. Do you know who that is?

Yes.

He painted Stalin in New York on Rockefeller's wall. He was commissioned by Rockefeller to do a painting and he painted Stalin on it. They said you gotta take that down, and he said, no, I'm not going to, and so they ripped the whole wall down. [Ed.'s note: Rivera's mural, Man at the Crossroads, actually portrayed a May Day labor demonstration with workers holding banners depicting Lenin's face, not Stalin's.]

My question about this song isn't that it's about something real, which it obviously is. It's about this kid's inner monologue, that's very clear. Another song I thought of was Pearl Jam's "Jeremy." When you listen to that song it's moody, it's dark, it's intense. I read an interview you did with Time Out Chicago in which you said, "If I wrote 'Pumped Up Kicks' as a dark, minor-key ballad, then the song would be devastating." But why shouldn't the song be devastating, if it's about devastating subject matter? Why does it have to have a dance beat?

Well, I don't write lyrics until the end. I make joyful music. The melodies that come out of me usually are joyful. At the end I switch from making the music itself to figuring out what I'm going to talk about. Originally with "Pumped Up Kicks," the chorus was what I wrote about, and in the chorus "gun" was a metaphor, "bullet" was a metaphor. I didn't have the verses. I didn't know what the song was going to be about, necessarily. It was really more about confidence . . . The chorus is a really empowering thing metaphorically. 'Cause you're saying, all those kids over there that think they're cooler than me better run, 'cause I'm the new sheriff in town. Now I'm the big man on campus. Or whatever. Now I've got the power. The verses are really what define the chorus as a dark thing because the verses took a really specific route through the eyes of a kid that is going through something, and now all of a sudden, in the chorus, "gun" became literal. That's how it happened. When I wrote the song I was working in a coffee shop. I've written hundreds of songs. I couldn't have predicted that this was going to be a big pop song. And I wouldn't have predicted that I would have had to be answering questions about the nature of this song for the last year of the song. It was one other song in a bucket of songs I've written that ended up taking off.

MTV censored the video. Is that something that bothers you or do you think it's appropriate?

I think it draws more attention to it. I don't know. In a way, it's like, yeah, it kind of bugged me just because there's so many rap artists that are blatantly saying they're going to kill people. It's not a story about some kid, it's like, "I'm gonna fucking shoot you in your face." And it's funny that our society doesn't question that anymore. We listen to Biggie, MTV worships guys like Biggie and Tupac. They're on a pedestal, and they're very blatantly talking about killing people. But I think one thing you're talking about with this song that makes it scare people more is the fact that there's not really a lot of alternative bands that are writing about this sort of thing, and it does have a sunshine, fun kind of vibe. I think people don't understand. It's like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

That's a good way of describing how I felt about it.

Hm. Then Odd Future won the VMA for Best New Artist, and they're hanging themselves and putting a bunch of drugs in a blender . . .

But that music is aggressive. I know you didn't mean for "Pumped Up Kicks" to be presented as a pop song on pop radio, but the tone of the music is different. If you look up Odd Future or Biggie lyrics and you see that, you're not really surprised, because the music itself is aggressive. When I looked up the lyrics to "Pumped Up Kicks," I was surprised. Does that make sense?

Sure. Yeah.

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It was interesting to hear Foster's explanations/defenses about the song. But I didn't come out of the conversation feeling any more enlightened about my original question about the violent lyrics of "Pumped Up Kicks," which was--what's the point? Foster--understandably--sounded less than thrilled to be attempting to explain his intentions and his interpretations of the song to me; that said, he did take the time to talk about it lengthily; that said, he gave several different points, some of which clashed with each other--the song's not about a kid shooting kids/the "gun" in the chorus did become something literal; the chorus is empowering rather than controversial/he was scared when it came out because of its violent connotations. Foster's point about the violence in rap music is obvious, well-taken, and also something of a cop-out. I believe that Foster had no idea "Pumped Up Kicks" would be a huge smash and that he'd be having to explain its bizarre lyrical content. But that's part and parcel of stardom and the spotlight. It did become a huge smash, and he is being asked to explain--and at this point he should be able to more lucidly.

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