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Feature

Foals: Extinction Rebels

Nearly 15 years after forming, Foals have just released their most outward-looking record to date, heralding a new era of social accountability, visceral lyrics and a commitment to saving our dying planet. That's if Yannis doesn't do himself another mischief first…
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Published: 10:18 am, November 18, 2019Words: Jenessa Williams.
Foals: Extinction Rebels

"With Love and Humility… we're the best band in the world." Not a tweet signed off by a Gallagher brother, or an overzealous PR wielding a new act, but rather one such Yannis Philippakis; son of a Greek Architect, fan of a jazzy shirt and the frontman of Foals. We could say this July's social media outburst is out of the ordinary, but confidence is something he's never been short on.

Now, that tweet suddenly seems a whole lot less bold. Enduring musical fads and industry trends, Foals have made their decade-long play for the top in slow, organic fashion, headlining festivals and gaining a reputation as one of Britain's most vital live acts. With every record, they've nurtured their talent for precise melodies through various, gently-shifting iterations – the itchy math-rock of 'Antidotes' giving way to 'Total Life Forever" s atmospherics, dipping a toe into stadium rock on 'Holy Fire' and 'What Went Down'. Now, they complete Part Two of 'Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost' in spectacular fashion, dive-bombing their way through dead-stare singles and 10-minute epics alike. Put simply, it bangs pretty damn hard.

"I think it's definitely more of a rock record. The guitars are much more emphasised, and it captures much more of the live energy of our shows," Yannis explains. "Part One ended in quite a defeated, broken down place in terms of the imagery and the energy of the last song, so we wanted this album to contrast that and have a sense of perseverance after it. There's a kind of journey through it; when you get to the second side a lot of the imagery is more abstract - Part One is very much gathered in the current times in London and in our contemporary situation, but the end of Part Two is more abstract and is about departing. I wanted it to have that arc to it."

Having set out initially to make a single album (as one does), the decision to go double was born out of the fruits of a free-form studio experience, with little regard for budgets or calendars. "Our initial desire was just to be open, not have any brief or parameter so we could work as broadly as possible," says Yannis. "There was a period where we realised we were working on a lot of very diverse songs and I remember definitely being concerned about how it would form a coherent record. As we got to the final stages, it was clear that there were two bodies of work, two symmetrical sides of what we were doing. It took some juggling around, but the material split relatively easily. Lyrically, I felt like when we were sequencing the material across the two records, this half very much felt like a natural continuation."

Foals: Extinction Rebels
Foals: Extinction Rebels
Foals: Extinction Rebels

The narrative shift between records is not to be underestimated. Where Part One is helpless and regretful as it watches the world burn, Part Two picks itself up, dusts off its hands and gets back to work. The contrast is reflected in the album covers, which Yannis describes as something akin to synaesthesia; the red foliage of Part One representing the warping of nature, while Part Two's renewed flora winds around the spectre of death, a graveyard of departed souls. Picking up where songs like 'Exits' and 'Sunday' left off ("Our fathers run and leave all the damage they've done behind / Left us with the blind leading the blind"), Part Two tackles the very real threats of climate change and decaying landscapes, searching for the last safe space on earth.

"It's definitely got that defiant imagery," he says. "It's more personal really, dealing with my feelings of not being able to take personal refuge in the places where I've grown up. Over the past year or so I've found myself selfishly thinking that if things come to ruin in the UK, I've got this kind of childlike mentality of 'oh it's okay, I can run away and hide on some Greek island'. Whenever I've had problems, I've always felt like Greece could be this future sanctuary.

"But none of us have that option to think of anywhere as a romantic escape anymore – everywhere is bound by the same fate. The whole second half is kind of about tapping into that. 'Neptune' is about leaving Britain for Greece and having to deal with the place of my mind not really being there anymore, trying to tackle the feeling that we have of not being able to find somewhere that is untouched by political turmoil or environmental threat."

"Going plastic-free as a band is really difficult"
Jimmy Smith

A desire to play their part in ecological reform is at the heart of Foals new era. Keen supporters of Extinction Rebellion and Music Declares (an initiative that calls on bands to use their platforms to act as role models for positive change), they are making moves to offset their carbon footprint as a touring band, and remove all plastic from their riders and merchandise.

"It costs money to do that, and it's the reason why so many bands don't want to do it," explains Jimmy Smith, guitarist and the band's resident straight-talker. "Obviously, playing live is where people make their bread these days, and people are unwilling to invest a few thousand pounds in offsetting carbon, but that's what's going to have to happen.

"Going plastic-free as a band is really difficult – some places like America it's totally fine, they'll give you glass bottles in the dressing room, but then you'll go to a festival in Poland or Germany, and it's tons and tons of plastic, some places are really behind on it.

