Jonathan Rado on Mourning Richard Swift, Working with the Killers, and the "End" of Foxygen

Jonathan Rado on Mourning Richard Swift, Working with the Killers, and the "End" of Foxygen
Photo by Luke Suzumoto

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers get a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday with music criticism around songs I've been listening to lately.

Jonathan Rado is a fascinating figure to me in the world of indie; his band Foxygen were buzzy and divisive sensations when they emerged in the mid-2010s, and near the end of their (initial?) run he went on to become something of a name on the production side of things. He just released an ambitious and fascinating solo album, For Who the Bell Tolls For, that's huge-sounding and marked by periods of grief. Jonathan hopped on a call with me last month from his L.A. home studio confines to talk it all out with me.

How many hours a day do you spend in your studio, on average?
If I'm working on somebody's album, I have a way different workflow than when I'm working by myself. I'm really bad at holding myself to a time frame, so maybe I'll plan to work on something and not go in at all. If I'm working with someone, I'm probably in here from 11 am to 10 pm.

In terms of being conducive for work, what do you typically need from a studio space?
I used to not care. When I was younger, I was just happy to have any space where I could set up and not immediately break my stuff down and leave. It used to be nothing. Working in proper studios have spoiled me a little bit. Right now, I have a separate room just for drums—it's really helpful, even though I could do without it—so I can close the door and record without a ton of bleed. I could put amps in there too. I could record a band of four or five people comfortably. That's needed for me, because I'm always recording a couple of people playing at once.

Back in my garage, it was really hard to do that. If someone messed up, it'd bleed into the other mics, so you'd have to get a really good take. Now, if two people nail it and the bass player was like, "I just have to punch a few parts," I can easily do that. I have gear and stuff, but I'm not a gearhead or anything—maybe someone would describe me that way, but. Mics are fine. It's good to have some microphones. [Laughs]

Tell me about doing your first solo thing in a while with this new record.
In a way, it does feel like my actual first solo album. My last one, Law and Order, was just demos that I'd made for Foxygen. A bunch of them got used, and then there was some stuff that I thought would never get used, so I just compiled them as a solo album. Those songs weren't made with any intention of putting them out, so listening back ten years later, it sounds a little disjointed—and it's a nice little reminder of the music industry back then, when you could just put out almost complete bullshit. [Laughs] And it would get reviewed!

We'll talk about that more later.
So yeah, that one doesn't really feel like a proper solo album to me. In 2016, I tried to make another solo album with Richard Swift, and I got really in my head about it. I wrote all these songs and had lyrics prepared and all these clever chord changes, and I tried to make this album, and it just sounded like someone trying so hard, so I decided not to put it out. There were a few good songs, but the rest I was like, "I'm not ready. I'm really not."

Around 2018 or 2019, Foxygen put out Seeing Other People, and we decided not to tour that album. That was a point in my life where I decided to really focus on being a producer. A big reason why we decided not to tour is because we never really made any money, and it was not a good idea. I needed to find an angle in the music industry where I could make money instead of losing money, so I went head first into production and ended up burning myself out of it. So I decided to make a solo album—but I didn't want to do what I did the last time, where I wrote a bunch of songs and demo'd them and tried to recreate the demos.

I was listening to a lot of Brian Eno at the time—he's still my main influence—and I was thinking about how he would make albums without really preparing before he went into the studio. He'd see what happens. He'd call in Phil Collins and have him drum, have a rhythm section lay down a jam, and work on that until it became a song. I had access to a pretty nice studio, so I decided to take advantage of that space. I'd have Brian and Michael from the Lemon Twigs come in, and I'd have a little kernel of an idea, and we'd record it, and then I'd be stuck with this seven-minute thing to figure out lyrics and a structure for.

I loved the idea of writing a song backwards. When I had a backing track that was exciting, it inspired me more to write than just sitting down at the piano. I had people come to the studio and jam, I used a lot of Oblique Strategies. I'd start songs without knowing where they were going. It took a year, I pieced it all together over time, and I made 15 or 16 songs, and seven seemed to be really good. There was a lyrical theme running through it, and for the first time it felt cohesive.

I admire the seven-song decision.
I love seven-song albums, especially if two of the songs are fairly long. I think Born to Run is seven songs. [Editor's Note: It's eight songs.]

