Returning for the second time this year with Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost - Part 2, Foals’ Yannis Philippakis leads Maddy Smith through nine songs that have moulded their distinctive sound.
Since Antidotes release in 2008, Foals have cemented themselves with an unwavering fan base, a notoriously incredible live performance and an expansive, gorgeous sound.
In a time where attentions are constantly shifting and audiences flock to a new artist every week, their resilience and robustness has seen them stand up against the test of modern time. As we sit down to chat in a Peckham pub, Yannis Philippakis tells me it’s been a slow but gradual road for the band, and we dive into the tracks that have soundtracked an album-filled career. Now releasing a sixth album and their second of 2019, it’s a testament to Foals’ distinguishable sound; soaring soundscapes, twinkling guitar melodies, and serious groove.
Reflecting on Foals’ humble beginnings and their journey to date, Philippakis muses the importance of spatial freedom, a diverse musical education, and a zest for instrumentals.
“We stopped thinking about music in a tribal way, I think that’s something that’s fallen into Foals and stuck. We wanted to carve out a large space in which we could operate. Only then could we write a song like "Cassius," or we could write a song like "Inhaler" or "Spanish Sahara," and all of them could be Foals songs. But, actually their actual musical identities can still be quite different.”
“We didn’t approach Foals from an indie perspective for a long time and I think that the musical DNA of the band really helped us with that, even though in some ways we now write songs that are way more conventional, more communicative. The band’s background with all of its various references and influences are disparate and diverse. We first thought Foals was a pop band, because up until then we’d just been listening to Steve Reich, or techno. Maybe that’s helped us to stand out.”
Five UK top 10 albums, 30 music videos and a bank of world tours under their belt, we meet in the run-up to album no. 6, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost - Part 2. Part 1 was released earlier this year in March, and threw us headfirst into a wealth of sprawling, groove-ridden art-rock anthems. From Philippakis's earlier musical projects and scanning through his nine songs, a pattern has emerged that’s shaped the way their songs are constructed.
“From the age of 15 to 20 it was a big period in time where I didn’t really listen to music with vocals, and often the vocals would be secondary - in The Edmund Fitzgerald it was the same. For a long time my musical focus was on instrumentation and not on songwriting and lyrics as such - that’s definitely something that’s come later. Hopefully there’s something good about that, because we didn’t come from a conventional rock band point of view. When we started up Foals it was kind of an action against that in a way.”
While Foals’ rise to success has been steady, and surely assisted by an abundance of indie night DJs across the country, he muses on the pros and cons of the pacing for a band that have soundtracked a generation. “If it had of been overnight it would have been a shock to us. It would have freaked us out. You can see the bands that’ve become massive overnight and they’ve almost struggled to enjoy it. For us it has felt quite gradual, there’ve been lots of invisible little steps up so we haven’t really noticed the trajectory in certain ways. There are certain shows like Glastonbury or a big London headline show, which are emotionally significant.
"It’s quite a difficult emotion to put into words, but it’s quite difficult to come down off of those shows. You can’t just go back to your hotel room and brush it off. I think if you have overnight success, that's the bit that’s really difficult to deal with. That’s the bit that can mess with you. I’m glad we’ve had the time to take it in our stride.”
“I was played Steve Reich by some friends when I was still at school; they were older than me and in a band. I was sort of struggling with reconciling, I felt quite tribal about music and I didn’t know how I could feel okay about listening to rock music, pop music and classical music.
“I would go round to their house and listen to Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and then they would put on Missy Elliot, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and all sorts. It helped me to reconcile the feeling that being tribal about music wasn’t the way anymore. I moved to London when I was 18 for a little while and I used to listen to this on the tube. It was mesmerising and trance-like, and it really helped me through the morning commutes and rush hours.
“This piece of music was not only a part of a time where I felt more able to be a musical chameleon, but the piece of music itself is astonishing - both for the time it was written and how revolutionary it was for classical music. It’s avant-garde but also pleasurable to listen to at the same time, so “Music For 18 Musicians” wasn’t just an academic thing.
