“The band’s always been in this bipolar state,” says Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis, “of wanting to have its cake and eat it. We’re making what we feel is pop music, but on our own terms—we want it to feel fresh and not pandering to something.”
On their 2008 debut, Antidotes, Foals were crowned the unlikely art-school-freak kings of indie rock: blending math-rock guitar pyrotechnics with percussive gymnastics and Afro-pop horns, Philippakis spewing fractured lyrical abstractions over the hypnotic din. With 2010’s Total Life Forever, they deepened and expanded their palette, smoothing out their spazzy, show-off edges and adding a broader emotional grandeur. The Oxford-based quintet’s sound has certainly grown warmer and more accessible with age: On their new album, Holy Fire, they finally sound at ease with being normal human beings, no longer hiding their emotions behind abstraction and musical layers. They’ve entered a more raw, unguarded space—less bipolar than universal.
“It was more governed by instinctual feeling than the previous two records,” Philippakis says, “so we kind of just followed our internal compass. When we finished touring Total Life, we knew the boundaries of the songs of what we’d written to prior. We played all the songs 100 times on both records, and we understood where we wanted to go to: We wanted to have a record that had more girth and heft to it and also captured the intensity of our live shows. And we didn’t feel like we’d done that before.”
After their final burst of Total Life touring, the band nestled into an Oxford house with an adjacent studio, where they jammed and wrote with a newfound spark of spontaneity, channeling the muscle and passion of soul and funk music. “It was totally free,” he continues. “We had keys to [the studio], so we could write all night. Sometimes it’d be all five of us, sometimes it’d be a couple of us. It was a very fluid process, and it wasn’t very regimented.”
But, as Philippakis notes, Foals “needed an adult in the room.” The band earned a reputation early on for being hard-headed and rebellious with producers (They famously rejected a reverb-heavy mix of Antidotes from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek), but the problem for Foals has been finding the right collaborator—one who can humanize and color their sound instead of obscure it. On Holy Fire, they found two: Flood and Alan Moulder, one of the most reputable production duos in the history of pop music.
“We were obviously fans,” Philippakis says. “We were of that age—we grew up listening to The Downward Spiral and Mellon Collie and stuff like that, and Depeche Mode. Alan mixed our last record, Total Life Forever, and I sat in on the mixing session, and we were really happy with the mix, so sonically, we felt like he’d be a good person to work with, and it just kind of came about that Flood was interested too. We just got a call that they were interested in doing a co-production—which we felt was a real coup because they’ve only done that three times before. It was really flattering.”
Though the band met with other producers (“We were even joking about working with Pharrell Williams,” Philippakis laughs), they felt immediately secure with Flood and Moulder, who helped shape the new material during liberating sessions in North London. “It just felt right—it felt like the ambitions were right. Again, it was just governed by a gut feeling.”
“What appealed to us is their ability to make records that are greedy in a way,” Philippakis continues. “They’re often left-field records that have an experimental ambition, not pandering to current trends. They make records that feel timeless, and they never sacrifice their artistic integrity. But they also have the ability to sound big and have the ability to communicate to a lot of people.”
And Holy Fire is all of those things at once: It’s their biggest-sounding album, and also their most accessible.
“My Number,” an indie-funk show-stopper representative of the band’s spontaneous synchronicity, “came together in a matter of hours in the room.” It’s the purest pop song Foals have ever written: “It just came, basically, and then we had it, and we were all just kind of smiling because it felt really good and joyful and playful, and it had this swagger to it that we liked.”
Then there’s “Late Night,” in which Philippakis moans, voice cracking with intensity, over a sexy, midnight-funk pulse. “It felt like we were chasing something,” he says. “We were trying to evoke a speakeasy, a dive bar, late at night, smoky…an alcoholic drowning their sorrows. But start it there and take it somewhere you’d never expect. I also like the way that it’s kind of a classic soul song with everything turned inside-out. Everything feels like it’s being rearranged, like a Rubik’s Cube that’s gotten permanently jarred in the wrong position.”
“We had the basic shape and just experimented, putting different things on and subtracting,” he continues. “Just a process of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ until we felt like it was doing the right thing. It’s basically, the core of it, is one take in the studio, and we didn’t edit out the imperfections. It’s kind of indicative of the record in a way because we’re not ticking off boxes on the road to perfection. It’s just all to do with shutting your eyes and not looking at the computer, just feeling what you’re hearing.”
Flood and Moulder have certainly added textural drama to the songs, but the real revelation is Philippakis, who—for the first time—truly sounds comfortable in his role as a frontman, singing with hair-raising intensity.
“I would agree to some of that,” he says. “I just learned to be more comfortable with using my voice as an instrument. When the band started playing house parties, we played without any PA, and it was about a very simple thing. There wasn’t any secondary meaning to it, and no conscious thought behind it. I wasn’t even a singer, and I didn’t even want to be one, to be honest. But I just kind of got more into it.”
He’s also no longer hiding behind lyrical fussiness. Over the art-metal surge of lead single “Inhaler,” he’s charmingly up-front: “I’m pale and coy, a mama’s boy,” he sings, “I shimmy-shake, I wake and bake.” Between emphatic “whoo-ooh”s on “My Number,” he writes an ode to self-empowerment: “You don’t have my number; we don’t need each other now / We don’t need the city, the creed, or the culture now.”
“I kind of felt like the lyrics on the first record were so abstract, and I was like scared of meaning and of…having naked meaning,” he says. “I wanted it to be obscured on the first record. But I got bored with that. In a way, it was conscious because I’ve wanted to write lyrics for a while now that are sincere and make me feel uncomfortable. If I felt too comfortable or I felt like I was too hidden or too protected by the words and made a barrier with the words, I would consciously break that down and make it even simpler and more poignant and more raw so that I would squirm, basically.”
“I wanted to feel like, if anything, I was treading too close to being too earnest and than too clever or too arch or knowing about it,” he continues. “I also like the idea of having words…I like words that can appeal to everybody. I want the lyrics and the songs to be played like after you just buried your grandmother or if you’re just about to go out on a night out. I want it to have a utility to it, and I feel they should have a functionality and connection to real life. I find abstraction in pop music—I think, if it’s done right, it’s great. Maybe on the next record, I won’t feel this way, and I’ll want to do something that’s more imagistic. But this time, I felt like I wanted to provide some solace or escape that music can be a medium for.”
Foals may have achieved a universal breakthrough with Holy Fire, but Philippakis is less romantic and more practical when he takes stock of his band’s future.
“I think the band’s just mutated in other ways,” he says. “Each record’s like a new station. It’s like doing new things on each record. We don’t want to tap into one thing for too long. We’re restless.”