On the face of things, Foals pursuing hedonism shouldn’t ever really be classed as a break with the norm; after all, this is the same band that told NME, as their live commitments for Total Life Forever were drawing to a close, that “we all have healthy drinking problems.” In an interview with Australian blog Moshcam in 2013, during promotion for Holy Fire, frontman Yannis Philippakis weighs up a drug-fuelled pool party at Benicassim against an afterparty-turned-skinny-dipping session in Byron Bay for the title of the “biggest night” they’d ever had on tour; guitarist Jimmy Smith, in the same video, recalls a show in Chicago that ended with Philippakis stopping traffic and threatening to behead their merch guy. “The end of There Will Be Blood is pretty close to it.”
In reality, though, the Oxford five-piece haven’t always had the smoothest of experiences in the studio. Their 2008 debut, Antidotes - which now feels very much like the outlier in the catalogue, with its sparse, cold feel and guitar lines sharp enough to cut yourself on - saw them decamp to New York to record with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, only for the band to then scrap his mix - as they put it, it “sounded like it was recorded in the Grand Canyon.” When they followed it up a couple of years later with Total Life Forever, the decision to work in Sweden almost proved disastrous; caught in the middle of what keyboardist Edwin Congreave called “a ridiculously lonely situation” earlier this year, disagreements and an unremitting sense of isolation threatened to derail the sessions.
It wasn’t until Holy Fire that they finally seemed to forge a healthy relationship with the recording process; having written the songs in their tiny space in Oxford - the ‘stinkbox’, as Philippakis calls it - they fleshed them out, and then some, in London, with veteran help on hand from Flood and Alan Moulder behind the desk. The result was the first Foals LP that had them simultaneously at their most belligerent (‘Inhaler’, ‘Providence’) and serene (‘Bad Habit’, ‘Moon’); they’d finally found a way to reconcile both sides of their markedly schizophrenic musical profile.
The ensuing tour duly saw them on the most incendiary live form of their lives - the long-mooted festival headline slots came calling last summer, as they topped the bill at Bestival, among others - and they opted to channel that energy straight into another LP, rather than put the band on the back burner for a while. Accordingly, What Went Down is a record that, as Philippakis explained when we spoke to him last month, accentuates everything Foals did right on Holy Fire; when it’s loud, it’s deafening - as the frankly violent title track can attest - but elsewhere, subtlety and nuance come to the fore on the likes of ‘Night Swimmers’ and ‘London Thunder’. Foals have consistently been heralded as the future of British guitar music; this, presumably, is what it sounds like.
The last show in support of Holy Fire was only last summer; I’m guessing you didn’t take any time off once you were done touring.
We just didn’t feel like we wanted to. We were hungry to write new stuff. We’d already started writing the basis for a few of the songs in soundchecks on tour, so the moment the last show was over, we were straight on to finishing those songs whilst we were still in that headspace; there was no point in sitting back. There was a real feeling of momentum that we wanted to capitalise on, and on top of that, I think there was a frustration that was beginning to bubble up because we were getting tired of playing the same songs every night. There’s definitely been times in the past when we needed a break by the time the tour was over, but we were chomping at the bit this time around.
It definitely helped that the band finished in a good place. There was this feeling of confidence and relative contentment, and we’ve learned to appreciate it when we feel good about how things are going, because we know from experience that it can be such a fragile thing.
The last run of gigs included a lot of high-profile festival slots; was there an energy from the sheer scale of those shows that you were feeding off of, when you went straight back to the studio?
We were definitely feeling ambitious; we had a lot of ideas we wanted to express, and we weren’t really ready to plug back into real life, either. The prospect of immersing ourselves in the studio actually seemed appealing, which was unusual, and coming off the back of playing so many gigs, the mindset was that we didn’t want to make an overly cerebral record. We wanted it to be physical, and we wanted to make it happen quickly. It didn’t seem as if it’d benefit from us spending a long time thinking about it. We wanted to bypass the head, basically.
How fast did the rest of the tracks come together once you’d finished up the handful that originated in soundchecks?
It was fast; I think everything was written between September of last year and this past February, and then we went to the studio in France and stayed there until April. For us, that’s pretty snappy, and I was definitely attracted to the idea of making it as quick-footed a process as we could; I didn’t want to over-analyse anything. I’d have these phone calls to my Dad, and he’d be going “prima vista!” down the phone; there was this real sense of wanting to do something spontaneous and capture that explosive moment of creativity. It just seemed pointless to try to polish or labour over anything afterwards, and hopefully what’s resulted is a record that’s honest, urgent and fresh. It sounds real, I think, and that’s all we really wanted.
