Experimental pop group Fol Chen are as known for their innovative music as they are for their artistic activities outside of merely performing onstage. The Los Angeles-based band has given interviews with their faces obscured a la The Knife, invited guest singers onstage via Craigslist, had a metal band perform its songs, performed reconstructed, long-form versions of their albums in Russia, held a workshop in which attendees could get their own song made, and partnered with an electronics manufacturer to produce a sound device, writing and recording two songs with it.
All of that is a mouthful for a band who’s still on the up-and-up. It certainly makes for a great backstory, but it only works if the music does as well. Thankfully, Fol Chen’s music is as bright and intriguing as what they do with it, a hyperactive, dynamic electro-pop sound informed by world music, new wave, dance-punk and other sources both cerebral and celebratory. Their latest album, The False Alarms, is their most pop-oriented statement yet, with group vocals and some of their more avant-garde instincts eschewed in favor of giving singer Sinosa Loa a platform on which to perform as an alt-pop diva. I spoke with Fol Chen’s Samuel Bing before their two performances at Amoeba, first in San Francisco April 24 at 6 p.m. and then in Hollywood April 25 at 7 p.m.
PST: You guys seem like much more than a band, given your consistent involvement with the arts, tinkering with your own music, group vocals and somewhat of a performance art aesthetic. The False Alarms, though, sounds much more like the work of a pop band, perhaps in part because of Sinosa singing all of the lead vocals. Was that a goal with this album, to present a more unified pop statement?
Bing: On our last album, we had five lead singers, and while it made sense for the kind of storytelling we were going for, that kind of thing makes it hard for people to feel connected to you as a band. Plus, not having a single voice out front made our first two records seem more schizophrenic then they actually were. We were called out for being stylistically all over the map, when really it was the multiple vocalists that made it seem that way. It’s amazing what you can get away with from song to song if it’s the same person at the mic!
PST: There also seems to be a desire to come out of the shadows a bit more — whereas you used to perform and give interviews in masks, the video for “I.O.U.” sees Sinosa sitting front-and-center in a roller rink wearing Chanel earrings and cool clothes. It’s almost like a hip-hop video. Did you want to play with those images of recent pop, indulge in them, or is it more just a bit of fun?
Bing: Chris Wilcha directed that video, and he’s a lifelong hip-hop fan, so he’ll appreciate that! And yes — we decided to become more visible, but we wanted to try to explore what that kind of visibility means, and play with it a bit. A lot of our “art projects,” like replacing ourselves with a metal band, or hiring guest singers from Craigslist, play with identity, so it’s an extension of that. Plus, it is super fun to dress up and rollerskate.
PST: Besides the lead vocals, the sound of The False Alarms also seems more streamlined, though still experimental. Did you employ new methods this time around in songwriting, editing and producing?
Bing: The biggest difference on the producing/songwriting side is that we took so long to make the album — about 18 months — that we were able to leave a song alone for a few weeks at a time, so that when we returned to it we could hear it differently. So we’d work on a track for a bit, then put it away and not listen to it for sometimes a month. Not listening is a great production technique.
PST: On the other hand, let’s say a song like “A Tourist Town” is very catchy yet has all this really cool, really strange electronic sound happening underneath. How do you find that balance, where you keep things interesting but you’re still pulling people in with these pop hooks?
Bing: I’ve said before that the best way to show your love for pop music is to try to nudge it forward. And I think that if you have a decent hook, people will tolerate a lot of sonic weirdness and experimentation that they might otherwise be turned off by. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
PST: There are some really dark sounds here too, like how “Boys in the Woods” sort of has this dark passage in the pit of the song, or “200 Words’” robotic vibe. Was there an underlying theme or mood you wanted to achieve on the album?
Bing: The album is pretty dark, despite the pop moments, and that’s a natural reflection of some serious “life stuff” that happened while we were writing and recording. It’s by no means a confessional diary album, but it is still very personal and emotional. Our last album was so focused on sonic manipulation that we sort of forgot about one of the primary functions of music, which is to express feelings, as corny as that sounds. So we explicitly set out to bring emotions back into the music for this album.
PST: You guys have done really fascinating things with opening up your music, whether it’s inviting guest singers from Craigslist to sing your songs onstage or allowing visitors to an art center have their own song created and take it home. Can you tell us anything you have planned in the coming weeks or months that will go beyond the recorded material and straightforward live shows?
Bing: We’ve been developing a new project called “You Will Be My Music,” which we tested out at Machine Project in Echo Park a few months ago. We invite non-musicians in to our mobile studio for an hour and we help them record along to their favorite pop song. For instance, someone picked “Careless Whisper” by Wham!, so we downloaded it and brought it into a Pro Tools session, then spent an hour recording vocals, percussion, keyboards, etc, on top of it. When the hour was up, I deleted the original Wham! track from the session and bounced out a mix of only the new elements we had recorded that day. It ends up sounding like a disoriented dream memory of the original.