"'Inhaler' almost didn't make it onto the album": DiS meets Yannis from Foals
If there's one single band whose output has constantly had Drowned In Sound glued to the edge of our seats, it's Foals. Ever since debut single 'Try This On Your Piano'/'Look At My Furrows Of Worry' landed unsuspectingly in the early part of 2006, they've attained a status as one of the most popular bands on the site.
While 2008's debut long player Antidotes set the scene admirably, it was the arrival of follow-up Total Life Forever two years later that really set the cat amongst the pigeons. As well as receiving an unprecedented wave of critical acclaim, culminating in a Mercury Music prize nomination last year, it also raised the bar not only for its creators but also the rest of the country's guitar-based fraternity in general.
Next month sees the release of Foals third album, Holy Fire. Produced by the legendary duo of Flood and Alan Moulder, it represents another magnificently poised leap from either of its predecessors. With a heavy promotional schedule ahead of them before their mammoth worldwide tour commences in Australia next week, DiS caught up with frontman Yannis Philippakis. Here's what he had to say.
DiS: Foals tour of intimate venues at the back end of 2012 appeared to be a resounding success. The Derby show made the Drowned In Sound as one of the gigs of the year. Was it quite surreal returning to smaller venues having worked your way up to headlining the likes of London's Royal Albert Hall?
Yannis: I don't know if it was surreal but it definitely felt good again. I was quite surprised by how comfortable it felt. At the same time it was kind of strange if that makes sense? I don't think we realised up to this point how comfortable we'd become playing bigger venues before we started playing smaller ones again. I'm so glad we did it. Every show was just crazy! It's nice to have that kind of communion where you've just got people sweating on you. There's a primal energy at those sort of gigs you just can't replicate at bigger shows.
DiS: Is it something you can see yourselves doing in the future?
Yannis: Definitely. I think it's a really great thing to do. It's a good way of keeping ourselves focused, making sure our egos stay in check. It's good to go back to the kind of venues where we first cut our teeth as a band. It wasn't a bad experience so I'd say it's more than likely we'll do something similar again in the future. I don't honestly see why we wouldn't.
DiS: The setlists were quite varied, almost as if they were split into equal thirds of material from Antidotes, Total Life Forever and the new record, Holy Fire. Was there a reason you didn't play more songs from the new album?
Yannis: There are songs on Holy Fire that we haven't learned to play live yet. I'm sure we will, but at the moment we haven't got them all up to a match fit standard. The other reason was space. On a lot of the new songs Jimmy (Smith) plays Rhodes piano which requires a whole extra keyboard set-up, so there wasn't enough space to play songs like 'Late Night' or 'Moon'. I'm really keen to get 'Late Night' in the live set. It was a shame we had to leave that one out, but we just couldn't get all the equipment onto the stage. It kind of dictated a little bit as to what we played. But then we've also got the next eighteen months to play the new songs. We're in a good place right now and it's nice to be able to draw upon three albums worth of material. We still want to play songs from Antidotes and Total Life Forever.
DiS: Are there any songs from your back catalogue which you don't see the band playing again? It's a long time since 'Mathletics' was part of your live set for example.
Yannis: Yeah, I don't know about that. We just play the songs we want to play with honesty. I don't feel like we're one of those bands who are forced to trot out the singles just because they're some people's favourites. That's not to say we won't ever play some of those older songs again. It's just they aren't songs we're really interested in playing right now. A lot of what we play is dictated by our moods at the time. We've played 'Hummer' a couple of times recently which was fun, but whether we play it again - or rather when - is purely mood dependent.
DiS: Do the five of you argue over what to include in the live set? Have there been times when some band members have wanted to do songs the rest of you didn't fancy, and vice versa?
