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Interview: Foals’ Yannis Philippakis on their new album, ‘What Went Down’.

Interview: Foals’ Yannis Philippakis on their new album, ‘What Went Down’.

Foals aren’t the kind of guys to mess around. It was a matter of days between the fuss-free announcement of fourth studio album ’What Went Down’ and the release of the lead single of the same name, back in June of this year.

Later that week, we spoke to frontman Yannis Philippakis in a sun-­trap courtyard above the band’s North London rehearsal studios. Despite being keen to get back on the road with it, Yannis had plenty to say about the phenomenal new album, including what it has in common with a couple of sea creatures and whether he’ll ever be sure what his cat thinks of it...

I got really interested in the moments when you’re falling asleep and the way that your brain shouts strange thoughts out. I was quite interested in trying to capture the weird expressions that come from the back of your brain...” 

COUP DE MAIN: You’ve started the promo for ‘What Went Down’ quite suddenly. Was it a conscious choice to be really direct with that? ‘Cause a lot of people have done really complex campaigns recently.
YANNIS PHILIPPAKIS: Sometimes before we’d finished the record and we’ve had to kind of sit and wait for ages and the rollout has been slow. This time we just wanted just to just get things out as quick as possible, so hopefully there’ll be another two tracks coming off the record soon. We wrote the record quicker as well. I just think things don’t need to take so long, you know?

CDM: Was it a natural progression from ‘Holy Fire’ or do you see the new album as quite a distinct thing in itself?
YANNIS: It is distinct in itself but I don’t think that it’s as big a jump in some ways sonically as there’s been before. I think that in some ways it’s just putting things that have been on the other records in sharper focus. We were trying to push different things outward and on this record they’ve come into better balance. It’s been quite natural and we were writing bits of it while we were still on tour so I feel like it’s probably more connected to ‘Holy Fire’ than say, 'Holy Fire' was to ‘Total Life [Forever]’ or ‘Total Life’ was to ‘Antidotes’.

CDM: So you were recording in Provence in France, and you’ve said it was a much less oppressive environment to work in, but then a much heavier sound came out of that. Were those two things connected at all?
YANNIS: I think the thing about the heaviness is there’s actually only two really heavy tracks, and because we write everything in Oxford, that’s more what really informs it. The environment where the studio is is not actually as important as the environment that we write in. In terms of the heavier songs, I think those are the ones that have been fed by the live energy and the fact that we didn’t stop and take time out, we were still buzzing off the accelerated rhythm of touring and craving more moments like that in the set. We were playing ‘Inhaler’ live and it’s such a physical rush. Having said that, I think also this record has some of the best quieter songs that we’ve written and the most tender songs. I think the record’s diverse. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what affected which thing. We like to explore as many different tangents as we can.

CDM: So was ‘London Thunder’ inspired by missing home?
YANNIS: I moved to London kind of recently and it’s strange that I was in London but missing Oxford, but also just missing being at home. That song as much as anything is about moments at airports where it’s really melancholic. When they’re quiet and they’re kind of empty at night, and being on a long distance plane and coming on your way back home and knowing that you’ve changed while you’ve been away.


CDM: Anyone who follows your Instagram knows that you have a cat - is she in London with you?

CDM: Do you play any of your music around your cat?
YANNIS: I do, yeah! I wrote quite a few things with Pigeon around. It’s quite hard to tell [whether she likes it], ­[cats] don’t have a great sense of humour!

CDM: We’ve heard one track so far; ‘What Went Down’. You mentioned [producer] James Ford really pushed you to give a “berserk” vocal on that. How did his influence shine through on other songs on the album?
YANNIS: He would always try and push us a little bit further than we thought we could go. The other thing that he really emphasised was decision-making. We’re quite bad at making decisions and we like to put things off and we like to romanticise looseness and chaos, and leaving it up to chance. He was definitely somebody that was, like, 'That’s great, but let’s make some decisions.' With Flood and Mulder on the last record, we were allowed to indulge all of that type of stuff. Instead James would be like, 'No, let’s just make a decision.'

CDM: The video for ‘What Went Down’ is really intense and visceral. What were the ideas behind it?
YANNIS: You know when you watch an Attenborough? Or a wildlife programme? You’ve got an animal like a lion. It’s tensed and it’s watching its prey, and the moment it charges in to chase its prey... the song feels like that moment. [The director] wanted the video to emphasise that element of attack and the pursuit. Something that’s kind of violent and visceral.

CDM: So, if the album was an animal, it would be a predator?
YANNIS: I think the album as a whole’s, like, something that’s more multicoloured and can shape-shift or change, so it’d be an octopus or like, a cuttlefish. What’s always tricky is people have heard one song which is kind of misleading. That song is the most intense song on the record and then you get people thinking, oh, like, Foals are making a metal record or something. We’re not the kind of band where one song determines the palette of the whole record.


CDM: My favourite track from the listens I’ve had so far is ‘Mountain At My Gates’, which isn’t one of the heavier ones. It seems to be about struggling to make progress and overcoming obstacles. Did you find there were any moments in the making of the album that those lyrics rang true for you?
YANNIS: There’s always a challenge making an album - ­ it’s never an entirely easy process, so it could be a metaphor for making a record in a way. That song wasn’t written that consciously. That image just sort of came out. We were actually rehearsing for something else and I had the riff. That first line just came out kind of fully formed. I hadn’t planned it and it was just, like, “I see a mountain at my gates.” For me, it is to do with obstacles. I was talking to James Ford about it ­ I was like, 'It’s to do with this ominous thing that you’ve got to overcome and it’s this huge, impenetrable challenge,' and he was like, 'I don’t hear that at all.' For me it’s this pastoral, natural scene. It’s strange with lyrics how, you know...

CDM: People can read them so differently?

CDM: Do you feel like your lyrical process has changed much with this record?
YANNIS: There’s different ways of answering that question. A lot of the songs aren’t tangibly about one thing. I got really interested in the moments when you’re falling asleep and the way that your brain shouts strange thoughts out. I was quite interested in trying to capture the weird expressions that come from the back of your brain. Songs like ‘A Knife In The Ocean’, ‘Albatross’ and ‘What Went Down’ ­- those kind of lyrics come from somewhere that’s quite unconscious, and I was excited by that. I didn’t want to try and polish it and try and write too obvious a narrative with it. I feel like the lyrics led the songs a lot more than they have done in the past. The lyrics had power over the music.

CDM: ‘A Knife In The Ocean’ is your longest track yet. It’s quite a bleak end to the album lyrically, ­ “Now that we’re older, the future is colder.” Is that coming from a sense of “where do we go now?”
YANNIS: Not as a band but maybe as a species or as a person.

CDM: Coup De Main is a New Zealand based magazine ­- do you have any plans to head out there?
YANNIS: Yeah, we’ll definitely go out there. We’ve been out there a few times. We’ve done some festivals and then we played a show in Auckland last year that was great. I really like it out there so we’ll definitely be going. I don’t know when, but we’ll definitely go! We’re quite restless to start touring again. I wanna get onstage again ­ I miss being onstage! Other than that I just wanna make another record. We’re ambitious but it’s creative ambition, a creative appetite that’s always there. I’d be quite happy to start writing another record right now.

CDM: I bet your label must be relieved by that?
YANNIS: I dunno, I think they find it frustrating because I’m like, “Oh, can we put out some of the songs now,” and I wanna get in the studio again. The main thing is just wanting to make more music and wanting to be onstage.

Foals’ new album ‘What Went Down’ is out now - click HERE purchase it via iTunes, and click HERE to read our review.

Watch the ‘Mountain At My Gates’ music video below…

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