Foals exceed expectations once again
The fact people still want to talk about Foals is complete justification of the survival of the fittest theory.
Bands of this ilk who manage to release a third record of any distinct notoriety, let alone come 1,000 copies from scoring a number one album, are an anomaly in today’s comfort zone of a chart. It reflects well on the masses.
No doubt the initial boom will pass and sales will plateau as more Mums lap up a few Emeli Sande units, post Brit awards. But my God, Yannis Philippakis and his cohorts, perhaps the finest band to emerge from Oxford since a certain Radiohead, continue to impress by yet again fucking with the formula.
The album rebuffs any pre-conceived notions of math rock tendencies that were present in Foals’ utterly astounding debut Antidotes, or any sombre conceptions of a band in constant turmoil that perhaps characterised their second effort Total Life Forever. Enter Holy Fire, and much like the other albums’ introductory curveballs, the assault laid bare by the opening two tracks is something to behold. The opening Prelude is an industrial alt-rock builder, all muffled vocals and tension with a low-slung bassline and multiple guitar assaults. Then Inhaler. Perhaps an effort to sidestep and confound their fanbase, or simply a long overdue catharsis of pent up tension for a band who have never allowed themselves to fully shed their cool exterior. But this is a necessary venting of steam beyond what anyone expected. Yannis howls: “Don’t throw your fortune away / and I can’t get enough space” before guitars in the mould of Rage Against The Machine, for want of a more obvious comparison, tear into the track in a downtuned, meaty, hulking onslaught of power. It’s an absolute fucking belter.
It’s in direct contrast to Holy Fire’s opening that we find Foals’ lead singer in more pensive, reflective and perhaps mellower frame of mind than previous meetings. Writing trips and reflective downtime in Greece, lighter more air-filled recording sessions and a creative relationship and understanding with bandmates thriving, perhaps as a result of shared struggles and tensions over a 10 year period, have resulted in this subtle change. Gone are the scowl and the one-word answers, and in its place a more genial outlook. But when you’re creating music with this much bite, it’s easy to argue the balance has been maintained.
Other album highlights include Providence, perhaps the track most reminiscent of anything from Antidotes, but rougher, heavier and more distorted. Also see the utterly insatiable My Number, an early contender for pop record of the year. The album exudes confidence, a variation in style and a complexity that have consistently gone into making Foals one of the most interesting bands in the country. As we speak to Yannis, drummer Jack Bevan and guitarist Jimmy Smith, they are in the final stages of preparing to spread Holy Fire across the world.
Congratulations on the album. You guys survived the wave of hype after your first album and now your third only missed out on number one by 1,000 copies. Has that surprised you at all?
Yannis: I can’t say I’ve quite absorbed it yet.
Jack: Yeah, it was really overwhelming, the response to Inhaler was bigger than anything we’ve had in the past or that we’re used to.
Jimmy: From the first album it was so unreal, I don’t think we ever even got to terms with the fact we were in the charts. Total Life Forever was the same, and now it just feels like it’s not actually happening. It’s amazing to see our band up there, but it feels like someone’s made some terrible calculating mistake.
This is clearly your moment.
Yannis: I guess so, but I think partly because of what happened on the first record, we’ve learned not to totally lose our heads when things are feeling effortless like they are right now. I mean, we’re already thinking about things like the next record. At times like these it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Compared to many of the hype bands who might have been considered your contemporaries – Klaxons, Late of the Pier etc – none of them have shown anything like your level of longevity. Do you have any idea why you’ve stood the test of time so well?
Yannis: I don’t know, because I don’t know the internal situations of those bands, but I think we all get on. Staying in Oxford for a long time was a good thing to do, it meant we avoided the more … transient types of temptation that can exist when you’ve got success around you.
Jimmy: We’re strong within the band, we’ve always had this mentality where it’s the five of us against everyone else. We’re not being arseholes, but we have a protective instinct, over our music and especially the creative process. So I think that’s kept us going, being strong within the band and not letting anyone inside the workings to crowbar us apart. That way we can survive anything.
Jack: A lot of bands do well on the first record because that’s a real band that’s written these songs over a long period of time. But especially in the UK, where there’s a lot of pressure, I think bands can be tempted to rush second records to make sure they don’t lose their momentum. When that happens, bands can turn out weaker records. It’s much more important to take your time and put out a great record rather then half the record in half the time.
