How Foals managed to stay relevant
“It was probably the longest break that we've ever had from being in the band,” Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis explains to me from a whitewashed studio tucked away up a cobbled street in Elephant and Castle. “I think that fed into the feeling of wild creativity: we didn't go into the studio with any parameters or any destination in mind.”
Over a decade on from their 2008 debut Antidotes, the Oxford-hailing math-rock band have not only remained relevant while many of the guitar bands of their era have been written off as indie landfill, but continue to scale new heights. While time had marched on since their critically-acclaimed 2015 instalment What Went Down, the wait hasn't been in vain, with this year seeing not one but two new albums from the band.
The lead up to their most ambitious and unconventional project yet, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost - Part 1 wasn't without challenge. The sudden departure of bassist and founding member Walter Gervers forced the band to recalibrate. "We didn't know how it would work without Walter," Philippakis shares candidly. "We physically couldn't write in the same way. It definitely has changed the group dynamics. I'm not sure I could articulate exactly how yet but I think that will become clear later."
Gervers' decision to leave after Festival Paredes de Coura in Portugal in August 2017 was unexpected - did they have a row? "No, not at all," he replies with a laugh. "I mean, I definitely wouldn't say we saw it coming. But we were aware of the fact that he had different demands on his life. The band's become this big, all-consuming thing. I give my life willingly to it. But I think that for Walt, he never anticipated that he'd still be doing the band a decade after it started. He had other desires and had other responsibilities pulling on him. So once he had made that clear, it was quite an easy decision to accept."
Philippakis reflects it had some "unintended beneficial consequences for the actual creativity": "I think that forced us out of a formula that we were steering towards, pushed us out of our comfort zone, it meant that we had to adapt. And I think that partly it's led to this feeling of renewed energy. I feel like this is the start of a new phase. I haven't been this excited in a while."
While for another band, it may have caused implosion or prompted a mass exodus, for Philippakis and fellow members Jack Bevan (drums), Jimmy Smith (guitar), and Edwin Congreave (keys), it, "reaffirmed our commitment. There wasn't really a question mark over whether we would continue. Everyone could have been queuing up to walk the plank, like, 'let me off the ship first.' But it wasn't like that. It was the opposite."
The dramatic change in the band's lineup meant the artists were starting from a blank slate of sorts as they went into 123 Studios in Peckham with Brett Shaw. "We were trying out an engineer in this neighbourhood studio. We initially went in to demo. We went in for two weeks then spent a year and a half there. We took over this guy's life. It was intense and great and purposeful. It was also quite overwhelming. I didn't have a clear sense of perspective on what we were making other than I was excited." It also meant logistical challenges. Having not replaced Walter, Philippakis and Edwin were filling in on bass, plus the frontman "was essentially in the role of producer as well. We didn't have an external adult to rely on which fed into it. But I think there was more room to maneuver in the studio, there was more leg room."
They certainly didn’t expect to leave with content for a double album. "In the final stages, we realized that we were going to complete 20 tracks." The weight of the material prompted them to consider splitting it into a two-fold project. "We were discussing how to give it the best send off into the world. We felt there were two trajectories, like there was a symmetry to it. There were also certain songs didn't work together as well and we wanted to make a cohesive statement."
The decision was to put out two staggered releases with shared themes, artwork, and title, but distinct parts. "Putting them on one record would have been overwhelming for the listener and we didn't want it to feel burdensome. We wanted the record to be enjoyable, be digestible, and have a sense of proportion to them. We felt the best way was two releases spaced out. We felt it was important for the songs to have their time in the sun, so that you get to live with 40 minutes of music for six months, become fully familiar, live with it and fall in love with it - hopefully - and then you get Part 2 and the picture becomes complete. It felt was fresh as well as challenging. Also selfishly it means that touring is more exciting. Why shouldn't we have some fun as well?" he finishes with a grin.
"I actually found this record the easiest to write in terms of lyrics for some reason. I just felt like I didn't have to travel very far from myself."
