Mark Foster certainly knows how to sculpt a memorable hit.
His breakthrough smash with his trio Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks,” became the definitive single of the summer, thanks to its delectable confection of handclap percussion, bubbly bass, vocodered verses and the sugary — but lyrically homicidal — chorus: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/ You better run, better run/ Outrun my gun.”
But the song’s Raskolnikov-pensive protagonist doesn’t actually commit the crime.
“It’s more about the psychology of what makes him tick, and him playing with the idea of doing something,” says Foster, aware that the words “gun” and “bullet” were carefully bleeped from its video clip. “I really wanted to just paint his world, his emotions, the conversation that’s going on in his head.”
Foster acquired his skills in a strange place. As a wide-eyed naif in Hollywood a few years back, this Cleveland native — who brings his outfit to San Francisco this week — cut his teeth penning commercial jingles for a company called Mophonics, first on spec from his home studio, then as their full-time, in-house composer.
In his downtime, he threw “Kicks” together in three hours, offered it for free on his website, and soon landed a deal with Columbia/Star Time Intl., which released the ditty on an EP, then on FTP’s recent debut, “Torches.”
What did his bosses hear in the kid?
“Well, I think melodies are my real strength,” he says. “I know how to build and deliver a chorus, whether it’s instrumental or whatever. So I guess I have a good handle on dynamics, which is what commercials are all about. Plus, I write in a lot of different genres, which is an asset, because you get jobs calling for hip-hop, bossa nova, even Danny Elfman-type stuff. So you have to be able to do all of it.”
Foster’s first assignment was his toughest: doing an electronic cover of a complicated Billie Holiday jazz number.
He went on to score ads for Verizon, T-Mobile, Bank of America, California tourism, Muscle Milk and Honey Bunches of Oats. “It’s a very good cereal,” he says, “and I just heard that I’ve booked a Pop Tarts commercial, too.”
Foster is so prolific, he has an entire piano-vocal solo record in the can — one so soulful that Dr. Dre considered signing him.
“But I wanted to make the type of music that I’m making now instead,” he says. “And that’s a side of me that I want to start working in on our second record — a part of me that nobody knows about yet.”
IF YOU GO
Where: The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 9 p.m. Friday
Contact: (415) 346-6000, www.livenation.com