What made you go down to the south of France to record? Was it just a case of needing a change of scenery?
Yeah, definitely. We just wanted to get out of Blighty. We’ve made every record in a different place; we did the last one in London, so we knew we weren’t going to do that again. I think we wanted to go and have a more hedonistic experience actually making the album than we ever had before, and we didn’t want to go somewhere oppressive, where the surroundings and environment itself would be an added barrier. We wanted to be in a place where we could open a window and have sunlight flooding in.
I get the impression that there were lessons learned when you went to Gothenburg to record Total Life Forever.
Exactly. There was no way we were going to do something like that again. It seemed like it was important to be in a place where everything felt encouraging, rather than locking ourselves away in the middle of a bleak industrial estate in Sweden in the dead of winter. On top of that - and I’m not ashamed to say this - I think we wanted it to be pretty indulgent, as well. Making a record is hard enough in itself; we were determined to make it as fun as possible, and there was this mentality within the band of, “fuck it, why not?” Why shouldn’t we go down to France and have a good time, and fucking guzzle down booze and go swimming every day?
Plus, it’s definitely a healthy thing to take the songs away from where they were conceived. Everything gets written in this small studio in Oxford, this little stinkbox, and it’s not until you move the songs out of that environment, into somewhere entirely different, that you start to understand how they stand up next to what you’ve done before.
His CV speaks for itself, but why specifically did you choose James Ford to produce?
He’s just incredibly handsome; it was hard to say no. He kept paging me all the time - I made the mistake of giving him my number - and he wouldn’t leave me alone, so in the end, we had to relent.
How did it work out once you got him down to France?
Great. I think we’ve had some fraught relationships with producers in the past, to be honest. We had a pretty damn good time with Flood and Moulder last time, but I don’t think either side wanted to repeat that; both those two and us in the band were afraid of retreading the same process, and that’s partly what led us to Ford. On top of that, he’s just very stable, very focused, and obviously an amazing musician. He didn’t come in with any big sloganeering statements or huge ideas - there was no mission statement. He just wanted to make the songs the best they could be. There’s a really admirable humble quality to the way that James works; it was very much a stress-free time that we had with him.
Do you think you’ll always need somebody in that producer’s role?
Oh, god, yeah. We need an adult in the room, or else it turns into Rugrats on speed, and that’s not a good idea.
This feels like far and away the most diverse record you’ve made. Was that the point?
I’m not sure. We don’t really have parameters in that respect. We’ve never been interested in making an album that has the same palette all the way through; if anything, it’s the opposite. We really enjoy being able to thrash something out in the room at full volume, a hundred and fifty beats a minute, fuzz pedals on max, and then the next day go in late afternoon, just me and Jimmy, and write something that’s stripped back - just vocals and a Rhodes piano.
The fact that there’s never really a pre-prescribed idea of what to do probably means that what we do will always be varied - but it’ll always sound like us. I think there’s a feeling within the band that, basically, we’ll always sound like ourselves as long as we keep the songs coming from the right place, as long as we use our intuition, and as long as we can match the standards that we set for ourselves.
Do you think you have a difficult relationship with pressure?
I think it’s less that, and more that there just shouldn’t ever be any fear in the process; we want to be able to have a broad area for the songs to work in, and we’ve never liked the idea of a record that has eleven tracks with similar structures and the same instrumentation. That’s one of the things that’s kept it exciting for us; Antidotes was a record that was very much written according to a set of rules, and ever since then, it’s been about dismantling those rules, and getting to a place that’s very free, where everything’s unsaid.
The title track has to be the most aggressive thing you’ve ever done, but it’s carried on in the same vein as ‘Inhaler’ and ‘Providence’ from the last album - where did it come from?
There was no overthinking whatsoever - we just wrote it in a room. We recorded it first take, so the energy that’s in the recording is very similar to how we’ll play it live. We didn’t repeat it, rehearse it, or try to work it out. There was something primal about it that James managed to capture; that crackle in the room, that spark. I think you’re probably right; it is the most aggressive thing we’ve ever done, and I don’t think it would have been written had it not been for the way that ‘Providence’ and ‘Inhaler’ came together - or, for that matter, the way they ended up being played live. There was something that happened, during the touring of Holy Fire, where we really started to relish in the chaos and ferocity of certain moments of the set - ‘What Went Down’ feels like the product of that.
Beyond that track, ‘Snake Oil’ is probably the closest thing to ‘Inhaler’ on this record. Do you think you need to be sparing in writing those riff-driven tracks for them to be effective?
