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Interview: Foals

Foals 2015 PRESS SHOT 2

Foals have this aura of being an incredibly intense act. There’s an image portrayed of this bunch of manic but brooding individuals from Oxford who have gone from creating live dance punk to trash a house party to, to crafting some of the most lucid and crushingly expansive indie-rock of the past decade.

Speaking to Foals’ drummer Jack Bevan on the phone about their upcoming release What Went Down then, it felt both refreshing and jarring to be met with a relaxed yet chirpy voice on the other side. On the subject of change, writing, dynamic and everything that was poured into the new album, Bevan comes across as excited and casual, candid and friendly. Throughout the interview there’s a sense that I’m talking to someone who, along with his band, has settled completely into the groove of his goals. Foals want to make the music they want to make, they know what they like, they know what they can do and they know how to manipulate it. There’s no room left for nonsense with this band. Over the course of a relaxed and enlightening chat, I learned how Foals abandoned rigidity, chose to embrace what’s natural and just wrote great songs.

Hey Jack. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. How are you doing?

Hi! Yeah I’m good! The sun is shining, I’ve got a day off. Can’t complain.

Great. So, the album is coming out in about two and a half weeks. You must be really excited? There’s been quite a huge amount of hype being built around it, the three songs that have come out already have been huge, and they’ve been going down incredibly well live. Are you just itching to get it out there in full at this stage or is this more of a nice sort of calm before the storm?

To be honest I think we’ve been itching to get it out for a couple of months now. We finished it a lot quicker than we thought we were going to and it’s been hard to sit on it for so long. You know, I want people to be as excited about it as I am when it comes out. Sometimes, if you sit on a record for so long once it’s made, by the time it’s out you already want to make another one. What I’ve tried to do this time in order to keep myself as excited about it as I was three months ago is just not listen to it. That way once it comes out I’ll be able to properly get back into it.

So it will be totally fresh for you as well.

Yeah, exactly.

On the subject of how quickly it was made. Do you think writing it so quickly – right off the back of the last tour – was an influence on how it ended up sounding? I’ve always found that your recorded music has been trying to catch up, in a sense, with your live show. Songs like ‘Two Steps Twice’ and ‘Electric Bloom’ for example seem to have evolved to become these monstrous live tracks whereas they were a little bit more subdued on record. Maybe the violence and rawness of the live show made it’s way into the recording of the new album due to how soon after the tour it was?

Maybe! I mean, the record was made quickly by today’s standards but bands like The Beatles would always write and record records so quickly. These days I think bands can get too much of an easy time and take too long make records. We finished touring at Bestival last year in September and then we took a month off. We said that after a month of a holiday and a chill out we’d have a few practices and if they went well we would just crack into writing. Within a month we were rearing to go! I think coming straight from tour and into the studio definitely drove that live energy out of us and into the writing. I think that was exciting because when you get too disconnected from performing live you can kind of forget about the live show to the point where you can’t feel excited while playing.

I heard that when recording the title track ‘What Went Down’, the version you ended up using of the track was more or less one of the first takes that you recorded. Similarly, that you became perhaps less obsessive over very particular sounds. This new found ferocity and forward momentum in the creative process has undeniably lead to a change in your sound and dynamic. Despite that though there’s no denying that there is a definite Foals sound that stays. Do you think that it maybe took you this length of time constantly working together as a band to learn how to strike that balance between pure, straightforward songwriting and maintaining your own distinct sound?

Well, I think there are always going to be kids who have that teenage connection with Antidotes, in the same way I would have with records from when I was that age. I guess that personal connection makes some people sort of adverse to change. I love the Math Rock genre and I’m still adamant that we made music in that genre. Now though it’s more satisfying for me to listen to great songs rather than to listen to complicated riffs. I don’t know if that’s because I’m older or because I’ve just been exposed to so much of that kind of music. But you know, I think we’re always going to have that influence in us. I just think that now we’d just rather do something that’s more communicative in a more direct way. I don’t think we ever consciously tried to tone down the sound so that more people would like it. We just grew tired of making particular stuff for the sake of cleverness. Now it just feels a lot more natural and organic. I think we’ve probably just changed as people over the years.

Foals 2015 Press Shot (credit Nabil Elderkin)

It definitely does seem that there’s a lot to do with what comes naturally, irrespective of genre, in what you’re doing now. If it’s a good song, it’s a good song. If it hits certain points in a person then that’s the main thing. There isn’t as much a need for extra fluff. With your music it’s always seemed like there’s an aim to maintain a very particular pulse with elements of House or Afro-beat being there throughout the albums. Those sounds hit people and trigger a lack of inhibition maybe. Has this been a conscious element?