Yannis: Yeah, of course. There are five of us and we're all different people with different opinions. A lot of it is force of habit as well. Once you get comfortable with a certain set to the point where it works and has different levels where the pace builds up then drops you tend to stick to it, for better or worse. Often something as simple as that can dictate what we'll choose to play. There are some songs that have been out of the loop for a long while and now it's hard to find a place for them. Some nights we're already playing for an hour and a half, which I think is a long time to play, and we're still not playing everything we want to. We need to find a way to juggle stuff around. We've never descended into brawling or anything!
DiS: Does it feel like you're playing to a whole new audience now from when you first started out? There's certainly a more mainstream following to the band, even if the music itself has become less so.
Yannis: I don't know to be honest. I haven't really analysed it. It definitely feels like the audiences have got more diverse from what it was when we first started, which is something that I'm glad of. We never really wanted to just be seen as a band playing to a certain niche. What I can see though is that the majority of the audience does seem to be acquainted with all of our material. There's a large young contingent but then the rest seems to be a very diverse make-up of all demographics. And I'm happy with that. I don't really want to analyse or think about it too much.
DiS: The first track you made available from the new LP, 'Inhaler', received a universally positive response from both fans and critics alike. Was there an expectation that it maybe was the most accessible song from the new record and did that influence your decision to release it prior to the rest of Holy Fire?
Yannis: Before we put it out we honestly had no idea how it would be received. It was the same with 'Spanish Sahara' off the previous record. It felt good and seemed like a true representation of what we wanted to present of the record at that time but it's also a risk. We were actually quite nervous about putting 'Inhaler' out first. We couldn't have predicted the reaction, although of course we're pleased by it. If anything we were quite taken aback by it all, very surprised. It's nice because it reinforces confidence within the band that we can pretty much do whatever we want. We're in a place now where we can put out very different style tracks and we can reinvent and explore without being tethered to somebody's narrow idea of what we should sound like. Unfortunately, that's a predicament so many bands currently find themselves in, particularly those that were in a similar position to us back in 2007. It's almost like having a tag stapled to your forehead, and once it becomes attached it's hard to lose it. We feel quite liberated in being able to shirk off those tethers and put out tracks and albums that are very different from each other. It's what excites me the most as a musician. I like hearing bands progress. I don't like hearing bands mining the same quarry for five years. It's what keeps us going. We like to take risks and experiment.
DiS: It's quite interesting you say that as even the songs from Antidotes which currently feature in your live set such as 'Electric Bloom' and 'Two Steps Twice' seem to have developed a new lease of life played live compared to the earlier recorded versions.
Yannis: We haven't necessarily redesigned those songs. We still play them in basically the same way that we have for the past few years. It's just that when you start to build a body of work everything becomes more harmonious in some way. It's like combining three different sides of the same personality, or in our case, expressions of the same band. We've always tried to express ourselves in different ways yet fundamentally sound like us. One thing that informs the writing of almost every track we do is a carefree attitude. We've never been precious about trying to keep things tight. We do like to push songs as far away from each other as we possibly can but at the same time still with the belief that it's us.
DiS: The new album's out next month. When did ideas for the songs on Holy Fire first come to fruition and how long did it take to make the record?
Yannis: We tend to accrue new ideas the whole time we're touring, or at least thinking about the next record. That's when we begin to understand what's worked and what hasn't worked. You only get to know the songs properly once you've toured them over a long period of time. That kind of underpinned what the next record would be like in terms of the boundaries and parameters for the songs we'd written up until then. We didn't want the album to just be about filling the gaps. We wanted to go into the gaps and explore where we hadn't been before. So we went back to Oxford and wrote constantly for about four months, and then we went into the studio for another three months with Flood and Alan Moulder. It was quite a lengthy process but we always like to take our time.
DiS: Which is the oldest song on the record?
Yannis: 'Inhaler', but it was in a very different form back then. We were jamming that in gigs towards the back end of 'Miami', and we kept going back to it until it kind of came out on its own. It got changed around a lot. It was actually one of the last to come together in the studio. It almost didn't make it onto the album. We went into this record with a lot of material that didn't make it onto the final album. There were twenty songs in total, plus a few extra bits here and there. There was a lot of stuff to go through.
