Foals - Yannis Philippakis on “What Went Down”
Oct 16, 2015
Issue #54 - August/September 2015 - CHVRCHES
Oxford quintet Foals have achieved a rare feat over the course of three albums—they've managed to expand their artistic horizons while maintaining many of their signature moves, all the while broadening and challenging their audience. On their fourth album, What Went Down, their trademark lacerating guitars and crashing staccato riffs are still abundant, but they're leavened by dynamic numbers such as the ethereal "A Knife in the Ocean," with its coruscating Tibetan bells building to a sublime burst of white noise, and the slinky, groove-driven lament "Birch Tree." Many of these newfound accoutrements can be attributed to the production of James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine), according to frontman Yannis Philippakis.
"He brought more of a focus onto the craft and songwriting, a classic kind of songwriting, which was the most alien thing for us," says Philippakis. "There was still time in the studio to get weird, but it allowed us more time for experimentation. He was very stabilizing. He kept the morale good. We have a tendency to let things get dark in the studio. He came into the room to keep the pH at the right acidity."
And indeed, Ford coaxed a certain divine alchemy from the band, rounded out by bassist Walter Gervers, drummer Jack Bevan, keyboardist/guitarist Jimmy Smith, and keyboardist Edwin Congreave. However, another sea change for the act was a shift in Philippakis' lyrical approach. He sought to write from a more subconscious level, adhering to a first thought/best thought edict.
"I got interested in presenting the spasms from my consciousness without really actively writing stuff down or crafting it into narrative," he admits. "I wanted it to be a snapshot of something just cut out. I wouldn't try to polish it, or make it explain itself."
This method pays dividends for Philippakis throughout What Went Down, particularly on the title track, which finds him in full-on speaking in tongues mode, bleating contemptuously, "When I see a man I see a liar" with such conviction that you believe him, no matter how dark the sentiment.
Or on "Albatross," as he incants, "You've got a hundred broken wishbones under your bed/You've got a hungry green-eyed monster that you keep fed," with fervent, bone-rattling bile. "It's about wrestling with your destructive tendency," says Philippakis of the track. "It's not necessarily me in the song. It's a part of your inner monologue. It's a wider level of what it is to be a human being and part of this species and having inherited something as beautiful as a body and organs and a beautiful environment, which is our planet, and yet to still have this self-destructive voracious appetite which will leave wreckage in its path."
Listening to What Went Down, it, even more than Foals' prior work, feels tailored to be heard live in a sweaty club or festival setting. And while Philippakis loves the visceral connection of the band's live shows, he feels as though the most important aspect of what he does are the moments personal to the listener. "The greatest power as a musician is all the moments you don't know about, what it's been party to," he says. "Moments when someone's listening on a morning commute, or a 15-year-old is mowing his grandma's lawn for a buck. Just someone who's finding solace in your music. All the intangible moments that you'll never know about. That's the deeper connection. Even though I can't be privy to those moments, I know our music's connected to the unknowable masses out there. And that's what's beautiful about music, the power for it to commune with people in their most intimate moments."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September 2015 Issue, which is on newsstands now. This is its debut online.]
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