At The Gates Of World Domination With Foals
Foals on making the perfect album, and the entire concept behind What Went Down.
“I don’t do any of the important face-on-the-screen interviews, and in actual fact you were supposed to get Yannis [Philippakis, lead singer] and Jimmy [Smith, guitarist]... so for today you get the somewhat b-team,” says Foals bassist Walter Gervers self-effacingly while waiting to fly back to the UK to meet Jack Bevan (drums). He's leaving the rest of the group; Philippakis, Smith and Edwin Congreave (keys) in Australia to continue spruiking their most innate and visceral album yet, What Went Down, along with recently-announced headline slots at Falls and the Southbound Festivals in Australia over the New Year period.
Unlike the bass, stoking your own record doesn’t come easily to Gervers: “…when I’m put on the spot it’s like being in a record store where you forget everything you like and you can’t choose a record,” he laughs. Indecision sucks at our will to live. Should I get up? Should I bother going to uni? Should I talk to that person at the bar? But for Foals’ vision that isn’t an issue,“We’ve been quite protective and manic about the whole perception…particularly with videos and artwork. It all comes through us,” says Gevers, explaining the control began with their first music video, Balloons, directed by Dave Ma way back in 2010:
Their leader from the beginning, Gevers says, was Philippakis. There’s a quote by Ma where he said, “Yannis always had these very specific visions. I didn’t know what the fuck William Morris wallpaper was.”. Describing the video for Balloons Gervers says the relationship between Philippakis and director is key: “Yannis will have a better idea than a lot of video treatments that come in and as he is writing the lyrics there are visualisations only he can explain.” And they work well because, “...a lot of the time it’s them being over-excited as friends and having drinks together saying, ‘Lets do this!’”
And over the years Foals have had some brilliant concepts. The core group of creators are Leif Podhajsky, Neil Krug, Nabil Elderkin and Dave Ma. Podhajsky was the creative storm behind Holy Fire; designing the album (above), single, and tour artworks. Podhajsky energy hasn’t just touched Foals. He shaped Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker and Lonerism designs, Bonobo, Mount Kimbie and The Horrors to namecheck a few. Krug is the photographer behind recent photos such as the one you see at the top of this page, and also photographs A$AP Rocky, Lana Del Rey and First Aid Kit. Elderkin, better known as Nabil, has worked with James Blake, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Bon Iver. Ma has made videos for Flight Facilities, Movement and snapped shots of Diplo, Skrillex, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Bat For Lashes. Working with the best means Foals music, excellent in its own right, always packs that extra oomph.
Foals are about to release their fourth album, What Went Down, and Gervers recalls that it wasn't always going to be called that. “It wasn’t the album title till the very last minute. It was a Yannis working title, What Went Down, and it had this feral energy to it. The whole concept of What Went Down is like you’re re-telling the story of something heavy where you explain what that fight or weird experience was about.” He also speaks of the album's recording beginnings during Christmas 2014 in Oxford. “If someone wasn’t into it we’d just can it. Some ideas didn’t get past the jamming stage... There were definitely a core set of songs that we all liked and you would begin to imagine what they would sound like once they were done."
Gervers touches on how these song ideas were what they took to the south of France in the hinterlands of Marseille with producer James Ford (Florence & The Machine, Arctic Monkeys), revealing their lead single and the bone-shattering title track off almost never happened: “The song was a sketch by Yannis called Lion and another song which contained the big middle section but it was too long, lumbering and heavy. However, Ford was able to make it into the fluid beast that is What Went Down.” Despite that powerful first track, Gervers goes on to explain how it isn't all massive riffs and cataclysmic breakdowns.
Indeed another track from the album, Give It All, is possibly Foals at their most gentle. It creates this beautiful eye of the storm moment after What Went Down and Mountain At My Gates. Albatross follows and Gervers clarifies it’s not a reference to the Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner but, “We thought you couldn’t call a song albatross because loads of people have a song called albatross. But it just stuck for so long that we couldn’t call it anything else.” Albatross gradually pushes you out of eye of the storm Give It All creates and back into the tempest. It gracefully rises much like Foals' others songs work, but without the brutality behind it. And then the wild sea winds kick in with the bass drum and chorus.
But is What Went Down the pinnacle of Foals' work? Gevers hesitates, “It’s hard to say because it’s an on-going process, records are such a fragment of time, you tour it for two years, you’re exhausted and then you start afresh.” And starting anew you bring your insecurities, worries and desires into the next album: “…You’re forever trying to correct yourselves and that’s the beauty of the greatest records. Everyone’s greatest records are all flawed slightly in places, that’s what makes them special.”