DiS: Will any of those songs resurface either as b-sides or even on the next album?
Yannis: Definitely. There's several that we still like, and definitely something special in those that we haven't yet fully explored.
DiS: When I play the album I can hear elements of Sandinista era Clash, DFA, A Certain Ratio and even 4AD shoegaze like the Cocteau Twins on closing track 'Moon'. Were you listening to any of those at the time and if so, did it influence the sound of Holy Fire in any way?
Yannis: Not really. I think we've reached a place now where we aren't directly inspired by what we're listening to. What we've been influenced by has now made up part of our genetics. Some of those artists you've listed have definitely come into our consciousness at some point and they'll continue to always be apparent, but it's not like we'll listen to a specific record and come up with a plan to aim for the same kind of thing. You get to a point at which you don't need to do that any more. It's not about direct inspiration with us.
DiS: One thing that does link all three records together - Total LIfe Forever and Holy Fire in particular - is that they're all quite timeless, which I guess goes back to what you were saying about having no direct inspiration.
Yannis: I don't want to make a record that's no longer relevant six months after it's come out. Everyone I think tries to make a timeless record. That's what every artist aims for. Some of the battle with that is taking a step away from our direct influences. A sign of young bands is when they try to adhere to their enjoyment of music rather than what they're actually trying to express. The two are completely different things. I listen to more hip hop at the moment than guitar bands but it's not like we're ever going to make a hip hop record. What we're embarked on now is something more personal than that. It's more about us wanting to express ourselves through music, as simple as that.
DiS: There seems to be a common theme throughout many of the lyrics on Holy Fire in that a lot of them sound as if they're quite person specific. The likes of 'My Number ("You don't want my number now"), 'Late Night' ("You threw our love away"), 'Providence' ("I know I can't be true, I'm an animal just like you") and 'Milk & Black Spiders' (You're the only thing I need") for example. Were parts if not all of Holy Fire conceptual?
Yannis: Not conceptual as such. I mean, a lot of the record is definitely informed by human relationships, but not as a tight concept. I wanted to write lyrics that didn't feel as if they were in my comfort zone. I was almost trying to write within the space of feeling nervous about it all to the point of feeling ashamed or embarrassed hearing it. That might sound strange but I want to feel uncomfortable listening to it. If I'm sat in the room with somebody else while it's playing I want to feel exposed and vulnerable. Often that comes from using authentic statements expressing how you feel about people. It's definitely not about one specific person. Some of the songs on the record aren't about relationships in any form. We're in our mid-twenties now and the concerns from being this age are to do with people and partnering. The trials of being with people. I just want to be a good person.
DiS: 'Moon' which closes the album is possibly the most melancholic statement Foals have written so far, as well as sounded like nothing else you've ever recorded. What was the inspiration behind that piece of music?
Yannis: That's my favourite song on the record at the moment. 'Moon' isn't in any way to do with a person. It came from a visual perspective of wanting to see the world disintegrate while your body rots. It's very apocalyptic. It is almost like the beginning of a film scene. Melancholia where the world is just falling apart and I wanted to try and capture that in a song. A very simple image that I wanted to write about.
DiS: Flood and Alan Moulder have co-produced the record. How did you end up working with those two and what different ideas and techniques did they bring to the studio compared with people like Luke Smith?
Yannis: Alan (Moulder) mixed part of Total Life Forever so we already had an understanding, and we're massive fans of the records they've produced. The Downward Spiral was a record we all grew up listening to so when we were meeting producers we had a really great gut feeling about them. Also, they're very patient, very transparent, and not controlling in the slightest. One of their strengths as producers is that they're so experienced they understand producing records is not about them imposing their own will on it but actually to bring the best out of the band. There was less of a perfectionist attitude, certainly from Flood. He's quite carefree about the sonics. He's more interested in capturing the humanity of a performance, and I think that's what makes this record quite unique for us. It's probably the closest anyone's ever come to capturing what we're like as a live band on record. It's hard to sum up. In a way we kind of owe them everything! It was such an intimate and long process in many ways. It's difficult to wrap it up neatly.
