If you were alive and at least sorta sentient to the flows of popular culture in 2011, then you’ll remember that it was nearly impossible to not hear Foster The People’s breakout hit, “Pumped Up Kicks.”
Between intensive radio play (on rock and contemporary pop stations), countless sync placements, and a genuine grassroots campaign that made the band indie-pop superstars, the song went all around the world, throwing Mark Foster, Cubby Fink, and Mark Pontius smack-dab into the center-stage spotlight. Even now, 10 years removed from the whirlwind moment, it’s an impressive feat to look back on… especially considering how hard it’d be to replicate in the even-shorter-than-before cycles of virality in the post-TikTok era.
But behind the scenes, there was something even more impressive taking place—while the single was gaining traction around the world, Foster, Fink, and Pontius hunkered down to write and record the rest of their debut album, Torches, which eventually dropped on May 23, 2011.
What makes the creation of Torches such a marvel is the simple fact that it’s a truly amazing album—written in the shadow of one of the biggest hits of the 21st century, the band not only rose to the occasion but managed to crank out an entire record of songs that sound different from “Pumped Up Kicks,” all while still conveying the vibrancy, creativity, and color of Foster’s brand of songcraft.
Sitting down with American Songwriter, Foster opened up about the journey of Torches, from the time before he wrote “Pumped Up Kicks” to the glorious moments of success (like an appearance on The Grammys with The Beach Boys) to the resounding legacy of the seminal album. For its tenth anniversary, the band released Torches X, a deluxe reissue featuring unreleased tracks, remixes, and appearances from Gus Dapperton, Lenno, and more—this celebration will be capped off with a run of shows (on Nov. 19 – 21) in Los Angeles that will be livestreamed via Moment House. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: Set the scene for us—just before y’all wrote and recorded Torches, you were working as a jingle writer at a place called Mophonics. What was that time in your life like?
Mark Foster: I met Mophonics through my manager at the time—they were kinda like a boutique agency that did pretty artistic scores for things. It wasn’t cat litter commercial jingles, it was more of an artistic thing, and they were working with young artists. In fact, they were kinda getting into the publishing game and were talking about starting an actual indie record label, so they were really champions of young artists at the time.
Before I started working there, I was a barista at a coffee shop—I would ride my bike to work every day, just barely treading water. I had been in Los Angeles as a starving artist for years, just trying to stay afloat. The whole time, I was obsessively writing songs with a small studio setup I had with minimal gear, just making the most of it. But I didn’t really have anybody to teach me (and I didn’t go to school for it), so I would just spend a lot of time by myself exploring songwriting and production tricks. A lot of the things I learned along the way were learned because I kinda stumbled into them by accident. With a lot of those early demos, when I listen back to them, they sound terrible, just because I wasn’t a good engineer.
But eventually, Mophonics called and we took a meeting with them to discuss me becoming an in-house composer. That was the first time I got the keys to my own writing room with, like, actual outboard gear. So, for about eight months, I would just show up there every day. Stephan Altman, the head composer there, took me under his wing and kinda mentored me as a composer, but really, I was learning how to produce. When everybody else would go home at 6 p.m., I would stay back. That’s really where I started writing Torches.
AS: It’s one thing to sharpen your skills by writing a lot of songs, but it’s another thing to do it by writing songs specifically for hired gigs like you were doing at Mophonics. How did that dynamic help shape your artistry?
MF: Yeah, that was incredibly helpful because I learned how to work quickly. Every day, I was working on something new and it would be in a different style. Sometimes, a project would come in and it’d need a bossa nova thing—then the next day, you’d need to come up with a hip-hop thing, stuff like that. Around that same time, I remember that the comps that were being sent around by all the ad agencies were Phoenix or Coldplay or The Strokes. So, they’d say “Well, we want something to sound kinda like this” and I’d dive in to figure out how to do that technically. Like, “What’s the foundation of the sound of a Coldplay song? What are the drums doing? What’s the bass doing? How was it recorded?” I did all those little things, so I ended up learning a lot of engineering tricks, allowing me to work quickly.
