Their own worst critics
Rising British band Foals attribute much of their success to being uptight and constantly dissatisfied, writes Tim Jonze
Apast interview with British band Foals contained admissions of teenage problems with authority, wild mood swings and the pressures of fame. And among all that, singer Yannis Philippakis opened up about family therapy, his difficulties dealing with an absent father and his fear of repeating this same cycle of abandonment.
He discussed his inability to get "a proper girlfriend" and ended things by saying that all he really wanted was to settle down, have children and start gardening.
"I regret a lot of the things I said [then]," says Philippakis now. "I was too open. Mainly about my family - bringing people that have no desire to be discussed in public."
And yet, strangely, Foals have spent most of their time since opening up. The evidence is there on their third album, Holy Fire, on which the band head off towards a more organic, nature-infused sound (there are bee and swamplife samples) while Philippakis sings lyrics so personal ("Cause I'm a bad habit/One you cannot shake/And I hope that I change") that they apparently made him cringe. "I got a perverse enjoyment from it," he says. "But I don't know if I'll do it again. It's like shaving bits off yourself, putting your organs on display so people can prod and poke at them."
Philippakis has a habit of making grand statements that sound vaguely preposterous, yet are delivered with enthusiasm and more than a glint of knowing humour.
Foals seem to mean what they say, yet mock it too. Confusing, yet it turns out they are nothing if not a band who thrive on their own contradictions. You only need witness their current surroundings for proof of that: a bunch of pale youths originally hailing from Oxford's po-faced math-rock scene who somehow find themselves drinking beer in shades on a rooftop bar in Los Angeles. To make matters more surreal, on the sun lounger next to us sits former soccer star Gary Lineker, his presence challenging the band to work up the courage to ask for a photograph.
When Foals first came to people's attention around 2007, the idea they would one day be playing to huge crowds at Coachella festival and sunning themselves next to Golden Boot winners might have seemed farcical. They seemed suspicious of fame and possessive of an angular sound that, while impressively taut, carried little emotional weight. The resulting years, however, have seen them gradually shake free of their own self-imposed sonic straitjacket.
Around the time of their 2008 debut album, Antidotes, they were a thoroughly self-critical band and that's one thing that hasn't changed, through 2010's more ambient Total Life Forever and up to the present. Their first Coachella show was, to listen to the band, beset by technical difficulties and a "comedown" after playing to rabid crowds in places such as Buenos Aires. Yet it's this feeling of being constantly dissatisfied that fuels the band. "I think it's one of the most universal acknowledged facts about our band that we're all enormously uptight," keyboardist Edwin Congreave says. "But we're becoming less so."
In trying to locate a more primal, honest sound, the band went to great lengths, recording in a cramped studio they hadn't used since they were teenagers. Their producers, Flood and Alan Moulder, even tricked them by recording their rehearsal in order to capture a more uninhibited sound.
"At one point we even made studio interns collect bones," says Philippakis enthusiastically. "We were inspired by voodoo, these Haitian rhythms. We collected some ourselves, from butchers … cows, I think. We boiled the flesh away so we could use them as percussion. We wanted to get primitive."
And then what happened? "We hit them together and it sounded like two paintbrushes clinking together," he says. "So much effort and so little reward! But it's good to give in to the ritual and mysticisms of making a record rather than sitting down with a nylon-string guitar and strumming."
Is that what current guitar music is missing? Not so much good music as good stories? "Maybe. There is a tendency to fixate on how successful a track will be rather than get lost in the mad journey of how to make a record. I remember reading about [electro-industrial pioneers] Skinny Puppy making albums, about huge dramas and houses burning down and heroin overdoses … it would be an incredible drain for them. It has to be an intense process in order for it to be worth giving all your time to it."
Philippakis likes to get carried away when he talks. It has, and still does, land him in trouble. Before Coachella, he told a music magazine that he was "bored of seeing some dude from the '90s headline [festivals], it means nothing to me", which was understandably read as a dig at Coachella headliners The Stone Roses. He sighs and laughs. "It wasn't meant to be about just them, I actually really like that band," he says. "It was more about how it feels like there's a glass ceiling at the moment. Unless you're Arctic Monkeys or Mumford & Sons, new bands aren't given the chance to headline festivals. Maybe we're just not good enough? I don't know."
It's certainly true that - the poppy likes of My Number aside - Foals' music lacks the instant appeal of those bands, although that never stopped a certain other Oxford band from hogging top slots. Yet Foals also feel like a band on a steady upward trajectory.
As for Philippakis, he seems to be slowly getting past his demons too. For one thing he's finally found, if not a wife, then certainly a "proper girlfriend". ("I never felt before I would ever meet anyone that would be able to put up with me … I don't feel that's true any more.") Of his relationship with his father it is, he says, "the same; nothing's really changed". But his dad did finally come to a Foals show, watching them play last month at the Royal Albert Hall ("Did it upset me that he'd never seen us play? No, because I expected that from him.") Even his gardening dream has become a reality.
When the band play El Rey Theatre after the interview, their newfound sturdiness is on display, the five members somehow counter-balancing ultra-tight, funk-infused musicianship (Chic, P-Funk and Talking Heads are among their influences) with a looser sense of wild rock abandon. The show builds to a furious crescendo that sees Philippakis frantically hammering away at his guitar while standing on top of the bar at the rear of the venue as the band build up a frenzy on the stage.
Here in their element they look like world-beaters, yet a few hours earlier they were too shy to ask a former footballer to pose for a picture - that's the contradictory nature of Foals in a nutshell.
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