Yannis: I think of being in our band as kind of like a boxing match and you’re fighting. Sometimes I feel like I’d like to get out of the ring and stand looking though the ropes at what’s going on in the ring, and I could decide on the footwork and get that bit of perspective. I don’t know, I just feel like we haven’t allowed ourselves to get stuck in the tar, the tar of success.
Yannis, you’ve spent a lot of time in Greece over the years. How valuable have you found that time of, as you put it, stepping out of the ring.
Yannis: I think it’s been invaluable in terms of being able to draw upon an entirely different culture and an environment which doesn’t have any of the same cultural mores, its own artistic language and customs. I think that’s been helpful. When I go to Greece I almost have this second skin, like a whole different sense of who I am. I don’t know if that’s going to lead to mental illness in the future, or if it’s just allowed me to inhabit a different side of my brain.
Do you get recognised in Greece? Being one of the most recognisable UK bands at the moment must encroach on your social life, especially living in London.
Yannis: Yeah, in Greece I go to the village my father is from. There are no cars, no internet or wi-fi, there’s only regional TV, there are no shops, there’s no cinema. I feel lucky to have access to a place like that. It’s like it’s been kept in a time capsule, it’s very, very traditional, a lot of archaic customs. It’s a perfect antidote to 21st century, relentless media exposure infiltrating your eyes.
That viewpoint ties into the lyrics, particularly on Moon, this bleak, end-of-the-world concept which defined Total Life Forever as well. How do you view this march towards an apocalyptic kind of world, especially with the speeding up of technology?
Yannis: I don’t really think it’s going to happen, it’s more like a twisted fantasy. I feel attracted to the idea of everything being gutted and starting again, and the idea of entropy seeping into the huge achievements of man. It’s always been a concern, even going back to the 1960s, there was a different idea of apocalypse then, there was concern about the Cold War leading to extinction, definitely of the American way of life. I think there’s always a concern, man is always concerned about whether he’s going to survive when the end time is near. So that’s just one particular context, one of technological potency. I guess it’s like an inbuilt death wish in people.
You released a mixtape through !K7 records last year, was that a sign of your musical horizons broadening? What are you listening to right now?
Yannis: I’m listening to this Mediterranean composer called Angel Rada, he was around in the 70s, he makes these weird kind of film scores, everything’s mixed wrong. I like some new bands like Petite Noir and Jagwar Ma … Can … I’ve been listening to folk music, African music …
In terms of how you’ve moved and progressed as a band, you seem intent on making very different statements with the first release off each record.
Jack: When we put out the first track on a new record, as with Spanish Sahara after Antidotes, we were very much aware of the way we were perceived. Some of criticisms we got of that first record was that it was a little bit one taste, so when we made the second record a lot of it was a response to what we missed out on with the first record. And Inhaler, well it’s a pretty bold, brash track, so I guess we wanted people to know we aren’t going to tread water. If we’ve got a track on the album that is going to surprise the most people possible, that’s the one we like to go with, to take a risk and cause a stir. It’s not like we’re deliberately trying to throw PR curveballs, but it’s definitely good to bash some heads together.
Also, so many bands have taken influence from you, does it feel like you need to almost react to the sound that people have been mimicking, to stay ahead of the game?
Yannis: I don’t know how much of a conscious influence that is, but we definitely feel that when we’ve made our definitive version of something we want to achieve, we don’t feel like we need to repeat it. It’s like, if you have your own little undiscovered place, your own personal realm, and then one day you go to that little spot in the park and it’s filled with people, you might want to find a new area [laughs].
Jimmy: I don’t think it’s that calculated. We keep changing anyway, because we get bored easily and I think the time where we make an album that bores us, it would probably be the day we knock it on the head. That’s just the natural process of wanting to progress and evolve. I don’t think it’s a reaction to people stealing our shit.
Before the album came out you toured a range of small towns around the UK. What was that reason behind that?
Yannis: We just hadn’t played live for a while, and we felt it might be the only time where we could play back in the venues we’d cut our teeth in. It just seemed like a no brainer, a good way to get familiar with the songs and understand how to play them in a set without too much pressure.
Do you feel like your sound is more suited to that bigger stage now?
