Leaving behind the Olympia, Rebekah Rennick sits down with Jimmy Smith of Foals prior to their 3Arena debut to discuss what’s keeping him up at night and his fear of becoming like Chris Martin.
There is something inherently visceral about certain concert experiences. Amongst a crowd, with music acting as the instigator, individuals become one singular roaring, surging cacophony of energy. Oxford quintet Foals are no strangers to this sweaty, pulsating environment. In fact, at times it’s difficult to imagine a setting without them. As the lights dimmed in the 3Arena last Wednesday, something in the air changed. Behind a shadowed background, darkness punctuated by Jack Bevan’s drumbeats, Foals emerged to a deafening crescendo of hysteria. Prowling the stage, front man Yannis Philippakis demands attention; spinning and circling as the hypnotic opening sequence of ‘Snake Oil’ prepared the crowd for a tumultuous ride. Three songs in, as old favourite ‘Olympic Airways’ seamlessly merges with infectiously adored ‘My Number’, shirts are off, sweat is in the air, friends scramble upon shoulders, and the crowd are irrevocably under Foals’ spell. “Are you ready to get nasty?” screams Philippakis “let’s get fucking savage!”.
Rewind four hours previously and the band are fresh off that very same stage following sound check, albeit without the same ferocity. The convulsing, crackling energy of their live performance is put aside for now. Philippakis still prowls, his presence undeniable with a hooded gaze sharp and aware, while his band members float around, quietly sipping on beers and chatting amongst themselves. Guitarist Jimmy Smith, tall and welcoming, bounces as he does on stage. The calm confidence emanating from these five friends is the product of a decade’s steady successful trajectory. From the set of Skins, to sold-out intimate shows and now onto an arena tour, Foals have become an unwavering monster of sound in the music sphere. On the cusp of their UK and Ireland arena tour OTwo had to wonder, how does one even begin to mentally prepare for such a feat?
“I don’t know!” clamours Smith. “I keep saying, it’s just a gig, isn’t it? I don’t want to think about it too much. I kind of get pissed off with the amount of times people have been saying “Oh, the arena tour!” You can always hear ‘arena’ in this like big, American accent; some fucking voice over thing. It’s just a show isn’t it? We’ll just do our best and play like we always do. For as long as we keep doing what we do then it should be fine.”
It’s this modesty and uncompromising attitude that has cemented Foals’ integrity, allowing them to develop over the years into the most exciting rock band today. Emerging from Oxford’s post-rock era circa 2007 – “We were in the Math-Rock weirdo scene of which there was us and Youth Movies, and Jack and Yannis’ band The Edmund Fitzgerald,” laughs Smith – Foals exploded into prominence. While guerrilla house parties once acted as their backdrop, of which grainy footage can still be found on YouTube crudely entitled ‘Foals in a bedroom’, their mindset has shifted over the years.
“It’s been ten years, it’s changed a bit and we’ve gotten used to doing it. I’d say the excitement has changed a little bit,” says Smith. “It’s easy to reminisce and miss the old days because they were kind of innocent. Especially, it’s easy to think that after you’ve done a sound check on a really big stage with all these moving fucking things, you’re like ”What happened?” It’s supposed to be really positive, but sometimes I kind of miss just putting everything in one van, in a Ford Transit, rather than three lorries.”
Transitioning from smaller venues like Dublin’s own Olympia to the echoing abyss of an arena setting is daunting for any band. Anxiety simmers at the possibility of things not going to plan, but for Foals it’s not the filling of space that is daunting but rather what this change will mean for the band in the future. “I feel like we need to start reappraising how much we actually stick to our guns, and stick to them a little bit more,” admits Smith. “I couldn’t sleep last night, I was thinking about it all. It’s weird how much is going on around our band now. Decisions are super weird, like even the light show – I would never have had to think about that before.”
“I hope we don’t just disappear into some sort of generic big band. You can see how easy it is to do that, you start relying on other people to make creative decisions. It’s really dangerous. I’m worried about it. I think we all are a little bit because you lose part of your identity. As of tonight that chapter is gone. It’s a really weird time for our band. It’s all really good and positive but I really want to make sure we don’t just thin out or get watered down I suppose.”
I just don’t want to become dreadfully uncool. We never were the coolest band but you don’t want to end up like Chris Martin
Yet, it’s these different chapters in a band’s career that defines them. Foals spearheaded a generation of indie loving teenagers embroiled in the whimsical party-going lifestyles depicted by Channel 4’s Skins cast. They were the band of today’s early to mid-twenties’ pubescent years, running alongside others including Bombay Bicycle Club and The Maccabees. However, their devoted audience have followed them religiously through the intricate, plucky guitar sounds of Antidotes, Total Life Forever and it’s atmospheric undertones, Mercury-nominated Holy Fire’s genre spanning grooves and today’s What Went Down, the newest addition to their ever-growing repertoire.
