Before the pandemic, Foals delivered their most ambitious project yet. A sprawling two-album epic released within the space of a few months, it saw them embracing their status as one of the UK’s biggest bands like never before. As we approach the other side, they’re back – one member down and with a new full-length with completely different ambitions. Yannis, Jack and Jimmy are ready to party. Are you?
Words: Martyn Young. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett, Ed Cooke.
“We’re as vital as ever. It’s the most exciting record that we’ve made.”
As Foals prepare to release their seventh album, frontman and creative visionary Yannis Philippakis is as confident as ever. He has good reason to feel so cocksure, though, as the Foals that emerge into the (hopefully) post-pandemic world are a rather different beast to the band that ended their last touring cycle with an expansive multi-layered epic of a double album. This time, everything is different as they channel the spirit of their incendiary early days into a new vibrant future. Welcome to the rebirth of Foals.
The most obvious change in this new era is the band are now a trio following the departure of keyboard player Edwin Congreave, not long after they lost bass player Walter Gervers. In truth, it wasn’t particularly a shock for either member to leave, but in the case of Edwin, the writing was on the wall from the very start of the new album process. “He showed up for one rehearsal and was like, no, see you later!” laughs guitarist and now brand new keyboardist Jimmy Smith. “You could see on his face that he was just sat there thinking, I’ve made a terrible decision,” he adds. “We were happy that Edwin and Walter made the right decision. We feel a little more buoyant. We’re leaner and meaner.”
The streamlined three-piece Foals were ready to shake things up and mess with the formula that made them one of the biggest bands in Britain since they emerged in 2008. To do that, they knew that they would each have to step up and tap into everything that makes the band so special. The result is ‘Life Is Yours’. A euphoric life-affirming record that captures the desire of a culture and society desperate for something to celebrate and a little bit of carefree abandon after two years of miserable gloom. “The absolute last thing we wanted to do was write a languished miserable lockdown album,” laughs drummer Jack Bevan. So here we are in 2022, and it’s time to party.
“I’m excited about it, particularly in the context of what’s happened in the last two years,” begins Yannis as he talks about the album. “Being able to release a record that’s fun and uplifting and joyous after the dank and dark couple of years is really exciting. It’s the most fun record we’ve released in terms of its mood and danceability. I think it’s going to go off. It’s the right record for the summer.”
The vibe and the impetus to keep things upbeat and energised are at the album’s heart. Notably, there are none of the massive riff-laden behemoths that powered their previous albums in a sign that this is a reconfigured version of the band. “I specifically said I didn’t want to write any heavy rock songs, not ever again but not right now,” explains Yannis. “We’d been in that place for a minute, and it was time to shift things up. There was very little distortion or fuzz to get away from that heavy expansive aspect of our sound that we’d previously been exploring. I got the other part of our DNA and re-emphasised that for a bit. What’s kept the band exciting for us and hopefully other people over the years is that we’ve played with that stuff, and we’ve not just stuck to one lane of sound. It was time to do that again.”
The DNA that he’s referencing is the intensely rhythmic and dance-focused side of the band that has always been part of their sonic arsenal. Perhaps their biggest ever hit, ‘My Number’ was a dancefloor-slaying monster. The tracks collected on ‘Life Is Yours’ are very much in that image; they represent the spirit of the band going right back to the start. “After the last records, because there was such a broad spectrum of stuff going on there both sonically and thematically, we wanted to just pair everything right down and make something concise and focused and direct,” says Yannis. “We wanted it to be cohesive and have one mood across the record. That’s what [debut album] ‘Antidotes’ had. In a way, it’s the long lost brother or sister of that record. It’s also got that directness and dryness. The rhythmic emphasis is most apparent in those two records. They are driven by the groove and the rhythm section.”
It wasn’t necessarily explicitly spoken about, but there was a feeling throughout making the album that the band were tapping into the guiding principles that informed the bedrock of their spirit as they looked to navigate the future without two key members. “We’re relearning the dynamic as a three-piece,” explains Jack. “It felt a bit like going back to the drawing board with this record. We were thinking about what we started off with and what were our original influences but now approaching it with more experience. It was a similar mindset to making ‘Antidotes’ but with an extra 13 years of experience.”
The ecstatic exuberance of ‘Life Is Yours’ provoked other memories of that early golden period as, forced into a tiny room with just the three of them, the band whipped up a rhythmic storm as if their lives depended on it. “That spirit is hewn into our DNA,” says Jimmy. “That party vibe is how we started.”
“The way we wrote the record in this tiny room felt like when we were playing those house parties in 2006,” adds Jack. “We were tapping into that energy. We were also quite militant in that when we were writing Yannis wasn’t using any effects on the guitar. I stripped my kit right back to a minimal set-up. It was quite a tight, dry sound. It felt like we got to a place where we rehearsed enough that it was really tight, so we didn’t want to slather effects all over it and make it woozy. It’s got the leanness of the first record.”
