By Peter Wilson
There might be a few people still out there who aren’t familiar with the smash single “Pumped Up Kicks” from Foster The People, but that number is dwindling quickly. And local fans can catch the band at the House of Blues tonight.
After topping the alternative radio chart for seven weeks, Pumped Up Kicks is being hailed as the summer jam of 2011. Rising to No. 3 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100, the song has been certified platinum, moving over 1 million units thus far.
“We’ve been able to connect with kids on so many levels through this song, and it’s not just kids, but 80 year olds too — it’s great to see it start to happen,” says Mark Pontius, drummer for Foster The People. “It goes to what our band name is all about.”
The song isn’t new. It came out in 2010, well before the band’s Top 10 debut album, Torches, was released in May 2011.
Pumped Up Kicks was written and recorded by singer/guitarist Mark Foster, originally as a demo in 2009, about two months after the band came together in Los Angeles. Foster, who has a background in classical music, had been doing freelance composing for television and film and was working on an acoustic-based side project before he began messing around with electronic orchestrations.
He played the song for fellow bandmates Pontius and bassist Cubbie Fink. They liked the sound and about a week later, they posted “Pumped Up Kicks” on the Internet as a free download, and it has since taken on a life of its own.
It’s not just a catchy song, a combination of effects allowed “Pumped Up Kicks” to hit for the unlikely trifecta of Internet sensation, sleeper hit and crossover smash.
Foster the People isn’t necessarily an original endeavor. The band mashes-up assimilated genres. The band has a European flavor — most of its songs have a noticeable ambient interlude with elements of trance and house present. This comes from Foster’s appreciation of British alt-rockers Blur and contemporary electronic composer Aphex Twin.
The alt-pop shoegazing is mixed with a healthy dose of ’80s-influenced styling and low-fi vibe, a la MGMT, with a sprinkle of California dreams for good measure.
“The sound is what is big in L.A., we have that sunshine sound,” says Pontius. “Living by the beach, the sun and surf are huge influences on us.”
The laid back sound combined with upbeat electronics and bass-heavy beats gives “Pumped Up Kicks” a modern edge. Add the catchy chorus and these elements coalesced into a monster success.
The beginning lead-in is longer than on most hit singles, and listeners are lured by the breezy, fun melody on the surface, while lyrically the song is about the threat of violence.
“Pumped Up Kicks” takes us into the troubled head of Robert, a disillusioned youth, whose been bullied and neglected. One day he finds his father’s handgun in the closet and decides he’ll take it to school and exact some revenge upon his tormentors.
Some listeners may never get what the song is about — they simply get carried away on the ethereal refrain, until noticing gun and bullets at some point.
He’s a cowboy kid — Yeah, he found a six-shooter gun
In his dad’s closet hidden in a box of fun things
I don’t even know what — But he’s coming for you, yeah, he’s coming for you
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, outrun my gun
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks
You’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet
Foster composed the music first and then the lyrics, which explains some of the differences between tone and substance, but the dichotomy wasn’t unintentional. He wrote the song to raise awareness about gun violence in youth culture, particularly bullying and school shootings. Foster created the character Robert to go inside the mind of a child suffering from alienation and abuse. In many ways the song takes on a child-like innocence, with the looming violence disguised by the sugary sweetness on top.
Regardless, the result has spawned a host of remixes and cover versions (check out Weezer’s version from their current tour).
On last check the YouTube video for Pumped Up Kicks had over 21 million views, and that’s just one version of the song. There are live takes, Internet-manipulated monkeys shooting guns and a version with the lyrics that’s racked up nearly 5 million hits alone.
“We were a little concerned at first that something heavy might happen, but it’s been beautiful how the song has hit this chord all over the world and given a voice to this problem,” says Pontius.
This level of Internet buzz brought Foster The People to their debut show last year at South By Southwest (SXSW). Then they played Coachella without even having an album out. Their current tour has seen stops at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, and includes a string of mostly sold out shows for the 50 dates.
With the disc Torches selling consistently, and a second hit single, Helena Beat, climbing the charts, Foster The People is not a one hit wonder.
All the members are in their mid-twenties and enjoying the success, so look for earnest enthusiasm in concert. Foster The People adds two members when touring, and stretch the songs out, playing them in different styles to accentuate the material’s versatility. Expect heavy percussion to push their danceable pop live.
“We’re looking forward to New Orleans — we’ll have our pants down trying to get the crowd into it all,” says Pontius.