Foals' kinetic live shows have anchored the Oxford band artistically, as aptly described by the title of the quintet's powerful third album, Holy Fire. There's an emotional grandeur and confidence to the new album, reflecting Foals' determination to forge fresh paths, unsettling old habits.
The band is on a lengthy North American tour and returns to New York for the Governor's Ball Music Festival on June 9. They'll also play a busy festival season, including Glastonbury, Latitude and Fuji Rock, this summer.
A few weeks ago Foals did a session for The Alternate Side and frontman Yannis Philippakis discussed the unusual recording of the album, which involved the boiling of bones and broken microphones.
Below, watch Foals play two songs from Holy Fire, read highlights of Philippakis' interview, and listen to the entire session when it airs this Friday, May 31, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m., also streaming online:
Russ Borris: How are you today?
Yannis Phillippakis: I’m pretty good! It’s good to be in New York. We’ve been touring around the country and stuff and we’ve just been in the wilds of Louisiana so it’s nice to be somewhere with paving on the streets.
Russ: Less swampy! New record is called Holy Fire. The new record represents the constant evolution of the band. What was different about the recording process?
Yannis: I think the psychology of the band was slightly different. We felt more confident making this record. We didn’t feel like we had as much to prove in certain ways as we did with the start of the band. We had a real hunger to liberate ourselves from feeling like we needed to make a certain kind of album or have an album that was cohesive. We wanted to make a record that was as diverse as possible yet still sounding like us. We pushed out all of the boundaries and perimeters. We tried to push them away and make something that was more governed by intuition. We’d write stuff on a gut feeling. If we felt good about something, we rolled with it. We wouldn’t analyze it or discuss it very much.
Russ: Did you used to overthink the record?
Yannis: Yeah, I think so. Definitely. It was a natural thing to do, just because of who we are. We can be a little bit neurotic and we also really care about everything we make. We definitey used to wormhole a little bit and we realized that it became counterproductive. You’d destroy everything that you make. You’d make something and then feel dissatisfied. We tried to recraft it into something that would give us fulfillment. The fact that we’re older now; we realized that it doesn’t need to be like that. We can open a window, now and then, and let things breathe. Take a walk. Not place so much value on everything. We overpressured the whole thing in the past. Some of that is necessary. You have to suffer a bit for your art. But when it becomes counterproductive, you have to know when to press the “off” switch.
Russ: I think you did vary things up. The album feels diverse in a lot of ways; it feels bigger, a little grander, even a little edgier, like “Inhaler.” Or in “Providence,” which sounds a little gospel.
Yannis: That song is definitely a weird one. It was a Frankenstein of various things that came together. I don’t know where the gospel line came from. I’d been listening to some gospel and stuff, but it just seemed to fit over the track. We went to record it in London — the opening bit of vocal is just the live take of it in the room, recorded through a shoddy mic. I had a broken mic I was singing into and it would be feeding back into an old, broken amp in the room … as well as having a proper, clean take. We just decided to use the lo-fi version of it because it felt more like those old Alan Lomax recordings.
Russ: That must be fun to stumble across things in the recording process that you don’t plan or think on.
Yannis: Yeah, that’s the best bit about being in a studio, really. For me, it’s the best bit about making music: going into a studio and just having an adventure and trying out different things. We’ve never been the kind of band that just goes in and bashes out the tracks and gets nice, neat versions of everything and then we leave. We like to get weird on it. We see the songs almost as bits of elastic that you can try to push and pull into as many different directions. The one that it fits the best is the way you should go. We did a bunch of weird stuff in the studio. We collected a load of bones for percussion and we sampled various insects and embedded it into some of the tracks so that there’s this organic, weird menace.
Russ: You said bones?
Yannis: Yeah, the bones didn’t actually make it onto the record but we went to some lengths to collect bones from butchers. Like shoulder blades, rib cages ….
Russ: Cow bones, chicken bones?
Yannis: And some sheep. And then we boiled them all down and got the gristle and the cartiledge off. And they didn’t sound that great.
