Foxygen's "San Francisco" is about as perfect a piece of baroque, groovy '60s pop as you're likely to hear all year, and if you know little more about this young LA band than that sunny tune and perhaps the laid-back lope of the Velvets-like current single, "No Destruction," you may be in for a jolt when you see the group live — which Chicagoans have two opportunities to do this weekend.
Led by childhood friends Sam France and Jonathan Rado, both now 23, Foxygen doesn't attempt to re-create its intricate arrangements onstage, opting instead for a more stripped-down, aggressive approach. This makes sense in that, as multi-instrumentalist Rado said in a phone conversation from Bloomington, Ind., replicating the studio versions would be "kind of impossible, at least for us, because we're kind of lazy and unfocused and don't want to sit and sample in all the noises or figure out how to play a string part on a different instrument or something. We kind of decided to do it like a band in the '70s would, or a punk band, before samplers."
But the real surprise is the can't-take-your-eyes-off-him quality of singer France, whose sweet voice belies his maniacal onstage presence. His eyes wide and wild, his hands constantly running through his Syd Barrett-like tangle of dark hair, France puts across an unhinged state that teeters between entertaining and discomforting.
At last month's Wilco-presented Solid Sound festival in northwestern Massachusetts, Scott Waldman of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., wrote that France leaped off monitors; climbed the stage corner, prompting a security guard to pull him down and confront him; wrapped the microphone cord around his neck like a noose and kept singing all the while. Waldman called the set "the type of musical performance that leaves your mouth hanging open, that makes your heart race, that makes you excited to dissect over and over with your friends what you just witnessed."
But Waldman also wrote that France's behavior caused concern: "In the crowd, people wondered if he was on acid. They wondered if he was schizophrenic. They wanted to give him a hug, to calm him down."
"I probably just needed a hug, yeah," France — on the phone from Olympia, Wash. — said with a laugh upon hearing the passage read to him.
Some folks at Foxygen's Lincoln Hall set in March also wondered whether France was having some sort of bad trip. France yelled at drummer Shaun Fleming at the end of "On Blue Mountain" and for the rest of the set was scowling, rolling his eyes and aborting songs as Rado and the other three band members shot one another nervous looks.
"Yeah, it happens a lot," Rado said upon being reminded of that show.
The following week France had what was widely deemed a "meltdown" during a South by Southwest festival showcase meant to capitalize on the rave reviews that greeted the early 2013 release of the album "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic." France confronted an audience member who told him to quit whining after the singer had complained that he and his voice were worn out, and France stormed off stage, returned, apologized and finished the set, but the band canceled its two subsequent SXSW performances as well as its European tour dates in May and June.
The take-away of some critics and industry folks: Foxygen wasn't quite ready for prime time.
Rado said the European tour actually had been canceled before SXSW; the band had never wanted to do it, its scheduling was due to a miscommunication, and the announcement's timing was unfortunate because "it made it seem like we just freaked out at South By Southwest and canceled everything."
As for South by Southwest, Rado said the festival came at the tail end of this relatively inexperienced band's longest tour ever — a month and a half of performing between Wampire and headliner Unknown Mortal Orchestra — and they weren't prepared for playing so many sets over the festival's compressed time period.
"That could drive someone crazy, and did, and it made (France) lose his voice," Rado said. "We canceled the last two shows because he literally could not sing. He couldn't talk."
Of South by Southwest, France said, "That was bad, but that was still not the worst vibe at a show I've seen. I don't know. That was OK. I was just a little frustrated."
The singer also said he didn't recall what happened at Lincoln Hall. But, when reminded that he introduced one song by saying something to the effect of, "This next song is going to (expletive) suck," he responded with an embarrassed laugh.
"Oh, my God," he said. "That's terrible. See, that's bad. That's just bad. You should never say, 'This sucks' onstage. You should never admit to any sort of fault of yourself up there because it just makes the audience feel even worse. I don't specifically remember that show, but it definitely does not sound like I was in a good mood."
Still, France said, he is putting on a performance, even as audience members worry about his stability.
"Yeah, people always think that I'm really on drugs or something, but it's not true," he said. "I just kind of act kind of funny up there."
Part of the reason, he said, is that as the frontman he feels an obligation to seize the spotlight.
"We're not extremely talented, so I end up doing whatever the hell I can do up there to keep people's attention, which sometimes is really anything I can do," he said. "If the song sounds terrible, then I'm like, I'm going to climb up this side of the stage here or do something weird. I don't know if it's really a good technique, but it's been interesting so far."