In terms of songwriting, Philippakis feels this album came more with ease than previous ones. "I actually found this record the easiest to write in terms of lyrics for some reason. I just felt like I didn't have to travel very far from myself." For the seemingly confident artist, it's surprisingly not something that has always been the case. "I've had problems before with self-consciousness with the lyrics or being overly analytical as I'm writing them. It forms a kind of paralysis where you're questioning what you're doing as you're doing it."
Writing all the tracks in one go can also have its drawbacks. "I'm much more interested in the instrumentation the beginning and the lyrics always come later on. Much to the frustration of certain people around me, who start to panic, I start to panic... I don't sleep, there was about three or four months when I was writing lyrics and doing vocals for this record and I was an insomniac. It was quite stressful."
His trick now is to go and sit in a pub. "I found it helpful being in that environment of drinking and being somewhere social, it took me out of my head. It would let me just write and worry about editing the next day. I think that was helpful to bypass that chronic feeling of being afraid to start writing lyrics for fear that they're going to let something down or they're gonna fall short of your own estimation." Though he admits there's a sweet spot before too many drinks have been consumed... "I can tell when the third whiskey was imbibed as the handwriting is ineligible."
He talks me through his process. "I'll have the core, the main image or a main line or something, and then I work around that. If I can see the track as a visual thing or there's a colour scheme to it I like to make sure that the lyrics are harmonious with that. It's very intuitive in the sense, it's not by design."
Perhaps counterintuitively, the upbeat tone of the music allowed space for Philippakis to explore heavier topics lyrically. "The music is upbeat and its energetic, and it feels uplifting at times. I thought that he could withstand all of the more melancholic tendencies that I have in the lyrics. I like the contrast between the two."
The result is an ability to traverse intellectually minded preoccupations but remain firmly in the poetic realm, connecting with the listener on an emotional plane to makes a point. Meaty themes of political turmoil, environmental degradation, and the modern condition predominate, at times nostalgic for a lost innocence, at others fearing an impending dystopian future. "There were themes that I wanted the songs to orbit around, these motifs that are repeating in the lyrics. Sometimes they're subtle references depending on the song, others are more overt."
Tackling such issues was something Philippakis felt compelled to do. "I don't feel like necessarily there was much of a choice. It wouldn't have felt right to not let those themes into the record. I was attracted by the idea of having an album that was expressing something and reflecting something that is contemporary and current. I was excited by this idea that there was going to be this dialogue between the songs and the world. I didn't want it to be something that was self-enclosed."
Many of the themes are issues inescapably preoccupying many of our generation. "I think Brexit and Trump are symptomatic of wider political problems going on. There are these causes of anxiety, environmental threat or this feeling that the future is not what we were promised it would be. Also, that the responsibility is now on us and on the younger generations to fix things which is a kind of strange predicament. All of that feeds into a general anxiety, there is just this general discontent. People can be outgoing and buoyant in their day-to-day lives. But really if you start to scratch beneath the surface you can't be that optimistic or that content right now. I was listening to the tracks in the pub and I'd I look up and see a pub garden full of people and realise, 'we're all in this shit storm together.' I felt the songs should deal with that."
"Social media platforms promise this utopian clear, direct form of communication. But you've just got a different gatekeeper there... who is harvesting your most intimate actions and is monitoring you in this strange way."
Sonically it's their most experimental record yet, with lengthy tracks that allow themselves to ruminate and explore atmospheres without losing any of the anthemic melodic and vocal strength that has made the band so listenable to date such as on 2010's "Spanish Sahara", 2013's "My Number" and 2015's "Mountain at My Gates". Philippakis' favourite (for now) is "'Syrups' because the groove feels really good in the room. the baseline is proper chunky." "Exits", with a mindblowing accompanying video that plays out like a high-budget mini thriller, for Philippakis "evokes a sense of confusion, of there being a labyrinth and not being a clear route out." There’s a feeling of disorientation and helpless in a world upside down, singing: "I said I'm so sorry / that the world has fallen down / I wish I could do something more / I could shout it out loud!"