"Our production manager was saying that we're just going to have to get more militant about it, start saying that we're not going to play if you're going to give us 500 plastic water bottles. Just be a pain in the arse and make those who are lazy and can't be bothered actually do it - they can't plead ignorance if it's on a rider in capital letters.

"I think it's great what a band like The 1975 are doing - they're literally everywhere setting the example, and the fact that they're so much younger than us as a band but taking the lead on this sort of thing, it's slightly embarrassing that none of our peers or slightly older bands have tried to do it yet.

"I know Radiohead tried some stuff a few years ago, but it should really become some kind of mandatory law where record labels and management companies contribute some money to offsetting carbon and make it as easy as possible. It should become the norm."

Accepting that you need to make changes as a band isn't always easy, especially in an industry where acts are often encouraged to avoid controversy or bold statements. Five records deep, Foals are aware that they are in a position to stand defiant on the issues that matter.

"You're pressured to not say anything; the record label doesn't want you to become controversial because it's risky, and nobody likes risk," Jimmy admits. "The fact that without planning it, we've made two records that start to address these issues is great – I'm proud of Yannis for doing that to be honest, because he's painfully aware of how much you can get torn apart, especially by the press, for speaking out of line or saying anything vaguely controversial or interesting. You can't do right for doing wrong, so you just have to say sod the lot and do what you want."

Foals: Extinction Rebels

Yannis certainly is a frontman who's found himself explaining his way out of an awkward situation more than once over the years. His matter-of-fact confidence has the potential to be read for arrogance, a lumbermill worth of chips perched on his shoulder. He is regularly portrayed in the press as the overbearing oligarch, directing his bandmates to deliver his meticulous vision. For anyone who has witnessed a live Foals performance, his intense, stage-stalking presence doesn't necessarily paint him as somebody who might be fun down the pub. However, when you engage with Yannis directly on the matter of music, any aloofness is quickly replaced with an infectious energy and commitment to presenting the absolute best version of Foals to the world, fully aware of his own workaholic tendencies.

"I throw myself quite obsessively into the recording process and have a tendency to want to control stuff," he admits. "I'm cautious of that within myself because if I'm allowed to do that, I might end up suffocating everyone.

"This time around, Jack [Bevan, Foals' drummer] was definitely keen for us to work without a producer. We've worked with some amazing producers over the years, but any time you work with someone in such a controlled fashion, that external presence in the creative process changes things, and we wanted to have a more concentrated expression of where we were at.

"I was teaching myself to use Logic in the early stages, and lots of the tracks as you hear them now are essentially those original recordings with only slight developments. I had some concerns that we could go into some mad wormhole where the characters within the band were clashing with all our ideas, or that without a mediator we would just get into these stalemates or arguments that weren't for the benefit of the creative process. But once we got into it, producing it myself just felt right."

"In our minds, we're still new and chippy and feel like the underdogs, but the reality of that is a bit different" 
Yannis Philippakis

The amicable departure of original bassist Walter Gervers also added to Yannis's new-found producer-performer workload. Having decided not to refill his shoes, the newly-four-piece group had to set about reconfiguring their roles. "One side effect of Walter's departure is definitely that we were forced out of our comfort zone," he says. "We were forced out of the way we enjoyed working, which was definitely a positive. Edwin [Congreave, keyboards] and I had to play bass as well, and there became more of a fluidity towards the roles in the band."

Jimmy, ever the pragmatic, dry-witted counterbalance, sees things in much more cut-and-dry terms. "I mean, he didn't give us much choice! We were a bit like 'okay then, bye!'," he laughs. "Normally you come up with a bassline and then hang everything else off it, so luckily Edwin stepped up and played some bass, which was an eyebrow-raiser, but a good one. That meant that there wasn't a ginormous hole sonically, but it definitely has changed the songs, because Walter played in quite a specific way. I guess it does give it a different feel musically, but the main thing is that we missed his personality really."

When we talk, Jimmy is heavily jet-lagged, in the car on the way to rehearsals for the Mercury Prize, where the first half of this record is up for the 25k reward. His expectations of winning are exceedingly low ("I think Dave's going to get it. He beat us to Number One as well, so I'm feeling bitter"), but he's looking forward to a solid night of fancy foods and catching up with friends.

Yannis, having shredded his hand open during a freak family' blood brothers' incident in Greece, won't be able to play his guitar for their performance - instead, they'll be joined by Felix White from The Maccabees, a somewhat cyclical homage to their early art-rock beginnings over ten years ago, when neon was king, Skins was on TV and Underage Festival was the cultural event of every teenager's summer.

