Thursday, December 5, 2013

Interview with Foals

My interview originally appeared at

When it comes to concerts, Foals’ unofficial motto could be “the riskier, the better.”

While performing in Sydney this past September, frontman Yannis Philippakis (center) headed for the venue’s balcony, jumped backwards into a sea of outstretched hands and crowdsurfed back to the stage.

That's become a common occurrence at the band's shows lately, including earlier this year at L.A.'s El Rey Theatre. Appropriately enough, it often happens during the song “Two Steps Twice.”

“I like shows that are dangerous, verging on the violent,” he said last week in a phone interview from London. “The bands I liked growing up, like the Jesus Lizard and Fugazi, put on visceral shows,” where it wasn’t about perfection or choreography but “the passion and feeling, something wild and untamed.”

Philippakis frowns on overly polished productions that use backing tracks: “The tendency for bands to compete against professionalism in pop music has made a lot of rock shows boring and taken the edge off.”

Self-confidence, however, took some time to manifest after Foals’ mid-’90s formation. Back then the Oxford-based alt-rock musicians were still in their early 20s and frequently huddled together onstage, facing away from fans.

“We came from a scene where you played despite the crowd or lack thereof,” recalls the singer/guitarist. “It took us a while to understand there were people who actually wanted to see what our faces looked like.”

The group’s initial penchant for destroying gear during shows has basically dissipated, too, except when it comes to lead guitarist/keyboardist Jimmy Smith, who is “still the worst culprit.”

After two critically hailed efforts, Antidotes (2008) and Total Life Forever (2010), the release of third album Holy Fire has given Foals – rounded out by bassist Walter Gervers, drummer Jack Bevan and keyboardist Edwin Congreave – their biggest success to date. This time, America is along for the ride.

The new disc entered the U.K. charts at No. 2, spawned a Top 40 single there and netted a second Mercury Music Prize nomination for the quintet. They also picked up a trophy for best live act at the recent Q Magazine Awards.

Here, Holy Fire has at least dented the upper half of the Billboard 200 tally. “Inhaler” and “My Number” both went Top 20 at alternative radio, and taste-maker KROQ has finally gotten behind the band: the station will host them during Night 1 of this weekend’s sold-out Almost Acoustic Christmas event at the Shrine Auditorium. A headlining warm-up at the Observatory happens tonight.

“We’re playing better than we ever have,” Philippakis notes. “That’s resonating in the States, definitely. We deserve to be taken seriously in the States. … There are a lot of great bands in Britain that don’t get a chance to be appreciated across the continent. It feels good to be making headway and connecting with more people.”

A prestigious booking last March at London’s Royal Albert Hall was filmed and just issued abroad as a DVD, Blu-ray and on a deluxe import edition of Holy Fire. Masterfully shot, it also comes with an insightful making-of album documentary. Both were directed by regular associate Dave Ma.

“That was a pretty special show, because it’s a classical establishment venue. We were excited about doing something (visually) with Dave in a larger scale that wasn’t a music video. It was absolutely the perfect opportunity.”

Ready to step up in business matters as well as sonically, Foals moved from Sub Pop to Warner Bros. Records for distribution and enlisted prominent co-producers and mixers Alan Moulder and Flood. 

That pair's cumulative clientele includes Nine Inch Nails, the Killers, Depeche Mode, U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins. Moulder suggested that Foals “think voodoo.” The resulting songs certainly cast a figurative spell on the listener.

Starting with eerie instrumental “Prelude,” the riveting album finds Philippakis utilizing his falsetto to fine effect on the bombastic, stoner rock vibe of “Inhaler,” before unleashing a rare primal scream. The danceable “My Number” is Foals’ most accessible song, equally infectious “Out of the Woods” is peppered with marimba, and the atmospheric album-closer “Moon” is simply gorgeous, possessing a starkness on par with Sigur Rós.

The London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by band friend Hugh Brunt, appears on half the album.

Those swelling sounds are most pronounced during the dramatic “Milk & Black Spiders.” The singer pointed out that Foals had never used orchestrations before, but “some songs just begged for it.”

Sampled insect sounds were also used on that track, a result of the band’s attempt to bring an atmosphere of nature – complete with greenery – into exploratory demo sessions in Australia.

“We were recording in a Sydney studio,” Philippakis explains, “then we went to this river house. Certain songs only worked in the city. They (fared) worse and felt a bit 1D. We were just excited about making something that sounded swampy and had this kind of organic matter built into the sound. It became an obsession.”

After returning to England, Moulder and Flood led the musicians to believe they would casually run through those demos. In reality, the rough-hewn playing tended to benefit several songs and figured into the final results.

Other welcome changes entailed Smith emphasizing Rhodes piano over guitar for the first time, resulting in “some of the quietest and most delicate things we’ve ever written” and “the ability to have more depth and different textures.”

Part way through the process, Philippakis (a Greek native of Karpathos) needed a creative jolt, went back to his native country and worked on more lyrics. They ended being the most personal on a Foals album.

“I just wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. I didn’t want to blur the meaning or hide behind masks. That’s what I was really excited by.”

Where: The Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5
How much: $25
Also: The Brits appear Dec. 7 at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium as part of KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas, opening for Kings of Leon, Vampire Weekend, Queens of the Stone Age, AFI and more, sold out
Call: 800-745-3000

Photos by Steve Gullick/courtesy Warner Bros. Records

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