Tell me about mourning Richard Swift and Danny Lacy while making this record.
It was really shocking, losing Swift. I've lost some family members before, but I guess that was my first real, true friend that passed away. That happened a little bit before I started making the album. I feel like it took me a really long time to process that. It was just a huge turning point in my life. My mentor had prematurely disappeared. It was hard. It was a weird thing. While I was making this album, my friend Danny also died, and I was like, "Damn, shit's getting real in my late '20s."

I worked through all of it. Even up until recently, I don't think I truly processed it. With Danny's death specifically...I knew the title was For Who The Bell Tolls For for a long time. I thought it was dumb wordplay, like when Austin Powers says, "Please allow myself to introduce...myself." I've always loved that doubling-back. But "for whom the bell tolls" is also kind of about death, so I figured I could process something and make this more real. The lyrics I started with for the album was more like Brian Eno—his lyrics don't mean anything, and he'd be the first person to say that. It's just words put together...maybe it'd mean something to him, but he'd never admit it. I realized I didn't need to do full Brian Eno B.S. lyrics, so I was trying to process my feelings and put them into the songs.

I wrote a lot of the lyrics in one or two days—I remember one night, waking up at 3 a.m. and being like, "I got it," and I wrote most of the lyrics between then and the morning, and then I edited them for a day. I tried not to overthink anything on this album too much, because I didn't feel like being precious about anything. So I went in and recorded the lyrics, and it felt good. Looking back, I think a lot of those lyrics are about the feeling of not really being able to process death, and feeling like you weren't able to help those people.

"Easier" is explicitly about Swift. I started playing this little piano thing that immediately reminded me of his piano songs—bouncy piano with sad, sad lyrics. Those are my favorite songs. So when I started playing the piano riff, I said, "Is this a Swift song?" I went through his catalog, and I was like, "It's not, but it should be." That was my Oblique Strategy for that one: I'm gonna make a song about Richard Swift and make it sound, as best as I can do, like what he would do, from the fidelity to the sounds that only he would use. The chorus—"You made it easier"—just came out. He'd always say that everything was "too easy." We'd be in the studio and we'd get this drum sound, and I'd say, "That sounds amazing," and he'd be like, "Too easy, dude. Too easy." Everything was like that with him. So "You made it easier" just felt potent, because now it's not.

As someone who loved Richard Swift's work, I can hear the influence on this record quite clearly.
I can't help it. That music is so ingrained in me. If I went to iTunes and looked at my most-listened-to, it'd be Richard Swift by a mile.

What do you think you learned from him when it came to production?
More than anything, he taught me to be confident about the sounds I was getting. Doing that first Foxygen album with him was a transformative nine days in my life. I'd only really worked on Garageband and 4-track previously. We went up to his studio not knowing what to expect, but knowing I loved his sounds and that everything he produced was really cool. But I didn't know what his way of working was like. You don't know what you're going to get with a producer until you're in it.

I was really surprised by how natural and similar to what me and Sam were already doing was. His process mirrored how we worked. He just had a couple of mics, and he'd take the one mic and whatever we were recording, he'd mic the drums and the guitar amp, the three of us would play a take two or three times until we nailed it, and he'd be like, "Sick, what next?" He was never like, "I don't know about that part, it might not be working," or, "I need to spend 30 minutes dialing in this drum sound." It's surprising, because the music sounds incredibly designed, and he was obviously doing a lot, but he made it so painless to record that it didn't feel like recording. It just felt like it was coming out, and I never questioned what was coming out. It was just what we were making. There's mistakes in it for sure, but there's also mistakes on Kinks albums!

We were all on the same page, and seeing him and how he worked, I realized that he was so confident in terms of how he was able to operate his studio, so I picked that up—not complicating things. I've been in situations with other producers and people where things get so overly complicated—time-wasting shit. When you get to the time where you're supposed to record the song, no one feels like it. That never happened with Richard.

One thing that stands out to me with your production work is the last two Killers records. You were in the studio with a band who was going a massive stylistic shift—the biggest in their career. What was that experience like, working with a band undergoing drastic change?
After Swift passed, the next thing I did was make a record with Shawn Everett for a band called Houndmouth. Working with Shawn on that record, I also learned a ton of stuff—more technical stuff. Shawn, in a way, became a second mentor to me, because he was so much the opposite of Swift. He was like, "Let's use one thousand mics," and he'd cue them wildly. "Let's spend four hours setting up a large-scale studio experiment, because if it's amazing, it'll sound like nothing else you've ever heard." That stuff to me is also really exciting. I'd never worked like that before.