“Before I listened to it I was already starting to get interested in playing guitar with lots of staccato rhythms and with layering and looping sounds - not trying to play guitar in a conventional song writing, chord way. The amazing thing that Steve Reich does is use points of sound to build up these huge tapestries. I was thinking about that idea from another perspective, and when I heard Steve Reich it inspired me to go even further. “Music For 18 Musicians” really influenced the way that I thought about music for a long time.
“The piece is quite visual because of the way that the sounds and the voices layer – you feel like you’re going through tunnels. It’s got a huge amount of movement in it, it’s an incredible piece of music.”
“There’s an incredible innocence and light to all of Arthur Russell’s music, but Calling Out of Context in particular was the first album of his that I got into.
“He died in the early ‘90s, but he’s become far more popular since and achieved critical acclaim posthumously. There’s a record label that owns his masters and Calling Out of Context was the first compilation that they released after his death.
“I had some friends in Oxford who were listening to this record and who were banging on about it, but when I first heard the record it didn’t really click with me. I think something about the production was challenging for me to start with - it’s quite ’80s. He uses lots of drum machines and there was an element to the production that I had to break through before I could really appreciate it.
“Once it clicked, it became my favourite, and it’s probably in my top 3 albums of all time. “That’s Us/Wild Combination” is the beating heart of it in the middle of the album. It’s romantic and it’s a gorgeous piece of music, there’s no darkness in it at all. There’s lots of ocean imagery across the whole album, but with that song it feels like you’re in a convertible car driving along the Pacific highway with your partner.
“Arthur Russell is on his own for the most part with drum machines - what he makes is so singular.”
“I’ve got to pick “Where is My Mind?” I heard this track for the first time when I was 12 or 13 and it was just when I’d discovered guitar music in general.
“Up until then I’d only really listened to what my brother or my Mum was playing in the house, but Pixies and Nirvana were the first bands that really felt like they were my bands, and I’d say that it was Pixies who inspired me to pick up the guitar, I didn’t play before that.
“Those bands were both very important to me, but the Pixies were the group that really made me feel like you could be weird with music and it didn’t need to be polished or sophisticated. You could pick up a guitar and just start making a noise out of it - that’s what the Pixies did for me and “Where Is My Mind?” in particular stuck with me.
“Frank Black’s lyrics were a big influence on me generally, in their surrealism and lack of narrative. I was always struck by how strange and meaningful they were at the same time. It felt like you never really understood what he was singing about exactly, but it would impact you regardless.”
“It’s got to be ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ For me, it’s probably the greatest sample and the best use of sampling ever. The sample that runs through ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ is just the most incredible, both in its discovery and also the way that RZA chopped up and executed the sample.
“The sample is originally from a track by The Charmels and its slipped right into the intro. The rest of the song is essentially totally different, but RZA found and sampled ‘As Long As I’ve Got You’ by The Charmels and created one of the most iconic hip-hop tracks of all time out of it.
"C.R.E.A.M.’ was a song that my brother used to play. He’s quite a bit older than me, so I heard this track when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I hadn’t heard it for years, but when I rediscovered it, it was just really evocative for me.
“Listening to this song brings me back to being a young boy with my brother, blasting out all this hip-hop from his bedroom. I think it’s one of the best hip-hop tracks of all time.”
“Studio were a group that we discovered as a band when we were all living together in a house in Oxford. We were writing Total Life Forever at the time and I can’t remember who put us onto it, but I think maybe Jack discovered it, and then I picked up the vinyl.
“We didn’t have a TV in the house in Oxford, we just had a sofa, a stereo, and the designated writing room in the basement. So we’d be writing music downstairs and we’d come upstairs and listen to records all the time. Studio's album West Coast was a record that got absolutely caned in that house! It’s barely together to this day, but I’ve still got it though.
“It’s an incredible song and record, it focuses on this Swedish idea of what a Californian sound is like. The rhythms on it are great and it was definitely a big influence on Total Life Forever.”