For Yannis, the themes of the record are escapism and yearning. A desire to transcend a mundane existence, to harness the feeling of youthful optimism when anything is possible. In songs like the next level turbo banger of ‘2001’, he captures that vibe in a sugar-rush explosion. “That song is set when we were younger,” he explains, his eyes twinkling as he reminisces about youthful hijinks. “It’s set in that moment when you’ve really made a good group of mates, and you’ve turned into a social creature. Right at the end of high school into early uni, and you’re starting to feel yourself and party and get into mischief.
“That era for me was in Brighton when I was younger. That was the early stages of the band when I was 19/20. It’s set down at the coast. It’s by the sea, and it’s to do with seaside innocence and going to the sea when you’re young turning into going to party down at the sea.
“The chorus has that feeling of being young and waiting for the summer and waiting for the weather to get better because you can get out and enjoy yourself. It’s about the moment you get that first sunshine, but that lyric also came from being stuck at home due to Covid and wanting that symbolically to be blown away so we could go out and be wild again.”
While they definitely didn’t want to make an album about the pandemic, what they did want to do was to take the feelings of wanting to escape, to inspire what life might be like once we come out of the pandemic. “We’d been locked away for months, so the lack of being able to go out and experience life and gigs and all the things we’d grown accustomed to made us want to get that out of the music,” says Jack. “It was cathartic to make music that was playing at an imaginary party that we weren’t allowed to go to because of the pandemic.”
For such an intense and devoted character as Yannis, the desire to get out there and do something – anything – was even more palpable. There’s only so much gardening you can do. However, if you do want a tip on how to keep your roses nice all through the winter, then according to Yannis, “It’s all about the pruning.” Anyway, enough about that and more about how Yannis and co. are bursting with ideas on how to bring their party music to life.
“It felt feverish, and there’s an itchiness to it,” he says. “There’s an itching to get back out into the world and be part of parties and nightlife. I think we all felt that. The way that society just closed down over the past 18 months was so deeply frustrating and so unnatural, to not have social gatherings and creative expressions.
“As we were writing the music, there was something that was acting as a grip to make us feel more frustrated and give more urgency to it because we just wanted to get back out there and play shows and have the music be part of people’s social life.”
It’s impossible to overstate just how important physical connection is to Foals’ music. On the previous double album ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’, they dealt with wide themes like climate change and societal ills. This time the focus is on communal experiences and personal salvation. “I definitely think about songwriting in terms of how people will listen to it socially or somebody getting ready to go out to a party, and once you get to the party, someone puts on your tune, and it acts like magic,” he continues. “Music is social magic. That was the vibe. It was frustrating and aggravating, so we just wanted to cut through that and speed the process up. The record is eager for the reemergence of the world.”
The reemergence of the world coincides with the birth of a new Foals. Yannis concedes that despite the trio of him, Jack and Jimmy being the creative linchpins of the band long before they lost members, it definitely feels different this time. Not worse, perhaps even better, but definitely different.
“It doesn’t feel like the same band,” he ponders. “There are some aspects of that that we’re going to have to get used to and will be a bit disorientating. It feels like a different era. It feels like Foals mk.2. Because of what’s been going on with the pandemic, everything was stopped. You had this dormant phase creatively where you kind of just hibernated and waited for things. This feels like a reemergence. It feels like we’ve been in a cocoon working away on things, and we’re going to emerge as a shiny new creature. It feels fresh.”
If there’s one word that defines this brand new era for Foals, it’s fresh. “That’s one of the words that kept on coming up when we were writing,” confirms Jack. “The feel of the record needs to be fresh. We were constantly striving for that feeling of freshness.”
After 16 years as a band, though, just how do they keep things feeling fresh and motivated? For Yannis, hunger is central to his very being. “It’s part of my personality and part of all our personalities in the band,” he says confidently. “I don’t think it’s to do with age or success or anything like that, but more to do with not being satisfied with anything internally. I wish it would go away sometimes, to be honest. It’s exhausting to always be trying to do something better. Often it can come from a place of slight dissatisfaction with what you’ve done. Thinking that a record or something should have been better. There’s an element of self-criticism that fuels that which is good and important creatively. I don’t think there’s much danger of that going anytime soon. I’d say that I’m hardwired like that, and there are big aspects of Jimmy and Jack that are wired like that. As a combination of people, we’ve gotten used to being quite self-critical and also getting bored easily. Talking about the riffs and changing it up, I think that comes from a kind of creative restlessness.”
In a creative sense, for a band so in tune with their sound as Foals, changing things up in a musical sense with different guitar tones, synth sounds, and drum set-ups is the easy bit. What’s difficult is finding the words and themes to accompany all that sonic invention and convey their intentions. “Most musicians probably find lyric writing the hardest bit,” says Yannis. “You have to get the message right. It’s one thing to write a guitar riff or a drum beat, but if the lyrical message and the delivery and how it connects with the vocal isn’t right, then that’s the bit that’s the most challenging.
