Foals’ Yannis Philippakis Interviewed: The Brutally Honest Story Of ‘What Went Down’

“I cut my finger on a knife as a three-year-old,” says Yannis Philippakis. “I wanted to test how sharp it was, even though I was told again and again not to. My mum always talks about how I’d touch the iron. I’d burn myself on it, then I’d go back the next morning and touch it again.”

Stubborn, driven, obsessive: these memories confirm that Yannis’ difficult streak isn’t just a creation of the media. He’s always been a knife-toucher and iron-fondler; possessor of a passion that tends towards the unhinged. A week before we meet, he climbs the walls of the BBC Maida Vale studios at an Annie Mac-hosted session, then jumps off the high rails into the crowd. “In everyday life, I’m scared of heights. But when I get onstage, there’s this other person who takes over.”

It’s eight years since Yannis and Foals first skittered into our lives with their first single proper, 2007’s ‘Hummer’. Now, the 22-year-old who dropped out of his Oxford University English literature degree to get an asymmetric haircut and sing about Andy Roddick’s serve is staring down the barrel of 30. He’s still stubborn in certain ways, obsessive in others, but the story he has to tell today is about how some of his mulish masochism is being channelled into a more positive energy. How he’s finally learning to bend with things, and liking it.

Yesterday, Yannis missed his flight home from Bucharest. He’d been out partying with old buddies The Maccabees, celebrating their new Number One album. “Apparently the tour manager came in, woke me up, and my eyes were open. Then I must’ve gone back to sleep. But I have no recollection of that whole sequence.” He blames mixing booze with the sleeping pills he’s been using to take the edge off of a recent Australian tour.

We’re on a balcony at the back of the Ace Hotel, Shoreditch, drinking coffee as east London slouches off towards the horizon – a disjointed mangle of Aldgate’s plastic banker containers, the brutalist grey wicket of the Balfron Tower, the big blue igloo of the Royal London Hospital, and the 1960s Duplo stacks between them. Tomorrow, Yannis is moving house. Unlike any number of provincial bands that are straight down to London the moment they have a hit record, Yannis has retained his life in Oxford for the past eight years. But he has finally made the move to the capital, fetching up in Peckham. “I have friends down there – a lot of Oxford people have moved that way since they’ve been priced out of east London.”

When asked if he moved to be closer to anyone in particular, he elegantly dodges all mention of his private life by pointing out that he’s locked in a powerful love affair with London. Surely, Yannis, everyone’s falling out of love with London in 2015?

“Not me,” he says. “I’m just getting started. I love the pressure of it. I love the anonymity of it – that you can never be bigger than the city, no matter what you do. I started to feel a bit exposed in Oxford. It’s a small city, and I felt like I had exhausted it a bit.”

Yannis was still technically living in Oxford at the end of 2014, when Foals started laying down what became ‘What Went Down’, their August 28-released fourth album. “A lot of bands get to the fourth album, and feel like they need to ‘take a break’,” he points out, drawing a cigarette from his pack. “Recharge. Go off and do solo stuff. We were completely the opposite.” The final gig of the ‘Holy Fire’ obligations was at Bestival, last September. Within a couple of weeks, the band were back in their Oxford studio, where they spent the next six months writing.

Historically for Foals, the record-making process has been characterised by grind, self-doubt and exactly the sort of masochism streaked through the band’s leader. This time, though, Yannis began to wonder what would happen if he took the brakes off; if, instead of trying to control everything, he learned to roll with it a bit. He started reading about American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, and the idea of flinging one tin of paint across another in a sudden fury of creativity got into his head. When it’s done it’s done, leave it alone, he started to tell himself – re-working things isn’t necessarily going to make them any better.

“Look, I’m not saying the next record won’t be a detailed, obsessively reworked one,” he says. “It’s just this time, I decided to see what would happen.”

First thought, best thought?

“Right.”

Saying that, ‘What Went Down’ isn’t exactly a tin of G chords flung across a tin of E minor scales. It’s still Foals. In fact, in many ways, it’s the most Foals of all the Foals albums. It takes all of the elements we’ve seen from and stretches them in new ways. ‘Snake Oil’, for instance, is the snappy viperish rock one that practically out-Inhalers ‘Inhaler’. ‘Albatross’ is the builder that ratchets up and up, always standing on the precipice of exploding without ever jumping off that edge. ‘Night Swimmers’ takes all of the busy, intricate pastel pop energy of ‘Holy Fire’ and throws a very adult uncertainty on top of it, before diverting into a techno-tinged coda. Then, of course, there is the ‘Spanish Sahara’ of the piece: the bruising, brilliant, seven-minute closing epic of ‘A Knife In The Ocean’.

On the last couple of albums, Yannis played a game with his lyrics. He’d benchmark their quality by how uncomfortable they were to listen to in the same room as someone else. So long as they were too raw, too personal, then he’d feel like he was putting enough of himself out there.

“I think it has fundamentally altered the way I write lyrics now,” he says. “But the one shortcoming of doing that was that things ended up being maybe too direct, because I also like lyrics where one line doesn’t – to the naked eye – follow the next, so I’ve looked for more of those.”

‘Mountain At My Gates’, he says, is the best example of that – a lyric that was made up in the studio, rather than pulled from his copious journals.

