Oxford’s Foals deservedly made a name for themselves quickly after forming in 2006. But while their 2008 debut, Antidotes, was an invigorated rush of herky-jerky post-punk that saw the band surpassing their British brethren by updating the playbook of luminaries like Gang of Four, Foals have again defied the expectations of the listening public both at home and abroad with their second album, Total Life Forever. On the new record, the band eschews the skree of their past for majestic pop sounds which, while retaining the group’s knack for mixing a sense of adventure with pop instincts, show them happening upon a whole new world of possibilities. The record swings between such extremes as the roguish electro-funk of “Miami” and the apex of the epically insular “Spanish Sahara,” a song which should have Thom Yorke sweating bullets for its bettering of his stock-in-trade. While the distance between the two albums seems more than the band could have possibly travelled in two short years, Total Life might best be explained as everything Antidotes was and much, much more.
And while their success is more widespread back in England (they were nominated for a Mercury Prize this year for Total Life, and probably should have won when one considers who did walk home with the prize), when I caught up with singer and guitarist Yannis Philippakis a few weeks ago, Foals were enjoying a string of soldout concerts in the U.S.
It seems like you have a bit more popularity in the UK than in the States. Is it weird for you to come here and play to smaller audiences?
Yannis Philippakis: No, not at all. This tour has been really great. It’s definitely smaller shows than what we play in the UK, but that’s where we come from. We enjoy smaller shows sometimes because the energy translates better. This tour particularly has been absolutely crazy. Pretty much every show has been sold out, and it’s been a real surprise for us how good it’s been.
Crazy in the sense of being sold out or anything in particular?
YP: The actual energy at the shows. Yesterday in LA there was a whole bunch of stagediving and there was a stage invasion in New York. A lot of places that we played in 2008 that were dead—or not even not dead, but a much more pacified crowd—the crowds are far more feral this time around, and more interestingly, a more diverse crowd, and in a way a much more diverse crowd that we play to in Europe. It doesn’t seem to just be the kids we were playing to in 2008. It seems like there’s a broader appeal to it now.
Do you think that’s the result of the record being a bit different than the last?
YP: Probably, I don’t really know. It would just be conjecture. The record is different, so it might be.
You’ve expressed the belief that Western culture is beyond redemption, so with that being the case, what motivates you to add to it by making music?
YP: I don’t think I’ve ever said that it’s beyond redemption. I just said that it’s past a peak, or a supposed peak. It’s not even a real peak necessarily, but in terms of the psychology of it, it feels like it’s something that’s worse off than it was before or which has had some sort of entropy set in. I don’t know that redemption is really the issue.
And why would I make music? It’s got nothing to do with the Western sociopolitical climate, does it? I mean, I make music for personal reasons and to communicate. It’s not like language is dead.
I guess I took “culture” to mean the whole of culture.
YP: No, I think a lot of art—Western art or whatever—is in a more exciting time than ever. I meant more in terms of a psychology and a landscape and a physical degeneration. I didn’t mean culturally as in music or literature or art.
Given the title of the last record, Antidotes, was that set up to be an antidote to an ailing music scene?
YP: No, not really. It was a different time, and I didn’t have the same feelings when we made that record. I’m struggling to even remember now what the original idea behind that was. I think it just had to do with there being a preoccupation with health and viruses and toxins, and it felt like the process of writing the record was an antidote to various things. Actually, in a localized way in regard to Oxford, when we were writing that record, we felt like it was in opposition to the kind of music that we had been involved with and of which we had become the mainstay in our local area. But it wasn’t a direct thrust, it was probably just because we liked the word and it tied it all together. I’d be wary of reading too much into it, though.
For this new record, you moved in together to make it...
YP: We lived together sporadically before, but yeah.
Did you feel like that was more productive? Did it get claustrophobic at all?
YP:Yeah, it definitely got a bit claustrophobic, and we’ve moved out of that house, but not for that reason. But I think in a way, it was us trying to keep the real life or the more pedestrian aspects of adult life at bay. It was almost like a boyhood treehouse enclave of a group of friends. It wasn’t just us; there were some other musicians that we had grown up with. It was like a little fortress away from what we thought in theory would disrupt the creative process and the unpleasantness that can seep in when you finish touring. It was also a pre-emptive defense mechanism against the problem of the second record. For me, it was one of the most enjoyable times. I had a really great time in that house. It was never intended to be a long term thing; it was to write for that year. I am glad that it’s over, though, because it started to get messy and kind of disgusting after a few months.
