Scene Magazine cover story: ‘Foals’, February 2011

The cover story for issue 881 of Brisbane street press Scene Magazine – an interview with Yannis Phillippakis of Foals. Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

Foals – Lobotimising Consciousness

Oxford-born quintet Foals had a spectacular 2010. In May, they released their second album, ‘Total Life Forever’, which followed their 2008 debut, ‘Antidotes’. They toured the world, including extensive treks through North American and Europe, before playing Australia for the first time as part of the mammoth Splendour In The Grass line-up. Anyone who witnessed their set that weekend would testify it was one of the festival’s best sets.

Over the years, the band’s sound has morphed from a danceable form of math rock, to a more refined style of indie pop best exemplified on ‘Spanish Sahara‘, ‘Total Life Forever’s beautiful centrepiece. Ahead of their appearance at the 2011 Laneway Festival, Scene connected with Foals’ singer, guitarist and lyricist, Yannis Philippakis.

When I compare ‘Total Life Forever’ to what I first heard on ‘Antidotes’ a couple of years ago, the two sound like entirely different bands.

I don’t really like the idea of making albums adversary to each other. I find the whole ranking, hierarchy thing that happens every year repellent. I don’t really have the same perspective on it, obviously, as an externalist, but to us in the band, it’s been a very linear progression. It never really felt like we had a break, even after we finished ‘Antidotes’. I think the production is a hell of a lot more fully realised on ‘Total Life Forever’. I still have a fondness for a lot of the songs on ‘Antidotes’, but I don’t listen to that record largely because of the production. I think that it’s great that people are acknowledging the progression, but to us it is one linear thing. We want to make a body of work. It’s not us trying to eradicate our past, as such.

Was there any self doubt within the band when the band’s style of songwriting started shifting, after ‘Antidotes’?

There’s self doubt every day; it’s part of the game. It’s been there always and unless we write ‘Symphony No. 3’ by Gorecki – which we can’t, because it’s already been written – I don’t think we’re ever going to feel sated or complete. It’s just part of the fun as well, the masochistic element of it. The moment we stopped recording ‘Antidotes’, we started doing b-sides for ‘Antidotes’, it started to change a lot, and there was much more experimentation. We started to implement a lot of the things that we learned from [TV On The Radio guitarist/’Antidotes’ producer] Dave Sitek, and make stuff that I think actually bridges the two albums quite closely.There are some b-sides; one in particular called ‘Gold Gold Gold‘, and another two called ‘Titan Arum‘ and ‘Glaciers‘. That’s what I mean; it felt linear. It didn’t feel like we ever stopped.

When we started the band, it was a very definite and conscious process. We wanted a conscious aesthetic: it was to do with techno, with a style of guitar playing, and with a visual aesthetic. Everything was very conscious, and we wanted to have parameters on it. We were in love with the idea of bands like Devo, who occupied a distinct world. Once we felt like we attained that, everything is now about undoing that process, and getting to a point that’s almost the reverse of that: where nothing is conscious. If I had the choice, I’d have a lobotomy and cut out the conscious part of my mind, so that I could just make music direct from the gut.

You mentioned your style of guitar playing. I’ve always been fascinated by Foals’ needly, palm-muted riffs. Were there any particular artists that inspired that style of playing?

It was just something that we heard. There are a lot of styles of playing stringed instruments; everything from string players in a classical piece, to [math rock] bands like OXES and Don Caballero, and African Senegalese guitar. I think the main thing, at least personally for me, there was something about that way of guitar playing that just attracted me. I was never that fascinated by chords, and I actually neglected to learn how to work chord sequences and stuff. Instead, everything became about these ‘guitar tattoos’. I heard a lot of different types of music and different types of bands; I wanted to cannibalise [them] and make it our own. We start playing stuff lower down the guitar. We play with chords sometimes now, but I think that will always be part of the sound because that is just the way that I play, naturally. It’s become muscle memory, now.

It’s certainly one of the band’s most distinctive elements. Did you always intend that to be the case, or did it arise when you started playing together?

Yeah, it’s always been there, it pre-dates the band. It’s how I learned how to play the guitar. I used to mimic and ape the guitar lines I liked, and they usually were like staccato, tight little phrases. That’s how I liked it. As I said, I was never really attracted to chords, or distortion pedals. I like the idea of a transparent guitar sound; a guitar sound that’s unashamed to be a clean guitar. I think that you can get as much power out of a clean guitar as you can out of a distorted guitar.

Foals play Laneway Festival, at Alexandria St off St Paul’s Terrace, this Friday February 4.

For more Foals, visit their website. For the full transcript of my conversation with Yannis, click here.. The music video for Foals’ song ‘Miami‘ is embedded below.

Elsewhere: a review of their 2010 album, Total Life Forever, for The Vine.

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