Matt Popieluch on his
band’s multiculti music and whether or not they should’ve recorded “Hey There
By HAL BIENSTOCK
When Blurt caught
up with Foreign Born lead singer Matt Popieluch, it was noon, a time when most
musicians are just waking up. Yet Popieluch had been hard at work for hours
digging a hole. No, he wasn’t preparing to take cover in case the banking
system goes down and chaos reigns. He was simply doing his day job as a
groundskeeper at L.A.’s Coldwater Canyon Park, a position that he says keeps
him grounded while having the added benefit of providing plenty of taco money.
Despite moving around constantly as a kid from San Diego to the East Coast to Hong Kong to San Francisco, Popieluch is now an L.A. guy through and through, and he says the
city is reflected heavily in his band’s new album, Person to Person. But this isn’t the sunny California sound of the
Beach Boys. Person to Person is a
percussion-heavy disc that combines melodic, Shins-style indie-rock with
African music, new wave and bits of U2-style arena rock.
“The album reflects the hidden currents of L.A. that people
don’t know about,” he says. “The darkness and brightness of the city.”
While Popieluch grew up listening to everything from Michael
Jackson to Guns N’ Roses to Mudhoney, he says he drew inspiration for this
album from one of the biggest – and strangest – L.A. bands, Fleetwood Mac,
especially the band’s experimental 1979 album Tusk.
“We take a lot of recording and production cues from them,”
Popieluch says of the Mac. “I love the double tracked drum arrangements that
are just loose enough to blow your dome. And the amazing experimentation
surrounded by such solid pop songwriting.”
The L.A. vibe was even reflected in the studio the band used
to record the album.
“We had this cool home studio in the hills with a deck, a
Jacuzzi, an in-house bong and a room full of cool drums we found at flea
markets,” Popieluch remembers. “Of course, while the other guys were there, I’d
be working, wearing my orange vest and sweeping the street a few miles down the
road. It was a funny reality. I’d be thinking of lyrics while standing in the
street being hot as hell, then I’d walk to this great house and start playing.”
Popieluch’s struggle to balance work and music led to one of
Person to Person‘s best songs,
“Vacationing People,” which captures the feeling of trying to figure out where
you belong. “Until I took the parks job last year, I spent four years
working odd jobs,” he explains. “I was a mover, a delivery guy, I was even a
telemarketer for a week. Those odd jobs give you a lot of free time, but you
have no structure. You come home from a tour and are floundering. It’s like
you’re a vacationing person, except you’re in your hometown and have no money.
It’s a common L.A. story, but it wasn’t for me.”
Popieluch’s work ethic can also been seen in Foreign Born’s
slow rise in the indie rock scene. In an era when bands can become stars
overnight thanks to endorsements on a few blogs, Foreign Born has been slogging
away for six years, first self-releasing EPs, then moving from small indie
label Dim Mak to larger indie label Secretly Canadian, home of Antony & the
Johnsons and Jens Lekman.
While being hitting the indie rock jackpot would have been
nice, the guys also believe that the slow build has made them a better band. “We’ve
had a series of struggles and triumphs and missteps and confusion,” Popieluch
says. “But it’s been nice in the sense that it’s let us figure out who we are.
Through those struggles, we’ve come out with moments of clarity that let us see
where we want the band to go.”
And it’s not like they haven’t had a small taste of stardom.
Bassist Ariel Rechtshaid produced the song “Hey There Delilah,” which became a
number one hit for Plain White T’s.
“That was a little thrill for him,” says Popieluch. “But I
can’t say I liked the song, and honestly he didn’t really either. It was funny
for him to be so praised for something he didn’t like that much.”
Unfortunately, the benefits of that song’s success didn’t
trickle down. While the T’s lived the high life, the members of Foreign Born
didn’t start hanging with movie stars or dating supermodels. Hell, they didn’t
even get invited to a Grammy party, despite the fact that the song was nominated.
So did Popieluch ever wonder what would have happened had that song come to
Foreign Born instead?
“I know what would have happened,” he says with a laugh. “I
would have had to quit. The band would have broken up.”
[Photo Credit: Emily Ulmer]