Meeting Foals

It’s been seven years since Foals released their debut album Antidotes and the band have grown immensely and transformed both personally and musically. As well as upping sticks from Oxford and heading for London, they’ve cemented their reputation as one of the top UK bands, continuing to surprise and excite with every release. And with their new album What Went Down, they’ve guaranteed themselves a potential slew of headline festival slots over the summer and beyond. 

The debut single from the fourth album, title-track ‘What Went Down’, has everything you’d want from a new Foals song – suspense, savagery, aggression, arrogance – and a massive fucking chorus. It’s as if their live personality has been bottled up, filled with Mentos, shaken to within an inch of its life and then spewed out onto a record. Chances are it will probably make you want to fight someone. 

In typical English summer tradition, it’s grey, a little bit chilly and the threat of rain lingers over your head from the minute you leave the house. It’s 5:30pm and I’m hanging around outside Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel, waiting to be called up to Room 523 to sit down with Yannis Philippakis. We take our seats on the balcony, overlooking London’s skyline, and he wastes no time in lighting his first cigarette before addressing his mood. “When we were writing What Went Down it felt vicious in the room," he admits. "It felt menacing. It felt like an alternative to smashing up a room.’’ He adds: "Definitely on those moments like ‘Snake Oil’ and ‘What Went Down’ we wanted them to have a bite and be confrontational.’’ 

And confrontational it is. The video for ‘What Went Down’ features a shocking dog attack, but the idea for this runs a lot deeper than just some concept prescribed by a video team – it’s drawn directly from Yannis’ childhood. He claims that he has an affinity with dogs, and though there are more predatory animals out there that could have been used, a dog attack resonated with the song. “I was bitten by a dog when I was younger. I had 19 stitches put in my face and it was the same kind of dog that’s in the video.  You’re the first person I’ve told that to, actually," he confesses. "I was young. I was just in shock. I was 11 and it was my uncle’s dog, this big fucking nasty Bullmastiff. It took me down to the ground and then I was rushed to hospital and had to see a plastic surgeon.” It feels as though Yannis has taken the aggression of that dog and turned it into sounds – the initial strums of guitar growl like a vicious canine, gripping its teeth into whatever is in sight as the kick drum replicates a fast-beating heart, nearly exploding under the intensity of the situation. 

“I think that being adventurous with substances for me is part of a wider trend. I don’t know how to say it, but I like to push the limit of things and escape myself as well.”

The writing of the new record came not long after the band topped the Bestival bill for the first time in 2014 and the energy from that particular show rages on through the album. The band wasted no time in getting back into the studio following their heroic headline set and wanted to capture as much of the personality of that show as they could.  Not that Foals are desperate for a ruckus just yet –  the rest of album number four is a good deal more laid back. Although ‘Nightswimmers’ dips its toes into the heavier side of their music, it has a chilled out Balearic vibe; with guitar tones reminiscent of their debut album, it gives you a chance to breathe after ‘Snake Oil’, which packs the album’s biggest riff. Yannis says, “It’s not what we wanted to do with the whole album, that’s why there are songs that aren’t like that in the slightest, like ‘London Thunder’ or ‘Give It All’ or whatever.”

“The reaction [to the new tracks] has been really good," says Yannis. We’ve been playing ‘What Went Down’ and ‘Mountain At My Gates’ live and they’ve been going down great.” It’s always difficult for a band when releasing new music to be able to continually please their audience, but even more so when they’ve had three critically acclaimed Top 10 albums.  Time and again bands crumble under the pressure of topping previous efforts and trying to live up to what’s expected of them, but those that seem to make it are the ones who don’t surrender to expectations, instead choosing to subvert and confound them. They successfully kicked Second Album Syndrome in the teeth when they released Total Life Forever back in 2010 – nothing short of a masterpiece – and rocketed even further with third record Holy Fire, but Yannis says it wasn't about topping what's gone before.

“We don’t think about [expectation] and just try to make a good record," he says, “but I feel like if we’re excited by it then hopefully by extension other people will be, you know? We’re relatively critical and we have high standards of what we expect and we like to surprise ourselves in the writing process and feel like what we’re doing is better than what’s come before.”

While there’s no clear intention of escaping their past, it’s obvious that Foals are nonchalant about heavily nodding to times gone by. In an interview with Moshcam, Foals guitarist Jimmy Smith once called Yannis a ‘‘walking pharmacy’’, and, of course, the world of music is infamous for its unavoidable and unsubtle connections to drugs.

“I mean, I’ve smashed in some drugs in my time,” Yannis smirks. But not anymore. The Foals’ frontman once believed that smoking weed would help him excavate his brain. He was in love with the idea that drug use could help turn emotions into words, but now he feels that he doesn’t need that kind of crutch to create.  “I stopped smoking weed and I don’t feel like it’s diminished my ability to do that. I found that I prefer being more lucid now in terms of when I’m writing. When I was writing in that way, I used to get stuck in micro-details and would go down the rabbit hole with it a little bit,’’ he explains, not remorsefully, but in a way that shows he’s now fully confident in his own ability to write.  

It’s not just during the songwriting process that musicians tend to experiment with drugs – it’s no secret that live performances are sometimes completely fuelled by them. The majority of time people tend to keep their tales of drug use to themselves, but Yannis is open in explaining when and why he’s felt a need to indulge. “I think that being adventurous with substances for me is part of a wider trend. I don’t know how to say it, but I like to push the limit of things and escape myself as well. Whether that’s on stage, where you can get into a different headspace or whether it’s just like going on a fucking bender for a weekend.” Yannis continues, ‘’I definitely think it goes more hand in hand with playing live because there’s a type of adrenaline when you play live where afterwards it’s quite difficult to just go back to your hotel room and play Solitaire. It’s like you go out looking for something to run at that same energy, which is probably quite dangerous but, you know.”

Something else has also been brewing for a long time: when will we finally see MC Lacroy ­– Yannis’ alter ego – make an appearance? He was surprised I brought it up. “Oh, you know about that? I forgot about him. I made a bunch of music just using drum machines and a couple of synths and they’re quite nasty, dirty, scuzzy tracks. I feel like that should be the first incarnation of MC Lacroy. I’m waiting. I just need to edit a couple of them down and add vocals to one, then I might subtly, slyly release them out into the world. MC Lacroy, the Original BADMAN LP.”

We can only hope.

 Words by Jack Collins
Photography by George Dunne