He really opened me up to big sounds. Before working with him, I'd never considered low end in my life, or even liked it—I was listening primarily to '60s and '70s music. But hearing sub kicks was really powerful. Flash forward a couple of years, I did some records with Alex Cameron, who toured with the Killers, and then I got a call from Brandon Flowers that they were auditioning producers in a house in Park City, working on songs with them. I was like, "I should come up with Shawn, because I know what he can do and what we can do together." We're good as a team for bigger projects, because he's very good at the computer in a way that I don't understand. I'm good with tape machines and I can play instruments, and together there's an interesting push and pull. We never fight, but we are coming at it from two different perspectives, and an admiration for both. We compliment each other really well.

The first time we went up, we made "My God," which is on Imploding the Mirage, and when we made that song it was the moment where Brandon was like, "I think I should do it with these guys, I guess?" I guess we did it well. I didn't hear the other stuff he did with other people, but we did this Peter Gabriel Kate Bush thing and it worked, so we worked on other songs. Brandon's songwriting with Shawn's bombastic production and my understanding...I really understand Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, '70s American rock. It's how I play guitar, I exist in that world for better or worse. Brandon really loves that stuff, and you can hear it in Killers records throughout the years—him pushing Springsteen, and the production fighting back. And that also really works on a song like "Read My Mind," which is my favorite Sam's Town song. He wrote a great American song with Flood and Alan Moulder producing it.

Imploding the Mirage was us trying to make big stadium rock like U2. That's what we were all thinking about. I'd played Bowery Ballroom, so Brandon only really has that experience of making a song in the studio and then experiencing it in front of 80,000 people. It's a really interesting angle, because he's like, "This has to play to a lot of people." That was an interesting challenge for me that I really loved, and it made me get into big bands like U2. I never liked U2 before working with the Killers, but I had to understand U2 to work with them. That was interesting to me, because I was discovering a lot in the process of making music for a lot of people, instead of making music to impress people. [Laughs] Sometimes I'm working on something indie that hopefully transcends indie, whereas this time I was working on something that was already rock, for a huge fanbase. That's a huge undertaking, and it was a really interesting challenge, but I think we did it really well on Imploding the Mirage.

Pressure Machine was made over COVID, and I think that's my favorite thing we've done. I still listen to it, out of all the things I've made or been a part of. And that's a soft record! But I think it's really successful as an album, and it was so easy. It was COVID, they weren't touring, there wasn't an urgency to make was the opposite of Imploding the Mirage. This was for people to listen to at home. That felt way easier, working in that vein with things I'm more familiar with. We leaned into that country thing. I'm still doing stuff with them. I'm a big fan of Brandon's voice and talent. I think he's one of our best songwriters, and he has a point of view that's way different than other people.

I was going to ask if you're working with him, because I know they've been in the studio in general.
Yeah, there's some stuff they did with Shawn and Stuart Price that's already come out. I'm working on some stuff with Brandon and Shawn still, too.

You mentioned getting burned out on production before. Are you still feeling that way?
I learned how to pace myself. I also think that sometimes I forget that I also write songs, especially while working with such great songwriters. I feel lucky to work with people who are really great, some of our best songwriters—Weyes Blood, the Killers, Lemon Twigs. Those are my favorite bands, so I feel so lucky to work with those people. Because of their immense talent, sometimes I forget I make music, which is silly. When I'm producing an album, I'm fully immersed in that person's vision. I get so into it that it's my favorite thing. When I leave the world of that album and they continue, I feel a little empty.

My way of dealing with that is remembering that I write songs and taking a little time for myself—and, sometimes, not working. I started taking the weekends off if I can, and that's been really nice for my brain. It stops me from getting burned out. What's weird is that a lot of artists have also adapted that mindset. This isn't a good or bad thing, but a lot of artists are working at more slower paces. They're like, "Let's do a week here, and then let's take a few months, and then let's do sometime in October." It's much more spread out, whereas a couple of years ago it was, "You have a budget and we're doing it in 12 days." Sometimes I prefer the budget and the 12 days with no notes. I kinda like that.

You mentioned before that Law and Order came out in a different era of the music industry. When Foxygen emerged as a buzzy thing, it was also kind of the end of the buzzy indie thing as well.
I know. It was Foxygen, Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco—END.

What do you recall about that time? How have you seen things change since?
Obviously, the most depressing answer is that streaming has fucked everything. Spotify has fucked everything. I hope they playlist me for this album, if they're listening—it's all good. [Laughs] But the streaming royalties...people can't make money on their music anymore. They're solely relying on touring, and post-COVID, clubs aren't paying bands what they used to, and they're taking merch cuts. It's a really messed up time for trying to make money in the music industry.

