Tall in the saddle
Their new album, Holy Fire, shows Foals are not afraid to explore new pastures. LAUREN MURPHYcanters down the inside track with Yannis Philippakis
IS YANNIS Philippakis a modern philosopher, or just a hipster who has spent too long trawling the bargain bins at Urban Outfitters? Perhaps it all depends on where you stand on his band Foals, but both accusations have been levelled at the slight singer since they first skittered onto the indie scene in 2008 with Antidotes.
It gleefully occupied the middle ground between math-rock and danceable indie. There was no doubt about it: Foals were hip. Still, underneath the angular haircuts and ironic 1980s-themed jumpers, the Oxford band had real substance and great songs. Philippakis and his cohorts explored the more passive side of their sound with 2010’s Total Life Forever, and their new album, Holy Fire, ventures even further into the experimental abyss.
“It was the easiest to date,” he says of this album’s germination. “It was less beset by problems than Total Life was, and it feels like we’re just in a good place as a band. We didn’t have any writer’s block, or any type of doubt about what we wanted to do – we were really hungry to get writing once we’d finished touring the last album.”
The ease of recording – something that has come from experience, he says – meant the band felt more confident about broadening their musical horizons. Several songs on the album will come as a surprise to fans of their more frenetic output; while there are good old-fashioned high-octane tunes such as Inhaler and Providence, they are far outweighed by the more reflective tracks, such as Bad Habit. Stepson is positively slow-set, while closing track Moon is as minimalist as its title suggests.
“One thing that had an influence on the groove was just slowing the tempo down,” Philippakis explains. “We were enjoying playing stickier, slower, sexier kind of rhythms, rather than being like the Duracell bunny all of the time. We wanted to get a bit sloppy on it. That was something that came early on , and I think that definitely affected it. We’re also just a bit older, so it doesn’t feel right to play at 150bpm anymore. It feels right to just turn down the speed, but turn up the heat a bit.”
Another track, the groovy My Number, for which Philippakis holds soul acts such as Curtis Mayfield responsible, further shows that widening of their musical net, but there is a subtle shift in their lyrical direction too. Although he is reluctant to go into details, tracks such as Milk Black Spiders (“I’ve been around two times and found that you’re the only thing I need”) and the swoonsome Bad Habit (“I’ve made my mistakes, and I feel something’s changed”) show Philippakis is in touch with his inner romantic.
By opening himself up to lyrical truths, he altered his approach as a vocalist too. On several songs on Holy Fire his voice is laid bare instead of being masked by reverb or double-tracked.
“Maybe it’s a confidence thing,” he says. “I also wanted to feel a bit more uncomfortable as well, if that makes sense. I wanted to be in a place where lyrically and vocally, I felt out of my comfort zone. Flood and Moulder [the producers] pushed me into places I wouldn’t have naturally wanted to go to, but you realise at the end that it’s a worthwhile thing to do. Definitely with the lyrics, I wanted to err on the side of being too honest, or too vulnerable, exposed in some way – so that I’d feel uncomfortable, not just hiding behind masks or layers of reverb. I wanted it to be a more raw experience in terms of the vocals and personality that comes from the lyrics.”
Working with such an experienced production team – Flood is a regular collaborator with U2, Depeche Mode and The Killers, while Alan Moulder is known for his work with Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and countless other bands – was an important factor, given Foals’ formative experiences. The original mix of their debut album, Antidotes (produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek), was infamously scrapped when the band decided that he had captured the wrong sound. There were no such problems this time around.
“It was a very smooth process; they’re not egotistical in the slightest, and they’re not controlling, and they don’t have anything to prove,” he says. “I think they’ve made so many great records in the past, that for them, producing an album is just an exploration with a band, and the whole thing becomes an adventure where neither party knows where they’re headed. It’s not like they had it mapped out, or we had it mapped out, but together we built something without a blueprint or an instruction manual. And hopefully at the end of the process, you know when it’s finished and you feel like you’ve made something beautiful out of nothing.”
Did working with producers versed in stadium rock signify a desire to escape the “tightly-coiled, shouty math-rock” tag they’ve been saddled with over the past few years? That thought didn’t even cross their minds, says Philippakis.
“We don’t really pay that much attention to stuff like that,” he says, shrugging. “When we do interviews and you get referred to as something, that can become annoying – but it’s the last thing you think about when you’re actually in a room playing music with your friends. With all due respect to the press, we don’t really give it the time of day, so we don’t feel a need to counteract it. There’s a hunger in the band to move forward, and to write music that we feel is better than what came before, and that’s really the driving motor behind everything.
“There were no discussions. The only rule was to have no rules. Well . . . the only other rule was to not talk about it too much,” he smiles. “We wanted it to become as telepathic and intuitive a process as possible. Before making this record, sometimes we would shoot ideas out of the sky before we’d even tried them, but this time there was definitely an appetite to experiment and to just free up the process, and not have any pre-defined ideas about what we should do. And the result of that is having a bigger diversity in the record. Between a song like Moon or Inhaler, there’s a huge difference in sound – and I think that came from the fact that we felt comfortable in trying out different ways of writing, and different ways of playing. Just not being neurotic about it.”
Their sonic evolution now well and truly underway, Foals are intent on revealing their new direction to the rest of the world. Having established fanbases in Australia and the US as well as the UK, Europe and Ireland, the only thing to do now is to saddle up and continue to improve.
“We just really want to make music that’s fulfilling for us, and that’s also fulfilling for the outside world,” Philippakis says earnestly. “So when you listen to it, it will have some sort of impact on your life, or it’ll act as some sort of escape or consolation. Or even just entertain you. But all of that is kind of secondary to us. It’s kind of a selfish process in a way, because you have to write for yourself – but also, by doing that, you’re writing for the outside world. But there’s never a specific goal. You just have to follow your heart, I suppose.”
Philosopher or hipster? Perhaps a bit of both.
Holy Fire is released on February 8th. Foals play Dublin’s Academy on February 28th and March 1st