Reading The Faerie Queene & Carrying Listerine: Foals Interviewed

Foals sit down with Ben Hewitt to discuss their new album _Total Life Forever_, destroying the music industry and studio nightmares

It’s an uncomfortably hot day in central London; the early advances of Summer are encroaching upon the cooler climes of Spring, and the sunshine is making a mockery of those who donned their usual uniform of thick jumpers and coats for their daily commute to work. “Fucking hell,” one such pedestrian wheezes on the street. “It’s boiling out here.”

He should try being inside the offices of Warner Music – and, more specifically, in the furnace-like room the five members of Foals are currently sitting in, huddled around a table strewn with half finished packets of cigarettes and empty bottles of spring water. Despite the stifling conditions, they’re trying to muster enthusiasm, even in the face of irksome questions about the brouhaha which accompanied their 2008 debut Antidotes. “I think it was pretty exciting at the time,” ventures guitarist Jimmy Smith, to widespread approving nods from the rest of the band.

Every head, that is, apart from that of lead singer Yannis Philippakis.

“It was kind of annoying as well,” he says, biting his nails and looking away. “I think in retrospect we obviously benefited from it to an extent, and we were fortunate to have that kind of attention. But I think growing up, a lot of us in the band, the scene we’d come from…the music scene in Oxford was increasingly sceptical of that type of inflation, so I remember feeling a little bit awkward.”

Warming to his theme, he continues: “It felt like we were being co-opted into something we’d never proclaimed ourselves as being. We never came out and said we’re the most exciting band of 2007.”

He’s partly right, of course. Only the boorish and thick-tongued tend to indulge in such self-platitudes; typically those dining out on the riches of past success (step forward, the Gallagher brothers) or new kids on the block who hope feeding the press a tasty quote will guarantee column inches (arise, Sir Johnny Borrell). Yet even if Foals didn’t court such hyperbole, the cynical would argue that modelling campaigns for Burberry and creative partnerships with teen drama Skins did little to quell extra-curricular publicity.

“There was concern about it. It was something we did think about – we didn’t want to be a ‘fashion band’,” agrees Yannis. “I know there are people who will disagree with me, but in the way we make music, I think the intent is pure enough. Things specifically like Skins, I don’t really think…we made music to communicate to people, and as many people as possible, so as a vessel to be heard…we’re not signed to Dischord, we’re not a punk band. We’ve never attributed to having punk values. There are things that we don’t do.”

He refuses to be pressed on exactly what these “things” are, but ultimately, it scarcely matters. For starters, we’re surely past the age where ‘authenticity’ and ‘keeping it real’ are concerns that need to be bothered with – they’re gladly extinct relics of the post-Britpop age, a redundant issue for all but the most tiresome breed of rock dullard. And secondly, because no amount of mainstream flirtation can denigrate an album as gorgeous as Foals’ second LP Total Life Forever. Indeed, if their was a gripe to be had with Foals previously, it wasn’t their image or favour with the fashionistas; it was the music, which offered little different to the likes of Bloc Party and Battles. The problem wasn’t that the hoopla served as a distraction from their art, but that the paucity of their art was all too evident. With Total Life Forever, even slots as guest judges on Britain’s Got Talent and recording England’s Official World Cup song wouldn’t be enough deter the masses from being won over by its charms.

Foals themselves deny that they wanted to consciously step away from the past, with Yannis insisting: “It wasn’t a reaction against Antidotes – it was just about evolving and creating a work that will push further and further out” – but it’s certainly a different beast. They sound warmer, more vulnerable. The busy bravado of their debut has been shed in favour of a more brittle, delicate demeanour, a transition noticeable in the soft lines, interweaving like gossamer, that introduce opening track ‘Blue Blood’. Yannis sounds different, too, his gentle vocal of “You’ve got blood on your hands/ I know it’s on my own” unrecognisable from his former sharp, breathy yelping.

