Through close encounters with Motown machinery, Ken Caillat [Tape Op #96], and Hal Blaine's drum kit, Foxygen's Jonathan Rado has established himself as a modern manipulator of the Nixon-era studio palette. His Richard Swift [#120]-assisted effort, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, Foxygen's second album, followed through on its promise of mid-century sonic diplomacy, and 2015's self-produced ...And Star Power outed him as a devoted pupil in the Todd Rundgren school of studio wizardry. Rado discusses the development of the Foxygen model and its modern-day applications, plus recording the music of Tim Heidecker, Whitney, and The Lemon Twigs.
You started making records at home in high school. What kind of equipment did you get started on?
I started on a boombox – I had two boomboxes that would record audio to cassette. I would record on one, then play it back and overdub at the same time onto another one. So it was a weird, early bouncing thing.
That must've sounded ugly quick.
Yeah. I had a band with this kid, Jeff, called Sharp Razor. We did a lot of recording onto this early PC program, Funny Movie Maker, that was meant for animating. You could essentially record your voice into the program; it would roughly approximate you speaking with these animated characters. We recorded audio into that program because it was the only thing that would take audio.
When did you start Foxygen?
We started the band in ninth grade. We had made these recordings that were just the band jamming. It sounded like The Doors. Sam [France] took them home and put overdubs on it. It blew me away. I had never overdubbed, beyond two or three tracks. And that was the idea behind Foxygen – that it would just be the two of us, and that we would do everything. The early recordings were made on my PC, in a program called Acid [Sonic Foundry, later Sony]. I think it was meant for looping. I bought it for $30 from an electronics store. I think I bought it because it came with a little gooseneck computer microphone. Kill Art (2009) was made on GarageBand, before either one of us had a laptop. Sam would drag his family's Mac over to my house to record, and then he would drag it back.
Was the computer really easier to move than the instruments? How much equipment did you have?
I had an early eBay addiction. In high school I would buy xylophones, melodicas, and anything cheap that could make noise. I also had a drum set, an organ, and a piano. My bedroom was pretty far from my parents' bedroom, the way our house was arranged, so we could make a lot of noise and it wouldn't bug them.
How many records did you make in high school that wound up at bona fide LP length?
I'd say we made six or seven legitimate, long albums in high school. One of them was really long, like two hours. That was called the Jurrassic Exxplosion Philippic, and was also recorded straight into Acid. We made six or seven albums; then Sam went to college in Olympia, Washington, and I went to college at the School of Visual Arts in New York for screenwriting. I didn't like it very much, but it was a good excuse to live in New York and try to make albums. Sam dropped out of Evergreen [State College] after a year and we moved to Queens. We intended to make albums and play shows. We ended up making just the one album, and we played one show in the basement of the Gibson showroom at a CMJ event. There was nobody there.
Did you graduate college?
No. I went for three years and almost graduated. But we got a record deal, and that was a better position than wherever I would've ended up with a degree in screenwriting. Realistically, I just wanted to be a [record] producer anyway. I had no real interest in graduating from film school.
You got the record deal for Take the Kids Off Broadway. How did you make that record?
In my freshman year of college I was having a weird, early-20s crisis and was making shit that sounded like The Magnetic Fields [Tape Op #38]. My dorm was the size of a closet, and I was going completely nuts in there. I went out to Jackson Heights and bought a 4-track, a little drum machine, and some tiny Casio keyboards. So [in Queens] Sam and I had all that shit, a USB mixer, and GarageBand. We discovered that if you plug the output of a mixer into the input of the same mixer, you can make a synthesizer by turning the volume up on that channel. It...