That was important too when it came to Torches—if I had an idea, I could get it out of my head and into a session in a relatively short period of time. So, when the wave of inspiration came, I was able to communicate pretty quickly, which was something I couldn’t have done beforehand.
For instance, I wrote and produced “Pumped Up Kicks” in that little writer’s room at Mophonics, start to finish, in around 24 hours. On the first day, I started it and put in around six hours—then I came back, wrote the second verse, polished it up and it was done. That iteration of the song is still what plays on the radio today.
AS: Okay, so you had written “Pumped Up Kicks”—how did you wind up releasing it and how did y’all end up with the record deal from Startime International?
MF: Well, we had only been a band—err, had been talking about being a band—for about two months when I wrote that song. The four of us—myself, Cubby Fink, Mark Pontius, and my friend Zach Heiligman—started playing together around October, and by January, Mark had made a very simple website with just the band name and some photos a friend of ours had taken. Nobody knew who we were, we had only played maybe two or three shows just for our friends.
But after a few weeks of it being live, we uploaded “Pumped Up Kicks” to the website with just a little music player. Then, one of our other friends sent it to somebody at Nylon Magazine, who kinda fell in love with it. That was the same time as Fashion Week too, so we gave the song to them for free to use and they ended up using it in a video. From that video, music blogs just started to pick it up and there was an instant reaction. All of sudden, we saw all this action—our email was flooded with major labels and managers and agents and all of these people who were reaching out to set up meetings. It was really surreal.
And this was all before social media really took off too, so the first time we saw a real-world reaction was around two weeks after that period when we had a show at the Viper Room on my birthday. We expected it to kinda just be our friends, just a birthday show, but there was a line all the way down the sidewalk when we got there. I had played the Viper Room many times before that—as a solo artist and with other bands—but I never ever sold it out or anything like that. So, to see a line down the sidewalk… that’s when we knew, like, “Oh wow, something’s happening here.”
Within six months, we were signed. So, it all moved so fast. There was a lot of fear on our end though, because, I mean, I was like, “We’re not ready.” We could feel this tidal wave coming, but all we could do was swim as hard as we could. We started rehearsing five days a week, just putting as much time and effort as possible to try to get tight—until then, we weren’t really a real band, we were just some friends.
AS: How did you transition from having that hit single out to working on Torches as a proper debut? How much of the album was written when that “tidal wave” of success started to crash onto the proverbial shore?
MF: I don’t really remember—it was kind of a blur. When I think back to that time, one thing I feel is that we were so lucky and fortunate to have the team at Sony that we had. We were able to work with Greg Kurstin, Paul Epworth, and Rich Costey on our debut album, and they’re some of the best producers in the world. They were so integral to shaping the record and bringing a sense of cohesiveness to the body of work.
Early on, one of my fears was that everybody was going to want to hear an entire album of songs that had that same dusty, surfy, kind of irreverent feeling that “Pumped Up Kicks” had… but the rest of the songs were very different from that. If you put “Pumped Up Kicks” next to “Helena Beat” next to “Life on the Nickel” next to “I Would Do Anything For You,” it could be four different artists. I was really concerned about that, but under the guiding hands of Greg, Paul and Rich, everything came together and made sense. It was eclectic, but they were the glue keeping it together.
I co-produced as well—the actual process itself started with me bringing demos into them. I worked in Logic, and a lot of the sounds on Torches came from the original demo sounds I had used. I think that all of those years of exploring and kinda having my own weird way of doing things is what sets it apart from other music that was on the radio at the time. But then, the other producers really knew how to add layers, how to polish it up and make it punchy, to where everything sounded good sonically. It sounded like a finished master, which was something I didn’t know how to make. So, they helped guide the process, which was huge.
AS: Once the album was near completion, what was that period like? Once you were able to listen to the whole thing end-to-end, did some of those “We’re not ready” nerves start to melt away?
MF: The day we listened to it for the first time was a really special day. Cubby and Mark came over to my place (I lived downtown in a loft) and we got out blankets, laid on the floor, put the whole thing into iTunes, and listened to the record. Then, we started messing around with the sequencing—we’d move the tracklist around, listen to the whole thing again, then discuss it and make small changes. It was really special, being able to sit back and sequence it together.