"On The Luna", whose contrasting retro super-8 backstage footage video, is for Philippakis, "about that feeling of being young now and that times were better for the previous generations. That they've had the good times, we're living in the afterglow of this prior, more idyllic age. And I wanted it to be a slice of life because the song has got a lightness to it. It's a kind of picture, a condensed document of what's happening now. But obviously, in a magical realist way. I don't actually pick my teeth with a biro..."
"In Degrees" with lyrics, "we're caught up in silence / I lose you in degrees", started off as about "a relationship that incrementally was being dissolved. You're not sure of what's going wrong but something is just in a small way is fraying and you're pulling apart. Then the deeper I was writing into the lyrics I felt that it could work in the same way that the album title works in dual meanings. I thought this can be about a relationship but also it can be about a variety of other things that are fraying at the same time and the inability for words to solve or stop the problem. I wanted to express that frustration with language that you can't always solve things that are wrong through communication."
On a wider level, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost... ponders our inability to communicate in spite of the proliferation of tools we have at hand to do just that. "There's more ways to communicate but there's less direct ways of communicating. They're always mediated by someone else. And what we're told is direct is actually not. Social media platforms promise this utopian clear, direct form of communication. But you've just got a different gatekeeper there. And a gatekeeper who is harvesting your most intimate actions and is monitoring you in this strange way."
Certainly he has seen the industry change since the band first started making music. “The radio is mainly dominated by electronic in terms of sonics, you very rarely hear an actual instrument that hasn't been processed or isn't a synthetic instrument. So that the actual palette of sound has changed. Even compared to say, the '90s, when pop music still had instrumentation on the record. It's strange but people's ears have become accustomed to that."
Though he sees the annual naming of the 'death of rock' as something of a misnomer - "We've been hearing since 2007 about guitars dying out, rock dying out, asking if rock is dead, when is it coming back, who's the new saviour of guitar rock? It's like it's a sort of a tick, a preoccupation within the music industry. Actually I think people out in the streets either like it or they don't, it's either just good music or it's not." - for Philippakis, the fade in popularity of indie rock is not such a negative thing. "Guitars aren’t the culturally mainstream in the way they were. But actually that's been a good thing in many ways. It wasn't like the quality of the music was better. It's just that's just the roving eye of Sauron had moved onto it that moment."
It's perhaps that edge of cynicism about the importance of categories, genres and trends within the industry that has allowed Foals to continually renew themselves and find their audience free from those constraints. "We're obviously a guitar band but I don't think we're a narrow definition of that. We want to make music that communicates with as many people as possible, we don't have hang ups on that. We want our music to be heard by everybody and in any walk of life. We just try and write the best stuff we can, put on the best shows we can, we put everything into trying to make Foals a complete world that is had attention to all of that and that feels and is genuine and meaningful. Everything else comes secondary."
"We set out very strict rules around the band on the first record and then ever since it's been about dismantling that until we ended up in this place where we're writing songs that - in a good way - bore no relation to each other."
Being free from a fixation on genre has allowed their sound to evolve and stay relevant where other bands of their generation have failed, those Philippakis jokingly refers to as the "winklepickers". "Basically we are quite restless and get bored quickly. We genuinely feel like we have to do something that excites us. And that usually involves some element of shapeshifting between records. Everything kind of stems from that. We're really passionate about what we do that we put everything into and we're harsh critics on ourselves; I think that's kept the quality."
In some respects, each Foals album has worked to deconstruct the sound they set down on their initial album. "We set out very strict rules around the band on the first record, and then ever since it's been about dismantling that until we ended up in this place where we're writing songs that - in a good way - bore no relation to each other. To me, 'What Went Down' and 'Spanish Sahara' are such different ways of writing songs. This record was more about trying to find a place that we could bring everything together."
