“I think it’s decent,” says Foals bassist Walter Gervers as he ushers me on board the band’s tour bus. He doesn’t have anything to worry about cleanliness-wise, though I didn’t expect to be greeted by a pair of preserved alligator skulls and a couple of matching claws that the English art-rockers picked up on a recent jaunt through New Orleans. The souvenirs are just one reminder that they’re far from their home in Oxford.
When we talk, Walter and guitarist Jimmy Smith are getting ready to play a sold-out show at New York City’s Terminal 5, where fans started lining up several hours before the doors opened. These are markers of well-deserved success. Foals’ 2008 debut album Antidotes was warmly received, but the quintet really started raking in accolades with Total Life Forever in 2010. The band graduated from spiky math-rock to a sound that’s richer, fuller, and–if you’ve seen the TV series Misfits–sexier. This combination of grandeur and intimacy continues on Holy Fire, released this February, which sees the group further refining its raw power. “The music definitely requires darkness,” Jimmy notes.
Walter apologizes for eating a sandwich in between answering questions; he’s worried about not having eaten enough before going onstage. Watching the band perform an hour later, it’s easy to see why he was concerned: Foals have one of the most physically demanding live shows I’ve seen in recent memory. While it’s only frontman Yannis Philippakis who’s throwing himself into the crowd and clambering up to the balcony to run a victory lap around the second level of Terminal 5, there’s an invisible kinetic force that connects the band. The sounds that are already inspiring on record become bigger and more visceral, landing with a lasting impact. Don’t worry if you weren’t there–Foals will bring their weird magic back to America soon, including stops at Bonnaroo and New York’s Governors Ball.
Under the watchful gaze of taxidermied eyes, I spoke to Jimmy and Walter about the making of Holy Fire, New Orleans, and ambition.
Jimmy Smith: We originally wanted human bones, because we were interested in the whole voodoo thing. We always try to make things as interesting and as unique as possible in the studio, so we were like, ‘Let’s get some bones.’ It turns out you can’t buy human bones. Well, you can in some countries, but not in England. And of course they’re very expensive, you have to know some people. So we ended up going to all the butchers in the local area and just getting a load of animal bones, and then the intern at the studio had to boil them and hose them down. It’s this huge, laborious process, and the end result wasn’t very spectacular. We finally got these bones and started hitting them together and they sounded awful.
Walter Gervers: It was quite nice, because the process of it took the entire length of the record to try to get these bones to some kind of state that we could use them as percussion. We were going to make some kind of weird mobiles that we could put over the drum kit, but that never happened, because they were in a really bad way.
JS: I think there’s still like a really big cow bone on top of the studio, which we left for the crows to pick at.
WG: There were interns arriving at the studio who kind of thought they’d be behind the desk for the week, and actually their first job was to get rubber gloves and bleach and industrial-sized pans and trying to scrub the gristle off [the bones].
JS: It was grim.
WG: But the thought was there.
JS: We tried.
Does that process say a lot about making this record as a whole?
JS: Yeah. Well, Flood and Alan Moulder did it together in their studio in Willesden and it’s a really nice studio, but it’s quite a conventional studio. So many bands go in and out of there. We did try and make efforts to make it unique and make it like home. We put in lots of plants. That actually works. We brought all these plants and kind of decked out the studio with all these creepers. They actually grew quite a lot during the three months, so that was nice. I like to think that everyone working on the record was not very conventional, even though Flood and Alan Moulder are definitely normal people.
What about investing in your own studio now that you’re this established?
JS: We’ve got a tiny one in Oxford, it’s very rudimentary. Eventually, it’s every band’s dream to have your own proper studio, but it’s very expensive, especially land prices at the moment.
What would your dream studio look like?
WG: Ideally by some sort of water so you could swim around and stuff. And it’d have a lot of bizarre, kind of useless features.
WG: The second record was made in Sweden at this place called Svenska Grammofon Studion in Gothenburg, and that was an amazing studio. That was hand-built out of an old textiles factory and that was really interesting because they’d have little holes in the wall where you could put microphones in and record the sound almost half a mile away. For me, that’s kind of an interesting studio, not a conventional layout, interesting cupboards and gear everywhere. In that studio, you’d open a door and 15 vintage synthesizers would fall out.
Do you find yourselves mythologizing the recording process?
WG: We do ourselves a little bit, definitely at the start of it. If anything, it’s more exciting for us to have some sort of communal mindset about what we’re doing. Especially this time around, there wasn’t necessarily a direct theme. Total Life Forever, lyrically, was very much inspired by what Yannis was reading about, the idea of the singularity, all this stuff we’d talked about forever in the past. This time around, there wasn’t really a specific theme. It makes it more fun when you throw yourselves ideas even within the band, we were talking about the swamp and things being stinky and heavy and muggy. Rather than mythologizing it, it makes everyone think along this similar path, even if it doesn’t actually affect song to song, everyone feels like they’re part of something.
JS: It’s almost like we’re romanticizing it.
WG: And you have to do that, because otherwise sometimes you’re just like, "We’re in a studio in London recording 14 pieces of music." So to make it, you throw things in there, because it’s a bit like being in a sort of wonderland.
You must have really loved going to New Orleans, then.
JS: Yeah. We did, actually.
WG: It’s a shame we didn’t really get to see it, though.
JS: We made serious talks about maybe doing the next record down there.
Was that your first time you’ve toured there?
JS: Yeah, the first time we played there. We actually went through there last time but we just had a night off there. Something quite special going on in that town. We had heard really good things about it. Wally went there when he was a kid. Maybe we just bought into the whole magic of the place, but it’s very lively and there are all of these great jazz and blues bands playing all over the place. And the bayou being just there…I like all of that stuff.
You like knowing that the swamps and nature could destroy you at any time?
