Foals' Yannis Philipakkis looks to festival season
Foals’ ambitious third album Holy Fire has elevated the Oxford five-piece to the next level, but Yannis Philippakis is hungry for more
“I feel really good actually! I had a great time out there.” At the moment you can’t keep Yannis Philippakis down. He hasn’t long returned to London after what’s been Foals’ longest time away from home in their career to-date, but he cuts off a question about mental fatigue on the road early on, like a boxer anticipating a jab, returning his own succinct, quickly-delivered counter-punch that shuts down a potential blow before it’s even had time to connect.
Since Foals’ third album Holy Fire came out in February, they’ve been running the touring mouse wheel; bar one stately-environed show at the Royal Albert Hall in London, they hadn’t seen the UK between the middle of March and mid-June, as they spanned Europe and both American continents. Yet even amidst such sapping toil, the frontman’s muse is currently insatiable and his words chirrup with the buoyancy of an artist possessed. “If touring’s been taxing then it’s only because it basically stops you creating,” he adds. “I’ve just been daydreaming a lot of the time about wanting to get into the studio … I’ve had a real appetite to just get in and work on new stuff.”
The longest stint of Foals' 2013 road trip so far has been more than two months spent shunting up and down North America, culminating in performances at Coachella in April and Bonnaroo Festival last month. In the otherwise patchy 2003 Britpop documentary Live Forever, writer Jon Savage concisely observes that, where British music fashions tend to be dictated by a pendulum that swings between the UK and the US, it simply does not exist Stateside. That still rings largely true a decade on, and Yannis admits that adjusting to that can be a “graveyard” for many of his national contemporaries. “There’s definitely a sector of America that’s super Anglophile,” he says. “But then there’s another side that doesn’t know about it or doesn’t care and that’s the side that you have to deal with first as a British band - and it can fuck with your head dealing with that sort of scepticism.”
However, Foals are now beyond the feeble footing that most teeter upon when crossing the Atlantic. “There’s something building there now, which kept us up mentally. We’re not schlepping around with no one coming to our shows. I still don’t understand America any more than I did when we first went across. I like it more now though,” he says. As successful as the band’s 2010 second album Total Life Forever was, it is Holy Fire, fully plundering the vast space its predecessor had first created when in-turn pulling apart the fabric of debut LP Antidotes’ spindly intricacies, that has truly elevated them beyond territory-specific ascendancy. Foals now sit at an established place of being, beyond the boom and bust see-saw of circling criticism that envelopes those below. “But that’s why America’s a challenge,” Yannis comments, “and I relish it because you can get spoilt by playing to big crowds everywhere else. It’s nice to feel like you’re grinding it out again.”
"I want to go back into the studio and make five different records" – Yannis Philipakkis
Holy Fire’s merits were many: the five-piece took even more encouragement to shift gears between their more water-coloured backdrops to the hot, tarry density of the likes of Inhaler and Providence’s baked-dry guitar sludge. A hook line through all that though was an emboldened directness lyrically, Yannis discarding completely the coding he was already starting to unravel on Total Life Forever, in lieu of phrases (“I’m the last cowboy in this town,”) that skirted cliché but worked in their blunt contrast to the elemental pirouettes around him. “All the great lyrics are essentially stories or they impart a message; they have a beginning, middle and end and I think I just didn’t do that on the first record, but since then I have been,” he states. “It’s just been realising that ‘this is the kind of lyric I want to write,’ rather than just writing a load of images that no one’s going to have a fucking clue about.”
They also indicate a personal approach, with many seemingly exploring themes of isolation and loneliness; was there an apprehension in translating these intimate messages out into a physical live environment? “Not really,” he says dismissively, his bullishness remaining at the fore. “Once you start playing a song night after night it grows a bit of a skin on it, it develops a bit of enamel, it gets a bit thicker. It’s not like I’m doing a Freudian analysis during a gig. I guess these lyrics are more direct and so just resonate with more people, which contributes to making it a more emotionally charged experienced playing live – which I think all lyrics should do.”
