Foals released their third album, Holy Fire, this week (11 February). Placing the Oxford five-piece amongst Britain’s most daring and imaginative guitar bands, the record also sees them honing their pop sensibilities in a manner that makes previous albums – 2008’s Antidotes and 2010’s Total Life Forever – sound rough around the edges. Q caught-up with the band shortly after they completed recording Holy Fire – in fact just a few days after the five-piece staged an impromptu party at frontman Yannis Philippakis and guitarist Jimmy Smith‘s house. The night ended, according to the singer, with “whisky rage” taking hold and a series of arguments. In Foals’ world, all is teetering on the edge of chaos…
How the devil are you?
Yannis Philippakis: “I feel good. We’ve released the birds out into the sky…”
Holy Fire is poppy and direct and yet still has echoes of your first two albums. Was it your aim to try and connect those dots?
YP: “Since the beginning, the band has always been in this flux of tension. We have a self-destructive tendency, a relish to make pop music – we enjoy the idea of making universal music – and also a cockiness to think that we can do both, have our cake and eat it. We never set out to make music that was elitist or just for the closeted few, we have to make music that’s honest to us. We have to believe in it. We’re not poseurs, we’re not going to do something just for the sake of it, we need to believe it’s real.”
Do you think those contradictions are what drives the band?
YP: “There’s lots of contradictions that goes with everything with this band. It’s like a walking contradiction. That’s where a lot of good stuff comes out of it.”
You’ve recorded three albums now. How would you say your approach has a band has changed over the past seven years?
YP: “The main thing that’s happened along the way is understanding as individuals trying to sculpt something, trying to mould something out of nothing, is being accepting of the fact that we write way many more songs than we’d ever put on albums, understanding that you can’t kill yourself over it.”
When you made second album Total Life Forever, you all lived together in the same house in Oxford. This is the first record you’ve made where you don’t all live in your hometown anymore. What’s changed?
Jimmy Smith: “We needed to try something new, our lives are moving forward whether we like it or not.”
YP: “The record was written in Oxford and Oxford has formed us in many ways. But it’s also been the springboard against which we wan to repel ourselves. There’s all these things in Oxford that were equally motivations to overcome it. It’s as much the inspiration as it is the frustration.”
What were the first songs written for Holy Fire?
JS: “There were three that were written really early on. Parts of Inhaler were written first, but that wasn’t a clear indication of where we were going to go. It was almost more, Oh, ok, we can still write then…”
YP: “It did have that bagginess though, a certain template that was slower, it was a sticky groove, a signpost to stuff we hadn’t done before.”
JS: “There’s always a worry the well has dried up because we don’t write well on tour. It was nice to go to Sydney for a bit and write. Then we got to Oxford in our little room and a couple of songs came up really quickly – My Number came together in a couple of hours. [The other song was] Late Night. That was exciting that we could do both of those things and get away with it. All of the songs are really faithful to the original demos.”
YP: “My Number was pretty easy, but hard to record. Late Night was the same. Moon was easy. A lot of it was quite easy. If you’re labouring and labouring, it means it was a bit of the problem. We learnt that on Total Life Forever. Sometimes it became quite anguished and it was because we were over-stretching ourselves, over-stretching the actual foundation of what a song could do. Understanding the perimeters as well: not trying to pack everything into one song. Letting a song occupy its own space. If I was to criticise Antidotes, it would be to say that it has 12 songs and each song is trying to do a similar thing. It’s trying to reinforce its idea of what a song should sound like. The songs on this album are trying to do something the other 11 songs aren’t trying to do.”
What was the dynamic like when you were recording?
YP: “It was pretty fluid. Edwin [Congreave, keyboardist] had a separate work station just outside so he was able to manipulate what we were doing and work at his own pace instead of being in the room with us. Me and Jimmy and Wally [Walter Gerves, bassist] would sometimes go in at night. We learned on Total Life Forever that there’s benefits to working in little sub units. When all five of us are in, we all play and we all build on what each other is playing and try and erase each other. There’s a type of dynamic that happens with the five of us that isn’t very conducive to writing because we work quickly and fill in all the spaces. So stuff like Late Night or Moon, we kept them away from the process of all five of us. Generally, it was free – there’s wasn’t much analysis or discussion. It was basically, Do we like this, yes or no? There wasn’t an aim to work towards some super ego of what the record should be, there weren’t attainable goals we were trying to achieve, just an implicit trust in each other we’d be able to get through the maze.”
