Foster the People: Pumped Up Hits

For several months in 2011, the radio hit “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People was the song we couldn’t get out of our heads. For Mark Foster, who wrote the song, getting it out of his head — and into a demo — was no problem at all. Using Logic Pro, and playing all the instruments himself, Foster was able to write and record the single in just a day and a half. After the demo went viral on the web, the song climbed the charts and eventually became a kind of fan anthem at the band’s typically sold-out concerts.

Following a decade working dead-end jobs in Los Angeles while trying to make it as a songwriter and musician, a career-launching hit was more than Foster could reasonably have hoped for. But “Pumped Up Kicks” has sold more than four million copies. The group’s debut album Torches reached the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, a notable feat for a two-year-old band. And Foster the People have since become concert headliners, selling out impressive venues like Central Park SummerStage, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and Gibson Amphitheatre, as well as drawing record crowds at Lollapalooza, Coachella, and South by Southwest. The band also performed on Saturday Night Live and at the Grammy Awards — where they received two nominations and played with The Beach Boys.

Isom Innis and Mark Foster edit tracks in Logic Pro.
Photo credit: Magda Wosinska.

Foster credits much of his songwriting success to years of work with Logic Pro, which, by the time he wrote “Pumped Up Kicks,” had become his main creative instrument. “When I switched over to Logic, my songwriting changed drastically because it opened my eyes to being able to do a lot of things in one place,” he says. “Not just play piano, but put the bass part in. Not just lay in the bass, but put a drum pattern in. It also allowed me to learn various producer tricks that don’t have much to do with songwriting but really affect the overall listening experience.”

Chasing the Dream

Those opportunities for rich composition and control were a revelation to Foster, who grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, writing music from an early age. Inspired by a Beach Boys tape he received from his dad when he was six, Foster became a multi-instrumentalist, playing drums, piano, and guitar in various bands. “I guess that was the intro to songwriting for me, writing for many different kinds of musicians and styles of music,” he says.

After graduating from high school, Foster followed his musical interests to Los Angeles, but his efforts left him discouraged. “I hit a ceiling with songwriting on acoustic guitar,” he says. “I realized that if I had no money to pay a producer for studio time, and didn’t know how to do it on my own, I was just going to continue to flounder. So I decided to get my own system and learn how to produce, because I didn’t want to rely on anybody else.”

But Foster’s first experiments with PC-based sound tools were frustrating. “After I worked a little while, my PC just turned to Swiss cheese. I remember being in a really good groove creatively, writing tons of songs, while my computer was crashing every 10 seconds. I’d start it up, make a couple of moves, and save them really quick. I would do that for hours. It was all I could do.”

During short-term production stints at various studios around Los Angeles, Foster came to see how he might do more. “Working in sessions with producers like Greg Kurstin and Switch, I saw how powerful Logic was. It seemed more intuitive and a better creative tool for a songwriter than Pro Tools. I knew I wanted Logic.”

Deep Logic

When he made his first decent paycheck for scoring a friend’s movie, Foster used it to buy a MacBook Pro and Logic. Having an application, operating system, and hardware all designed by Apple made for better stability and performance. “They’re made to run smoothly together,” he says. “Logic felt so intuitive, as if a musician had created it. It really sped up my workflow while letting me stay creative. I didn’t have to be a sound engineer to work the program, so I could just be a songwriter.”

The transition was sweetened by the useful tools that came with the application: “I loved the amount of control that Logic gave me, as well as all the instrument and effect plug-ins it came with, especially the EXS24 sampler and Space Designer reverb. And I use the Tape Delay and Compressor plug-ins all the time. As a rookie switching over, it was good to have these things at my fingertips and not have to buy a hundred outsourced plug-ins.”

With his growing Logic skills, Foster was finally able to land a musical day job. “My songwriting and producing in Logic continued to get better as I went deeper into the program,” he says. “I became so familiar with it that I was offered a full-time job as a composer scoring commercials at a company called Mophonics.”

Forming the Band

While working at Mophonics, Foster was encouraged to pursue his outside songwriting aspirations. Those efforts, which had ranged widely across genres, found real traction in 2009 when Foster (handling lead vocals, keyboards, piano, synthesizers, guitar, programming, and percussion) joined drummer Mark Pontius and bassist Cubbie Fink to form Foster the People. After the success of “Pumped Up Kicks,” which Foster wrote at the Mophonics studio, the band followed up with an EP called Foster the People and their first album, Torches.

With a goal of creating 10 great, no-compromise songs for Torches, the band worked with accomplished producers Greg Kurstin, Rich Costey, and Paul Epworth. Foster brought to the studio fully developed versions of each song for the producers to hear. “I pretty much had all the songs demoed out in Logic myself,” he says. “As we looked at my sessions, it was easy to add stuff and integrate it with what I’d already done in Logic.”

New Direction

On a recent break from touring, Foster and the band were at Paramount Recording Studios in Hollywood writing material for their next album — tentatively scheduled for a 2013 release. For the new album, Foster is using the capabilities of Logic Pro to support a whole new creative approach. Moving away from the solo songwriting efforts by Foster that shaped their first album, this time the writing is coming from the band. Backing Foster, Fink, and Pontius in the studio, as they do on stage, are guitarist Sean Cimino and Isom Innis (keyboard, synthesizer, piano, programming, percussion, and background vocals).