DiS: Did you have a wishlist of producers before you started working on the album? Were they your first choices?
Yannis: Flood and Alan have only co-produced three records before this one, and one of those is The Downward Spiral and another is Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, which are two of our favourite records ever, so when these people say they want to work with you, you work with them, simple as that! It's an honour to work with them as much as anything else. We were joking around about working with Pharrell Williams and stuff like that, but yeah, they would be most people's first choice.
DiS: Pharrell Williams would be interesting if you could make it happen in the future?
Yannis: I'm just joking around, plus I think he'd be way out our price bracket!
DiS: Are you pleased with how Holy Fire has turned out? Given the power of hindsight, is there anything you'd do differently or change?
Yannis: One thing I've understood is that it's not really conducive thinking that way about records. It's a problem I've outgrown. The beauty of making a record is the stuff you let go; stuff that doesn't make it onto the record. It's the beauty of the process, and not necessarily always about what's actually there on the finished physical copy of the album. So many things are written and lost. So many little moments in the writing process are never captured. Part of the joy in writing a record is the infinite joy of possibilities you can do with an album. I also believe that if the process of making a record is going well, that will be apparent when people come to hear it, so from that perspective I am happy with it.
DiS: Are there any commercial expectations from the label in terms of sales targets?
Yannis: Do you think I want to sit around talking to them about sales figures? They probably do. I'd like to think the record will do well but whatever. To people that go out and buy records does it even matter? Does it affect what we write? The answer's no.
DiS: Has the approach to the way Foals write songs changed much over the years?
Yannis: Yeah, definitely. You can't help but change really. Different things inspire you. The desire not to replicate what you've done in the past affects that a lot. I think I've learned what to control and what not to control and understand the difference between the two.
DiS: Foals have also remained as one of the tightest and most stable units in the music industry, the five of you having been together right from the start compared to numerous other bands whose line-ups have changed with every subsequent record. What is it that's kept you together for so long where others have faltered?
Yannis: Just to bully each other into submission! But seriously, we all get on really well. I wouldn't want to do this with other people. This is because of the five of us. This is just how it should be. I've been playing with Jack (Bevan, drums) for ten years in other bands before Foals so it's like we're brothers, and that's how it should be. If we wanted to make music with other people it wouldn't be Foals, simple as. Foals is a product of the five of us.
DiS: You're back out on tour again next week starting in Australia and then taking in pretty much the rest of the world over the next twelve months or so. Are you looking forward to it?
Yannis: I am although it's going to be brutal. Someone pointed out to me this morning that we're on the road for 116 days solid at one point. I like the oblivion of the road, forgetting who I am. I like the rhythm of touring. I am a little bit worried about what it takes out of you. We started as a party band. We'd drink a lot and play all nighters, house parties that kind of thing. That's part of the fun of it but it's got to the stage where it's now a compromise between your liver, your brain and the workload of being in a touring band. I just don't know what's going to bow out first. We'll just wait and see.
DiS: Finally, are there any new artists you recommend Drowned In Sound's readers should be listening to?
Yannis: I really like Jagwar Ma who are working on their first full length record at the minute. I've heard bits and bobs and it sounds really exciting. Petite Noir who supported us on tour last year, he's just put out a couple of tracks which are great. Jai Paul, although he's not that new I guess. There's also this band from Oxford called Solid Gold Dragons that I'm really excited by at the minute.
Foals play the following UK shows in March:-
2 Manchester Academy
4 Liverpool O2 Academy
5 Glasgow Barrowlands
6 Birmingham HMV Institute
8 Norwich UEA
9 Leeds Metropolitan University
11 Bristol O2 Academy
12 Nottingham Rock City
13 Portsmouth Pyramid Centre
28 London Royal Albert Hall (Matinee Show)
28 London Royal Albert Hall
The album Holy Fire is out on 11th February.
For more information on the band visit their official website.