“This record is more streamlined, you shouldn’t burden an album with every idea you’ve ever had” - hmv.com talks to Foals
From their 2008 debut Antidotes to 2010’s Total Life Forever to 2013’s Holy Fire, each album Oxford fivesome Foals have put out has come with more ambition, more massive choruses and more beautiful soundscapes than the last one. They’ve moved from clubs to headlining festivals and from cult band to household name, and, with their new album What Went Down, they look all set to take things a step further.
To record their fourth album the band decamped to the South of France and locked themselves away with producer James Ford, the man behind the controls on Arctic Monkeys’ AM and Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind, who helped harness the band’s ferocious live sound into this new LP.
What Went Down, like the Foals’ albums that have gone before it, is a very ambitious record, there are moments of colossal heaviness, splashes of serene beauty and choruses that will sit inside your ears for days and days.
The album is released today (August 28th) and is available to preview and purchase on the right-hand side of the page and we sat down with frontman Yannis Philippakis to talk about working why this album came together very quickly, what James Ford brought to the process and why the record was inspired by dreams and nightmares...
Your new album’s out today! How long have you had it ready for?
“We finished recording in mid-April then it took about another month to get ready after that, so it’s been done for a little while. I’ve been eager to get it out.”
How did that compare to last time round? Was the process shorter?
“Far shorter. We started writing bits on tour and then we finished our tour with a big show at Bestival last September, then we wrote from mid-September until February, then recorded from February to April, so it’s been pretty quick.”
That sounds scarily like everything went to plan…
“It did in a way, it’s been the most fluid, connected, writing process for us. The time was right and the mood in the room was good, it flowed and we didn’t question it. James was the right choice as producer, he was really focused and really encouraging, everything has gone scarily to plan.”
You went straight back into writing after a year on tour, did you not need any time to decompress?
“We want to feel compressed. We wanted to feed off the energy and the heightened momentum you get when you’re on tour. We took that into the room and we had a couple of songs sketched out and we used them as bait to get back to work. We were getting on really well and we felt confident, we didn’t need a break, it’s not that we never need a break, we have done before, but not this time.”
How much did you have written when you came off tour?
“We only really had the seeds of a few songs, a riff, a melody, a beat, we got sick of sound checking so we just used to get onstage and jam before gigs. So we had the sketches for two or three songs.”
You recorded the album in La Fabrique, which is in the South of France, why did you decide to go there? Did you know much about it before you went?
“We hadn’t been there before, we knew Nick Cave had recorded there and we’d seen pictures of it, it looked great and we thought getting out of England and getting somewhere new was important. It’s a big place with loads of different rooms you could manipulate and use in different ways, it was a really liberating place to record. We lived at the studio and we were quite isolated, which is what we wanted, we wanted to be left alone. We like to be able to just focus on an album when we’re making it. We like to get lost in it.”
You worked with James Ford, who’s worked on a lot of different albums, including some very big pop records…
“I think that’s to his credit. He’s very versatile, he’s one of the only producers out there who understands the club, the mosh pit and the charts. Having that breadth of understanding really helped the record, it encouraged diversity in the album, the album has heavy songs and pop songs and tender songs, the scope of the record is something he encouraged.”
You’re quite self-sufficient as a band, what do you need from a producer?
“We need an adult in the room to tell us when to put down the rattle and when to stop bickering. We need a sounding board and someone with the technical ability to capture things in the way we want, we know what we want, but we need someone to help get us there. Also an editor because we’ll quite often make six or seven demos of the same song, each presented different, we’re good at creating, but it’s a very different skill making things coherent.”
Did you have a lot recorded before you went into the studio?
“We had 19 songs, we recorded 14 and we chopped four from the final record, but we had about 60 to 70 raw ideas, some of those got collapsed into each other, some get lost forever, while we work I obsessively record things on my phone and then pick out idea from there. Sometimes they’re mistakes that can lead to something else entirely.”
How do you find the process of picking what songs make it and which don’t?
