Wednesday, June 7

Foals get back in the saddle: ‘I couldn’t do a show without drinking’ | Foals

Shortly before Christmas, when Foals were discussing potential places to shoot a new video, Ukraine topped the list. Frontman Yannis Philippakis had gone travelling there alone when he was 18 and still has a “kind of map of what it was like then permanently in my head”. In more recent years, when Foals had played some shows there, Kyiv had been just as he remembered it: a beautiful, peace-loving city that loved a party. The band were keen to work with Tanu Muiño, an acclaimed Ukranian-Cuban director who has worked with Lil Nas X, Cardi B, the Weeknd and Harry Styles – she turned out to be a Foals fan, and so an old industrial courtyard workspace was scouted for the shoot. At that point, Russian tanks had just started gathering on the border but, as Philippakis remembers, “the idea of it turning into a full-scale war seemed pretty remote”.

They shot the joyously choreographed video for 2am in January, after which they watched some ice skating, visited bars, hung out with the crew and talked politics. A perfect day ended with hugs and group photos. “The optimism that day was captured in the video,” says the singer, wistfully. “It’s strange to think how quickly that’s been brutalised.”

Since the Russian invasion – after which Foals cancelled upcoming shows in Moscow and St Petersburg – the band have found it difficult to contact the Ukrainians they spent time with. “There are people in our video who are now having to shelter for their lives or pick up rifles to defend their city,” Philippakis says. “The choreographer left a message saying that she and her husband were having to hide from shelling.”

I meet Foals in March at their small rented studio, rehearsal room and writing space in Peckham, London, cradling coffees. “It certainly feels weird to be doing promo,” admits guitarist Jimmy Smith, his newly dyed blond hair reflecting his current status as an Englishman who lives in Los Angeles. Nor is it lost on them that the album we’re here to talk about – the seventh and best of their career – is a euphoric party record, worthy of a band whose last album reached No 1 and are billed high in this summer’s Glastonbury and Latitude lineups, warming up with four sold-out nights in London’s Olympia this weekend.

Life Is Yours – full of sunny, motorik disco/house-influenced dancefloor fillers such as Wake Me Up and the sublime upcoming single 2001 – is being compared to Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem and 80s Duran Duran. With more keyboards and fewer guitars, its ecstatic, air-punching vibe couldn’t be further from the horrors of Ukraine, the pandemic, climate change or economic crisis.

Foals live at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, April 2022. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

Philippakis expains that when they made 2019’s brace of socially conscious albums, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Parts 1 and 2), “the climate crisis suddenly seemed upon us and there were books coming out about the sixth mass extinction. It felt right to engage with the threat on the horizon.” However, while Life Is Yours is also a response to the post-Covid world in which there’s what he describes as “an everyday jeopardy or darkness now that’s impossible to ignore”, this time the mood is uplifting.

“It was written in the midst of lockdowns,” the quietly wellspoken singer explains, sporting a DH Lawrence beard and wearing the same sort of loosely fitting shirt he wears on stage. “Winter, grey, no life on the streets. So we’d come here and shelter from all that by writing music that felt escapist and joyful, but also hopeful for the future to come back.”

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When the pandemic struck, Foals managed to do one date of an Asian tour in February 2020 before concerts suddenly started being cancelled. “We didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” says Philippakis. “You think: ‘Oh, this will soon blow over’, but it didn’t.” After making it back to the UK it was nice to spend unexpected time at home – the band had kept them from seeing partners – but the singer remembers the “surreal strangeness” of the first lockdown. “We’ve all grown up on apocalypse movies like Contagion, World War Z or whatever. So there was that aspect of engaging with something we’ve all been worried about.”

Jack Bevan, the band’s well-groomed, amiable, gently self-effacing drummer, was one of the very first in the UK with Covid. On returning from Asia, he came down with “basically the worst flu I ever had. After about 10 days I started to feel a bit better, but then had pneumonia symptoms for a week and then this sort of extreme fatigue for about a month. This was well before lockdown, when Covid was a mystery to people here. I was just watching the news, with all these horrifying statistics and cases from abroad. So there was no reassurance of how this thing would go.”

Smith, meanwhile, escaped to LA to see his girlfriend, got stuck there during lockdown (hence his now full-time US residence) and contracted Covid too. “It was in my lungs for a month,” he says. “It was certainly enough of a shock to make me quit smoking.” When the band eventually regrouped in Peckham, playing for hours every day became a way of blocking out what was going on outside.

Foals made Life Is Yours as a trio. In 2018, co-founding bassist Walter Gervers, the band’s most stable “father figure” and counsel in times of strife, left suddenly to start a family. Last year’s exit of another founder, keyboard player Edwin Congreave, was less unexpected but equally significant. He had been doing an Open University degree with a view to studying at Cambridge and, as Philippakis explains, was finding it hard to reconcile the boozing and adrenaline of a touring lifestyle with academia.

Foals in 2010
Foals in 2010. Edwin Congreave (far right) and Walter Gervers (bottom left) have since left the band. Photograph: Andy Willsher/Redferns

“Poor Edwin,” Smith says, chuckling. “We’d come tumbling on to the bus at 3am and he’d be in the back lounge with his papers, trying to study for a 9am exam.” The remaining members insist the departures have strengthened their own bonds, but such lineup changes can play havoc with a group’s dynamic, especially losing people they’ve played with for 15 years.

“It can be destabilising,” Philippakis admits as we’re on a second round of coffees. “And you miss them as a social presence. Getting to spend your life with your friends is a beautiful way to spend your time, so when anyone goes you think: we’re never going to spend that much time with that person again.”

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This partly explains why Life Is Yours occasionally has a more wistful undercurrent. All Foals albums are different – whether the “career gamble” of 2010’s ambitious Total Life Forever or the heavier terrain of 2015’s What Went Down. In a way, Life Is Yours recalls the giddy energy of their 2008 debut Antidotes, but viewed through a rear-view mirror.

“We were thinking back to when we started,” Philippakis, who is now 35, reflects, referring to their days (after originally meeting in Oxford) as a math-rock band living in a Peckham squat dubbed Squallyoaks, sharing takeaways and playing “feral parties” in the squat scene. “There was optimism that isn’t really around any more. It was a golden era of nightlife: great clubs, house music, pre-social media and smartphones, all the cross-pollinations in music, art, dance. I think on songs such as [Life Is Yours track] Looking High there is a wistfulness, now that clubs are closing down. When we were making the album we were gagging to experience life, so you find yourself thinking about old parties and times when you could lose yourself in a moment.”

Foals re-emerge into a very different climate from the one that they started out in in 2004, one of the print NME, CD singles and a thriving circuit of live bands and smaller venues. “There’s loads of positives to social media and the internet,” says Philippakis, idly strumming a Spanish guitar, “but one thing that has been destructive has been the ravaging of the geographical architecture around music: local venues, record stores, affordable rehearsal spaces and studios. It’s affected the way people make music communally, or the idea of making friends and making music together. Everything has migrated online, but if you walk around our cities, there’s no record shop, nowhere to make a racket. It’s all a bit bereft. When I was still at school I’d go to [club night] Trash in London every week and the Horrors or Arctic Monkeys or the Klaxons would be there, and it felt like everyone was part of something.”

The idea of music as a communal experience is central to Foals and, ironically, partly why Congreave left. Having started touring in an old Royal Mail van, the keen environmentalist had become uncomfortable with the band’s carbon footprint. Foals do offset their carbon, but Smith argues that if a band wants to sustain a life and income – even one who unfurled a banner reading No Music on a Dead Planet at the 2019 Mercury prize – it’s impossible to avoid some environmental impact. “It’s not just income, though,” Philippakis says. “For me, the very core of being a musician isn’t sitting around in a studio. It’s performing and connecting with people.”

He remembers a particular discussion with Congreave on the tour bus prior to their cancelled Asia tour. “He was saying: ‘We shouldn’t do these shows’ – not because of Covid, but because of the impact of a band flying thousands of miles. “We had a very frank and reasonable discussion, but in the end we said: ‘We want to be musicians.’ I’m more than happy to offset, but I wouldn’t want to be in this band if we weren’t playing shows.”

The singer has become one of modern pop’s great livewire frontpersons – known to leap from high balconies into crowds or battle with security men trying to prevent him. “I actually stopped drumming at one gig because of what Yannis was up to,” Bevan chuckles. “You’d see him hanging off a balcony with security holding him by his belt buckle and think: ‘What’s he doing now?’” For the singer, who grew up on “provocative, high-wire” hardcore bands such as the Jesus Lizard, performing is a way of escaping his “everyday self. It’s really charged, and on stage the energy from the crowd and the physical volume and the booze becomes like a cyclone.”

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Foals in 2022
Foals: ‘Hopefully we’ve made a great record that people can hide in and take solace in,’ says Yannis Philippakis (far right). Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Foals read a recent Guardian article about how “hard-partying” bands have become outliers, but for them alcohol remains a part of touring. Philippakis has never done a show sober – Smith did, once – but has certainly seen peers fall by the wayside owing to the lifestyle. However, he points out that people who find making music cathartic or therapeutic might also have “certain psychological issues that make them more attracted to getting fucked up”.

Bevan explains that the industry’s “high-pressure environment” can cause social drinking to become a “coping mechanism. If you were hungover at home, you’d spend the whole day under a duvet, but on tour you might have to play to 40,000 people. You have to power on and maybe have a few drinks to get through.” The drummer always performed sober until a panic attack on stage at the Faversham in Leeds in 2006 led him to reconsider, so now he allows himself “a couple of beers before a show”. Philippakis is upfront about enjoying drinking, but explains that it’s also a creative tool, especially with lyrics. “I tend to become quite unhealthy in the later stage of writing,” he admits, “and that usually continues until the end of tour. I couldn’t do a show without drinking.”

Foals’s ideal is to keep the party going without risking the band. In 17 years, none of them has had a drug problem, and while they certainly enjoy a tipple, or several, Smith counsels: “It’s fundamentally a bad idea to drink your band into ruin.”

So much has changed around them. When Antidotes came out, the UK had a Labour government and was in the EU. Philippakis – who has a Jewish South African mother and a Greek father – explains that Greece sees the EU as “an oppressor, something that was very punitive to the Greek people, but I understand that Brexit has been disastrous for the UK”. He despairs of the “rampant corruption” in parliament and argues that people are “waking up to the fact that we have a rightwing government” and expects a “bigger fury”. On Life Is Yours, Foals perhaps represent a generation – or several generations – who remember the good times, are bewildered and angered by the world today, and just want to be able to look forward with optimism once again.

The idea was that Life Is Yours would coincide with the beginnings of a post-pandemic, brighter world, which – with war raging and prices soaring – seems further away than ever. “The spirit of an emerging new future isn’t here yet,” admits the singer, “which does add a weird extra poignancy to the album. But if it just never arrives, then hopefully we’ve made a great record that people can hide in and take solace in.”

Life Is Yours is released on 17 June on Warners. Foals tour the UK to 8 May.

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