Despite being one of the most hotly tipped bands of the year, Foals are reluctant idols. Camilla Pia finds out why
From blogosphere sweethearts to daytime radio fodder, Foals’ recent rise to fame has been meteoric. With Antidotes, they have easily made one of the albums of 2008, and the famously energetic outfit are about to embark on a run of totally sold out UK shows at some of the biggest venues they have ever played (tickets priced at £9 for March’s QMU gig in Glasgow were going for £60 on eBay last week). Some critics have even made musical comparisons with Radiohead, and while the weight of expectation clearly lies heavily on their shoulders, it is undoubtedly an exciting time for this band.
We catch up with Yannis Philippakis in Seattle, on a jaunt to meet with new Stateside label Sub Pop following some packed-to-bursting shows in New York, and he is markedly different from the talkative young musician we interviewed in August last year. Back then, the talented 21-year-old was brimming with ideas, discussing the state of pop and detailing grand aspirations for the Oxford-based fivesome’s future. He chatted passionately for over an hour about working on the debut record with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, ranted about the shallowness of contemporary culture and in particular London metropolitan-centric white boy indie, and waxed eloquent about Timbaland, Alan Lomax’s Field Recordings and afrobeat. It was the kind of interview that inspires you to pick up an instrument and start dreaming. Today, however, he is noticeably reticent, possibly due in part to jet lag and a gruelling schedule of interviews which have left him physically spent.
‘We made the record that we wanted to make and hopefully people will like it,’ he says matter of factly. ‘Commercially, I don’t know how it will do and to be honest we don’t care. The people who matter to us seem to like it and we are proud of it so we don’t think about the other side of it too much.’ A lot has been made of the band’s decision not to use producer Sitek’s final mix of the album, and when we ask Philippakis about the subsequent music press attention he becomes exasperated. ‘He is one of the great American producers. As time goes on he will have a historical relevance, and there are very few around now that you can say that about so it’s a bit annoying when people say that he fucked up,’ he sighs. ‘We just didn’t use his version, that’s all, and we didn’t expect this reaction to it.’
So let’s allow the music to speak for itself. Antidotes is a triumph, and with its intoxicating, cleverly constructed mix of intricate polyrhythms, haunting brass sections, juddering basslines, fizzing guitars played high on the fret board and beautiful melodies, it sticks out a mile from anything being made by the band’s peers. For anyone well versed in the works of Fela Kuti, Fugazi, Battles and Steve Reich it may not be wholly original, but the way Foals combine these more serious influences with unabashed pop sensibilities formed from a love of Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado is completely new. The band performed at Ibiza Rocks and appeared on Channel 4 teen drama Skins as well as wooing the underground by playing house parties up and down the country. At times it is hard to believe that such a tightly-knit and adept group of musicians got together (from the ashes of math rock act The Edmund Fitzgerald) less than two years ago.
The debut’s lyrics are also strikingly different from many of Foals’ contemporaries: they are fragmented, poetic and full of imagery. ‘Basically, when we write it’s intuitive,’ says Philippakis, ‘but I tried to make it so that when you listen to the record on headphones my voice enters your head for 45 minutes and words cover the inside of your skull with images. The lyrics are taken from ten years worth of journals and I like the idea of them making the record quite cinematic and photographic.’
These musical innovations will ensure the band continue to grace magazine covers for most of 2008. So is the frontman ever worried about how he comes across in interviews? ‘Yes, of course. We live inside our own heads so much that we forget people are actually listening to what we’re saying and then we end up in trouble.’
During our interview last year, Philippakis described how he felt alienated from the current crop of indie acts, laying into ‘pouting bands in their winklepickers and fucking hoxton hairdos’ and swearing never to ‘jam with Jack Penate’. Yet when questioned about whether he still feels like this he responds strongly: ‘Look, I never went to rock school and learned how to do interviews so I am bound to say stuff that people don’t like. You say things flippantly and all of a sudden someone takes it to heart and everyone is discussing it . . . it’s weird. When we first started out we were naive and talked to journalists as if we were chatting to friends and I’ve learned to stop doing that. I am more reserved now, even though none of my opinions have changed.’
While Antidotes is an astounding first offering, Foals make it difficult to love them. Hype has made them cagey, the protective barriers they’ve thrown up keeping both critics and fans at bay, and as The Libertines, Cribs and Dev Hynes (Test Icicles/Lightspeed Champion) have shown, openness breeds absolute devotion. One thing we can rely on, though, is that this bunch will keep things interesting musically. Philippakis tells me he recently bid on eBay for a musical saw.
His downbeat mood lifts when I ask what is next for the quintet: ‘For the forthcoming tour we plan to play some songs we have never done live before, which is exciting, but basically, it’s just really important to challenge ourselves, learn new instruments and really do something different every time,’ he adds.
‘The second record will probably still be predominantly guitar-based but we plan to experiment with it a lot. We just bought a load of old samplers . . .’ Reluctant idols Foals may be, but musically they will be the band to beat this year.
QMU, Glasgow, Mon 10 Mar. Antidotes is released Mon 24 Mar on Transgressive records.