“Sounds of Soweto is a record that my Mum would play in house - she’s from South Africa. The whole compilation is amazing and “Confusion (Ma Afrika)” is the soundtrack to when my Mum would drive me around when I was a little kid.
“There’s amazing guitar playing in this track. When I was growing up, my Mum didn’t ever play Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones or anything like that, she’d either play Chicago blues or South African music. I think that rhythmically this record and her music tastes influenced my guitar playing a lot.”
“We made our first record with Dave Sitek from TV On the Radio. I’d heard “Wolf Like Me” because they used to play it at all the indie discos like White Heat, but beyond that I hadn’t really heard of them that much in the run up to working with him.
“Sitek was suggested to us as a producer and we had this incredibly intense phone call with him, where he told us “I’m going to re-educate and re-wire your brains when you come to New York.” It was really intense.
“I don’t know whether he’d told me to listen to Return to Cookie Mountain, or if I just found it on my own, but I heard it in the run-up before going to America and I fell in love with it, it’s one of my all-time favourite records.
“The track "Province" has David Bowie singing on it as well and it’s such a beautiful use of texture. As a band I think we learnt things from that song - about uses of space and also being courageous with music and the idea of taking risks - and I think "Province" really helped.
"Province" is definitely busier than songs of ours like "Spanish Sahara." In the music that we played early on in Antidotes, all of the instruments would be playing constantly and everything was very busy; we would basically want to fill every space in the song.
“After working with Dave Sitek we went on to write further material, such as some B-sides like “Glaciers” in between Antidotes and Total Life Forever and I think we became way more interested in the spaces in the songs and not filling everything – focusing on subtracting rather than adding.
“Production is the tail-end of the creative process for us. Usually either it starts out as loops, or Jimmy and I will write the cores of the tracks alone, and in isolation. The songs find their form when we’re jamming them as a group, that’s the point at which it usually becomes identifiably a Foals’ track.
“The production is psychological as much as it has to do with the sound. It’s coaxing the right performances or making the right emotional decisions about what the song should be, but the actual core of the music is defined at an earlier time.”
“Again, this was a childhood record that was played around the house. His voice is unparalleled, no one else is going to sound like Howlin’ Wolf again.
“I love the fidelity of the old recordings and the way that they sound. The groove and the attitude of it - it’s got a lot of character. All of his songs have such a rebellious swagger to them. It’s a song that goes on backstage after the shows a lot, when we’re in a good vibe I’ll put that on backstage after a good gig.
“Smokestack Lightnin’” was another record that my Mum listened to, but again with a lot of that music I would have heard it at a certain point, but then forgotten about it. I rediscovered him and this track when I was probably about 19. My Mum still had the cassettes at home, but I hadn’t listened to Howlin’ Wolf for about a decade. When I started listening again it both had a feeling of rediscovery, but also a new lease of life.”
“OXES shows were just fucking bonkers.
“They were a band that I discovered through listening to John Peel, which I didn’t do that frequently, but for some reason I tuned into it one day and he had this band on playing a live session at Maida Vale. They had wireless guitars, and they were running in and out of the booths. John Peel said to his listeners “For all of you at home, you can’t see this, but they’re running into the control room, they’re running around the balconies.”
“After hearing their Maida Vale gig, I watched them perform live a couple of times and I think that OXES massively informed the way that we wanted Foal’s shows to be. We wanted our shows to be wild and chaotic, and we bought wireless packs because of OXES. We played with OXES, maybe not with Foals, but with the band that Jack and I were in beforehand – The Edmund Fitzgerald.
“Boss Kitty” is an instrumental guitar track. This song might be a rock track, but it’s got a way of playing straight-up rock guitar and riffs but in a different and interesting way. “Boss Kitty” wasn’t a rock-band-by-numbers track, it was a subversion of big riffs. OXES write huge, almost stupid riffs sometimes, it’s a lot of fun.”