Russ: So you did all of the work … and it wasn’t that useful. A letdown.
Yannis: Yes, but you have to go to those extremes to find something good. In that instance, it didn’t work. It’s important to go to those lengths.
Russ: I love that version of “Moon,” more stripped-down. There’s something that really matches the title. It feels atmospheric and spacy.
Yannis: Thanks. That song was written in the way that we played it. It was just me and Jimmy in a dark little room in Oxford one night. We had some bottles of wine and I think I’d recently watched [Lars von Trier's] “Melancholia.” We wanted to write an apocalyptic song, but one that had peace in it — be accepting of your fate, entropy and all those things. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record and to play live.
Russ: You knew that was the closer.
Yannis: We did, actually. It was so melancholic and it feels like a last gasp of air. There was never anything that was going to follow it.
Russ: You guys worked with Flood and Alan Moulder on this record and that has to be half thrilling and half intimidating. What was that like?
Yannis: It was cool. It was a bit intimidating, I guess. What was really good for us, and we benefitted from the process, was having two people whose records we really loved growing up and we implicity trusted them. From the moment that they were on board to make the record, that helped us with confidence and stuff like that because you feel, if Alan Moulder and Flood want to work with us and they think this song or riff is great, it’s going to be great, right?
Russ: There’s a storied history with these guys, a crediblity, that they automatically bring into the room. So they’re working with you … and that’s got to bring credibility to you at the same time.
Yannis: Totally. Just within the chemistry of making a record. We were talking about some of the more destructive tendancies that the band had had in the past. Some of that was born out of an insecurity or paranoia within making a record, that it wasn’t going to be good enough. So then we’d end up second-guessing ourselves or the producer that we were working with in the past and not be entirely trusting of them. Just as a foundation to build a record on, this time, to have that belief and admiration for the people we’re working with just meant the whole process was way more positive. Even when we’d have problems, it wasn’t beset by a type of real impending doom feeling where you’re like, “We’ve made a lame record.” The whole time we had a belief that we’d made this record that was going to be great. It feels good.
Russ: What is it that they bring to the table that eased things for you?
Yannis: Various things. They’re very different characters. Flood’s kind of like the Mad Hatter of the session. He’s the one with the weird ideas and he’s not bothered with using pro-audio stuff. He just wants to put an SM7 in the room and get a take, get a vibe. He duped us. When we first went in, he wanted to do reference versions of all of the material we had. We had a lot of songs. He said that we were just going to do demo versions, so don’t worry. There’s no red light. And actually, we were doing demo versions but they became, often, the actual album version because we played in a way that was unconscious and free. Sometimes the problem with takes is that you feel that you’re being recorded. He totally sidestepped that by tricking us. I take my hat off to him. We’d hear back the takes — say we did a demo take and then a proper one the week later — and we’d A and B them and there’d be a humanity to the takes where we weren’t aware. Your ego kicks in when you’re told you’re doing a take because you want to make it great, but it doesn’t come off as well out of the speakers. A large majority of the record was done in that way. Unconscious takes at the start of the session.
Russ: From Antidote to now, what have you learned about yourselves as a band?
Yannis: Oh, so much. When we started the band we came from a very specific scene in Oxford that was quite constricting in many ways. It was po-faced, indebted to post-rock and all this stuff. When we started the band, it wasn’t something that started naturally. We had a pre-idea of what we wanted it to be, so there were almost rules at the beginning, an aesthetic. Perimeters. We wanted to make very precise, clean-sounding music with guitars that was indebted to techno and Steve Reich. We had this idea of what we wanted to sound like. That was exciting to us at the time, something we believed it, not a schtick or some marketing thing. We had an appetite to make that. But since then, everything has been about deconstructing all of those rules and doing the opposite. Creating more space for ourselves and trusting each other. Allowing it to be something that’s governed more by the five of us in the room and the energy that comes about from the five of us. I guess it’s become a little more hippie as it’s gone on! We just know a bit more about what we’re doing now.