Speaking of Antidotes, Smith admits he doesn’t indulge in their debut as often as other members of the band. “Edmund did, and said it was actually really good!” he laughs. “He was sending us all these drunken WhatsApp messages, being like ‘It’s actually really great! I’m really enjoying it!’ But yeah, I don’t really listen to the albums at all. I kind of want to save that until I’m an old man. But I hear them, and we play some songs. That album is a real blast from the past because that’s the connecting bridge between the real early good old days, and now basically; that’s what caused this.”
What Went Down quickly followed 2013’s Holy Fire, an album that resulted in an exhaustive touring calendar, ultimately keeping the creative flame alight for their newest installment. “We had like two weeks off. It was never supposed to happen that quickly, we were just like, ‘Oh let’s go down to Oxford for a week and bounce around ideas’. It’s only now, when we’re touring, we’re like shit, it feels like we never stopped.”
“I think we’re done with that now,” says Smith. “The last two are kind of paired really, it was like a similar creative process. But they’re done now. We’ll make the most un-arena-friendly album next time just to make sure we don’t do it again!”
“I love to think about the next album, especially now because there’s nothing yet and it could be anything. I think the general idea on the next one is to start without thinking about anything.”
While the aggression seen in tracks like ‘Providence’ and ‘Inhaler’ from Holy Fire is somewhat omitted in What Went Down, it’s not without teeth. No introductions are needed. Foals are expecting the listener, throwing them head first into the vocal cord shredding screams of Philippakis’ exposed psyche. Opening title track ‘What Went Down’ hits with blunt force while tracks such as ‘Birch Tree’ and ‘Give It All’ act as soothing moments of respite, echoing the band’s prowess in creating opulent musical juxtapositions.
With each record, the band relocated to a different place for its production. Is this geographical relocation a conscious decision, OTwo wonders?
“Yeah, it is. I think the decision is based on the studio and the producer, so the producer may have a studio in mind. On the first one it was Dave (Sitek) in New York but most of the time it’s like ‘well, why not go somewhere new and exciting?’ I think to have that level of excitement at the beginning of a record is really good, it pushes the excitement further then it would normally. Sometimes it backfires, like in Sweden on the second record. It kind of got a bit grim there, the location was quite horrendous.”
“It was just too isolated,” he continues. “It was pretty depressing. It was like an industrial estate. Then on the third one, it was a Flood & Moulder’s studio in Willesden, London, which was a horrible place. Compared to Provence on this record where you go out for a cigarette and you’re in rolling gardens and there’s like a dog running around, you’re in a car park in Willesden with cigarette butts.”
What Went Down saw them collaborate with producer James Ford, who has previously worked alongside The Last Shadow Puppets, Florence and The Machine and Arctic Monkeys. Pinned as their heaviest record to date, the album was built to fill huge capacity settings. A grappling rawness permeates throughout Foals’ sound, their live performances coercing the recorded ones thus allowing them to sound as authentic as they possibly can.
“We’ve always got ‘Demo-itis’, we always prefer the demos,” admits Smith. “I think it’s quite a classic thing because when you’re recording a demo, it might just be on a phone or some crappy recorder and you do it really haphazardly with no pressure, and you’re not really thinking about it. So it’s actually a recording of you playing a song at its most natural and then you’ve got to try and recreate it in the studio and you never do it. Turning the red light off always helps.”
I feel like we need to start reappraising how much we actually stick to our guns, and stick to them a little bit more.
Watching back the video for one of Foals’ first singles ‘Hummer’ is a chest pain-inducing knock of nostalgia for anyone who has been shimmying around since their debut. Asymmetrical hairstyles may have gone out of fashion, cardigans and jumpers no longer the style of choice and their fresh faces now replaced with a cool maturity, their individuality still remains. Sharp and eloquent in interviews, Foals have remained as true to themselves as they can, yet the past decade has not been without its own learning curves. “Don’t trust anybody, except your own band members,” warns Smith in relation to the music industry. “There are some nice people in the music industry. I do have some friends in the music industry, but it’s all money, money, money. It’s all they’re doing, if they tell you otherwise, it’s bullshit.
“You’ve always got to be careful, we’ve always been careful from the word go. We’ve still got a whole catalogue of disasters in the book, it’s impossible for a band not to make mistakes.”
“I think it’s getting harder, I don’t really envy young bands now. I mean I do, I really envy them. ‘You fucking bastards, you’re like nineteen years old and you’re playing in the clothes you woke up in, on someone’s floor!’” he laughs. “I miss those days. But it’s a lot harder to carry on. It’s one thing to do one album and have relative success from that but to maintain it is hard. For us now, it’s no different; like album five is just as hard as album two or three or four. You’re just thrown into the shark pool again and it’s a lottery whether you sink or swim I guess.”
The position Foals so steadily hold in today’s music climate is obviously one preoccupying their minds, and one that will undoubtedly shape the direction of their sound. The unease Smith feels regarding the new arena-dwelling chapter in their career is understandable, as he admits. “I just don’t want to become dreadfully uncool. We never were the coolest band but you don’t want to end up like Chris Martin or something like that.” Following their bombastic track record and the colossal performance that very night to a frenzied 3Arena, it’s difficult to imagine Foals slipping into soft-rock complacency anytime soon.