Foals: "We're going to get weirder and weirder"
Yannis Philippakis doesn’t need too obvious an invitation to spew forth quality copy. The Foals vocalist and guitarist is on the phone to DiS for a full 20 minutes; we reckon we score roughly seven words to his few million over said duration. Good form, sir. Our work is done with minimum input.
The why: Foals – roots in Oxford and frames in Brighton – have recently returned to their homeland following a recording session with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek; the results will be compiled to create the five-piece’s debut album for Transgressive, tentatively scheduled for release in early 2008 (“We’re thinking March,” says Yannis). This summer the band – completed by Jack Bevan, Jimmy Smith, Edwin Congreave and Walter Gervers (and formerly featuring Youthmovies’ Andrew Mears) – have played a slew of festivals, and will appear at both Reading and Leeds and the rescheduled Truck Festival on September 22-23.
The what… follows…
Hey Yannis, how’s things?
Oh, cool. We had a full day of promo yesterday, and I was a bit grumpy at the end, but I’m cool now.
Wicked. Glad you’re feeling refreshed. Guess the first thing we should talk about is New York, and the album…
It was wild out there! It was good, we all really liked it, and we’ve definitely made a much different record to what we would have made had we recorded it in London, or somewhere else over here. Or if we’d done it with a more ‘in vogue’ producer – I think the Sitek thing is the best thing that could have happened to us. The record sounds really different to what you’ve heard before from us – we’ve got Antibalas (link) to play horns on it, and it has this sort of Afro-beat feel to it. We’re really happy with it, because we wanted to make a record that doesn’t sound like the live show, a record that sounds like a record.
It’s not a live-sounding record – we’ve tried to make it its own thing, rather than just a collection of ten three-minute pop songs, or whatever. It’s still quite a poppy album, I think, but it has this unified feel to the whole thing. We did some things with harmonic trails, so the sequencing is such that the album moves harmonically, and there are these little, weird interludes; these segue passages connecting songs. There’s some Nigerian percussion in there, and overdrive pedal effects that is something that we’ve taken from the ‘60s – along with the Afro-beat influence – and added it to what was already there to create this new thing.
Sounds like it’s rather more ambitious than some people are expecting, then.
Well, I don’t know what expectations are for this album! I mean, neither ‘Hummer’ nor ‘Mathletics’ are on it – it’s all newer material. They’re partly not there because they don’t really fit - ‘Mathletics’, certainly, wouldn’t – but we didn’t want to re-record them, and I like the idea of leaving those songs in the past. Those were some of the earliest songs we wrote, and I don’t want us to be one of those bands that always re-releases things. That really irritates me, especially when a band will go so far as to re-record something, just changing it slightly. Sometimes an album can come out and you’ve already heard half of it through singles. We’re quite conscious of not going down that road, and even people who have come to see us a lot won’t recognise a lot of the songs on the album from the way we’ve been playing them. Like I said – this is meant to be a record. We can do these live shows where we’re just relentless and chaotic, but this shows a different side to the band. Although it’s sometimes cool, I don’t really understand why so many bands want to capture a ‘live’ sound – I think that would be boring for us.
Well, you’ve covered that angle already, anyway, by putting out a properly live EP…
Well, yes, exactly. Working with Dave, we were talking about the actual process of making the record – the first thing he said to me, on the phone, was that if we wanted to make a commercial pop record, we should do it with someone else. He was like, “Don’t work with me”, so we were like, “Sweeeet”. Let’s get dropped!
Well, maybe you shouldn’t be saying things like that quite yet…!
Ah man, I don’t care. I don’t give a shit. But, like, that’s what was fun, this anti-pop approach. We worked hard but had enough time to relax – we found time to record drums in alley ways, and to get pretty high. We were so isolated, as well, and knowing that Dave doesn’t work with stuff he doesn’t like… that in itself was motivating, and kept everything really upbeat. We love TV On The Radio, so to be working with someone we love who loves our band… It’s like, he has nothing to prove anymore – he lives comfortably enough – and it’s just a labour of love, and that made the whole thing that much more enjoyable and less like we had to make a record for anyone else, other than ourselves.
So this collaboration has produced a record that’s entirely unique? Like you said, the record would be very different if you’d worked with someone else, over here.