What happens when one member doesn’t like where the song is going?
YP: “The thing that’s kept this band going is a very un-British type of directness. We’re very open and honest, there’s no passive aggression or conniving or whispers in the eves – everyone is pretty robust with each other. Sometimes that’s why we argue because you can hurt someone’s feelings but it’s never allowed to fester. We have clashes when clashes were needed. Me and Jack [Bevan, drums] used to fight ferociously and it subsided a little bit during TLF…”
JS: “We’d leave the room and let them get on with it. It’d always reach it’s natural conclusion.”
YP: “These things clear very quickly. It’s a dynamic that works. We thrive off a directness of communication.”
Do you argue much when you’re making a record?
JS: “We argue but only on a micro-writing level.”
YP: “I think, at least in those early stages, it was a bit more hierarchical, it was like a benign democracy at the beginning because I had certain ideas about what I wanted the band to do and where I wanted the band to go, so I would vocalise those ideas. But you shed that skin. In the same way we’ve grown into something on this record, we’ll grow out of it. There’s no golden chalice of sound and that’s what we’re going to mine for the rest of our careers, it’s eternal progression. And we’ve progressed from a band that have played instrumental music including vocals that was really fucking difficult to… I like listening to Chic, I like listening to Madonna, Missy Elliott, or Slayer… Any frustrations or conflicts usually highlight anything that can be improved.”
That sort of bluntless must be quite weird for an English band.
YP: “I’m not English though. I don’t have any British blood. I consider myself British, but culturally, my family growing up, we didn’t have that British indirectness. .. people were afraid of my mum on the phone cos she’d be like, What do you want?”
How much does that ancestry feed into how Foals tick?
YP: “It’s part of the dynamic of the band even though it might cause problems sometimes with the way that I am – I can be difficult. I think the benefit of having that type of direct communication is good for the band.”
JS: “It’s nice being very English as I am – in my normal social environment I am pretty English – but the band is brutally honest. People care.”
YP: “If someone says something is good, then we trust each other. If you couple that with high quality control, where we’re ambitious with what we’re trying to write, it spurs people on to write, it forms a gang. You know somebody isn’t bullshitting you. Everyone is working for the same goal.”
JS: “One of the best things about being in this band is everyone around it operates a no bullshit thing.”
You seem in a better place on this record, Yannis. Have you settled down?
YP: “For me, some stuff has come from a slightly more positive place, a less self-involved place. For Total Life Forever, it was a selfish time. I was very introvert, I was negative, self-destructive, not being caring for the people I should’ve been caring about. It was a mean period. It wasn’t a happy place. I’m not, like, whistle joy joy plastic smile on my face, but I definitely feel a contentedness and that’s inevitability going to leach onto the recordings. But it’s always going to be tempered with a healthy dose of scepticism and melancholia. There was a Carpe diem freedom, fuck it attitude to this record, Why not have this sledgehammer rock riff in the middle of Inhaler? Why not have a song that’s as naïve and pop as My Number? I’m bored of self-censoring and over thinking and over-analysing when the end product of that is ironic, detached, solipsistic records. The best stuff we’ve done is when you know you’ve connected with an audience. Those are the best bits about being in a band and fuck the rest. I’m not interested in making a record that’s for someone who’s trying to match their music taste with their latte and matching their latte flavour with their sex life.”
What would you do if the band ended tomorrow?
YP: “It would be liberating. We’ve already fulfilled whatever expectations we had: play a gig, release a seven-inch on a friend’s label, and write some songs we could be proud of. I was touring in a van from 14 with Youth Movies. We’d play to nobody, no money, no food. We put in the graft for years before. We paid homage to the cruel mistress that is music and getting people to hear that music. We’ve paid homage to that cruel bitch.”
For more head to Foals.co.uk.