Matt Popieluch and Lewis Pesacov, the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards-like songwriting core of Foreign Born, first started playing music together while studying at San Francisco State University, where the band quickly soaked up the ambience of sunny Southern California before moving to Los Angeles in 2003. Foreign Born's new album, Person To Person, is rife with crisp guitar notes, playful percussion, and lush instrumentation, making it not only an impressive step forward from the group's promising Dim Mak Records debut, but a perfect record for summer barbecues and beach trips as well. Popieluch also contributes to a handful of other L.A.-local outfits, including Pesacov's big, African-highlife band, Fool's Gold. In advance of Foreign Born's appearance at the Hammer Museum on Wednesday, singer Popieluch joined Decider to discuss the respective arts of vibe harnessing, percussing, and collaboration.
Decider: Your previous album, On The Wing Now, was recorded two years before it was actually released. Was the band dying to record something new?
Matt Popieluch: Totally. Foreign Born has had many stumbling blocks along the way, which gives us character, but we’re only starting to get to a point where we’re not playing catch-up with ourselves. It’s an old song—a lot of bands go through that—but working with Secretly Canadian now… no offense to our old label, but it’s night and day.
D: Based on the pictures on the band blog, it seems you were able to record Person To Person at a decent studio. How did you choose the location?
MP: We were looking to harness vibes a little more for this one. Maybe that sounds kind of hippie, but even punks need atmosphere. Last time we were on a budget, recording wherever we could get a deal, but for Person To Person, I found this house, New King Sound, in the Hollywood Hills. It’s got a deck, a Jacuzzi… an in-house bong. I’m a groundskeeper in Coldwater Canyon Park, about 10 minutes away, so I’d come straight from work, all sweaty and dirty, into this living room with these great bay windows overlooking the Valley. When I think of how this record sounds, I picture that house. It’s very L.A., and we’re a very L.A. band.
D: Did you grow up in Los Angeles?
MP: Well, the rest of the band did—Garrett [Ray], our drummer, is fourth or fifth generation Venice Beach. I moved around a lot and spent a large chunk of my childhood in Hong Kong. My dad worked for Bank Of America and had been transferred there. I started my first band in China, actually. It was a funny place to discover grunge, but I did nonetheless and covered Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” the same as I would’ve here.
D: Foreign Born does feel “very L.A.,” but it’s a hard thing to put a finger on. How would you describe that quality?
MP: I think Fleetwood Mac embodies L.A. in the way we would hope to, though I wouldn’t presume to say we’ve achieved that. Actually, whenever I think of Foreign Born in regard to the city, I picture David Hockney’s pool paintings. There are those bright, vibrant colors on the surface and a definite darkness lurking underneath.
D: What were some of the tools you used for this new record?
MP: We recorded onto an old 8-track, half-inch tape machine that had magic buttons that made everything sound great. And yeah, we used tons of instruments—strings, horns, woodwinds—plus, we’re percussion fanatics. Lewis had recently become obsessed with rototoms, which you can spin to modify the pitch, and I found two sets at the Rose Bowl Flea Market the day before we started recording. It was fate. I brought them to the studio and we just banged the shit out of those things. We also used a khim, which is a Thai hammer dulcimer-like instrument, on “That Old Sun.” There’s no spot left un-percussed.
D: “Early Warnings” exhibits a pretty strong African-highlife vibe. Is that a little Fool’s Gold bleeding in?
MP: That’s a lot of Fool’s Gold bleeding in. Lewis started that band about three years ago, and it’s definitely made an impact on our music. That song in particular has a very pronounced African-guitar influence, but in general terms, I think the crossing over between the two projects has just made Foreign Born a little sexier. [Laughs.]
D: You lead Foreign Born, yet you play supporting roles in Cass McCombs’ band, Fool’s Gold, and others. What do you get out of playing other people’s music?
MP: In a way, I feel like it’s all my music even though I didn’t write it. So many get locked into their identity as lead singer or guitarist, but I don’t feel egotistical about it—I like being a spoke in the wheel. With Fool’s Gold, they might tell me, “Play this riff for eight minutes,” and it feels great, like we’re all marching toward the same destination.
D: Several critics have credited Foreign Born with creating anthemic songs a lá U2. Are anthems what you aim for?
MP: No, and it’s getting out of hand. Next time we’re going to have to write songs for, like, an a cappella, all-women quartet. Of course, then it’ll be, “Anthemic, female barber-shop group, Foreign Born…” Our older stuff is a little more dramatic, but I was sure they couldn’t say that about this record. Sure enough, I’ve already read more U2 comparisons. People must not listen to the words. There’s some crazy shit going on in these songs that no soccer stadium is ever gonna sing.
D: This may be a long shot, but does the album’s title intentionally play off of the phrase, “peer to peer”?
MP: Not exactly, but that’s close. In the last few years, thanks to MySpace, I’ve been hearing from people around the world that are interested in our music—from Peru, Chile, Indonesia, the South of France, Portugal—but who can’t find it where they’re from. I send them packages with stuff from all of our friends’ bands, and I like the idea that it’s this person-to-person connection, basically one dude in each of these countries. That probably wouldn’t have happened if we had been a bigger band.