While still filliping Foals into a festival season that promises to be their most high profile yet (with Glastonbury already in the bag, they're a matter of days away from playing T in the Park, headlining Latitude later in the month and seeing out the summer with Reading and Leeds), Holy Fire is an album their front man is already ready to leave behind. “I’ve not listened to it really since we did it,” he ponders, “I hear tracks on the radio and they sound… good?” he offers noncommittally. “But, look, I also think that it’s part of the process of making a record that you have to fall out of love with it as you make it. If you’re not sick of it by the end you haven’t worked on it enough.”
This obsessive creative streak runs at a paradox to the surface-level facts, that a time period of nearly three years passed between second and third albums – a sizeable gap in the music industry’s hyper-accelerated state. But there has always been conflict within Foals’ creative process; a constant desire to surge forward is often hamstrung by self-critical backtracking which prevents the quick-fire outpouring of material you sense could be possible, if they loosened the shackles slightly.
So it goes as we talk; at one point Yannis hauls open the door of possibility regarding new material: “I’d be worried if I didn’t want to make something again soon, because it’d mean I was spent or I’d said what I had to say. But I don’t feel that way at the moment. I feel like I want to go back into the studio and make five different records, I want to make an old school funk record, I want to make another Foals record, make a stoner metal album – all sorts of things.” But then, when questioned further, he pulls it shut again. “The problem is that we want to put stuff out all the time, but then we’re crippled by our own perception and neurosis. We want things to be great when they go out and it just takes time.”
Their issues with TV On The Radio man Dave Sitek were well-documented during the press trail around their debut LP Antitodes in 2008; the group discarded the respected producer’s original mix of the record in lieu of their own re-mix. Holy Fire meanwhile saw the group start out in Australia with Jono Ma, only to soon head back to London and work with legendary duo Flood & Alan Moulder (who can list Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails’ among past clients). Even with the celebrated duo – who the band have been praiseworthy of over the past few months – the implication given is of Holy Fire’s creation occurring from the foundation of several constructive battles, which, on one side at least, have continued long since the album was released. “Producers are a good outlet and are fine to have their say in the studio,” Yannis suggests, “but there have definitely been times where we’ve ended up losing some elements on the record that we’ve ended re-introducing live because we missed them.”
Foals continual live reappraisal of their own work, even after it’s been committed to record, is a sign of their well-known perfectionist streak, and also that of a group of five people constantly restless within their creative sphere. “If we did the same thing every night I would probably go mad,” he says. “I don’t really understand bands who rely on backing tracks that have to do a very similar structured set every night. I’d rather stab myself in the lung than play to backing tracks.”
Foals are set to embark, once again, on a festival circuit that the artist was vocally critical of earlier this Spring. “You get people in their late 30s going to festivals, in their dungarees with a couple of kids, wanting to relive their adolescence, pretending they're baggy again by watching The Stone Roses,” he’d told The Daily Star. "They aren't in touch with what's going on now. I'm bored of seeing some dude from the 90s headline, it means nothing to me." The comments have since been clarified – and it turns out Yannis is a fan of the baggy Mancunians – but he does still agree that this increasingly all-encompassing culture of nostalgia pervades strongly.
“I think it’s a very British thing as well,” he says. “I might be wrong about that but I don’t feel it’s quite the same in the States or in Europe. Here, the press and the people who buy the tickets to festivals and the pundits and the promoters, they all know there’s an appetite; and the people who have money are the people in their 30s and older. Plus, I think a lot of music journalists do think that ‘things were better back then.’ The knock-on effect though is that if you start saying ‘how special it is that Fleetwood Mac are reuniting?’ and saying that’s way more exciting than anything going on at the moment? Well, personally I think that’s bullshit.” He agrees too, that fans' patience in a bands’ development has been eroded and that with a comeback act, the context, stories and catalogue are already there to digest. “It’s part of something generally too, a lack of patience within everything,” he adds. “Like, people getting frustrated when their phones take two seconds to load up all of human knowledge that ever existed when really they should be in admiration at this technology. So maybe it’s symptomatic of something that’s a little bit bigger.”
For Foals, a new album could occur “sooner rather than later,” Yannis’ thirst stark in response to the repetition of the touring grind. “Right now I’ve got a serious itch to scratch that’s just wanting to make more music and better music,” he says. “I don’t feel satisfied or sated right now. I want to do something soon.”