"I do miss it. I find myself over-romanticising those times, so I think if we'd carried on doing those shows, we'd have gotten sick of it," says Jimmy. "It just seemed like a really exciting time, there was a real scene. Even the whole Nu Rave thing - it's easy to look back on it now and think how silly it was, but there were genuinely exciting things going on, nights being arranged, raves, house parties, all sorts of things. It was great to be a part of that and then survive it. There was a lot of energy, especially in East London, and I don't know if that happens anymore, or maybe I'm just woefully out of touch. I remember our ethos was just to take no prisoners and try and blow every band out of the water."

Foals: Extinction Rebels

It's been a long time since glo-stick bracelets and checkered Topshop hoodies were acceptable fashion choices – does that 'take no prisoners' ethos still remain?

"I think yeah, it's just embedded in who we are as a band. I mean, I don't really care about that stuff anymore, I don't need to keep telling myself that we're good because I know we are. I definitely get a bit embarrassed when bands say they're amazing, so when Yannis says it I'm a bit like 'Oh God'. But I do totally agree with him, I think we deserve it, and we should be very proud of how far we've got."

"I obviously mean it humorously, but I don't think it always comes across that way," reasons Yannis. "There is this strain on guitar music and in society, in general, to be self-effacing. That's great, but sometimes it just gets a little bit boring, and it's nice to be a little bit provocative.

"I definitely feel like sometimes, if we don't actually make a noise about what we're doing - particularly because we've been around a while - it's very easy to become part of the furniture and for people to just be used to you. Occasionally, it's good to have a little outburst."

Said outbursts certainly don't seem to have done Foals any long-lasting harm. Recent years have seen them step up to co-headline Reading & Leeds, tour the world in increasingly widening circles and jump off of more balconies and stages than Travis Scott at a trampoline convention. It's not difficult to imagine that the next ten years might contain Glastonbury headline slots and stadiums. Somewhat suprising for a band who put so much effort into the live shows, their idea of future success is much more rooted within the studio than in any festival fields.

"We definitely feel like there's a better record in us," confesses Yannis. "The only problem with that is – and I'm sure every band that lasts for 25 years feels the same – the results are so often a law of diminishing returns. I'm having to get used to the fact that we've actually been around for a while. In our minds, we're still new and chippy and feel like the underdogs, but the reality of that is a bit different.

"I want to find a way to still be creative and try to make something great, without descending into becoming an 'old' band. I think also a lot of things I want to accomplish are outside of the band, or maybe in conjunction with, but not just about following the traditional tour and album cycle. Just about becoming more creatively diverse generally.

"I did some writing with Tony Allen - the afrobeat drummer who's worked with Fela Kuti - and I really like to get those songs finished. And I'd really like to write some poetry or put out a book of words that's separated from the music, just concentrating on writing for a bit.

"I'd obviously like to make more music as Foals, but maybe we'll change the way of doing it a bit. It'd be nice to be more nimble, put out more songs as and when and have a quicker bounce between touring and releasing, rather than these huge laborious cycles. Hopefully, that'll all happen, if this hand ever gets better."

"I'd really like to write some poetry or put out a book of words"
Yannis Philippakis

Jimmy has also been nursing an impulse to share some solo material with the world. "I have been for the last ten years," he laughs. "It's taking a while, I am going to try and push myself soon and actually do something, but it's terrifying to step out of the mothership, to be honest. It's nice and safe in here, and I can put the blame on other members of the band to pull their socks up, but if I'm doing it on my own then it's all my fault.

"That's on the bucket list for me definitely, I think I'd like to do it and not tell anybody it's me. It's more trying to get rid of stuff, because it's way more exciting writing new music than trying to get rid of old music. And then with the band; it'd definitely be naïve to say we weren't trying to make the best record of all time. I don't think we've done that yet, even though the new records are good. The defining record of our career, I think we've still got it in us."

A two-part album is already a massive undertaking – is it possible that they might never be completely satisfied?

"I think we can be, as long as other factors don't get in the way," says Jimmy, playfulness audible in his voice. "If people get bored of it, or is someone dies – I mean, if Yannis gets hit by a bus, it's game over isn't it really? We've discussed this, me and Jack – we're just going to put a Z instead of the S cos we're not allowed to trade under the name Foals if Yannis isn't there, so we'll be Foalz and get in some other ex-indie star to sing. We'll get one of the Klaxons – all of the Klaxons. I think it would shift… some tickets, location dependent. Maybe that could be another side project – we don't have to wait for his untimely demise, we'll just crack on."

He laughs at somewhat disturbing length down the phone, but somehow, we don't think Yannis will mind – he's probably far too busy thanking his lucky stars that his hand is still attached. Or maybe, like so many of us, the fear of the earth's untimely death temporarily outweighs the concern of his own...

Taken from the November issue of Dork. Foals' album 'Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part Two' is out now.

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