Pumped up Kicks is a sticky song. And it’s not just the catchy melody. Mark Foster’s lyrics speak to…well, everyone. His words create imagery. They tell a story. And the story they tell is like a rorschach test. It’s open to interpretation.
The Winding Road to Pumped Up Kicks
Long before Pumped Up Kicks, Mark Foster of Foster the People was destined for a career in music. He was a young fan of The Beach Boys and a participant in a Cleveland children’s chorus. His father suggested he move to California to pursue a music career. So, with guitar in hand, Foster headed to Los Angeles. As he puts it, he “dove into the Hollywood Hills subculture.” A chance encounter at a party would turn into karmic boomerang moment.
Meeting Rivers Cuomo
At the time, Foster was only 18 and “hadn’t [yet] learned how to write a song where [he] was singing and playing at the same time.” He’d been invited to a house party, and, as he always did, he took his acoustic guitar along. During the gathering, Foster recognized Rivers Cuomo. River is, of course, the lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter of American rock band Weezer. Foster says he “cornered Rivers,” brought out his guitar, and asked Rivers to listen to a song he’d been working on.
An Epic Lesson
“[Rivers] must have been thinking, ‘Oh great, some 18-year-old kid is playing me an instrumental at a party!’” But Rivers showed no arrogance. In fact, he not only politely listened to Foster, he provided him an impromptu guitar lesson as the evening went on. “I was talking to him about [Weezer’s] ‘Say It Ain’t So,’ one of the best songs ever written,” says Foster, “ and he showed me how to properly play it.”
But on the road to writing Pumped Up Kicks there were far more struggles than celebrity encounters. Foster worked as a waiter, a barista, and a jingle writer in those early years. He would receive projects from Mophonics when they had an assignment that seemed to fit his style. But what was Foster’s style? He has so many influences like hip hop, electronic, spiritual, and classical. He wanted to use them all, but struggled to pull them together. “I was working full-time, and writing songs. I had come so close to having an opportunity to make a record, but nothing was happening.”
Grinding Every Day
He was getting discouraged. There was interest from Aftermath, Jimmy Iovine, and Sony Music. But Foster just couldn’t break through. Finally, at age 25, concerned that his youth was passing him by, Foster remembers being ready for a change. “I didn’t want to spend my youth in Los Angeles without living life and seeing the world,” he explains. “I’d worked for seven straight years, grinding every day.”
The Muse Speaks
But, as with any great breakthrough story, the planets were about to align for Foster. He had finished his in-studio work early one day and was mulling his options. Should he get a jump on traffic by leaving the Venice studio immediately? Or catch some waves at a nearby beach? Then he heard that little voice in his head. Stay in the studio and write. Whether or not he had anything to say, the voice urged, just say something. So he did. Using Logic, a digital audio workstation (DAW) and MIDI sequencer, Foster started with the drum kit. “I usually start with drums, have the beat laid out,” explains Foster. He toyed with sounds he hadn’t worked with before, like ranchero music, and added from there. He ended up with “a simple, four instrument song.”
Time Stands Still
As Foster framed the chorus, he said he was thinking about the words as a metaphor, “a confidence thing.” He turned on the mic, and let the words flow. “That first verse came out, and I was kind of in another world. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to say. But then ‘Robert’s got a quick hand,’ that first line came out.” And the song turned into a narrative. There were stops and starts as the writing continued. “The first verse wrote itself, but the second verse had to be figured out,” he recalls. But once a writer is onto something, time has a way of standing still.
Pumped Up Kicks – A Song with Something to Say
Foster certainly was onto something that day. Pumped Up Kicks went on to become a massive hit. It was the first song ever to reach #1 on the Dance Charts and #1 on the Alternative Charts simultaneously and had mass cross-over appeal. Pumped Up Kicks also peaked at #3 on the US Billboard Hot 100, US Mainstream Top 40, and US Hot Rock Songs. It hit the Top 10 charts in at least a dozen countries. Foster modestly suggests each listener, depending on his or her own circumstances, has managed to interpret the lyrics in their own meaningful way. He also points out that not everyone liked the song. When it first broke, he received messages from concerned mothers who thought Foster the People was a feel-good band. With Pumped Up Kicks, they were upset to hear the group singing “violent lyrics.” But others thanked Foster for the uplifting message they got out of the song. “It’s fun to hear different interpretations, because it means people are listening,” says Foster. “Deeply thinking about it.”
Pumped Up Kicks – It Makes You Think
This song strikes a nerve because it says something. It makes people think. According to The Professor of Rock, Pumped Up Kicks is “one of the most powerful songs of the 21st century so far.” It’s a song that “speaks for the times.” It brings to light so many issues, such as gun violence, abandonment, power, and even mental illness. If a song can spark a larger conversation, then it’s a song worth listening to.
Pumped Up Kicks isn’t homogenized. It’s refreshing. In previous decades, “the people with the biggest platforms were saying the most interesting things.” That has not been the case in the last decade or so, but Foster reminds us that there are still song writers who have plenty to say.
Coming Full Circle
In its relatively short life-span, Pumped Up Kicks has become a mainstay in the pop culture vernacular. TV shows and and movies use it. In a 2011 episode of Suits, the song’s intro beat plays in the background of a scene with Meghan Markle and Patrick Adams (Rachel and Mike) walking together. That same year, the song played during an OB/GYN office visit during the fifth season of Gossip Girl. And in the film Friends with Benefits, Pumped Up Kicks accompanies a make-out scene. Remember the karmic boomerang? Foster says one of the coolest endorsements he could have received was Weezer covering Pumped Up Kicks while performing in concert. Following that epic guitar lesson years earlier, it really was “a full-circle moment!,” says Foster.
A Year of Firsts
Foster remembers his year of firsts. The first time the band heard Pumped Up Kicks on KROQ. His first time on tour. The first time playing festivals. These were amazing milestones, but he didn’t always take time to soak them in. Artists who knew from experience that “the firsts” only come around once, told him to really enjoy those not-to-be repeated moments in time. But Foster recalls being, “so focused on trying to build something that had longevity” that it took him a long time to catch his breath. It was as he were if trying to outrun his own proverbial bullet. He said about a year-and-a-half in, after performing at some of the biggest festivals in the world— Coachella and Lollapalooza—he finally stopped and took it all in, and with an audible sigh realized, “We’re gonna be okay.”
The Journey Continues
Foster the People has gone on to release two more studio albums after Torches—Supermodel and Sacred Hearts Club—and continues to tour. And their single Sit Next To Me has reached over 50 million streams on Spotify. We look forward to hearing what else Mark Foster and the band have to say for years to come.