Up until a few months ago, Mark Foster was facing the serious possibility of going down in history as a one-hit wonder. His group Foster the People still had an intensely loyal following and enough juice to land an opening slot on Paramore’s summer arena tour, but after exploding onto the scene in 2011 with their debut single “Pumped Up Kicks” they saw song after song fail to leave the narrow confines of the Alternative Rock chart and enter the Hot 100. The only exception was 2012’s “Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls),” which peaked at Number 86.
But then something happened that even Foster himself doesn’t fully understand. Nearly a year the band released “Sit Next To Me” as the third single from their 2017 LP Sacred Hearts Club, it suddenly began rising through the Hot 100 and landing on pop radio stations all over America. To date, it’s been played more than 34 million times on YouTube and more than 86 million times on Spotify (including the song’s remix by the Stereotypes). “I’m just kinda shocked,” says Foster as he rides in a cab to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn where Foster the People are taking the stage in a matter of hours. “It’s kind of crazy to me that it’s been on the radio for so long and it keeps continuing to grow. I guess it’s a sleeper.”
Success felt very different for Mark Foster back in 2011 when “Pumped Up Kicks” – which was inspired by a a real-life mass-shooting incident – became one of the biggest hits of the year. They were a brand new band, completely overwhelmed by the reaction. “We didn’t have very much time to make loyal fans,” says Foster. “We were just trying to keep up with the monster that song became. We played 300 shows in a year. We were trying to show people that we were a band and not just a song. Our saving grace was that [our album] Torches sold 2 million records worldwide. Had that whole record wound up not connecting, we would have had a hard time carving out a career and having any kind of longevity. We would have been like Gotye where the song [“Someone That I Used To Know”] was massive, but people didn’t listen to the record and it came and went.”
When the group began work on their second album, 2014’s Supermodel, Foster had little interest in writing another “Pumped Up Kicks.” Instead, he took the band and producer Paul Epworth to Morocco and, drawing influence from Krautrock, Britpop, Sun Ra and African music, crafted an experimental album with little chance of reaching a mainstream audience. “I hated the idea that we were seen as this indie-pop, boys-next-door group,” says Foster. “I knew there would be a backlash against us since that’s what happens when people get sick of something. They want to discover art on their own, so you resent something when you hear everyone talk about it. It becomes really basic. With Supermodel, for better or worse, I didn’t want one song that would be played on the radio.”
He got his wish. All four singles from Supermodel vanished without a trace. It became very easy to envision Foster singing “Pumped Up Kicks” at some sort of I Love the 2010s concert two decades down the line, especially when founding bassist Jacob “Cubbie” Fink left the band in 2015, reducing the group to a trio. Even three years later, Cubbie’s departure – which was never fully explained – remains a sensitive topic for Foster. “That was really hard,” he says. “He’s like family. We were friends before I started the band. I dated his sister for over a year and thought I was going to marry her. His parents were like my parents. It was really rough and it wasn’t until the past nine or so months where we felt able to move forward.”
Foster days he’s no longer on speaking terms with Cubbie. “But I have tried,” he says. “We have mutual friends and I’ve heard he’s doing well. But it was a bad breakup. It was a very high pressure situation for a number of years, but we did so much together. The first Coachella and the first time playing SNL was together. It’s like we were in a foxhole together. We experienced things that nobody else will ever understand, and so it was really hard.”
As the group wrestled with the aftermath of Cubbie’s defection, they began work on their third album. This time around, they weren’t facing the enormous expectations of following up an enormous hit. “Supermodel alleviated the pressure of Torches,” says Foster. “It did everything I intended it to do. It let us be artists just like everybody else. It got everybody off our backs and let us just be a band. It broke us out from being pigeonholed as a certain type of thing. Now we had the ability to take people by surprise, and my favorite kind of art is art that surprises you.”
He also wanted to create music that could fit into the age of Trump, Brexit and political turmoil all across the globe. Paradoxically, he wanted it to be upbeat and happy. “It was very important to me that we make something joyful in defiance to the dour nature of where the world was at,” Foster says. “I was looking at everything from the political situation in this country where everyone is divided to everything that’s happening in Syria to the lies of nationalism and white supremacy. I felt like we’re taking a big step backwards, but as opposed to writing about all of that in a Father John Misty kind of way, I decided to take a different stance and let people escape. Joy is the best weapon against any kind of depression.”
Foster began spending a lot of time in bars around Los Angeles during the recording process, though he quickly grew weary of the scene. “Everyone was trying to look cool, say the right thing and be at the center of the universe,” he says. “It was like a fashion show. In that environment, I felt alone in a room packed with people.” He kept waiting for someone authentic to come walk through the door and sit next to him. It sparked a song title in his mind: “Sit Next to Me.” He fleshed it out with help from songwriters Josh Abraham, Lars Stalfors, Johnny Newman and Oliver Goldstein, producing it himself along with new bandmate Isom Innis.
The song made very little impact when it first hit radio in July of 2017, but slowly it began finding an audience. “I think you have to hear it multiple times before it really gets inside of you,” says Foster. “It’s not annoying. It’s not raising its hand saying ‘check me out!’ It’s not ‘Versace! Versace Versace!’ [like the Migos song ‘Versace’]” Also, we’re in summer and it’s a breezy song. It’s different from everything else that people are hearing on pop radio in a way that is probably refreshing.”
A new hit doesn’t mean they still don’t play “Pumped Up Kicks” every night, though they do sometimes sideline it in the day or two following a new mass shooting. Sadly, those have happened all too frequently in recent years. It’s caused some critics to look at little differently at a breezy pop tune sung from the perspective of a mass shooter. “I wrote that song in response to a shooting eight years ago,” says Foster. “It was foreshadowing. I wrote it knowing things would get worse if something didn’t change, and now we’re living in that moment when things are worse and nothing changed. It’s a sensitive thing, but I’ve been very clear and consistent with my stance that the song is a response to culture, not vice versa.”
Opening up for Paramore means the group is playing unusually short sets, so hours after they get off stage they’ve been playing second shows at tiny clubs, packing the set list with covers like Joy Division’s “Transmission,” Iggy Pop’s “Some Weird Sin” and Nirvana’s “Lounge Act.” “The shows are really raw, gritty and free,” says Foster. “It’s a way to meet our fans and maybe educate our them if they’ve never heard Gang of Four or Grauzone. It’s been good for the soul.”
The Paramore tour wraps up in late July, and Foster the People are just beginning to book their own shows in the fall. They’re also still adjusting to the shock of turning on Top 40 radio and hearing one of their new songs. “That’s my favorite thing in the world,” says Foster, “making radio bend to me. It’s such a good feeling to write something that resonates and breaks the mold of the status quo. That’s what happened with ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ and it’s happening again with ‘Sit Next To Me.’ I love timeless pop.”