My memories of being a 16-year-old are mired by the familiar tropes of adolescence: navigating the dynamic of secondary school cliques, complaining to my mum that she didn’t understand me and trying to find someone vaguely open to the idea of having sex. The latter, of course, was an unsuccessful project. Like most people though, the one consistency throughout those teen years was music – on my Walkman, then my iPod and discovered through mix CDs, dodgy P2P services and the pages of NME’s still band-breaking Radar section.
That was ten years ago, and back then music in the United Kingdom existed in a state of flux. The promise of grime had arrived and then sunburned itself into commercial submission on the decaying beaches of Ayia Napa; nu-rave had already started to fade away, dehydrated and coming down from its brief MDMA high; and the UK’s garage rock revolution gasped from somewhere beneath a mountain of landfill indie. But among the deterioration of these scenes, something new emerged: a rich and animated debut album from Oxford band Foals called Antidotes.
Combining methodically knotted melodies with amphetamine pace, the band presented a singular aesthetic – one halfway between the sound of the post-punk revival, the scent of a hot-boxed garden shed and, in their lightest moments, a transcendental tone tailored to fit 6AM comedowns and those last precious moments of euphoria. Americans didn't quite get Antidotes (Pitchfork gave the album a 5.9), but then again they didn't need to. The album coalesced with a specific moment in British culture – the Skins Generation – and allowed the band a stepping stone to the headline act they are today. Ten years later it’s a relic, yet also peerless and unique. So how exactly did they get there?
For a start, Foals' arrival was perfectly timed, coming just as there was a need for a group that bridged the cultural gap between guitar bands, punk and dance music. This meant they were celebrated by BTEC music students who could make mathematical sense of the odd time signature in a track like “Two Steps Twice”, but also that they became a soundtrack for soon-to-be hedonistic teenagers. The tales of the band touring house parties – outrageously reimagined during the ten-minute Skins: Secret Party episode, which was customarily crammed with seemingly free pills and booze and included a filmed performance of pre-album track “Hummer” – became legendary. It also helped that the beginnings of Foals journey were as DIY as you could get, easily placing them into the adventurousness of youth culture – as people like you and I.
“They had this awful post van”, remembers Tim, co-founder of Transgressive Records, who initially signed the band. “It had this hole in the top, where I guess there must have been a sign originally, that was stuffed up with tour t-shirts. So when you sat in the back – obviously with no seatbelts, barely any seats, gear rattling around everywhere – whenever it rained, you would have drops falling down to whoever was in that seat. It was grim but their approach to it was looking at bands like Fugazi and all of those Dischord bands where you would just get on the road and work it." He remembers how the band would play house parties between "proper" gigs, as per the folklore. "They’d do the gig and then if you gave them a tuna pasta after the show and a bed, they’d play your house party.”
From the beginning, there was a sense Foals were incredibly dedicated to their music, seeing it not as a vocation but a lifestyle; a way to live through art – something they were passionate about in terms of both writing and performing. Frontman Yannis Philippakis infamously dropped out of an English literature course at Oxford University to pursue the band – as did other members on their respective courses – when Transgressive offered them a record deal. “At the time Yannis’ uncle was like ‘This better work out or I’m going to come around and break your legs’” remembers Tim, half-joking. “It was high stakes. That was the commitment of the band.”
As well as the light threat of grievous bodily harm, Antidotes was temporarily destabilised by a sudden change from using producer Dave Sitek, of TV on the Radio. “Dave joined after some of the tracking had happened and kind of dismantled everything and started rebuilding it. That was a really intense time in the studio,” says Tim. “Dave’s a real taskmaster and didn’t like us being around. He had a healthy suspicion of labels I think as well. It was quite a tough process. Then we had this gap where we had ‘Balloons’ scheduled as a single. We got the mixes back from Dave and he sent a mail afterwards saying that was ‘His truth of the record’ and that he really stands by it, but the band, and we, felt it didn’t reflect the energy.”
After deciding that Sitek’s vision of the record was not what both Foals and Transgressive felt was right, they took the decision to go to their distributor and marketers and beg for more money. In the end the album was remixed and Mike Crossey jumped in at the last minute to add some additional production. The decision was well founded: it’s hard to imagine the record standing the test of time without the energy that’s been highlighted in the production process. In a parallel universe, Antidotes could have been a far paler listen – one drenched in tidal waves of reverb, the lyrics drowned in a sea of sound.
Antidotes and Skins, of course, exist as separate pieces of art, and though they found strikingly common ground between vibrant, hedonistic decadence and visions of love, Foals left enough room for the listeners to fit the songs around whatever experiences they had within their own lives. The lyrics are delirious yet elegantly abstract, telling tales of hospitals, aviaries, “fair-weathered storms in your hair” and “un peu d'air sur la terre (a little air on earth)”. Often barked and shouted, these songs could have been about anything: philosophy, love, Greek gods, fucking in the corner of the living room and regretting it, a guy named Cassius. It didn’t matter really. Like Radiohead before them, Foals offered up their music for interpretation, unrelenting in their vision and sound, and creating their own universe in the process.
On release, Antidotes peaked at number 3 in the British album chart – an impressive feat for a band like theirs. In the press, one criticism was that perhaps this was a one-trick pony, a matter of style over substance and daubed too heavily in hyperbole. Yet the ability to create a piece of work that so acutely represents a time and place in British youth culture – one with giddy, pre-financial crash optimism – as well as being thematically open enough to remain relatable a decade on is rare. It wasn’t enough to write an album “just about having a dance and getting high, which would have been an easier record to make” but one that would really “push things sonically and put across a lyrical message” says Tim.
This boundary-pushing approach initially rippled through the British indie scene. John, the guitarist in Gengahr – who released their last album on Transgressive – remembers how Antidotes informed their decision making when writing their debut A Dream Outside. “Everyone was really into synth based bands and wanted to include all those influences and textures,” he says. “But I insisted on only using guitars. Antidotes was a big influence on that as I feel they made a great electronic genre record as a guitar band... it really got to the heart of what I love about electronic music, focusing on the intricacies of rhythm and the texture.”
“There’s a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in that record for me.” John continues, “We all thought we were super smart and above having the next hype band pushed on us but we all fell for Antidotes, quickly realising there was a lot of substance. It also changed our listening habits, reminding me of how much I loved electronic music growing up. Not everything had to have super aggressive guitars to have energy and impact.”
That enthusiasm to push the envelope, regardless of music trends, makes Antidotes stand the test of time. It also acted as a blueprint for consistent evolution in the following three – soon to be four – albums from the group. It would have been easy for them to stick with what had worked on their follow-up record. However what they did, and continue to do with their back-catalogue so far, was refuse to tread water. Look at a track like “Spanish Sahara”, a much lighter, melancholic release from second album Total Life Forever or the almost-grunge-like “Inhaler” from Holy Fire and the progression between albums is clear. Ultimately, as Tim says, “the great thing with Foals is that their eyes have always been on what’s next and development.”
With that fifth album on the way, the journey that started with Antidotes, decrepit vans and house parties has developed into something bigger. Once the next record, a career-spanning Glastonbury headline set may just sit on the horizon. Judging by Foals' headline set at last year’s Citadel festival, the band certainly have the songs – the big, euphoric moments and the low, light transcendence to temper those. When it comes down to it, with everything that’s happened so far, can it be argued that we’re witnessing a band with Radiohead scale for our times? Ask a bunch of people who came of age in a colourful, cider-soaked 2008 and the answer is likely to be a defiant yes.
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