If history has taught us anything, good bands are formed in Oxford. There must be something in the water or, more likely, in the beer. Following the typical “met at school, played at local parties, got a record deal, dropped out of school” trajectory, Foals are the latest product of Oxford poised to become a household name this side of the pond. Although their previous album, Total Life Forever, experienced critical acclaim, their latest effort, Holy Fire, which is rich with confident pop singles flanked by more complex, ambient tracks, is just the thing to catapult the band from a midday Coachella time slot to prime spot mid-sunset. In addition to being quite stellar musicians, the boys of Foals are as charming and witty as any good Englishman should be. We sat down with frontman Yannis Philippakis and keyboardist Edwin Congreave to chat about on-tour debauchery, the road to popularity, and universally acclaimed authors and filmmakers.
How did you guys get started?
Yannis Philippakis: We’re all from Oxford, so that was the nucleus of the whole band. Some of us had been playing “in the scene,” or whatever, before. This was like 2006. We were playing house parties, which was basically how it started. We booked our own little tours and just travelled and sent out some demos, then we got signed and we all dropped out.
Edwin Congreave: We all said goodbye to our families.
YP: And any semblance of our sanity.
Let’s talk about Holy Fire. What struck me as interesting was the contrast between pure pop tracks and more experimental or ambient tracks. Was that a conscious decision or just a natural result?
YP: It’s a pretty natural process writing the record. We don’t really have a particular idea of what we’re trying to aim for. We’re just writing stuff that excites us and that feels honest and that feels fresh. We don’t really feel like we had to adhere to anyone else’s or even our own idea of what we should sound like. It’s very much a blind process. Basically the only rule is there are no rules. I think if you have that kind of mindset when you make a record it means that you’ll have diversity on the album and that’s only a good thing.
EC: There are so many songs that end up getting written that span the whole spectrum of our musical ideas and ambition. When it comes to actually compiling the album you have to take the best selection, which turns out to be very eclectic. I agree, I think it varies quite dramatically.
How would you say that your sound has changed or evolved from your previous album to this album?
YP: It’s bigger, it’s less introverted, there’s less consciousness in it, it’s more direct. It’s probably better and it’s stinkier, in a way. It’s more fertile than the last record I think. The last record had, not like it’s a bad thing, but there was something that was kind of cool… There was something distancing about it in some ways.
The album title, Holy Fire, is quite strong and direct as well. Where does that come from?
YP: Just from my brain. We just like the words and it seemed to sum up the energy of the record and the color of it. If five of us agree on a title you have to just go with it. We could have continued to argue on what it should have been called. Personally I really like big words that have been used throughout history and have a hundred different connotations and have been used in multiple contexts and have a resonance to them. Holy Fire has all sorts of religious connotations. I like the idea of these words that corral a lot of meaning. I just like album titles like that, that are big.
Where do you guys seek inspiration, in terms of music or elsewhere?
YP: I don’t know if there’s that much of a direct influence from bands anymore. I think that’s just part of our subconscious now. It’s part of the makeup of the band to be influenced by the bands we love. Maybe the one thing recently that we got into that we weren’t into before is classic disco and funk and some soul. Gospel stuff. I don’t know how much of that is evident in the sound of the band. There’s stuff that influence the lyrics or the visual aspects of the band.
YP: I really like David Foster Wallace, I really like Jonathan Franzen. Certain types of visuals effect us, we like Harmony Korine’s films. We like stuff that people like.
EC: Quote that. “We like stuff that people like.”
I’m curious, and this is something that I talk about with lots of my friends who are musicians…
Yeah! And also, how do you think the landscape of the music industry, particularly in terms of indie music, has changed and how do you respond to that as a band?
EC: In one sense we’re very lucky because we got signed right at the tail end of when labels were still signing bands. I think if we were the band we were back in 2006 now we simply wouldn’t have the opportunity we’ve been given. We’re also at a point where our music doesn’t really get bought that much by people.
What’s your take on things over here?
EC: America? I don’t know anything about it at all. We come over here with a lot of ignorance.
YP: Bags of ignorance!
EC: We can only really present ourselves and we know where we exist in our space. America is a huge space and it has a very well developed, very diverse indie scene, we just want to prop ourselves in there and see what happens.
Speaking of travelling, you’ve done your fair share of touring. What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of touring?