“I’ve had to learn to get better at it. I have a tendency to hoard ideas and keep everything on the boil. I don’t like saying no to things and commit early on to what a song should be. Part of being a musician and getting older is coming to terms with all the ideas that don’t materialize and don’t even get heard. Me and Jimmy (Smith, guitarist) always have lots left over and they’ll never come to fruition, it’s weird, it’s haunting, you’re always left with a question mark. But you realise that Foals is one project and part of the reason I think this record is more streamlined is because we’ve understood that you shouldn’t try and burden an album with every idea you’ve ever had, you’ve got to be more zen about it.”
What kind of record is it lyrically? Does it have a unifying concept?
“I don’t think there’s one unifying concept, I wasn’t really interested in doing that. I wanted the album to be free, I didn’t want to have a map for where it was going to end up, you sacrifice a unifying concept, there are repeating themes and it’s a personal record. I always feel a bit nervous talking about lyrics.”
Do you like them to be open-ended? So people can take what they want from them?
“I feel like they are about definitive things, I think it’s good if people can take different things from them, but it’s not gobbledegook, I feel like bands are too quick to say ‘Take from us what you will’, I like it when the interpretation is the one that I have, because the song’s done what it’s meant to.”
How do you write? Do you sit down and concentrate? Or are you scribbling all the time?
“It’s both. I write all the time in my journal, I write prosaic things about what’s going on and then it can go off into space a little bit, sometimes that’s where I get songs. With this record it got tangled up in my sleep pattern, I have trouble sleeping and I’d wake up at night and be in that weird state of consciousness and I’d write down what I was thinking. The songs are quite dreamlike and nightmarish, a lot of the symbols in the songs are dream-like and a lot of the lyrics came from those moments, so I can’t directly remember writing them, it’s an odd state.”
Being on tour can’t be all that good for your sleep pattern, can you trace songs back to the places they were written?
“There’s a song called ‘London Thunder’ which deals directly with the idea of being absent and always being in departure lounges, the idea of not being able to put roots in anywhere. When I was younger I didn’t care so much about where I was, but on the last tour in particular I really felt like I was treading heavier, I wanted to put an anchor down, I wanted to stay somewhere, that song deals with being away and how when you come home your is never the same. The idea of home and belonging is recurrent in quite a lot of our songs.”
Are you excited to get out and play these songs live?
“I’m more excited than ever. We wanted to keep the record lean, not with the live show in mind, but it makes playing them live easier and we’re playing as well as we’ve ever played live. We’re going to lay waste to some venues round the world.”
Do you think you’ll lean heavily on the new material for your live set? Or will it be an even split between your records?
“There are songs from the old days that we will always play, they’re the ones that repeatedly reward and never get tired. There are elements of Total Life Forever that are very hard to translate live, there’s this song ‘Black Gold’ and I’d like to play it but it’s just a b***h to play. It’ll be a good mix of everything.”
Are you nerdy about set lists?
“I’m not, the other guys are, I tend to leave that to them, but I relish being able to change gear and dynamic in a live set, moving up and down, I like going from ‘My Number’ down to ‘Spanish Sahara’, the range in the set is really good and we’ve got even bigger extremes now with these new songs.”
How much touring do you have lined up?
“Once the record drops we’ll be touring heavily. We won’t start off massive, we’ll start small again and then build up. I’ve no real desire to become an arena band, I’m pretty content with where we are, I don’t want to lose energy from playing those venues where you can’t help it.”
Have you noticed your crowds changing?
“Only in the sense that its a wider spread of people, when we started it felt quite niche and indie, it’s a lot more diverse now. We’re fortunate I think with our fanbase, they don’t hold us to task for progressing, people have come along with us. I never wanted us to be a cult band, I definitely like the idea of the songs communicating universally.”
Finally, where did the album title come from?
“I had a bunch of ideas for the album title, it was difficult to pick one this time. Nothing I came up with summed up the album, but ‘What Went Down’ was sat under my nose. I feel like this album is a postcard or a coordinate of where we’ve been over the past two years, moments in time, so it’s like the record is what went down over that period of time.”
Foals’ new album What Went Down is out now. The band will be meeting fans and signing copies of their new album on Wednesday (September 2nd) at hmv 363 Oxford Street. Click here to find out more details.