Beyond that, the next challenge was getting our live show together—things were moving faster than we could keep up with. The opportunities that were coming at us were bigger than we were ready for, so we had to scramble against the growth of “Pumped Up Kicks.” I had a very real fear that if we didn’t let people know that we were a real band with an actual body of work, the moment would come and go kinda like a shooting star, and we’d just become a one-hit-wonder with no career afterward. So, the big challenge was to try to combat that, and I guess our solution was to tour as much as possible. We got our live show together in a way so that it was compelling so that it would introduce our audience to our personality. We were just touring non-stop, doing the best we could, trying to survive.
AS: Once the album hit the shelves and y’all embarked on the nonstop tour, what was that like? It must’ve been surreal to go from being a starving artist to sharing the stage with The Beach Boys at the Grammys in such a short time span.
MF: Yeah… yeah, it was all really… I mean, I’ll never be able to put it into words.
AS: Was it hard to fully grasp at the moment?
MF: To be honest, it’s still hard for me to talk about that time with any kind of clarity, even 10 years later. When I look back on that, I just look back fondly with a lot of gratitude. So far as knowing what happened or how it happened or why it happened… it’s hard for me to really know. I think that the thing that kept us sane throughout that entire experience was our close friendship, you know? We had a little bubble that felt safe and very normal, in the midst of all these exterior changes that were so abnormal. Our sense of humor really insulated us from a lot of the pressure.
So, yeah… I don’t know if we’ll ever fully understand that or have real clarity about it. It’s just a thing that happened. I don’t think anything can prepare somebody for something like that. We just kinda had to lean into our animal instincts and just be present and react, trying not to judge ourselves. We just tried to show up, do the best we could, let go of it and then move on to the next thing.
AS: Well on that note, what’s it been like doing this 10-year retrospective?
MF: It’s been really special, especially getting to see how the record continues to resonate with new generations. That’s special for me. As I get older and look back, I have a different, deeper appreciation for Torches. A couple of weeks ago, I listened to it all the way through for the first time in about 10 years, and I walked away with a deeper—almost critical—appreciation for it. It communicates the feelings of hope in the midst of such a deep struggle. The spirit of the record—melodically and in the subtext of the lyrics—is so optimistic. It’s an optimistic record for an underdog, which is where I was at the time. I was an outsider growing up, and I think that’s why the record really resonated with people that felt like maybe they were on the fringe or against the grain of society too. So, it’s really cool to see that it’s still resonating.
AS: On the deluxe reissue of the album, y’all included a few tunes that never made the original cut—one is long-time fan-favorite, “Ruby.” What can you tell us about this song? What’s it mean to you to finally be able to include it (and those other tunes) on a proper release?
MF: That song has always been one of my favorite songs in the catalog of ones I’ve written. I think there’s just something touching about that story, and I never felt like it really got its day in the light. So, it’s cool to be able to highlight it—it’s a very personal song. I’ve had some very real conversations with fans over the year where they said that it really saved them in some way, shape, or form, which means the world to me. It’s the same thing with “Broken Jaw” and “Downtown.”
“Downtown” has a deep, deep meaning to me because it’s connected to my friend Brad Renfro, who died. It was a song I had kinda written about him while he was still alive—he heard it and we talked about it, which is so surreal. I wrote it about watching a friend of mine go down a really dark road and… I don’t know, to be able to put that out in an official context, especially during an opiate epidemic, I hope it can be like a little carrier pigeon carrying the message of hope to somebody who’s struggling.
AS: How do you feel now? What’s next for Foster The People?
MF: Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been writing a ton of music. I never stop. Right now, the band is getting ready for the shows coming up, which are going to be our first time on stage in almost three years. I think that’s the longest I’ve gone without being on stage since I was a toddler, so that’s going to feel really good. Then, after that, our plan is to dive in and finish these records we’ve been working on. So, expect to hear from us in 2022.
The tenth-anniversary deluxe reissue of Foster The People’s Torches is out now—click HERE to learn more about their upcoming livestream shows and watch the music video for “Helena Beat” below:
Photo by Andy Barron