“I think we’d probably agree with that,” agrees keyboardist Edwin Congreave, when it’s suggested that there’s a greater delicacy to Total Life Forever. “They [the songs] were recorded with more patience and a quieter volume.” Yannis also acknowledges a newfound tenderness, adding: “There’s more emotional intent behind the songs as well. There was a desire to emote. Almost like a cathartic process. At least lyrically.”

He continues: “We just wanted to create a record that would compliment Antidotes and not sort of just go over the same ground, not keep raking the same lawn. We definitely wanted to write songs that had more space and more restraint, and as an album we wanted to do something that had a broader pallet of sounds. This record, definitely in terms of sonics, it’s got more dimensions.”

There’s a lot of different dimensions in terms of influences, too, and even if the laughter accompanying their claims that they listened to a lot of Blue Oyster Cult and groovy chill suggest they’re not to be taken completely seriously, Total Life Forever certainly sounds as if it took inspiration from a different and diverse range of source material, most noticeably in the hip-hop strains of ‘Miami’.

“That kind of started because I was watching these documentaries on YouTube about these producers in the early 90’s who were just doing this awesome new style of beat,” says Jack. “’Miami’ kind of came from jamming.”

“It was the first time we’ve jammed a song in that beat and tempo,” adds Edwin. “All our tempos have been very fast – 140, 160 – and that’s 95.”

Yannis interjects. “We started to read more about the Wu Tang Clan, and the mythology and the kind of way that Wu Tang disciplined themselves was very influential. Not in terms of songs, but in the way that the band operates.”

Do you think there’s a reluctance of British bands – and more specifically, British guitar groups – to look to genres such as hip-hop for influence?

“I think people in America are more prepared to do it, definitely. I was going to say snobbery, but there’s definitely…a reluctance to look towards what might be perceived as commercial pop or music of black origin. There are very few areas of music that haven’t been mined and appropriated by indie-rock or alternative rock bands, and that’s one of the last places almost. So I think it’s probably just a matter of time.”

“It’s a hard crossover,” says Jack.

Yannis nods. “It’s easy to do badly. You don’t want it to be…”

“…pastiche,” finishes Jack. “And you can get it quite wrong the other way. Like Lil Wayne’s rock album. I can’t remember what it’s called. But it’s bad.”

You opted out of using the word ‘snobbery’, but I think that’s exactly the right term.

“I think so, yeah,” says Yannis. “There’s a very cloistered attitude that purveys in a lot of British guitar music. I think it’s starting to change, hopefully. The boundaries are becoming more permeable. So, I don’t know.”

Pushing boundaries and exploring new territory weren’t just limited to the sound of Total Life Forever. While the album was written in a house shared by all of the band except bassist Walter Gervers, who lives with his wife, Foals relocated to Gothenburg for the recording sessions with producer Luke Smith. Having previously relied on a constant process of saving, cutting and editing, Smith placed more emphasis on perfecting things live. Before, Edwin says, “It was all about playing something, playing more stuff, and something amazing would come out. But Luke was saying we need to have the amazing thing here.”

“It was frustrating,” says Yannis. “We felt there was an undue emphasis being put on how we were playing things, and we were like, ‘Why can’t you just chop it?’

“I don’t think we’d make the next record in the same way, but we definitely learnt something. It made us concentrate on being musicians in general. I don’t think we’re every going to have to easiest of relationships with producers because we’re very territorial and obsessive, and it can get to the point where it’s self destructive. So at this point we need to work with an external influence who can tell us when to stop, and when something is good and something is bad. We’re cannibalistic in producing something which we think is good and then hating it. We need someone to pacify the bi polar swings between euphoria and crushing self hatred.”

How was Sweden?

“[The studio] was quite an amazing place that’s been hand built by these Greek guys that’s taken them about five years or something,” answers Jimmy. “And it’s in an old, grim part of Gothenburg that’s quite industrial, by a canal. There are these huge rooms that they’ve furnished themselves. We slept there as well, so it was pretty intense. We didn’t get out that much.”

