Yannis Philippakis is not well. Not in the slightly-mentally-unhinged way that most interviews with the Foals figurehead will leave you believing (although there are, of course, always traces of this), but in the common-or-garden sense of the word. Tonight, Foals will make one of only a minuscule number of gig cancellations in their career to date. This afternoon, however, we find the singer sweating Beechams and sounding like every tube between his nose and throat has been Polyfilla-ed. Maybe it’s the hazy fug of over-the-counter narcotics, but Philippakis is in atypically measured form too. His speech still rings with the passionate declarations of intent that have steered the Oxford quintet’s ship to increasingly innovative waters over the past five years, but there’s another, more reasoned layer present than simply tongue-lashing out at the world. With the advent of the band’s third record inching deliciously close, it seems Foals have found new tools with which to fan their ‘Holy Fire’…
“Before, I was filled with angry young man rage about stuff and I felt brittle. I would snap quite quickly,” muses the singer from the corner of the sleepy Tunbridge Wells coffee shop we’re currently the sole frequenters of. “But I feel like maybe the tone of the emotion is richer or a bit more beguiling on this record. It shimmers more and it’s less easy to define. ‘Total Life Forever’ was recorded in a basement where there was no natural light and it was a self-destructive environment in many ways. For this record, it’s not like we all sat around and started drinking nutri-shakes, but there was an element where it wasn’t so much about self-flagellating and there wasn’t so much discontent. It doesn’t mean that some of the songs aren’t dealing with what they’re dealing with, but the actual process didn’t feel as brutal.”
Leaving behind the bunker-like surrounds of the ‘TLF’ studio, this time the band gathered inspiration both at home in Oxford and abroad (Philippakis travelled to his father’s hometown in Greece). Subsequently, there’s a sense that the singer is feeling slightly more grounded; that he’s operating from a solid mental base. Some of the “angry young man” stuff has ebbed away. Some of the demons have been exorcised. Yannis, it seems, is almost… happy.
“It’s partly [growing up], but partly realising that sometimes it’s the soft touch that opens the door. You don’t always need to batter the walls; there are other ways around the tenement and other ways to explore the creative process,” the singer continues. “[Creativity] doesn’t need to be so fuelled by some demonic motor in your head; it can be something you approach more delicately, but still without you becoming a tourist. I still believe that you have to dedicate yourself to whatever you’re creating. You should be willing to totally sacrifice yourself in every way. But I think the way you can do that can be less forceful. Some of that might be getting older, or we could make a fourth record and I could be back in that dark place, but something’s happened right now where I feel a little bit better.”
That’s not to say that finding some semblance of inner sanctuary has cooled down Philippakis’ internal fire. When he speaks of creative self-sacrifice, there’s an intensity even behind bleary, flu-ridden eyes that shows that, more than anyone else in today’s popular music realm, he truly means it. But he’s undoubtedly on a different tack. ‘Holy Fire’ skilfully shifts between modes of attack; at times it fires on all cylinders; more often it plays it more stealthily, coming up from behind and allowing all the substance and intelligence and passion that Foals have always possessed to subtly knock you for six. It’s an album of multitudes, one that possibly packs a less immediate punch but one that is all the better for it. Basically, if you’re expecting an album of riff-heavy ‘Inhaler’s, then think again.
“I like putting tracks out, like the way things happened with ‘Spanish Sahara’, that are voodoo curveballs basically…” Philippakis smiles. “It’s not intended to define the album; I don’t think ‘Inhaler’does, but I don’t think any other track does either. I think it’s a good thing when you approach a band and you don’t know all the answers. Everything is so labelled and pre-packaged in music these days and it’s so definable and predictable in many ways. We don’t want to do that and we don’t want to be that.”
If there’s one thing that ‘Holy Fire’ isn’t, then it’s predictable – both in terms of the band’s previous material and even within itself. ‘Inhaler’ and current live favourite ‘Providence’ both explode with a carnal, feral intensity, their animalistic anger forced out in a glut of heavy noise and vitriolic energy. ‘Stepson’ and ‘Bad Habit’, meanwhile, make for the contemplative light to their darker shade – the former a gorgeously subtle slowie filled with emotional weight; the latter buoyed by seemingly chipper, ‘This Orient’-style backing but plagued with self-analysis and reflection. As Yannis eloquently surmises, “If the last record was different shades of blue, then this is a Technicolour record. It’s a journey where the signposts aren’t clear.”
“The one I’m still surprised we did was ‘Late Night’,” he continues. “It’s got all the ingredients and the template of a traditional, old school R&B track in that it’s almost like… you know in ‘The Fly’ when Goldblum puts the baboon in the transporter and when it comes out it’s all fucking inside out and shit? ‘Late Night’ is like that. It’s been turned out and all of its inner workings are on the outside.”
Lyrically too, the frontman has progressed from veiled self-censoring to what he describes as honest “to a point where I’m almost uncomfortable about it”. Yannis shrugs. “I just wanted to write stuff that felt true. I didn’t wanna fuck around any more. I got tired of knowing, wink-wink, arch lyrics and the laziness that you can be pardoned for. When you’re playing songs night after night then they have to be honest otherwise they collapse in on themselves. The songs we play that remain powerful for us and people listening are the ones where there’s something true going on.”
Two days later we’re in Paris. Beforehand, the excitement that simmers amongst La Maroquinerie’s crowd shows any potential language barrier has been easily vaulted; Yannis’ truth, it seems, is universal. This is Foals’ last ‘club show’ (save for Tunbridge Wells’ rescheduled jaunt) before they return to the road to tackle the big boy venues – including, anomalously, a grandiose stop-off at the Royal Albert Hall. But for tonight, in a venue the band could sell out 10 times over, there’s a crackle in the air. Foals may steadfastly keep it real with sporadic returns to the sweaty haunts of old (“We just wanna have our cake and eat it really. It’s all just different prisms through which to release your energy,” Philippakis says obliquely), but the fervour surrounding each trip only further proves that the band are a much, much bigger deal these days.
Tonight, the quintet offer up a small teaser of what’s to come. We get ‘Prelude’ – the slow-building jam of an album opener that acts like the elder statesman to instrumental set-opener of old, ‘XXXXX’. Then there’s the rhythmic groove of ‘My Number’, the stop-start blitzkrieg of ‘Providence’, which sounds frankly insane live, and, of course, ‘Inhaler’ – which is already greeted like a classic jewel in the band’s already glimmering crown. Every second of the set is delivered full-throttle – it’s the blood, sweat and tears ten-armed self-sacrifice that, as Yannis attests, the band will always resolutely give. Tonight (and this tour) is about reminding people that, even after 18 months out of the game, Foals are still the best live band that the UK has to offer. And ‘Holy Fire’ should inch them that bit closer to simply being one of the country’s best bands, full stop – on stage or off.
“That’s the thing about making a record. You have these tiny little precious eggs that you’re fostering for months and you’re polishing them and making them look right. You get really close to them and you’re so attached that they almost become part of your body, like you’re incubating these things. Then you release them out. That’s what’s exciting,” enthuses the singer, any semblance of illness temporarily lost in the throes of his analogy.
“This is always the most exciting time, when you have this thing that only you had a silent dialogue with and then it has to communicate with thousands of people outside. It goes from your baby to becoming the biggest flock of birds you’ve ever seen, flapping around the world like a virus.” If that’s what he’s suffering from, then sign us up.
‘Holy Fire’ is out now on Transgressive