If 2008’s Antidotes was the sound of a band at their joyful infancy, then the impending release of Total Life Forever is the growing pains of feeling the need to be taken seriously.
Gone is the cartoony album cover, replaced with gloomy underwater photography reminiscent of Nirvana’s classic Nevermind facade. Gone are the dance rhythms that so fully perpetuated every aspect of Foals’ debut, replaced with ladles of atmosphere. And gone also are the upbeat, nonsensical lyrics, replaced by introspective, personal passages delivered in an almost reverential style. The difference two years makes is remarkable – one listen to Total Life Forever and it’s easy to assume that Foals are desperate for the whole world to take them seriously now.
“We’ve kind of changed, it wasn’t really conscious,” says bassist Walter Gervers in defence of the change of tone present on Total Life Forever. Erudite frontman Yannis Philippakis immediately supports his bandmate’s assessment: “I don’t know if it’s more serious. I think it might just seem like that because there isn’t a dance beat penning it through the whole way.”
And he’s not lying. Those who fell in love with Foals’ bewildering ability to turn a pop tune upside down and inside out within the space of four minutes will find little of the same on Total Life Forever. Instead the band has taken a turn to their more contemplative side, especially in Philippakis’ heartfelt lyrics. “It’s definitely more personal, introspective and it’s less flippant,” he says. “It’s not just me putting on different masks and flashing you with images, which is fun for a while, but it’s become more of an actual lifeline now. The process of writing songs made me feel either better or worse.”
Those following Foals in the past few weeks will already be well aware of this change of tact. ‘Spanish Sahara’, the first track revealed from the new album, is a good example of how the band has developed in the past few years. A beautifully shot video (those frozen waves aren’t some kind of computer generated trickery – the shoot took place in Scotland, amongst freezing temperatures) accompanied the contemplative track, a far cry from the toe tapping frivolity of previous singles.
“If we’re going to play this record and it’s going to be something that people are going to invest time in, then I think it’s my responsibility to try and make sure that the songs have a meaning. It becomes a more fulfilling process for everyone because there’s something that’s tangible there,” Philippakis explains. Given his propensity for being somewhat reclusive, was he apprehensive at all about bringing out his personal troubles in the lyrics? “I wasn’t really because I was in a basement on my own singing. It’s like saying are you embarrassed of yourself when you’re on your own? I’m only now aware of maybe some things being too personal or not personal enough. That happens once a record’s out and other people are scrutinizing it. I don’t think it’s too direct, I think it’s just a bit more direct than before.”
Despite the change in focus, the band is genuinely confident in their follow up to Antidotes. Even the pressures of having a debut that peaked at number three in the UK charts, and hours upon hours of national airplay on the likes of Radio 1 doesn’t seem to have challenged them too much.
Keyboardist Edwin Congreave explains: “It was fantastically surreal that this song (‘Cassius’) was being played on Radio 1, but when it stopped we didn’t notice. We were all just hanging out in this house in Oxford. We don’t feel like we’re this band that’s been having success. It’s not a conscious thing.” Indeed, the band seem adamant to insist that, for them, success is more about being touted on the nation’s biggest radio station. “It’s different because there’s things you’ve got a personal connection with that seem more important; like signing to Sub Pop in America for us. Just because the way that we’ve grown up with music, that to us is a really significant thing to be proud of,” drummer Jack Bevan explains. Philippakis, as ever, has the final word on the matter: “We really don’t give a fuck about that kind of success. The kind of success we care about is making something that has longevity and has merit in and of its own.”
The house mentioned by Congreave seems to have played a huge part in bringing the individuals of Foals closer to eachother. “Before we were continually moving from one place to another. Some of us were living with parents, some of us were living with girlfriends; it was much more nomadic,” Philippakis explains. “The way that the record was written is why it sounds like that. It’s because we could play at night, we could play in the morning and we could play whenever we wanted. We could play quiet or loud, we could play sober or high, and we could play with two of us or five of us, or just one person on their own.”
“I think by having a house that you all belong in and live in, you don’t have to interact with anything you don’t want to, you don’t have to be anywhere you don’t want to. I think it probably reflects in the fact that this record is more confident of itself. As most new bands probably do, we felt keen to reinforce the idea that we had a specific aesthetic. I think on Antidotes it was like forming an identity, finding out who you are, and now I think we know a bit better who we are.”
In this respect, Philippakis is spot on. Total Life Forever may very well be completely rejected by those that pulled out their dancing shoes for Antidotes. But the fact that Foals have found the concrete confidence to let their music mature and develop without concerning themselves with the opinions of others goes a long way to prove that they’re more than your ordinary, run-of-the-mill NME darlings. Perhaps they do want people to take them more seriously now than they might let on. And perhaps people will balk at the idea and refuse to change their preconceptions about the band. But for Foals, Total Life Forever is more to them than the impending critical and commercial reception. It’s about growing up and finding out who you really are and what you really mean to people.
“It just has to be about expression at the time. Total Life Forever is the product of that period of time’s work; it’s no bigger, no smaller a thing than that,” concludes Philippakis humbly and honestly. Total Life Forever’s change of direction may not be to everyone’s tastes, but Foals are proud of their creation, and for them that’s all that could ever matter.