Interview: Foals

Our March edition cover stars FOALS are live in Birmingham tonight. David Vincent caught up with them ahead of the show…

While Foals’ second album was (if the stories are to be believed) fuelled by weed, the Oxford band’s third long-player Holy Fire, it transpires, has been shaped by a very different substance.

“There was a lot of red wine drunk for this record,” laughs bassist Walter Gervers. “When we were working in Oxford, we’d be very good for most of the day, then Yannis or Jimmy would crack open the red wine.

Late Night is definitely a product of a long evening with a couple of bottles of Shiraz…”

The wine seems to have done the trick as the 11-track LP has shaped up to be the band’s most successful to date, crashing into the album charts at a far-from-shoddy number two, missing out on the top spot by just 1,000 copies.

“It was pretty encouraging, none of that stuff really got thought about,” says Walter on the news that they’d been kept off pole position by the Les Miserables soundtrack. “We just weren’t thinking about the chart, we were just thinking about getting the record out… but we were really, really pleased. We were pleased people still wanted to listen to us.

“And to be beaten by the Les Mis soundtrack… that’s okay. Although the amount of times I’ve heard people say: ‘Les Mis?’ Urgh!”

So, no Les Mis DVD on the birthday or Christmas wish-list then? “No.”

We were pleased people still wanted to listen to us.

Combining elements of math rock, indie, post-punk, dance and Afrobeat, Foals’ debut album, 2008’s Antidotes, debuted at number three, firmly establishing vocalist Yannis Philippakis, guitarist Jimmy Smith, percussionist Jack Bevan, keyboard player Edwin Congreave, and Walter as Oxford’s second greatest musical export – a fact confirmed by 2010’s Mercury Prize- nominated Total Life Forever.

Having earned a solid run of ‘Best Album Of The Year’ mentions, it at first seemed that Total Life Forever was going to be hard to beat, especially as initial sessions for Holy Fire proved less than fiery.

“We did begin demoing it in Australia,” reports Walter. “That was in the very, very early stages. We went out to do a festival, Laneway, and decided we’d go out much earlier to see our friend Jono Ma, who is in [Aussie band] Lost Valentinos. It was really an excuse to just hang out in Australia, to get some bits ‘n’ bobs done. But nothing really came of what we did there, there’s nothing of it left on the album. But it was nice to get into the studio and there was just no pressure. After that, we needed to get back to Oxford to really start writing and recording, back to our base camp.”

With material slowly coming together in the UK, the combo called on the services of heavyweight producers Flood and Alan Moulder, whose former employers as indi- viduals and a duo include the likes of The Killers, U2, New Order, Brian Eno, Editors, PJ Harvey, Moby and The Cure.

“They’re the top boys of production!” reckons Walter. “We’re all big fans of their work, both as individuals and together, especially The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and things like Nine Inch Nails. Flood’s also done a lot of industrial stuff. They have this amazing back catalogue. Years ago, we would have never even thought it possible to work with them, but now… it’s a possibility.

“With Total Life Forever, Alan mixed that, so we had a relationship. We learnt a lot working with them and everyone was on the same wavelength. We really honed tracks down, because we had a lot of material to start with, and they were a joy to work with. They came to Oxford to see us rehearse, and Yannis sent them loops and samples, so when we did get into the studio, we already had a good relationship, and that had a good effect on the process.”

Inspired by the landscape, iconography, voodoo, the swamp, sex, Curtis Mayfield and a few decent bottles of vino, Holy Fire arguably finds a more direct and streamlined Foals, which some have described as ‘poppier.’

“I think that’s fair enough,” Walter says. “I think that particu- larly on this record, it’s about something we’ve learned to do. We didn’t want to overcrowd the songs sonically, didn’t want to crowd the arrangements. With the more poppier songs, it’s about us being more confident, we allow the song to be what it is, not force it, or make it more ‘Foalsy’. We’d get the essence of the songs in rehearsal, and then allow the songs to be like that, so they’re not socially cluttered.”

Does that mean the band now view their previous releases as somewhat overcrowded?

“When you finish working on something you’re in love with it for a bit, then you look back and are more critical, you think you could have done something differently, but they – Antidotes, Total Life Forever – captured a period in time. It’s like doing a painting, you have to know when to stop, when it’s finished. With Total Life Forever… we perhaps overworked things a bit in the past, but we’ve only made three albums and we want to make more.

“Over the last two years, we’ve become more experienced, when we go back into a studio we’re more experienced and confident, we’ve grown up a lot, and Holy Fire is a product of that.”

With the album sorted, next comes the obligatory UK tour, which includes two shows at the Royal Albert Hall, the iconic venue built by Queen Victoria in South Kensington, and home to The Proms. Yet despite punters’ clear enthusiasm for the band – the tour has long sold out – Walter confesses to some nerves.

“It’s quite scary when you haven’t really toured for a while,” he says. “We were excited… it’s about time we toured. The Royal Albert Hall is something we’re only now starting to look forward to, but we’re still very, very nervous. We were doing one show there… then two shows. We thought, ‘this is not achievable’. “It’s not a big room, but the heritage of it, there’s nothing else like it. Playing there is a really amazing thing to tick off the list, if we can get through it,” he says, adding the early start means more time for pre-gig nerves.

“Because we’re doing a matinee and an evening show, I think the soundcheck has to be at 9.30am, which is detrimental to the show as by the time we get on later… we’ll be hearing it through plenty of vodka.”

Foals are live at The Institute, Birmingham, on March 6. Third album Holy Fire is out now. New single Late Night is released on April 22. 

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