“On ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’, I was in a doomy frame of mind. My mentality isn’t actually that different, but in writing that last album, I really wanted to put those anxieties and insecurities and feelings into the music as something that would engage people, but there was also some element of catharsis. I couldn’t do that again on this one. I didn’t want to revel in the bleakness. It became about doing the opposite, which was trying to make this record as escapist as possible. It’s optimistic – life is yours, we’re still alive, and there’s something beautiful in that, and we need to cherish that.”
In many ways, it’s remarkable that a band as unique and diverse as Foals have endured at the top of their game for so long. Capable of commanding the biggest live stages with iconic festival sets as well as crushing the smallest of sweaty stages with white-hot controlled chaos, they can do it all and have proved it time and time again. The ethos they forged back in the mid-noughties is still ever-present and drives everything they do. “I’d like to think that it will always be there, but it’s something we have to be mindful of, and we have to protect,” says Yannis.
“It would be easy for us to just go full arena. We’ve toured with some bigger bands, and you can tell that they’ve gotten lost in the comfortability of big rock stages and big rooms and are slightly engorged on their success and probably are removed from the people they were when they started the band.
“It’s good to grow, and it’s good to mature, but for me now, that aspect of the band and the DIY punk start that the band had is something to protect because it keeps us grounded. It’s something that we’re proud of. I’m proud of how we started our band, and it influences the mentality to this day about decisions that we make and trying to make sure what we do is organic and intuitive and not based on the wrong self of values.”
One of the challenges of making music these days is operating within the peak social age. While the opportunities are there, it can be a distraction from the whites-of-their-eyes close physical connection that the band revel in. For Foals, they are looking to successfully navigate both lanes. “I’ve started getting into TikTok now, and I’m enjoying it. It’s about finding your language on there,” says Yannis. He draws parallels between the social tools of today and the very early days of primitive online culture when the band formed in 2006. “Without MySpace, we wouldn’t be here,” he says. “We used it to book those parties. We used it to connect with other bands and promoters, get shows and put music out. It was amazing for that. There’s an absolute direct correlation between that and TikTok.
“I think the difference now is that music, and most of culture, has gone so much to online platforms it exists predominantly in that world. I miss that scene. We haven’t looked after venues and record stores in the UK. Nightlife and the ability of people to go out and play shows or congregate at a record store or have a physical hub hasn’t been looked after. So it’s going to migrate online. There’s loads of great things about online communities, but I just think it would be good if we kept our venues open and ensured they have the ease and accessibility that we had in our day.”
As success gets harder to measure and ever more transient, the importance of forging your legacy becomes key. “Something I’ve observed with lots of bands who have put out records during the pandemic is that without shows and record stores and tangible culture of putting out a record, there is something missing,” says Yannis. “Lots of people put out great music, but it sort of went out into this digital void. Live with it for a few weeks, and then it’s gone. That’s the thing to be cautious of with the way that we consume music and art through some of these platforms.”
“It takes months to write a great song, or for an album, it will take a year,” he continues. “If you’re doing that and it’s consumed and discarded within a matter of weeks, there’s a fundamental problem there. It’s a lot to do with algorithms and the rapidity with which we consume culture. There are loads of good sides to it, but also music doesn’t really get a chance to have its time in the sun.”
There are many ways in which ‘Life Is Yours’ directly contrasts the previous double album, but one significant way is that they are no longer self-producing. There were a couple of reasons why the band looked to go in a different direction. In simple terms, they didn’t want to do more work with fewer people after losing Edwin, but they also thought it would be a good time to bring in some new voices. “We wanted to construct a dream team of people around us,” explains Jack about the quartet of ‘drum ninja and prime hype man’ Miles James, ‘mad scientist’ Dan Carey, ‘supernova visionary’ AK Paul and producer John Hill, who was “The parmesan that brought everything together in the salad.” All four producers added sonic flourishes and tricks to the record, slotting perfectly into a cohesive whole. Also, it’s good to have some other people arguing instead of just the people in the band. “It was great. There would be an argument in the studio between four people, and none of them were in the band, so I’d just be like, I’m going off to have a cup of tea. You guys make that decision; it seems like you’ve got it covered!” laughs Jimmy.
If there’s one thing that Foals are looking forward to, it’s getting back out on stage. It’s what this album was made for and where they made their reputation. When it comes to incendiary live shows, Foals are untouchable. Yannis even sounds excited and wistful as he talks about the exhaustion and days of bedridden illness that normally follow a Foals tour. “We put everything into the live shows,” he says. “They’re draining, but that’s why it’s great. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. I wouldn’t want to tepidly walk up to a stage and just play the songs. It’s fine if you’re playing a different type of music, but for a Foals show, it’s got to be maximum intensity. We need to deliver.”
Freed from the pressure of expectation and liberated by having the luxury of freedom and space, Foals have delivered on an album that encapsulates everything brilliant about the band. Distinctive, full of hooks and with bangers to spare, it’s Foals at their most organic and most creative ready to belatedly kick start the decade and take things to another level.
Taken from the March 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Foals’ album ‘Life Is Yours’ is out 17th June.