Yannis: The bigger venues are going to present a certain challenge to us, but that also makes them more exciting in a way. Also, I think for our own self esteem, if we were stuck playing tiny venues it would probably bum us out. It was always our ambition to play to a lot of people, to do the big show. Like, playing to a big festival crowd you get this euphoria that you get from a mass of people that you can’t ever experience at a smaller show. Having said that, I do like mingling sweat, I like getting in people’s faces. To tread that tightrope is like having our cake and eating it. I wouldn’t really want it any other way.
Jack: I guess it’s what we’re most used to, even though the last three or four years we’ve been playing pretty big venues in the UK. It’s a very comfortable, intimate environment. The only downside with those venues is that you can’t have any sort of production and it’s not sonically as strong, but you can make up for that with the atmosphere and the vibe. We’re kind of just splashing cold water on our faces.
Jimmy: And I think overall everyone had a better experience anyway because you fall back in love with playing live.
You’ve got a massive touring schedule ahead, will it change you?
Jimmy: Yeah, probably, I think every tour changes you a little bit. Whenever we’re about to go away we’re like ‘I’m going to do half an hour’s exercise every day, I’m gonna go sightseeing everywhere we go’. In reality we actually wake at four in the afternoon, drink a Red Bull and sit in an Academy backstage room. Just that same smell, every day.
With this album you’ve taken that live approach and used it far more in the studio, is that right?
Yannis: We’ve had some problems in the past where we felt like we’d overworked or overcrafted songs in the studio, then they became impossible to play live. This was just a way of remaining faithful to the five of us making music as humans, without relying too much on the possibilities that modern studios give you.
Jack: As soon as we got into the studio, the producers Flood and Moulder told us that we were going to demo for four or five weeks to get the songs together and work on the structures. So we ended up playing all the songs as demos, a lot of them almost totally live. When it came to the end of that period it was basically unveiled to us that we had recorded the majority of the instrumentals for the record. Doing it that way we were a lot less precious. We weren’t playing like we didn’t give a shit, but at the same time when the red light’s not on you can loosen up and it’s a lot more natural and organic. In the past we’ve approached recording as this definitive statement of what we do, and I think sometimes if you’re too aware of that the grooves can end up losing out a bit because it’s too rigid or clinical.
Did you enjoy these secret takes?
Jimmy: Yeah I did, it was just a really productive atmosphere. I mean, I was a little bit irked by some of the secret ninja recording that they did! Because there’d be parts that I’d dwelled on or just tried to work out loads of different sounds, then when I was ready to record they’d be like ‘nah, it’s cool, we’ve got it already’. It was like ‘Fuck! I’ve been waiting six months to do that!’
Didn’t you put your foot down?
Jimmy: That’s when the trouble starts, everyone starts putting their foot down, and then it’s all over.
We’ve heard stories of recording outside and lighting candles.
Yannis: Yeah, we did a bunch of stuff. We like to ritualise recording. I think it was something which made us appreciate the pseudo-spiritual element. I like to believe in some kind of bigger force when we’re recording, I’m not talking about God or anything. I think it’s important to go to extreme and often terrifying extents to try and capture some type of magic. There’s alchemy in making records, you’re conjuring something from nothing. There’s a ‘boys getting lost in the woods and making up mythical creatures’ type adventure to making a record. So we recorded outside and collected bones to try and make percussion out of them, we played in the dark, we had Ouija boards. Y’know, even if it was just to trick ourselves, but to make something that’s more than just twanging your guitar in front of an SM7 [microphone].
It’s interesting to observe the impact of Holy Fire’s commercial success. For example, we saw that Yannis was interviewed by GQ magazine, a publication that probably doesn’t appeal to the demographic you were reaching out for when you started the band. It must be strange seeing Yannis being asked where he buys his clothes?
Jack: Really?! [laughs] God, it’s a horrible shop, it should get shut down.
Yannis: Well, I didn’t mind that interview specifically, but things happen so incrementally that you’re not aware of moving from A to B, and then sometimes you stop and realise that you’re doing things you’d never have done a few years ago.
Jack: It’s great talking to all those different slices of UK consumer culture or whatever. I guess it’s flattering that these more mainstream magazines are interested in us. It’s something that we’ve always wanted, to be able to make pop music without compromising our integrity. To be fair, I never get to do those sort of crossover interviews in case I say something silly.
Yannis: I don’t do anything I don’t want to do, but maybe what I want to do has changed over time.
Holy Fire is available now via Transgressive Records