A measure of Foals’ newfound spontaneity is that, despite ‘A Knife In The Ocean’’s epic length, it came together in the time it took producer James Ford to go and get his lunch. Though this was admittedly in a studio in Provence, southern France, where lunch breaks are more decadent than our own. “He came back and we had the basics all mapped out. We were tinkering with it, and he was like: ‘What’s that? That’s definitely going on the album.’”

Overall, ‘What Went Down’ is the sound of a band stepping outside of their own game, finally confident enough to let their guard down. What will it do for them? That’s harder to say: it’s not quite as chart-hungry as ‘Holy Fire’, nor as slickly critic-proof as their second.

But then, popularity doesn’t seem to be a priority right now. The Maccabees may have smashed a Number One. Foals may do so, too. “But I don’t have some ambition to be bigger than we are,” Yannis shrugs. “I just want to go out and devastate some stages. I want to get to this point where we’re this ruthless and elegant machine. My immediate desire is to be at that place where we’re the most ferocious. I want to lose myself onstage.”

In contrast to any number of bands who want to bang on to you about their touring hell, Yannis gives us pretty much the best explanation we’ve ever heard of its awesomeness. “I love the daylessness of tour. You’re on a bus, you wake up, you go to sleep on there. Time melts away, and everything funnels towards this one hour a day of the show, and that’s all that matters.”

Foals were originally pencilled in for the Glastonbury slot that The Libertines ended up playing. They turned it down. “We just weren’t ready. When we play shows… we’re not a shoegaze band, it’s a really physical thing.”

Yet for all their enthusiasm for life on the road, ‘What Went Down’ also hints at the flip-side of that. ‘London Thunder’ tackles the inevitable moment of return. “We’ve been to a lot of airports over the last few years, and sometimes there’s this cool melancholy to an airport at a certain hour of the evening,” he says. “It’s about being away and having some sort of experience that changes you, and the waiting to return, knowing that the world you’re returning to will be subtly different because you are.”

At twenty-nine, Yannis walked back through the Heathrow passport queues more times than he cares to remember. Eight years is a long time, and if you ever want to prove that fact, go back and look at the promo for ’Hummer’, which is probably what NASA would shoot into space should they ever to wish to represent 2007’s indie culture to extraterrestrial lifeforms. It’s a real period-piece, featuring as it does a young Yannis with the silly side-shaved hairdo he used to sport, doing staccato dance moves in tennis shorts, backgrounded by nu-rave primary colour filters. From his slightly mockney cawl, to the disco-happy open hi-hat, it’s very much of its time.

From 2015, it’s easy to see Foals as natural survivors who were always a cut above. But, for Yannis, it certainly didn’t feel that steady. They were hyped to the gills. They were going to save whatever it was that seemed to need saving that week (usually rock’n’roll). “From what I remember, bands like Klaxons were at the centre of it,” he says. “And we were like the mutant afterbirth.”

Did the hype ever get to you?

“I just remember feeling like things were precarious. It was like receiving compliments from an aunt who was hitting on me. I felt like it wasn’t earned. It felt arbitrary in some ways.”

Second album ‘Total Life Forever’ from 2010 – the big follow-up to 2008 debut ‘Antidotes’, the expectations ramped up – was the point where his artistic self-flagellation reached its high watermark.

“There was a lot of emphasis on ‘coming up with the goods’,” Yannis says. “On making an album that both pleased expectations and subverted them. I dunno… it just wasn’t that good a time. I was probably smoking too much pot. I was in a darkish place, and I was probably putting too much weight into the songs – over-burdening them.”

It sounds like a short-cut to depression.

“It’s a very easy way to get very depressed. Because then all you see are the limitations of what you’re doing.”

Yannis is certainly highly strung. But there’s not much that’s self-indulgent about his nervy ways. He’s still receptive – one of the few interviewees who seems to be as curious about his interviewers as they are about him. I mention his reputation as a ‘good interview’ and he looks quizzical but slightly delighted. I mention his reputation as a ‘prickly’ interview and he smiles weakly.

“Well, how would you characterise yourself?” he asks me.

There follows 20 seconds where I list all the ways I’d would characterise myself. I then mention how weird this will feel listening back to the tapes and hearing myself introspect.

“Now imagine seeing it written down,” he says.

Do you feel like you look at the person on the page sometimes and don’t recognise them?

“There is that element of me. What’s strange about the press is how it morphs things. I feel like that happens. Somebody’s personality gets filtered through other people’s expectations. There’s a perception before they’ve even met me that I’m going to be prickly and intense. Then the questions become about that. And then the answers become framed around those questions.”

Do you think you’ve modified how you want to come across in the media in recent times? Have you become more guarded?

“In the early days, I had this run of interviews where we’d been doing them all day. And I’d been drinking all day. And I just started saying exactly what I thought. Of everything. Without giving any thought of how it would look in print. Or how it would bite me in the arse. It felt like… a lot of the things I was saying were quite vitriolic. You read that back, and you start to question who you are.”

Years on, much self-questioning later, Yannis is cutting down on tearing himself up, and hitting a fresh wave of self-belief. And at the moment where most bands would be reaching the limits of their creative ambition, this one are finding gears they didn’t know he had.

“As far as Foals are concerned, I feel like best is yet to come,” he says and looks up in that steely ‘it’s not a boast to me’ Yannis way. “Definitely. We’re just at the jump-off.”