I think so, yeah. I dunno – there’s this argument where you might just read things into a record because you know where it was made, and there’s this way that New York records sound… or you think there is, because you know a certain record was made there. I think you can hear things in this album in addition to the actual sound of the record. I mean, he didn’t fuck with anything too much, in terms of the actual songs, but he did a lot of things with the space around the songs. You know, he’s created this atmosphere; there’s an ambience to every track that we wouldn’t have thought of, because we’re so inexperienced in comparison. It almost sounds quite classic, in a way, and by that I mean it’s not very now, very 2007. It sounds less culturally specific, as there are all these Afro-beat touches. It just doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard, really. It just sounds cool.
There’s quite a palpable excitement in your voice here, Yannis…
Well I am really excited about it! We’re all feeling really good about stuff at the moment. Before we went out to New York we were getting pretty… ratty? With what was going on, not with each other – we’d been playing the same songs for six months and everyone was pigeonholing us: “This band does _‘Hummer’, and they sound like this…”_ Well, we’ll see what happens next. Like, I’ve known you guys since before this band started (Yannis was formerly in The Edmund Fitzgerald, DiS profile here), and I’ve always been about changing and stuff… we’re hoping that we can constantly keep changing. It’ll probably weird people out along the way, but that’s what this band was meant to be about, making weird pop music. In the same way we haven’t made a record that sounds like we do live, after the record is out we’ll start playing the songs in ways that don’t just recreate the record’s sound. Then, when we go on to the next record, everything will be totally different again. We just want to make all sorts of records.
Also, we didn’t get to finish all the songs while we were out there with Sitek – we had to cut some songs out, so we’ll probably go back and finish those for an EP or something. Well, I’d like to go back out to New York to do them, but we’ll see how far the budget can stretch! We don’t want to do a Happy Mondays… actually, that would be great! But yeah, I would like to go back out, and I think we’ll continue to keep close ties with Dave and his crew – we’re hoping to get Antibalas to play live with us at some point.
You mentioned being unhappy before going to New York. Did that have anything to do with the media at large looking to categorise you a certain way – math-rock, whatever – and the attention that came your way post South By Southwest? Was that extra attention almost counter productive?
Kinda, yeah. I think… well, we don’t really come from that sort of background. Like, we never read the NME, you know, and I still hang out with the friends I used to hang out with before all this. We come from a very different place… Well, we never thought we… Ah, I dunno – I’m so close to this that I can’t see it externally, and I can’t really get any perspective. Ummm, I mean I still don’t read the NME…
So you operate in something of a bubble, semi-unaware of what other bands are up to?
Yes. We don’t really hang out with all that many people, and we can be pretty reclusive. I might see maybe two people a lot, and when we’re off tour we just hang out with our girlfriends, or just see a couple of mates. We never hang out in London, so I think we are very different from a lot of the bands we end up on the same bills as, as we are not part of this moochy-moochy winkle picker-wearing sort of scene. I think… it’s just this thing, right: we want to play to as many people as possible, and communicate to as many people as possible, and to make pop music the way we do. That’s the idea behind the band. But sometimes that gets dumbed down, and that’s kind of weird. The amount of press attention we have been getting, and how quickly it's happened, is weird – we only started this version of the band, with Edwin, about a year ago.
It’s really cool though, and being positive it is_ good that people are getting into us. Maybe through us they’ll get into someone like Q And Not U, and we’re trying to take bands out on tour with us who are good… Hopefully the press has a positive effect. Like, we’ve played festivals with bands who I think patronise the shit out of their audience – it’s like there’s this idea with some bands that if you play more than three chords you’re going to alienate your crowd. All these bands that we end up playing with are really worried about how many records they are – or aren’t – going to sell, and we’re just like _fuck that. That’s not rock and roll, y’know? These people are kissing themselves over what record label they’re on, and reading about who is slagging them off, and how they look. We’re like, “Fuck off, man. Go read about GG Allin or something”.
I think it’s cool that we get to be in an environment where we’re out of our element, and I think that’s fun. It’s fun to play alongside people that we, ourselves, don’t have much time for. If we had our way we’d probably go play with bands like Charlottefield, at the Freebutt or something. But to see this other side, it’s cool. I guess that’s all I have to say about that.