JS: Yeah, it’s very much in touch with nature down there.
WG: It’s not often that you walk away from a city and you’re pretty much unified and everyone’s like, "We could make a record here, that would be really fun to stay here." Some cities, without naming any, [you don’t think], "I want to make an album here and stay here for four months."
JS: When you’re touring, you get touched by places. Like Bogotá in Colombia, I got touched by that place.
WG: Yeah, and like New Orleans.
JS: You can never describe what it is, some places just have a really good undercurrent, like a good vibe.
You’ve talked about being influenced by voodoo.
JS: Well, not directly. But like Wally said, we had to decide on some sort of theme or mindset to get ourselves into. Voodoo, we didn’t research any of it really, it was just a loose term. Just like the hot, swampy, sticky, magical sort of dark elements of things. Unknown stuff as well, it was just interesting to us.
Being such meticulous workers, is the ritualistic aspect appealing to you as well?
JS: Personally, for me, it was more of a sonic thing. It was a challenge, it was trying to do something musically where you don’t even know what the hell it is, like trying to make something sound voodoo-ish or swampy. We’re from Oxford, there’s not many swamps near us. But it worked, we actually did stuff, like "Let’s make a voodoo rhythm." Maybe it’s got nothing to do with voodoo, but everyone in the studio was like, "Yeah! Fuck! That’s a voodoo rhythm, it’s got the right feel." We did stuff like sampling lots of insects and putting that on the record. Most of the time, you can’t tell they’re insects, but they’re there and they create this kind of tension in the air that you get in these humid, hot places.
So you wanted this very organic feeling?
JS: Like Wally said, you don’t want to end up just recording 14 songs in a studio. We try to make it as special as possible. It helps everyone get in on one mindset. People can call us out and say, "That’s utter bullshit, what the hell are you doing, you don’t know anything about voodoo." But it’s a catalyst, something better for us.
Has that changed as you’ve grown together as a band?
JS: Yeah, definitely. We have to try to keep things interesting for us. You know, it’s the third record. We love being in the studio, and it’s never long enough when we’re in the studio, and it keeps getting longer in the studio as well. But I think we understand a lot more things about who we are and what we’re doing.
How has the way you work together changed since the beginning?
JS: It’s still pretty similar. I can’t honestly remember what it was like right at the beginning, but we still work very much as a closed unit. We also write together, the policy is whoever’s got something to bring to the table, they bring it to the table. Then we decide whether it’s good or not. We write songs individually and bring them to the band, or we write songs together as a whole band. But when we’re writing, we’re all there in the room for six months or something doing it.
Maybe sometimes you see older bands who seem like they’re becoming the same person.
JS: I think that can happen, but I think the personalities in our band are different enough and strong enough to survive anything. We’ve survived up to this point, and this is year seven, getting into year eight of being in the band, so I think we’re okay.
Oh yeah, it’s been that long. I was looking back and realized that I first heard "Mathletics" in 2006.
JS: Yeah, 2006. It doesn’t sound that long ago, but you realize that’s seven years ago now. And that’s not even the beginning. It’s going very fast.
How much do you consider ambition to be at the core of your process?
JS: Our ambition is musical, purely. We just want to keep bettering ourselves, we want to make albums we’re proud of and expand our musical minds individually and collectively as a band. We just want to keep growing, not in a size way–I don’t know if we’re hankering for success…
I meant ambition in a sonic way. Especially with the two more recent albums, these are sounds that are pushing people to reach for something higher.
WG: I always think we can do more, push ourselves further. We want to sonically explore as far as we can go, really. It’s just having the time to do it, which is a bit of a bummer. We’re always tour, and then we have to write a record, and then by the time we’re in the studio the record’s kind of old for us anyways. Then we’re in the studio, and we’re limited by time and money, and we have to go on the road again. So there’s kind of a short creative window for us. We’re talking about changing the cycle of albums and tours. We’d ideally like a bigger creative output. As a band, we have a huge creative output, but very little of it actually gets out because we have such a high quality control and a very short time window to release stuff. We’re going to try to change that. We don’t want to just keep plugging away at doing one album every two years, three radio singles, stuff like that. We want to do some interesting stuff, otherwise we just won’t survive that much longer. Collaborations? We love bouncing ideas off of other people that do the same thing.
You guys sort of have one foot in the dance world as well.
JS: Yeah, always. Edwin’s basically our foot in the dance world, he keeps us in touch with all of that stuff. That’s kind of where we came from, originally, minimal techno and krautrock.
What are some of the main differences between touring at home and touring in America?
JS: We always forgot how different America is to home.
WG: I suppose we’re still sort of learning. For us, it’s really nice, we’ve been really surprised at some of the shows recently. We’ve been to Atlanta before, and we played kind of the rock club at the edge of town where the bands go and that’s all we knew of it. We probably only played to a couple hundred people, tops, and we went back the other day and played to a thousand people in a barn, and it’s like, "Wow, that’s kind of amazing." We’re still seeing the sort of spectrum of venues, and we’re still playing smaller places as well. I suppose back home, the difference is we almost know what we’re getting. We play bigger shows and the crowds are always into it. Here, you have to work harder to impress people, I think.
JS: It’s much more diverse over here. We love touring the UK, but we’ve done it a lot. It’s very small, the drives are very short, the differences in towns isn’t that much, and we play at the same venues there. We’re at a point in the UK where we keep playing the same size venues–and we don’t need to, but we should really at some point be going to a slightly bigger venue, but that venue isn’t slightly bigger, it’s much bigger. So we’ve hit a bit of a roof in the UK, and coming here is great because we can play all sorts of different places. It’s like touring Europe in a way, but a sunnier, hotter, weirder Europe.
Holy Fire is out now on Warner.