Foals Will Be Drunk-Dancing Until the End of the World
I met frontman Yannis Philippakis in his south London flat to chat about their new album over a few drinks.
All photos by Jake Lewis
A lot can happen in ten years – or even longer, if you tread back beyond Foals’ debut album and into their early breakthrough singles, toward stuff like 2007’s euphoric “Hummer” and its B-side “Astronauts and All.” Shit’s changed since then. Tony Stonem got hit by a bus, the UK government hiked up tuition fees, trousers went from brightly coloured to chino to loose-fitted tracksuit. But even as the world has shifted and their peers have peeled away – see Wild Beasts, Maccabees et al – Yannis Philippakis and his band have remained a constant presence, a strong ship set sail in murky waters.
Still, omnipresence doesn’t mean the now four-piece rock band have been creatively static for the last decade. The facts should speak for themselves: two Mercury Prize nominations (2010’s Total Life Forever and 2013’s Holy Fire), an Ivor Novello (“Spanish Sahara”), headline festival sets long after they first piqued interest in a post-Arctic Monkeys, pre-Insta-famous music scene. Like the aforementioned Sheffield group, Foals are a mutable tour-de-force who seek to constantly reinvent and redefine themselves. They do all of this while also orbiting closer to their core talent – in this case, abstract lyrics set to the swell of dangerously addictive come-up music or written into the soft’n’soothing downtime of the other side.
“We made a rod for our back in certain ways by having big leaps between each album,” says Yannis when we meet, sitting on either sides of his living room in the south London flat he shares with a girlfriend. We’re here to talk about Foals’ latest record, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1 – the first side of a double album, with the follow up coming later this year – and how it sets out the next chapter in the band’s career. But since we’re here, I can’t help but find myself initially transfixed with the vast collection of stuff Yannis has accrued, from a lavish red fridge to, uh, a long Tibetan sword coated in shark skin. Or the black and white cat he strokes throughout our interview.
The frontman famously dropped out of his English degree at Oxford University to pursue Foals and so it’s hardly surprising that one portion of his lounge is lined with books. Some of his favourites: a first edition of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, a collection of poems by Mary Ruefle that “kept me sane on a couple of tours when I was in danger of getting twisted” and a several inch thick anthology of traditional songs from the village where he’s from in Greece (his father is Greek and his mother is South African). There are countless records too: Arthur Russell and Glen Branca originals, as well as some CDs, in spite of the fact Yannis recently threw away some 2000 of them.
“And I like soap. Bars of soap,” he announces. Really? “Yeah, I like colognes. Then some of the places where I would go to get cologne do bars of soap, so I got into bars of soap. I’m big into it. I’ve got loads.” He’s not lying. I spot at least eight different boxes of soap in the bathroom, ranging from seaweed to a 4-oz cinder soap bar from Woodlot. “There’s other stuff that I would save first, though”. You mean if the house was on fire? “Yeah, I’d save my dad’s instruments,” he says, pointing at a collection in the fireplace. “Then I’ve got a painting I’ve had from my grandmother, the one of the boy smoking in my room – I’d save that. And two shirts that belonged to my grandfather. I’d also save some of the plants as well.”
By this point we’re both several drinks in, having already sunk one at the pub around the corner while awaiting Foals’ PR man, and then a couple more – either from Yannis’ impressive home bar or from the blue bags he’s dutifully asked said PR man to pick up. Famous for their early hedonism (I remember watching guitarist Jimmy throw up in the middle of a Reading and Leeds performance circa 2008/9) and synonymous with the Skins-era house parties they came up playing, it seems little has changed in that department. In a bit of loose conversation at the end of our transcript where, after our photographer has sneezed and the PR has joked “were you at the Brit Awards after party last night?”, I swear I can hear Yannis mention under his breath that he’s got some “MD upstairs”.
And yet despite the fact the hedonism and short-sleeved shirts and beard are all still intact, Yannis is undoubtedly a different person to who he was ten years ago. The same goes for Foals. “I had a deep anxiety back then, years ago, where I didn’t dare to think that Foals was something that would outlive that season of hype,” he says. “And I think the 22-year-old version of me would have looked at me now and thought, ‘You’re 32, you’re long in the tooth, you’re five albums in – no band releases a good record five albums in.’ I would have been like that about it. I would have been a jerk.” So how does he feel about it now? “I don’t feel like any element – and I mean this sincerely – I don’t feel like it’s getting tired or we’re getting stale… I’m excited with where we’re at.”