I guess it’s quite easy, if you’re in London, to get sucked into the more vacuous side of the industry machine. Like you say, by staying with the same group of friends, I guess that keeps you grounded…
Yeah, totally. Like, we went to play Ibiza Rocks the other week, which is an example of one of these things that’s totally weird for us. We’d never have otherwise gone to Ibiza – we thought we were going to be playing to all these FHM-reading meatheads, but it wasn’t. It was okay. But there were a lot of people there who were part of that whole ‘rock world’, y’know… I mean, they were a lot further along the line than us, but I distinctly doubt we’ll ever become one of those bands. We really care about the music, and that is all it’s about. If we stopped getting press attention tomorrow, it wouldn’t bother me – we’d keep doing this regardless. It’s what we were doing before, and once this is over we’ll continue to do things, in different formats or whatever. We’re always going to be playing music, and I’ll always be booking our own tours – that’s what we used to do anyway. We realise that this stuff isn’t permanent, and we realise a lot of what comes with extra attention just detracts from the aim of any band, and that’s to keep making your music better. We look at it like that. It’s like sickly candy floss, the industry: it tastes nice at first, but if you eat it, or get involved in it, every day, then it becomes sickening.
So what is coming out between now and the album, since it’s not even mixed yet?
‘Mathletics’ (review) is the last of the old batch of songs, and then there will be a new single, ‘Balloons’, which we did with Sitek. Then the album will be out in March… I think it’s the beginning of March. It’ll creep up quickly.
And you’re keeping yourself busy, tour wise, what with your headline dates and then Bloc Party dates in December…
I think it’s good for us to be playing with Bloc Party, as they come from a similar background – Kele used to listen to Billy Mahonie and stuff, and they’ve been really supportive of us and nice to us. I think that they’re not one of those bands I was talking about earlier, the sorts that are up their arses. Bloc Party are good guys, and the tour will be great. But, they are big venues, and we’ve never liked playing big stages at festivals. We never even go to big rock shows, and I guess that’ll make us try that bit harder. We’re going into it with the mentality that this, in terms of us playing, probably isn’t going to be that cool, so we’re going to work at trying to translate the music across in such big environments. It’s not really where we feel comfortable, but…
But it’ll be an experience either way – it’ll either work on the big stages or you’ll be like, “Ah well, shit…”
Yeah, yeah… But I think we’re just going to do what we do, and just go potty on stage. We’ll continue to do that and hope it works, and if Bloc Party’s crowd like the songs, great. Six months ago the biggest show we’d played was to 200 people, and as soon as we did something bigger than that we freaked out; now, though, bigger shows are becoming the norm, so the Bloc Party tour is just one of those steps.
Well it’s not like you’re being chucked in at the deep end – you’ve worked your way up to this level.
Yeah, and we are touring ahead of the Bloc Party dates, so we’ll be tight at least.
* I want to finish on what you said when The Ed Fitz split, and that’s that you wanted to make fun music. So, Foals: fun music?*
Yes, of course, and that’s the main thing. As fun as The Ed Fitz was, it felt to us in the band that we were just playing to ourselves some of the time. Not in a conceited way, but to me the music wasn’t communicating anything other than, like, look at how much we’ve practised, and how young we are. I mean, I had so much fun in that band, but Foals is about making music that does away with the challenges we were setting ourselves with The Ed Fitz. With music like that, once you’ve mastered it, that’s it. This, particularly for Jack (who was also in The Ed Fitz) and me, is a new challenge where we’re writing music for us, but that also has a more palatable appeal. For a lot of people that’d be a dirty thing to do, but I actually find pop music quite fascinating now. It’s not like we’re just writing verse-chorus-verse songs, either; we’re trying to bring in – and we might be failing – a diverse enough set of influences to make something quite fresh, while still communicating something. The album has a number of messages in it, both lyrically and musically – like, you can do whatever you want to do, and people can still ‘get’ it. You don’t have to dumb yourself down and go along with all these other bands. It’s different talking to you about it, because you do cover a wide range of music, but by and large the people in the external environment this band is in now don’t understand, musically, the acts we feel an affinity with. A lot of people into Foals won’t have heard of Charlottefield, you know? We’re not like a band like that, as we are more poppy, but we’re never going to lose the weird, autistic element to our band. If anything, we’re probably going to get weirder and weirder…
‘Mathletics’ is out now via Transgressive; click to the Foals MySpace, here, for tour dates and songs.