Foals are the most explosive and passionate band in the UK. With a hit new album and a massive UK tour, including a date at Wembley Arena, on the agenda, Al Horner joins them in South America as they begin their campaign for world domination…
Colombian capital Bogota sits at the feet of mountains covered in tall trees, cloaked in mist. Those mountains’ beauty would take your breath away, had the high altitude – 8,660 feet above sea level – not already done it for you. On street level, the city has an edge and bustle, its past – when drug lord Pablo Escobar’s cocaine cartel filled favelas with fear and papers with tales of murders and kidnappings – behind it, but not far. Bogota is of course totally different in 2015 – a safe, friendly place with its own vibrant culture and passionate punk community. But still – there’s a phrase the locals use, “no dar papaya”, which translates in English to “don’t give the papaya”. It means simply – unless you want trouble, keep a low profile.
Foals don’t seem to have heard this phrase, as wire-limbed drummer Jack Bevan has just barrelled out of a transit van onto a busy Bogota street impersonating a goat he saw on YouTube – one that appeared to be screaming along to ‘Chop Suey!’ by System Of A Down. “When’s a goat going to sing a Foals song?” he wonders. “That’s when we’ll know we’ve made it.”
In fairness to him, it’s pretty much impossible at this point for the Oxford indie polymaths to remain inconspicuous in South America. Foals are huge in the UK, but can still grab a sandwich at Heathrow Airport Pret A Manger relatively undisturbed. In Colombia, Foals are mobbed almost wherever they go. There are fans at the airport. There are fans at their hotel. And when we pull up to their show at the Teatro Royal in Bogota’s busy Chapinero district, where a tropical rainstorm is currently threatening to beat down, there’s a huge queue snaking around the block, chanting for the band. It’s 4pm. Doors don’t open for another four hours. Foals don’t go onstage for another eight.
The mania that greets Foals in Bogota in a way makes sense, the city’s twin beauty and grit mirrored in the sound they’ve spent a decade tending into bloom. Their newly released fourth album ‘What Went Down’ is arguably their biggest statement yet – not so much a collision of influences as a motorway pile-up of them, full of wide-screen washes of guitar and tropical indie-disco that crash into shadowy electronic throbs and gnarled rock sleaze. It’s the record that’s tipped them into an elite bracket of Britain’s biggest bands, with their biggest tour yet – including a date at Wembley – looming in February.
“It’s going to be feisty,” says frontman Yannis Philippakis, looking ahead to the tour. “We’re gonna go out there and make it savage, give it intensity, fuck shit up,” he grins. That’s far away on his horizon though. First, there’s Teatro Royal to attend to, the first date of a South American tour in front of a 4000-strong crowd so fired up you wonder if they might reduce the room to rubble. Sure enough, when the lights fall and the band charge onstage after midnight right into the lusty menace of ‘Snake Oil’, the place explodes in a fury of bouncing bodies and spinning limbs, as Foals rubber-stamp their reputation as one of Britain’s most unstoppable live acts. “Buenas noches, Bogata!” barks Yannis, before tearing through old favourites ‘My Number’ and ‘Red Sox Pugie’.
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It’s their new songs that pack the biggest punches, though: recent single ‘Mountain At My Gates’ sparks a deafening sing-along while ‘Give It All’, the album’s ballad and honeycomb heart, sounds extra poignant given tonight’s distant location: “I know you could be here with me, by the rain and the palm of the valley… But you’re there by the tube stop in the pouring rain”.
At the end of the show, Yannis throws himself into the crowd, who swarm to grab him. When Foals disappear from the stage the venue empties – but 100 or so fans aren’t done yet, and wait outside. As the band try to leave the venue at 3.30am it’s to bellows of “FOALS! FOALS! FOALS!” If the road to Wembley begins tonight in Bogota, then it’s one hell of a burst out of the starting block.
“I like to think we’re an example of how things can go right for a bunch of guys who only care about playing music, to whom everything else can just go jump in the fucking sea.” Yannis Philippakis is the first to admit that Foals are unlikely arena conquerers. This is after all the same spindly five-piece that burst out of anonymity on 2007 breakout single ‘Hummer’ beneath asymmetric haircuts, to the tune of giddy, griddy art-college dance-punk.
Since then, Foals – completed by bassist Walter Gervers, keyboardist Edwin Congreave and guitarist Jimmy Smith – have grown grander, slicker, more anthemic, but hardly gone gunning for mainstream glory. “I imagine it’d feel hollow if we’d made concessions or compromises to get here,” says Yannis. “To do that, we’d have had to, you know, actually give a shit about success, critical or commercial. Outward things like that aren’t high up on our priorities list. “We’ve just wanted to make better records, devastate better stages. We’re an example that you don’t have to be at the right party or have the right girlfriend or wear the right clothes.”
