When British outfit Foals arrived in 2008 with their debut albumAntidotes, they did so wielding a brand of angular rock that stood apart from the pack – so much so, the term ‘angular’ wasn’t even a pejorative as it may have been for their peers.
The years since have seen the band perform remarkable transitions of style, ascending to festival headliner status with 2013 album Holy Fire, and continuing the sonic dexterity with the just-released fourth LP What Went Down.
For whatever reason – be it the fickle hype cycle perpetuated by the UK’s music press, or the languishing lustre of the format – four albums is a rare milestone for British bands this millennium. How have Foals managed to survive? “By not putting all our eggs in one basket,” says guitarist Jimmy Smith.
“It’s hard to talk about other bands – it depends which ones,” adds frontman Yannis Philippakis. “We’ve worked really hard at the records and progressing, making good records and pushing ourselves. And also playing live, playing really hard, not getting distracted or tempted. There’s been a bit of luck as well. Each record has been different and progressed. We’ve never remained static.”
With festival appearances at the likes of Reading and Leeds, and onto prime billing at the upcoming Falls Festivals, Foals have in turn crafted songs of a larger scale in production and arrangement – or perhaps it was the other way around. (“We were offered a festival headline set in the UK, and we couldn’t turn that money down,” Philippakis deadpans.) Either way, compared to the crisp, immediate nature of their earlier work, Foals’ third LP Holy Fire marked their move into a larger sonic landscape, rich with expanse to cover crowds in the thousands. As Smith explains, the growth of sound isn’t a conscious ploy at festival-bait.
“When you’re making the record, the live setting in your head is only as far as you’ve got on the last record. If you think about the biggest crowds, you think about a festival. On Holy Fire, it’s not like we were writing with headlining in mind or anything like that.”
When it came to achieving that sound, then, the direction stemmed from a more natural attraction to heavier compositions. “Some of it was sleight of hand, I think,” Philippakis says. “When we were writing Holy Fire, there was that sleight of hand by making the production quite massive, in ways we didn’t even realise when we were working on it. I remember thinking it sounded like a regular rock record, then all the feedback started coming in from the outside world.
“We definitely felt that songs like ‘Inhaler’ were much heavier than anything we’d written before. We knew that. [But] we didn’t realise the vastness of the production. Some of it is because we started off with what we did on the first record – the interlocking, tightly wound guitars – and it was dance-orientated. Then the second record [2010’s Total Life Forever] was more introverted and atmospheric. The natural thing to do since then is combine those natural threads from the past, but expand into heavier stuff as well. It feels good to play live.”
The disparity of style found between Foals albums can also be located within What Went Down itself, as the new songs range from intense aggression to more tempered showcases of songwriting. Nonetheless, there remain some consistent sonic motifs.
“We write what feels right – we don’t worry if it’s going to be coherent,” says Philippakis. “We feel if the five of us are working on it, and we have the same producer and mixer, then everything will glue together. The thing that we should never do is worry about the coherency. If anything, we try and push ourselves out to make the songs not sound similar, so there’s a big spread.”
“Someone once said to us that it’s always going to sound like Foals if Yannis is singing on it,” Smith adds. “That gives us free reign to do what we want.”
“It’s not just me, it’s the five of us,” says Philippakis. “We could write a fucking Soviet polka song and it would end up someway fitting. Because we want to excite ourselves, we need to feel like we’re trying different things and expressing ourselves in a myriad of different ways. We’re not the kind of band that will make a record where it has the same texture from track one to track 11. Some bands do that, and they do it very well. For us, the excitement is having these peaks and troughs in the dynamic; these different spaces.”
Indeed, at the heart of every evolution beyond their ‘angular’ dance-punk roots, Foals have retained the core values they developed early on. “I think the intent behind all of [the albums] is the same, which is a pure drive to make music that is thought-provoking, entertaining, passionate; that has depth and beauty but is also fun. I think that’s always been the same,” Philippakis says. “It’s just different variations of that. I don’t feel like we make shallow, one-dimensional records. That’s been the same with every record – we crave that depth.
“We work hard at the records. There are some obvious sonic things as well – the interlocking ways we play guitar are here on this record; probably more so than the last record, in some ways. We’re definitely suckers for rhythm, that’s really important. Even if we’re using a straight up 4/4 beat, there’s been a decision behind doing that, rather than using stock beats.”
Along with each record’s redirection of style comes with an inherent risk that established fans may not take to the changes well – be they subtle or otherwise – but Foals are willing to take the gamble each time, with the results speaking for themselves.
“Maybe now on the fourth album,” says Smith, “we’ll definitely be rolling the dice with getting new fans, but our traditional fans who have stuck with us for a few albums perhaps expect something different each time.”
“It definitely is a bit nerve-racking,” adds Philippakis, belying his sense of arrogant coolness. “By the time the album comes out we’ve put out a few songs to show there is a spread in terms of sounds. But it’s always nerve-racking when you put the first track off the record out. I remember when we put ‘Spanish Sahara’ [from Total Life Forever] out, we didn’t know whether people would like it – same with ‘Inhaler’ and same with ‘What Went Down’. You can’t predict it.”
With Foals’ year wrapping up at a series of New Year’s festival shows, their ambitions for 2016 and beyond are clear. “We want to make more records that we feel are better than what came before. We want to make an amazing record,” Philippakis says.
“We’re getting close,” adds Smith.
Foals play at Falls Festival 2015/16, at Lorne, Marion Bay and North Byron ParklandsByron Bay, Monday December 28 – Sunday January 3; and Hordern Pavilion on Tuesday January 5.What Went Downis out now through Warner.