Within the band we all like a lot of different types of dance music, yeah. As the drummer I think that that pulse element is the most satisfying thing. It’s really hard not to dance to something with a 120 BPM pulse, it’s just where dance music comes from. I think in the first album we maybe overused it. On Total Life Forever I tried to tone it back and incorporate more variation. Now it just feels that whatever suits a song is what matters most, rather than worrying about what sounds similar to what we’ve done in the past. It’s almost like we’ve gone full circle; going from wanting to create full-on dance music like on the first record, to trying to take it away, and now reaching a point where we’re comfortable doing either.

Doing whatever feels innate at a time I suppose? I heard that ‘A Knife in the Ocean’ was written at the very end of the writing process of the album. Once all the weight and pressure was taken off for you to write something, this song just came out from a jam. This enormous album closer just happened?

It was literally our last day of writing the record, just before we were going to pack down and ship the gear off to France. Yannis had had this riff which would always pop up when we jammed but nothing had ever come of it – it’s this noodly bit just before the first chorus of the song now. We just started jamming on that and Jimmy started adding some chords over it. We played it solidly for like half an hour. Jimmy came up with this twangy guitar sound which became part of the chorus. It literally wrote itself! Only a few songs have ever done that within the band. The ones that have done that have always been my favourite. ‘My Number’ did the same thing on the last record. We wrote the whole thing in about two hours and we never really changed anything about it. I think because of that we can only ever look at it positively.  Other songs took a bit of a while to get right. There was a lot of thinking with them and changing bits around. Sometimes it feels a bit more like hard work.

How significant was producer James Ford’s influence on putting together the new album and on that whole process then?  

I think the number one biggest feature of James’ production for us as a band was his sheer level of musicality. He really is just a musical wiz. He can play everything. None of us are trained musicians and up until now I guess we had never really questioned certain things. We’d be playing something and then we’d be like, ‘This is feeling really good, but why doesn’t it feel any good when we go back to the verse?’ None of us would be able to work it out, just because we don’t have that level of musical knowledge. James would just say, ‘That’s because you need to go this chord, then it will make sense’, and it would just work! It was really influential to Jimmy especially because he’s kind of the chord guy in the band and now he’s just much more accomplished with stringing them together. James is also just really good with trimming the fluff of the edges, asking us ‘Why do you need this bit in the song?’ Sometimes in the band there might be a little section that one or two of us really like but that ultimately doesn’t really add to a song. He’s very good at emphasising certain elements or subtracting parts that weren’t actually making the song any better.

Like having a bit of a musical guru helping you through the whole process? 

He’s not the sort of producer who just steamrolls in and tries to re-invent the wheel. It’s not an ego thing. He’s just a very well educated and down to earth guy. Really easy to get along with. It was just a really pleasant experience. Everyone just wanted the same thing, to make the record the way it is. Not to change too much but to just push us where we needed to be pushed.

Leading everyone to bring the best out in each other in the band I guess.

Yeah, and that’s exactly what a producer should do.

Aside from all that then, the videos released alongside the three tracks we’ve heard so far have also been absolutely spectacular.  The video for the title track was directed by Irish director Niall O’Brien and it’s pretty incredible. How did he get involved in the project? Did the band have much involvement in the process of making the video?

Yannis had this idea of the video needing to be filled with suspense. Niall came to us with the idea of this chase happening that just felt like it fit the mood of the song perfectly. This idea of something constantly building, getting more intense. The violence as well. Alongside that we also definitely wanted to be performing in the video as it’s already coming across as one of our best live songs. We shot it in two halves. The performance parts were recorded in London and then they went away to shoot the lake scene and the dog scene. We were debating whether to just go with the performance footage because Yannis just really went for it, smashing his face into a mic, bleeding everywhere. But then when Niall came back with the other bits we were just bowled over. It was exactly what we wanted the outcome to be. We were just really chuffed with that video.

So really things just seem very positive for Foals at the minute. Everyone is super excited for what’s coming up and it all just seems brilliant and positive!

It is really exciting. It’ll be great to come back to Ireland soon too. It’s always pretty nuts!

At this point I thank Jack again for taking the time to speak to me, though he is insistent on thanking me for chatting to him. I tell him that we’re all incredibly excited for the new album and are ready to welcome Foals back to Ireland with open arms when they return. The giddiness and readiness to unleash that album on us all is palpable in his voice. Foals are ready to tear us to bits with smiles on their faces.

Foals play Dublin’s 3Arena on Wednesday, February 10.