“It was quite claustrophobic, but I also sort of found it really cosy. I don’t know if anyone else found that?” asks Jack, to silence from the rest of the band.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to live there,” says Jimmy.

There’s been a lot of buzz about the ‘human sequencing’ system you used in the studio. What was that exactly?

“Jimmy set up a big chart and we had four letters that related to the people that were singing. In real time during the song, Jimmy would conduct when each of us would sing which particular notes,” explains Yannis. “So he was essentially programming a group of humans as a sequencer, and the people in control of what and when and how they would sing. It was very laborious.”

What did it sound like at first?

“It sounded like a sexual nightmare,” says Yannis to laughter from everyone else.

“Like mating seagulls,” adds Jimmy.

It’s somewhat of a shock to find Foals in such a light-hearted mood. This is the band, after all, who announced their arrival with an aggressive statement of intent in an interview with MusicOMH back in 2007: “To fucking destroy the music industry from the inside out. Just kill every other band.” It’s an attitude that seems incongruous with the heartfelt Total Life Forever; and sonically, it’s not exactly set to induce a Metal Machine Music like panic amongst the Warner bigwigs. So, would it be fair to say they’ve mellowed in the last three years, or is wrecking the music business still their ambition?

“You can see what we’ve done to the offices at Warner,” laughs Edwin, gesturing at the pristine walls of the room he’s currently sitting in, sipping on a complimentary beverage.

Yannis shakes his head. “That was something I said flippantly. When they’re [the words] written in black and white, they don’t convey how I meant to say them. It wasn’t meant seriously.”

“I think we did feel to an extent, at a younger age, that the music industry and the bands were often at loggerheads against each other,”, says Edwin. “But I think now…it probably has something to do with the fact that the music industry is actually destroying itself from the inside out anyway. It doesn’t need us to participate in that. And it’s probably not in our best interests.”

“We can just sit back and watch it sink,” declares Jimmy.

It’s a flippant answer, but they wouldn’t be the first band to change tack after a first album that, in many quarters, failed to live up to the high expectations bestowed upon it. Both The Horrors and New Young Pony Club have shown in the last 18 months that ’the difficult second album’ is often no more than a cliché; that often, it’s the perfect platform to refocus and reinvent, to remerge with greater clarity and, most importantly, better tunes. Maybe they’ve learnt those who went before them. With all of the band bar Jimmy dropping out of higher education, I pose one final question to them: What’s the most important lesson they learnt at university, and what’s the most important thing they’ve learnt from being in Foals?

Edwin goes first. “The best thing I learnt at university is that military service is probably a really good idea, and I’d be strongly in favour of that.

“I don’t think I’ve learnt anything in Foals…always take Listerine wherever you go.”

“The most important thing I learnt in uni was that I didn’t know how to read previously,” says Yannis. “Either that or The Faerie Queene was, and still is, the most intimidating book in the world.”

“I actually dropped out because of The Faerie Queene, and that’s a true story,” says Edwin. “I had to read it over the summer of my first year and I got about a third of the way through it, and I was spending six hours a day on it.”

Yannis laughs. “[The most important lesson] In Foals…family matters.”

Everyone turns to Jack, who’s next in line. “I don’t know,” he says. “I was just trying to think of something witty to say. The one thing at uni I did manage to get nailed…I had a long distance relationship with my girlfriend in Brighton, and I was in London, and then going to Oxford, so every week I was having to massively time manage. And I’ve managed to totally unlearn that since Foals began.”

“So time management, and then the opposite?” clarifies Yannis.

“Sometimes a degree doesn’t mean anything,” says Jimmy. “You’re fucked if you don’t get a first. And…never over indulge in something that’s a good thing. HSBC will always give you an extra 50 quid. And, if you’re near the end of your overdraft you can still use your card in the Co-Op.”

Finally, Walter – nearly silent for most of the interview – bestows his wisdom upon me. “Never pretend to know what you’re talking about when you don’t,” he says wisely.

“And Foals…hair of the dog usually works.”

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