Philippakis harks back to the music that first inspired and has shaped him as an artist. "The first really formative first stuff was Nirvana and Pixies - they're the bands that made me want to dye my hair blue and get in trouble, talk back to teachers and learn how to play guitar. To this day I just I feel I'm in love with the Pixies. I think they are a great example of how weird a band can be but also how subversive they can be in their weirdness. They were still tuneful and had that visual world." He also reflects on how the scene in is native Oxford rubbed off. "I used to just go to local shows in Oxford and I got really into the local scene. Plus Charlotteville were a band from Brighton I loved." Now he has a lot of admiration for Wolf Alice ("Their last record was great - the songwriting was amazing. They're just an exciting and important band for the UK scene,"), plus alt. rockers Yak ("Their shows are wild,"), and up-and-coming outfit Black Midi.
But does he ever listen back to his own tracks? "Once it's done, it's done, so usually not... but when we were getting the first part of Everything... mixed I listened back to bits of all four previous records to have a reference framework - I was pleasantly surprised by some tracks that I kind of forgotten. I was like actually, 'that still stands up'. But there's always stuff like on the records where you're like, 'ah God, I wish we hadn't put that third flute or horn part on that on that bridge... but also you learn from that. I don't know if there's been any real sort of 'career-defining cock-ups'. Maybe there will be one soon."
Now they're prepping for an epic tour, stretching from the small scale with dates at the Leeds O2 Academy and Oryzm in Kingston, to sold-out gigs at Alexandra Palace and summer of festivals including This Is Tomorrow, Truck, Y Not, and Boardmasters. Oxford-based Truck in particula, "holds a special place in our history," as their local festival and one of the first they played back in the day. "The first show there we were really green, we didn't know what we were doing. When we went back there a second time there were so many people in the tent they had to put us on later - it was just a wild show, we had the stage invaded. It was the first of what was to come."
Some of their more intimate venue choices may seem a surprise at this point in the band's career. But Philippakis loves these as a chance to find their performing feet again. "For us it's to remember what it's like to play a show - because you can rehearse as much as you like but a show's different. I like it when it's sweaty and intense. I don't know how we're going to fit all the gear into some of them here..."
Foals started out playing undergound house parties in Oxford but hit clubs like Fabric as well as headlining countless massive festivals; it's undoubtedly their versatility and ability to deliver on on the live experience that has played a huge part in the band’s longevity. It's an aspect that's close to their hearts and in their DNA: "When we tour it's not necessarily the big stage. It's just those shows where you have that feeling of absolute like electricity, where everything aligns on that evening to create an experience that's bigger than the sum of its parts. It can feel like this huge communion. That's what we chase." It's something I can attest to, having seen their explosive headline performance at Citadel in 2017 - "Yeah, we got our pyro on for that one..." he recalls with a smile.
Philippakis believes that it's the spontaneous quality of a rock performance that sets it apart. "Nothing beats the thrill of like a real performance. The slickest, most choreographed pop show can be an amazing thing, it can be a spectacle. I can enjoy those types of shows from a certain perspective. But I don't think it can nourish you and excite you deeply in the way that a spontaneous and in the moment performance can, one that hasn't been choreographed and plotted out and been preconceived within an inch of its life. You don't get that mercurial moment of unique energy that you can at a live show."
This perhaps accounts for the growing appetite for live gigs and festivals, a desire and need to hear music created in the moment. "People crave something wild when they go to a show, something that's unchained. And that's what we do, we don't play with backing track, every night is different for us when we play. That's when the electricity happens. We've been playing the new stuff this week. As a live band I think we were at peak power. To add these new songs means that it'll only get better."
With a touring schedule for their second album drop already pushing 2020, what comes next is currently wide open, other than what Philippakis predicts will be a "really good rehydration holiday of some sort." Given the continual transformation Foals have achieved in the last 10 years, plus accolades in the form of NME and Q awards, nominations for the Mercury Prize, Ivor Novellos, and the BRITs, 1.7 million sales of their four previous albums and over half a billion streams on Spotify since 2015, and now the release of their most confident record yet, there's no guessing what the next 10 years will hold for the band.