More things have gone right for Foals than they ever expected when they formed a decade ago, when their only aims were to have fun, play house parties ending in chaos and, as Yannis once put it, “rile people who didn’t like dancing and steal their girlfriends.”
Their music was where their real ambition lay. Yannis and Jack, having spent years in furrowed-browed math-rock experimentalists The Edmund Fitzgerald, wanted to make songs that were inspired by minimalist experimenter Steve Reich, Battles, techno and Afrobeat, but also had a giddy pop streak, just to piss off the pseudo-intellectual muso bores on their local scene. This is not the usual make-up of a band on their way to Wembley, NME reminds them. “Well, hang on,” deadpans Jimmy. “Maybe Ed Sheeran was trying to rip off Steve Reich when he started too.”
“Weird” is a word Foals use a lot. It’s the only word Yannis, overblown by the devotion to Foals in Colombia, can muster to describe the scene outside their hotel the next morning as more fans wait on them outside, handing the band bags of local sweets, letters and hand-made friendship bracelets. One girl even greets Yannis with a pencil portrait of his face she drew. The frontman, despite feeling under the weather, chats cheerily and poses for photos.
It’s the sort of situation that, a few years ago, would have made him tense up. Born to a Greek father and South African Jewish-Ukrainian mother, Yannis moved to England from the Aegean island Karpathos when he was five, only for his dad to return to Greece a year later. Growing up isolated in Oxford, surrounded by rich kids with whom he felt nothing in common, he developed an antagonistic, awkward streak that only years of feeling like an outsider can. “I had this chip on my shoulder,” he tells NME. “I wanted to prove something to people. I’m not even sure what.”
Yannis carried this albatross with him into Foals’ early days. When the band blew up around 2008 around debut album ‘Antidotes’ – making guest spots on hedonistic teen TV drama Skins and beginning to grace magazine covers – Yannis would get stoned “as a way of not having to deal with it,” he told the Guardian in 2010: “It felt like we were being given a compliment we didn’t deserve.” Has he overcome this mental block now? “I don’t feel like a rabbit in the headlights anymore,” he says. “There were things I wanted to prove to people. Now that’s happened, it feels good. This is not going to last forever so I don’t want to feel awkward about it.”
The early days of Foals weren’t all darkness for Yannis, though. “We saved up to buy an old Royal Mail van to tour in, which Jimmy then wrecked in a supermarket car park,” he laughs. “We were roughing it, crashing on floors each night, living out of the van, getting excited when there were more than 10 people at a show.” All these experiences, he says, make what they do now more rewarding – more real.
The next day Foals travel to Medellin. The band are here to headline Break Fest, an after-hours festival in a theme park called Parque Norte. They’re on wild form. Guitars are flung into the air, speaker stacks scaled and microphone stands kicked violently to the floor in fits of primal passion. At the climax of the perilously heavy ‘What Went Down’, Yannis somersaults backwards into the crowd, tipping fans over the edge into the sort of hysteria normally reserved for prison riots. When it’s all over, as his bandmates throw down their instruments and exit the stage to a hail of screeching feedback, Yannis lingers, soaking up the screams of the crowd, sweat pooling at his feet, his chest heaving for breath. Tomorrow, Foals do it all again.
Except Yannis might not be able to. The 29-year-old has been struggling for weeks with a suspected snapped larynx, and after the show he sits slouched in Foals’ dressing room wearing a grubby T-shirt, contemplating a “fucking heartbreaking” dilemma. He’s better than he was – two weeks ago, he sounded like “Phil Mitchell after a tracheotomy” says Jack – but he’s not good. “It’s just a really shit situation,” sighs Yannis.
“When I’m onstage I normally feel invincible, totally indestructible. I go to this intense place. It’s like canned rage. I get caught up in it. It’s not sensible, but shows are supposed to be rock’n’roll, people want to see us excited and up for it, not like I’m topping up a fucking Oyster card.”
The question facing Foals is as follows: do they go home now, disappointing fans in Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico, but allowing Yannis the chance to mend? Or does he battle through the pain against doctors’ orders, risking permanent damage to his vocal cords and putting their UK tour in jeopardy?
For the first time in their career, Foals cancel a tour. “It fucking sucks,” says Yannis. But it allows him to look ahead.
“Wembley is just a seven-letter word to me,” he insists. “But I know it means something. I’m excited about these shows. It’s going to be sweet. Playing Alexandra Palace felt big when we did it and this feels like the next step up. I do have reservations about playing arenas. For a while I guess I had this punk guilt that had me thinking, ‘How are we gonna translate our energy?’ But I just think – and I don’t want this to sound conceited – if we’re there, we’ll make it something really fucking special.” First stop Wembley – then the world. And who knows, maybe even a YouTube video where a goat screams along to one of their songs.