When Foster the People burst onto the scene three years ago with their first single, “Pumped Up Kicks,” many doubted the staying power of an indie-rock band whose lead singer and lyricist used to write jingles for Honey Bunches of Oats. But the contrast of the band’s jarring lyrics and bright pop sound struck a chord in the hearts of many young hipsters — even Rolling Stone called them “one of the best things we saw at Coachella in 2014.”
This week, the band’s yearlong tour in support of its sophomore album, Supermodels, comes to a close at the Santa Barbara Bowl. We caught up with drummer Mark Pontius to discuss writing, staying sane on the road, and finding meaning in music.
Looking back, what do you think are the big differences between Supermodels and your first album, Torches? Both albums were written a little bit differently, and they talk about very different things. The first album had a lot of [frontman Mark] Foster’s previous work as a solo artist, and a couple of our songs were worked on in the studio with up to four different producers. There’s a lot of hope in that first record; it’s a little more of a positive record. The second album required a lot of writing in different places because we were traveling so much. I think Supermodels brought up more conversation pieces that weren’t easy to have. It’s a little more intrusive to the listener, which was kind of the idea. Those themes are pretty constant.
I don’t think any of us really enjoy going in to write for a specific thing. The beauty of what we do is that you can kind of be a sponge and absorb what’s around, whether it’s the culture that you’re in, or where you’re writing, or what’s going on with your life. The music comes in if you open the door. I think that’s how we do most of our writing. You just enable yourself to be open to that creative flow.
Did you have any idea that the band was going to blow up the way it did with “Pumped Up Kicks”? No, I don’t think any of us really knew. The timing was very weird. … I had just quit my band of six years, and I’d been working with Mark [Foster] for a while. The biggest thing that I knew was different was just that working with Foster was very easy and natural. There are a lot of bands where you get a lot of conflict music-wise or relationship-wise. Sometimes things become too complicated. But working with Foster was easy. The music was great, the energy was great. … I knew that was something to be spoken for, but I didn’t have any idea it would be this big. I think it’s important to follow those feelings of “this makes sense; this is easy.”
What’s been the best part of transitioning from bus touring to van touring? Pretty much everything. [Laughs.] We luckily weren’t stuck in the van for too long — just a couple of months. But we were all in bands for a long time before this, so we’d been touring in vans with trailers for years. It’s important for artists to tour in vans because once you spend enough time in those, you really learn to appreciate the bus once you get there! The bus makes more sense when you’re touring for a year — it’s much healthier, and it becomes your home. We’ve been lucky with bus drivers. If you get a bad one, you can’t sleep at all.
How do you keep the set lively night after night? We always try to change up the set for every show. Sometimes we’ll jam a little longer on a song or play it just acoustic — and it’s great to have that openness. If the set list is formulaic, you just get bored. I’ve really started to appreciate the different personalities of our fans and why they’re there and the people who are coming just to check it out. … All of these people are from so many different walks of life, and they’re all in this one room together for this one moment that’s never going to happen again with the same group of people. You can watch how people take the music in and really be a part of that. It makes it a community thing between the fans and the band. In that moment, anything can happen. It’s taken me two to three years to figure all of that out.
What’s been the best part of this tour? It’s nice to have a voice with the band, to be able to use this platform and push people in a positive way or make them think differently. Having the realization of why we’re doing what we’re doing and having the chance to really let that sink in — we’re looking at how we’re affecting people lives, and that’s inspirational. Being able to realize that, I think, and not being blinded by always thinking about ourselves or how cool we look was the best part of this tour. It really brings meaning to everything that we’re doing. I love music, and I love this band. When you’re starting to pursue music or anything seriously, you want to really look inward on why you’re doing it and what you can do with it to make things better in people. I was looking for that. I just never realized it would come to me like this.
Foster The People plays the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.) with Sylvan Esso and Soko on Saturday, November 15, at 6:30 p.m. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and information.