This new album certainly represents the turning of a page in the Foals story. Before its release they parted ways with bassist Walter Gervers, amicably, in 2017. It’s also one of the most direct pieces of music they’ve written, aimed squarely at the state of the world. But hang on a minute: wasn’t Yannis pro-Brexit? I tell him I’ve got to bring up comments he made in a BBC News piece from 2016 that leaned toward supporting Britain’s exit from the EU. What do you think about it now? “I think Brexit is the wrong decision for Britain and it’s been this horrible blotting paper and it’s brought all of these darknesses that were bubbling under the surface of British society to the fore,” he says quickly yet with careful thought. “Initially, when the question was posed it was seemingly not an anodyne question, but it was a question that hadn’t yet become a polarised issue.”
As someone with a Greek family, your response was based on your background and experience too, right? “Yeah,” he replies. “And also the left wing in Greece and most people in Greece – famously in their referendum in Greece we voted against Europe and against austerity and the European Union and the view of it largely in Greece is that it’s an oppressive force. It’s behaved in a merciless fashion toward Greece. I don’t view the EU as a utopian entity. Like any big power structure it has a dark side to it. Having said that, for Britain, speaking from my British side of my personhood, I think that Remain is absolutely the right decision.” So there’s that. Good. Done. Ticked off.
Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost isn’t a Brexit album but it is an album of the times. Yannis observes the current situation as thus: “The perils we face are ones that transcend party politics, national borders and the individual. That’s a new situation to be in, where individual action in and of itself doesn’t solve the magnitude of the problems we’re facing.” He wrote the record in south London boozing establishments like Skehans (where we’ll head later to join the rest of the band) and says he visualised the same three or four elements circling around his head when pausing, pint in hand, to scribble down lyrics in a notepad. I wonder what scares him about the world. “What scares me right now is what scares you, right? So everytime you go online or open up a paper you read about the bee population that’s going, environmental collapse, biodiversity collapse – the fact that on an aesthetic level there’s a plastic flotilla the size of France in the Pacific. It just makes me sad.” *2 Chainz voice* Truuuuuuuuuuuuu.
Yannis says he wrote the record with the intention of tapping into the “feeling of being abandoned, generationally speaking” where “all these huge decisions are on our shoulders” and “it’s daunting.” This is something that’s perhaps best captured on penultimate track and likely double-album set-piece “Sunday”. The chorus here takes specific aim at that generational gap and the lack of strong figureheads in charge. “All is said and all is done / our fathers run and leave all the damage / they've done behind, left us with the blind leading the blind,” sings Yannis, on what is one of their most touching and massive tracks to date.
However the album is not a downbeat or downtempo listen. In fact it’s arguably the most danceable, intricate and loud Foals record. “I don’t want it to be a heavy listen, I want people to be able to take refuge in it – for it to be fun and enjoyable but thought provoking at the same time,” he explains. Take a track like “In Degrees”. “I was attracted to the paradox of it being a song that can be played on dancefloors and bring people together in the sweatiness of a live show. It’s discussing the slipping away of genuine human communication, yet it will act as a song that will hopefully bring people together in a way that is genuine,” he grins, clearly excited by the prospect of playing new music out. Listen below or cruise through to a recent live performance of the song at London's Kew Gardens and see how this track marks a coalescence between club-friendly Foals, 80s guitar groups like Talking Heads and Talk Talk and a hallucinogenic, mind-expanding colour palette.
I watch Foals play live myself, on the evening before Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost is released. Considering they headlined London's Citadel festival in 2017 and co-headlined Reading and Leeds in 2016, their show at east London's EartH venue is a relatively small and cosy affair. Arguably it's the closest most fans will get to reliving the squat house shows of Foals' earlier years. Think: high energy, plenty of crowd-surfers and a spread of songs ranging from new material back to the iconic Antidotes track "Two Steps, Twice", during which Yannis stands on top of the venue's bar and downs two shots.
There's an after party upstairs at the venue too. Here is a slightly boujee-er clientele – I spot lauded video director Nabil Elderkin, who has filmed music videos for Foals as well as Kanye West and Frank Ocean; there's someone from Game of Thrones; earlier in the night I see BBC Radio 1 DJ Greg James and Maccabees member Felix White. And yet despite the free bar and guestlist, the event still feels low-key. Members of the band walk around, are up for chatting and partying. It reminds me a little of the ethos behind Yannis' south London club-night he put on last year, where different musicians came together to play live, hang out, and at the end of the night everything is pressed onto vinyl.
As big as Foals get, they've never strayed too far away from their essence of creating spontaneous, bold, loud pieces of art, and a willingness to share that experience in close quarters with their fans. Now, with their fifth record, they're entering a new phase of their career, a kind of wiping of the slate, or a leap upwards – an impressive move for a band that initially seemed irreparably tied to a particular era (in their case the underage day raves of 2008). But Foals have always reinvented themselves, made their sound their own, expanded with each release. "It's down to our persistence that we haven't died out yet," drummer Jack Bevan tells me, back in the smoking area at Skehans. Entirely peerless, their perseverance and dedication might out-last the world. If it doesn't? Well, they've made their mark. This is one of the record's that shall be played as we all dance toward our demise.
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