I’m just not really interested in doing one thing, so we were never going to put out an album that’s got nothing more to it than big, chunky, caveman riffs. There’s no map. When we go in to write, what happens happens; we’re guided by our instincts, and that’s how we end up with whatever combination of songs it is that forms the record. I like to think that the balance is good on this one, between the ferocious, unchained aspect of our sound on the one hand, and the more delicate, tender and understated side on the other. There’s always going to be a ton of things that we want to do, but the challenge is just about satisfying all of the creative appetite that’s there in its different guises, whilst keeping everything coherent.
You talked in a recent track-by-track for NME of What Went Down being “the record that most closely mimics the sound in our heads.” Has there been frustration in the past when you haven’t been able to do justice to your ideas in the studio?
Yeah, but that’s the challenge. That’s the thing that you chase, that any musician chases; those moments where you surprise yourself in what you’ve managed to write, because it’s something that’s bigger than yourself. You want to get to that point where you feel proud of what you’ve captured on tape, what you’re hearing back through the speakers. There’s sometimes a disparity between those two things, and I’ve definitely felt that before; not on whole albums, necessarily, but definitely on songs that have existed - and sounded better - in the imagination. They make me feel a certain way in their infancy, and then when they’re finished, they sometimes lose their lustre a bit, or collapse into themselves. On this record, partly because of James and partly because we wrote it so quickly, I think we’ve managed to capture and bottle the essence of the songs better than we ever have in the past.
You picked out ‘Lonely Hunter’ in that same piece as having a hip hop vibe to it in its early stages. Is that the first time that particular sound has crept in to your songwriting?
Probably not; I don’t think that track ended up being particularly hip hop-py. I don’t think any of this album is, really. The nearest thing to that in the finished product is that we started using drum machines, so that had an impact on the way in which we came up with the initial groove. You can definitely hear that on ‘Birch Tree’; it’s got a west coast rhythm track, or at least what my idea of a west coast rhythm track is. We’re big hip hop fans, but I don’t think it’s ever been something that we’ve actively looked for influence from.
When you were promoting Holy Fire, I remember you saying - seriously or otherwise - that you thought you could write music forever, but that you might only have one more record’s worth of lyrics in you. Are Foals an instrumental band now, then?
I actually feel like I’ve broken through some kind of wall. I think I could write a lot more, now. On Holy Fire, I was really pushing myself to make the words as direct as I could; I was actively stepping outside of my comfort zone, because in my default setting, I probably write in a way that’s quite obscure, and kind of cryptic.
That’s definitely how it was in the beginning, and as time’s gone on, I feel like I’ve gotten better at writing, and I’ve enjoyed being more open and tangible. From there, I think I’ve become more and more interested in subconscious ways of coming up with lyrics, to make sure there isn’t too much design on them. I don’t really know where they come from, a lot of the time, so it’s difficult to talk about them properly.
Especially on this record, because I don’t actually remember writing a lot of the lyrics; they either came out spontaneously in the room at the same time as the music was being written, or they sprung from things I was thinking about just as I was falling asleep, that I just about managed to write down. In the morning, I’d look at them and be like, “oh, right, that’s what this song should be about.” That was what was fascinating me this time; the lyrics are personal, but they’re still kind of coded. I din’t know if I’ve got the best perspective on it, but they feel that way to me, at least.
Ever since Holy Fire, the talk about you stepping up to headline slots - and maybe even arenas - hasn’t really gone away. Is that something you’re aiming for?
I’m not really sure. I think it’s in my nature to remain pessimistic about things like that, or at least to avoid thinking about them. All I know is that, at the moment, I’m just very eager for the record to come out and for people to hear it, because I feel like I’m walking around with it hanging over me; I need to unburden myself. I hope that people like it, and beyond that, we just want to play as many shows as we can.
I’ve never had a particular desire to become an arena band, because A - where do you go from there? And then, B, I grew up on playing smaller shows and going to see smaller shows. It’s where I’ve always liked to be. I’m not going to be mad about it if it happens, but at the same time, it’s not like we’re sitting here with a fucking abacus, counting down the days. I just want to make music, make art, and play great shows. I don’t really care where they are, as long as there’s people there that we’re genuinely connecting with. I think there’s a healthy amount of blinkering that goes on in the band where we just fixate on that kind of stuff, and I like that; I like that there’s that limit. Thinking can be the enemy when you’re doing something like this, so we’ll just take it as it comes.
What Went Down is available via Warner Bros. on August 28th 2015.