YP: My favorite thing is the rhythm of it. I like the structure of just playing shows and only living for the show and the ability to leave behind real life, basically. The negative of it is the price you pay for that. Obviously you sacrifice real relationships and you also sacrifice your liver and your sanity.
EC: The travel itself can be amazing, and sometimes it can be really underwhelming because you just don’t get to see the places you’re going to. Like we went to South America and saw the airport, the van, and the venue. I really like touring America in a bus or a van because you feel the landscape and you meet a lot of different people, which can sound quite cliché but it’s very exciting.
Yannis, you mention sacrificing your liver. I’ve read that you guys tend to get quite debaucherous on tour. Is there a band member that’s an instigator or are you guys equal opportunity partiers?
EC: Definitely not equal opportunity, but there are several instigators.
YP: We all have different styles of doing it as well.
EC: Don’t look at me.
YP: We just party a lot. We party because the band was kind of formed out of that youthful recklessness, it was about partying. And now that it’s become something that’s a lot bigger than that and it’s our profession, it’s weird that we’re kind of professionally partying. We don’t know how to play sober, basically. We’ve never done it.
EC: It seems totally normal to us, but there are bands that find it utterly bizarre.
YP: I guess at some point we won’t be able to sustain the way that we tour and the way that we travel past a certain age. It will just kill us, but it’s pretty fun for now. Walter, who’s the bass player, just drinks all day. Not in a destructive or a bad way, he just has beer for blood. The guy just drinks, its just part of his makeup.
EC: The amazing thing is it doesn’t change is character. He’s exactly the same person. He actually gets a little bit silly towards the 20th pint and maybe a little bit more charming, which is kind of cool but makes you think he is just always drunk.
You guys have played a pretty solid mix of venues and festivals—do you have a preference?
YP: Not really. Because we cut our teeth at small venues that will always feel like home. We just did a tour of really super small venues in England, it was just crazy. You have that direct, feral intensity with the crowd that’s a pleasure to feed off. I don’t think we have any problem in translating to bigger places and there’s definitely a different reward to that. Having ten or fifteen thousand people singing your song back at you is almost a spiritual experience. It shouldn’t really matter what the room is that you’re playing music in when you think about it. The music is what it is about and it should be able to translate in all sorts of different spaces.
EC: I think in the past the one situation we have struggled with is big, open-air festivals during the day. I think for this record we’ll be less worried about it because I think the music will work.
I was looking at the track list for the “Foals Tapes” mix you put out earlier this year and I was quite pleased to see most of my favorite artists, like Nicolas Jaar and Art Department. I’m curious to know who’s on your radar currently?
YP: A guy called Jai Paul, in England. I just want his album to be released.
Love Jai Paul. Exactly, why does he only have two songs?
YP: I don’t know, I was talking about this with some of my friends. I think there’s a fear, because there’s been such rapturous acclaim to both tracks, there’s pressure to make sure the album is amazing.
EC: He must be a very anxious guy.
YP: Petite Noir from Cape Town. He’s played some shows with us. He’s amazing.
EC: A guy called Jagwar Ma, from Australia. He’s kind of a friend of ours. It’s kind of like Tame Impala with a bit of Happy Mondays.
If you guys weren’t musicians, what would you be doing?
YP: Fixing air conditioning. I think I’d be really good at it. That’s a really good question I have absolutely no idea. I think if I had a really good idea I wouldn’t be a musician because I’d have a different way of approaching life.
EC: Nothing, it’s impossible. It’s impossible that he would not be a musician.
Do you have any vision for where you hope the band goes or do you just take it day by day?
YP: It’s hard to quantify into real terms. The one thing that’s weird about the music industry, if you follow a path of wanting to be veraciously successful, you get to the worst point imaginable, which is playing arena shows in industrial wastelands outside of cities. You get isolated from everything. There’s an internal mechanism within the band that’s afraid of that kind of success. The thing that’s more of the compass within the band is to make something that’s always a bit better than what we’ve made before. There’s a hunger to achieve within the band but it’s on musical levels. I definitely like the idea of the songs meaning something to everybody in the world, that kind of ambition is there. We’re kind of a pop band, so there’s that kind of the thing, but the actual reality of that kind of success is terrifying.
It’s a double-edged sword.
YP: Yeah. The level that we’re at right now, we’re pretty comfortable here. We get to play to a lot of people, there’s interest in the record when it comes out, we don’t have to froth milk at the local coffee establishment, and we get to play music every day and we only think about music.
Photography by Steve Gullick