I remember when Foxygen signed our record deal, it was not a lot of money. We did not take a big advance. It was a DIY record that got picked up by a label. I have a lot of weird feelings about it, because I had such a priviliged experience. Being a buzz band is weird! We were a buzz band, but we started the band when we were 15, so we were a seven-year-old band by the time we put out that album. Maybe there was a confidence that we'd already built up. We'd burn CDs for our friends and make paper sleeves and hand them out to people at school, and then suddenly we're on a label and starting to tour. It happened really fast.

There was a lot of money in the music industry, and we got paid to do ridiculous things that people don't get paid much money for anymore. Foxygen, specifically, never really reaped the benefits of it, because we were always cancelling tours—or, when we would tour, we'd have a nine-piece band. The positive is that we made enough money on the tours to not lose money, but we never fully reaped the benefits in a way our contemporaries did. There was also an excitement about indie music at that time, and I feel like things would just get picked up by a label. You could get your album put out by Dead Oceans or something, pre-Phoebe Bridgers. I think money ran out and indie labels were like, "We should only put out things that will recoup."

It's all depressing. There's no upside to this. Labels are being way more realistic now. Someone like Richard Swift would have a hard time getting his album put out now. There's not a ton of room for someone expressing themselves in a way that's...I don't know. It's confusing to me. I'm just trying to forge ahead and not think about it too much. Everything changes all the time, and chasing trends is bad. I think it's good to pay attention to younger people and what they're listening to. That's good advice that's been given to me over time, and I'm only 32. But 23 feels so long ago, it's weird. Something like Law and Order could get out on a label no problem—and I can still put out albums. This one's coming out on Western Vinyl, and Law and Order came out on Woodsist, they're like equivalent labels, so it hasn't been that different for me.

But I do see that there's a lot of young bands that are having a hard time. There's a band called Pleasure Pill that I work with—I love them, they're like a Stone Roses, Oasis, Brian Jonestown Massacre, classic music thing, I love it. They've had a hard time finding a label to put out their music—to find support in the way you could've in 2014.

When I was getting ready for this interview, I did recall Law and Order and think to myself, "That is definitely from a certain time."
It's like a Bandcamp release! I truly feel that way. I think it's call, and there is a version on my Bandcamp called Rob and Odor that's a B-sides collection. I was listening to both recently, and I was like, "I could've picked better songs to make one album out of all this." It's too late for that—but I think both those records were made for Bandcamp. When I started making music, putting your music on the internet was the best way to get it to someone. Put it on MySpace!

Natalie Mering did a Q&A recently and she said this thing that stuck with me—how, when someone would send you a music pre-Bandcamp, you'd get these MP3s and it felt like gold. You were getting these special little things. I remember things sounding so much better when they were personally sent to me, or when I was digging around on a small artist's Bandcamp. That's how I came up, and those albums are very much in the vein of, if I sent them in a zip file to you and you were my friend, you'd be like, "Yeah dude, this is the best!" I think that's fine and good, and I'm glad it came out, and I'm glad I lived through a time where I had enough buzz or whatever to put out whatever the hell I wanted. But also, now, looking back, I feel the need to express myself more lyrically. I love how immature that record was—it was like a child making an album—but now it's an adult making an album.

Tell me about the end of Foxygen. What were your takeaways from that?
I'll say this: Our motto was that Foxygen was never actually a band, so I'm not sure if it ever actually ended. It ends after every album, and until we come up with a concept that works for us. We did the albums we set out to do when we were teenagers. We were like, "We want to make a '60s rock album, a heady double album, one with an orchestra, and a dad-rock '80s album." That last one was supposed to be called Java—a dad coffee kind of vibe—but Seeing Other People was a better title.

The band was incredibly fulfilling. I love Foxygen music, I'm a big fan of it, and it still sounds good to me. There's so much layered in those albums for people to discover over time. If you get to Star Power and you like it, then you're in, and you can just enjoy the ride. But it is a divisive band, and it always was. We never really knew anything. Neither of our parents are connected to the entertainment industry. We made up our own world, continued to do it while more people were part of it, and pushed it without compromise—because it was just a recording project, to us. It was never a money-making thing. If anything, the parts that felt off to us were when we started touring. It was something that we never considered—what that would do to your body and finances. That part of it is really hard mentally. It's grating. But we were a recording project that had a popular album. I don't know. I feel really grateful about having finished what we set out to do. We did a very good job of executing it.

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson