Holier than thou
English art rockers Foals to perform in Ventura
By Matthew Singer 12/05/2013
Yannis Philippakis lives in constant fear of repeating himself. That’s what’s made him a favorite quote machine of the British music press; and his band, Foals, one of the fastest-evolving young rock acts in England. No surprise, then, that going into the recording of the group’s third album, Philippakis was determined to take Foals in a different direction; his exact words were that he was done writing “songs for indie clubs.” Usually that’s code for, “We’re entering our U2 phase.” But Philippakis, 26, insists his only goal, as ever, was to satisfy his “voracious appetite” for self-improvement.
“I just want to write music that’s better than what’s come before,” the singer-guitarist said in his heavy Oxford accent during a recent phone conversation.
“That’s basically what it is. I think most people write like that, unless they’re writing in a determinedly careerist sort of way. I just want to write something that quiets the demons for a bit, and I want to make something that’s beautiful. I don’t really care where it takes me in terms of a trajectory.”
Whether it was the intended purpose or not, Holy Fire, released in February, has shot Foals to another level — or at least up a line on festival posters. The group had already cultivated an enthusiastic following with the danceable art rock of its first two albums, 2008’s jittery Antidotes and the atmospheric follow-up, 2010’s Total Life Forever. In comparison, Holy Fire is the aurora borealis, a great, spectacular dance of colors. “Bombastic” is the key adjective. Songs spark, fizzle and burst bigger and brighter than before. But “bigger” can also mean more expansive, and the band uses its wider canvas to develop deeper, worldlier grooves, achieving a sound that’s less U2 and more like Talking Heads weaned on ’90s alt-rock. Philippakis says the album is the sextet’s attempt at getting back to a more primal, instinctive kind of songwriting. If this is where their instincts led them, then the truth about Foals is that they never belonged in those “indie clubs” to begin with.
But Philippakis adds that Holy Fire could just as easily have been a small, claustrophobic affair. The bombast comes from producers Flood and Alan Moulder, the studio craftsmen behind two of the most sprawling, ambitious albums of the ’90s: Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The members of Foals grew up on those records, and working with them might as well have meant going into the studio with Trent Reznor or Billy Corgan. Instead of turning into a rock ’n’ roll fantasy camp, with the band ceding control to two of its heroes, the sessions ended up being Foals’ first true collaboration with the guys behind the boards.
“If anything, we’re usually too territorial and too protective,” Philippakis says. “We usually shut down ideas too quickly. That was more of the danger than becoming fan-boys. As much as we’re fans of their records, we’re probably quite difficult to work with. Because we trusted their ears and admired what they made in the past, it helped the whole process, because we were less paranoid.”
For all its sonic grandiloquence, however, Holy Fire is simultaneously the most emotionally raw Foals record yet. Halfway through recording, Philippakis — who has a reputation for being more bluntly honest in the press than in his music — detached from London life and retreated to Karpathos in rural Greece, the town where he was born, to finish writing the lyrics. “I wanted to make this record more direct and not employ as much verbal masks or tricks as I felt I had done before,” he says. “I wanted it to be vulnerable.” The relative isolation allowed him to delve deeper within himself, and pained confessions (“I’m a bad habit/One you cannot shake/And I hope that I change”) are tucked into even the album’s most explosive moments.
Because of that mix of intimacy and grandiosity, Holy Fire has been praised by many sources, including Pitchfork and the NME, as Foals’ finest work yet. Where does that leave the albums that came before, though? When a band is so dedicated to making giant leaps forward each time out, how does one maintain any sort of link to its past? For Phillippakis, the point is moot.
“I don’t think it’s important whether I feel connected to them or not,” he says of his older songs, a handful of which Foals still plays live. “I basically feel dissatisfied, essentially, when I’m not writing music. I feel restless and sort of caged. For me, making music is an addiction of the moment. I have to do it constantly. It doesn’t matter what I’ve made in the past.
“To try and tether ourselves to someone else’s idea of what music we should be making or our own idea of the past, it wouldn’t be very healthy,” he continues. “We have to be honest to the moment we’re in, whatever that may be. As long as it’s not power metal, I’m OK with it.”
Foals will perform at the Ventura Theater on Friday, Dec. 6. Tickets are $25. Visit www.venturatheater.net.