19 October 2008

Interview: Foals

In January, NME got it right, naming them one of eleven “New Noise” bands that would come to define 2008. (They also cited the Ting Tings and Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong, but that’s by the by). But now, towards the culmination of an expansive 18-month tour that’s taken them around the world more than once, Foals seem weary of the lazy genre-appending hype lavished upon them.

“We’re all going to run away, not talk to each other, and write on our own, do side projects,” says Yannis Philippakis, switching between brushing the curly black asymmetric mop that straddles his Greek and musical heritage out of his eyes, and ash trails off of his ripped black jeans. “We never intended for Foals to be this monolithic, all-consuming thing that took over our lives, but it’s been very much the centre of our existence for a long time. Once we’ve finished the tour, it’ll make for a better record. It’s very easy to become part of this “rock world” where all that matters is your band – you end up crushing it, and becoming self-absorbed.”

Self-absorbed is hardly an accusation that’s easy to level at the Oxford-based quintet. The evening after the interview, the band play to a sold-out audience at Bristol’s Carling Academy, a gig they kick off with five minutes of Krautrock-indebted intensity that confirms the band’s intuitive nature. They stand as a five-pointed star, sporadically illuminated, looking inward at each other. How many other album chart-bothering bands would brave potentially alienating a hysterically excited audience in favour of launching straight into a crowd-pleasing hit? They teasingly drop hints to the interlude of ‘Cassius’, injecting the intertwining high-fretted motifs that have become a staple on indie dancefloors with heavier, more industrial explosive drumming, suggesting that ‘Antidotes’ could have been more of a brother to Battles’ ‘Mirrored’ than their supposed new-rave cousins Klaxons’ ‘Myths of the Near Future’.

“We seem to get slotted into pretty much every new genre – math rock, new-rave, Afrobeat – I find it funny. I think the next record will be a progression, but the fundamental chemistry between the five of us – I’d be wary of tampering with it too much,” says Yannis. “Some elements of the sound will remain the same, instinctively Foals, always with a big rhythmic emphasis.” Conversely, the singles that characterized their sound were left off of ‘Antidotes’ – namely ‘Mathletics’ and ‘Hummer’, laying bare an unwillingness to conform to expectations that has permeated their reputation. The most obvious example of this came with the band’s decision to abandon David Andrew Sitek’s original working of ‘Antidotes’ in favour of remixing it themselves. Philippakis was quoted as saying that Sitek made the record sound as though it had been recorded “in the Grand Canyon”. What with the TV on the Radio guitarist being the indie producer du jour, lending his talents to cultural luminaries such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Scarlett Johansson, wasn’t it a risky move to discard his work?

“I meant my comments about our dissatisfaction with ‘Antidotes’ in almost a positive way – in the sense that we can be better, that there’s an element of being unfulfilled. If you’re satisfied with what you make, surely the creative process is at an end. Unless David Sitek releases it as part of a box set – NME would call him “the greatest super producer!” – it’s not ever going to be released.” He puffs on an asthma inhaler, apologises, and continues, “If money and record labels were no issue, I wouldn’t have released Antidotes. I think we’ll be better at making records next time around, it’s been a pretty weird year.”

However much they attempt to escape the conventional, there’s one aspect of being in a band that Yannis seems totally at home with – the attention lavished on them by fans. He prowls along the monitors, tilting over the crowd, before launching his tiny frame over the photo pit and drowning in a sea of fans. There’s no denying the significance of this band to their followers – groups of neon paint-daubed teenagers (mostly girls) congregate outside the Academy from midday, and after the gig a girl exclaims to a friend that “they were inspirational, that’s the power of music right there.” Something in the imprecise despondency of lyrics such as, “these wasps’ nests in your head, these terminals in your head, these heart swells” makes it easy for anyone in the throes of angst and upset to adapt Foals into their own personal metaphor, visible as the crowd steal the words to ‘Cassius’ from under Yannis’ self-effacing on-stage stance.

He’s unambiguous when it comes to being comfortable with the power of influencing their younger audiences.

“Yep. Definitely,” says Yannis without hesitation. “If kids are at our shows and get to see bands like Holy Fuck instead of listening to bands like The Teenagers, then I see that only as a good thing. We feel at least that we have some sort of responsibility to promote some music that we feel might not otherwise get attention. We came from that same background, we had a lucky break – becoming more accepted, more mainstream, and there’s a lot of luck involved in that.”

Signed to Transgressive Records in 2006, Foals became mooted as the Next Big ThingTM following a performance at industry festival, South By South West, that caused music website Drowned in Sound to name them “a live tour de force, a band capable of twitching toes…disassembling modern indie-rock and redesigning it using broken rulers and shredded blueprints”. An appearance on Skins sent them stratospheric within the indie mainstream, and a US deal with Sub Pop buttressed their credibility within the Pitchfork community.

As for the next step, aside from piecing together the jigsaw loops that will form the predecessor to ‘Antidotes’, there’s a slight chance of a collaboration with one of the band’s most important influences – minimalist pioneer Steve Reich.

“We’ll see what happens when we stop touring. It’s difficult – I heard the first movement, it’s hard to play. None of us read music, so we’d have to tab it. If it didn’t happen, it’d be more due to our other commitments than not feeling capable, but we would have to dedicate a lot of time to it. I hope it happens, but at the moment it looks bleak.” You get the impression that Foals feel cheated – after a year of success based on an album they weren’t happy with, they still feel obliged to conform and release a second album while the iron’s still hot rather than pursuing pleasure projects. They neatly finish the year where they started – playing a homecoming show in Oxford, and at the end of the evening’s gig, aided by tour-mates Danananakroyd, they unleash a cathartic and symbolic destruction of the stage that suggests the end of this era is in sight. “See you in a year,” mumbles Yannis into the microphone. That should be about enough time for lazy journalists to come up with a new asinine genre to lump them into. 

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