You didn’t have someone coming in to clean up after you?
YP: No. We moved out of there like eight months ago, and the landlady is still trying to extract money from us for stuff she keeps coming across, like carpet beetle infestation and all sorts of things that I didn’t even know could happen. But yeah, it was great and really productive. The process of making the record felt quite pure. Often, it didn’t even feel like we were working toward anything specific, and I think that was a nice way to keep the industrial process of being in band—or the more carnivorous aspect of that—at bay. It felt like we were 15 again and were just living with our friends and making music.
But when it came to actually recording it you went to Gothenburg, and for the previous record, you had come to New York. Do you feel that it helps to go someplace foreign or alien to make a record?
YP: Yeah, I think so. I don’t find the idea of making a record anywhere near home at all appealing. It’s partly because it needs to feel like an adventure and there needs to be a solidarity in the band where you’re all going away on a mission. It allows it to be a much more immersive experience if you don’t have your girlfriend calling you all the time or have to worry about bills or laundry—whatever stuff is there when you are at home. By extracting that, it allows the process to get “Apocalypse Now” if you want it to, which is what we want it to be like. We lived in the studio as well, which helped add to it. It’s important to lose consciousness to an extent, or have a loss of self in some way, so that you have one singular purpose and that’s to be a vessel for music for a period of time. Then you can go back and worry about the fact that you haven’t watered your sunflowers or spoken to your mum or whatever.
It sounds like the process of making music for Foals is fairly collaborative then.
YP: Yeah, it’s very collaborative. The only thing that isn’t collaborative is the lyrics, but for the music, we work as a unit. We all have different tastes and different opinions, and I don’t think the band could function without it being the five of us.
I know that the title of the new record comes from a book about artificial intelligence (Raymond Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near), but is it meant to have a positive connotation?
YP: There’s some misinformation about that. It isn’t actually a phrase from that book. I was reading the book when we were making the record, and there are lyrical references to it, but it’s just a statement. It’s meant to be ambivalent, and to me, it felt like it had that willful abandon, like carpe diem, “this is the spring of our lives,” youthful energy to it. But it was also meant to harbor to many opposites within the phrase, because that’s how we feel. We feel kind of muddled about it, the idea of our passing and aging and immortality. On a more superficial level, I got quite into advertising and certain spiritual slogans and the way they employ these big, broad and almost empty huge words that are somehow powerful nonetheless. It felt like a combination of those sorts of words and bold.
Do you view the record at all as being conceptual?
YP: No, not really. There are definitely threads that run through the whole thing that are harmonious with each other, but it’s too scattershot and haphazard. It’s definitely not a plotted thing, but I can see how this stuff fits together. Even if it’s just for me and doesn’t come across to the listener, I like it when there are reoccurring motifs and that extends from the visual artwork to references in the lyrics. One thing that Luke (Smith), the producer, pushed us to do was to have a relationship between the lyrics and the sonics at certain points for dramatic effects. In “Alabaster,” there are some lyrics about fire, and Luke pushed us to try to make sounds that were sizzling or that would have a heat to them.
Did you have specific ideas of how you wanted this album to be different from the last one going into it?
YP: There were some things we wanted to achieve. For me, with the lyrics, I wanted there to be more communication. I really just wanted to spend more time on the lyrics. The band was started as a dance band, and I wasn’t even the singer in the beginning. I didn’t have a mic at the beginning and I was competing with instruments. So on a lot of the tracks on Antidotes, there was very little active conscious endeavor to writing the lyrics. When it came to Total Life, I wanted that to be something. When the band started, it was quite a dissonant thing. We had a set of aesthetic rules, and as we were touring, we started dismantling those rules to have more space. We felt like with the first record—which may be one of its merits—it’s all on a certain dimension. We wanted to add a different dimension with this record. That’s not to say that where we are now is where we feel content. We always want the music to progress and allow it to be intuitive and just make the music we feel like we should be making at the time. Where the third record will go—if there is a third record—could be anywhere. I don’t know, we’re listening to a lot of Cyndi Lauper right now, so we’ll see.