The Big Read – Foals: “The only thing anyone can express right now is confusion”

Having lost their most grounded member, bassist Walter, there have been major changes in the Foals camp since 2015's 'What Went Down'. But the group have pulled together and returned with a razor-sharp pair of albums, 'Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost', the first part of which is out today. Andrew Trendell met Yannis and co to talk about friendship, ambition, AI and how to thrive in the messy world we live in.

Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis stubs out his cigarette, steps into a South London photo studio and casually drops a duffel bag to his feet.

“I’ve brought some shirts,” he beams.

Unzipping the bag, he shows off a series of vintage and designer silk items – some with ‘80s geometric patterns, others with vivid floral designs, one surreal piece that features a flying lamb, another with an action-packed tennis scene. Each is as garish and bafflingly beautiful as the last. It’s a look he describes as “post-oligarch peacockery”.

Fitting with the stylish grooves and fantasy imagery of their first of two new albums for 2019, ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost: Part 1’, the cosmic shirts are shared among the band for today’s NME cover shoot (their seventh in 11 years) – and they prove an effective uniform for the four very different personalities in the band. Yannis is a laugh, but known to be spiky and take no prisoners. Guitarist Jimmy Smith is cool and collected. Keyboardist Edwin Congreave is an introvert. Drummer Jack Bevan is the band’s excitable puppy.

Bassist Walter Gervers (who Yannis describes as “the counsellor”) amicably parted ways with the band last year. This marked his end on Foals’ quite surprising journey, having surpassed his and all others’ expectations of what they could achieve.

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

The awkward but adventurous squawking math-rock of Foals’ 2008 debut ‘Antidotes’ set these five arty Oxford lads apart from the trilby-topped arse-end of landfill indie. The more lush colours of 2010 follow-up ‘Total Life Forever’ showed that they were far more than a passing fad. On 2013’s ‘Holy Fire’ and 2015’s ‘What Went Down’, they piled on layers of prog, pop, funk and hard arena-rock muscle to become indie’s unlikely champs – selling out Wembley Arena and co-headlining Reading & Leeds Festival in 2016.

Recent years have seen friends and peers such as Wild Beasts and The Maccabees call it quits. With Gervers’ departure to pursue a more adult and family-based life, one can’t help but wonder if that caused difficult questions to be asked about Foals’ future.

“You mean, ‘Who else was lining up along the plank with him?’” asks Yannis with a smirk. Jack follows: “Well, immediately when he told me I kind of shit myself a little bit. I freaked out thinking someone else would jump ship.”

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

Back in January, Yannis and Jack came down to NME Towers for one of their first interviews about the new records. After procuring the vodka and soda Yannis requested, we sat down to discuss the immediate aftermath of Walter’s departure.

“We had to recalibrate,” said the singer. “It was challenging, but it was also exciting. We couldn’t just rely on the old methods in the way that we’ve written. Going to Oxford and just bashing things out in a room wasn’t going to work in the same way. That spurred us on to approach it differently.”

Speaking of their departed friend, Bevan continued: “If you were to look at it as a family, and I’ve seen about 100 times more of these guys than I have my actual family over the last 10 years, then Walter was kind of like the dad or much older brother who kept us from fighting with each other. A lot of the time, he was the one who would organise us to do nice and wholesome activities.”

How wholesome?

“Well, the pub is about as wholesome as it got,” replies Yannis.

It’s a common theme. Months later, we’re finishing up our high-street family photo studio-inspired shoot, when Yannis decides it’s time to decamp to the pub. “This is the first time we’ve all been interviewed together in a long while,” he tells me as we leave, describing how they usually prefer to be spoken to separately so they can all get a word in.

After a quick internet search we settle for The Tankard on the Walworth Road. It’s an apt, if unremarkable, location for the interview: Philippakis penned a great deal of the lyrics for ‘Everything Not Saved…’ in South London boozers, and the band wrote, recorded and self-produced the albums down the road in Peckham, where they all now live, rather than in residential studios abroad as was their habit.

“When we did ‘Total Life Forever’ we were living in barracks above a studio, like a ship’s cabin, and it drove us all insane,” remembers Jack. “Yannis didn’t really leave the studio for two weeks…”

“Yeah, I ate Pad Thai for 11 days straight,” laughs the frontman. “I went mad like King Nebuchadnezzar”. You know, that’s King Nebuchadnezzar, the Neo-Babylonian king who lost his mind and started eating grass like an ox after learning the true power of God. Of course.

Instead of hibernating, stewing in their own stir-fried juices and chewing cud, the band this time fed off “the sense of freedom, time and space” that came from working in their yard. “There’s a lot of good creative energy in Peckham,” says Yannis. “It’s multi-cultural, it’s young, it’s exciting, it’s a changing place. Not all of the changes are for the good, but it’s got life and it’s far from a static suburban neighbourhood.”

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

Enjoying life between their nearby homes, their Copeland Park studio and the ever flourishing landscape of new bars, pop-up restaurants and even a saki factory, the bohemian mecca of Peckham fuelled the band’s latest of many reinventions – creating two separate but connected bodies of work that take in Balearic beats, sci-fi synths, prog rock riffs and a touch of the cinematic. These are feel-good jams for a not-so-distant dystopian future.

“We’re not a one-dimensional band,” asserts Philippakis. “There’s a cockiness in feeling like we can put our hand to a variety of ways of expressing what we want, while still in some way being identifiably Foals. There’s a freedom in that. The fan base is one that’s grown with us. They expect these jumps and expect something new.”

From the quirks and bounce of their sound to the crowd-invading carnage of their live shows, there’s always been an effervescence and urgency to Foals that feels youthful. Now they’re striding into their 30s and entering the ‘indie institution’ territory that comes with being on your fifth or sixth album. Has being a band allowed them a Peter Pan-like existence as they grow old?

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

“How very fucking dare you?!” blurts Yannis Phillippakis, 32. Alright, but what I meant was, is the idea of Foals forever young, does it change with time, or do they grow into something – like how Nick Cave, Elbow and Radiohead have grown into themselves and sit more comfortably with maturity?

“What we have is precious: to be in a guitar band that’s still relevant and at its creative peak,” says Yannis. “We’re much more aware of that now than when we were young. We have an understanding that what we have is special and worth fighting for – particularly in the current musical landscape.”

Paraphrasing IDLES’ recent album title, Yannis concludes: “Actually playing guitars and working in the way that we do is kind of an act of resistance.”

Foal NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

‘Resistance’ is a perfect word for the spirit of Foals in 2019, having created their most reactionary record yet, and one that’s very much of its time. Lead single ‘Exits’ paints an upside down world where the weather’s against us, the birds are all dead and we live in fear of constant surveillance. Album highlight ‘In Degrees’ details the “alienation and social dislocation” of modern life. ‘Sunday’ tells of hope amid this shitty Brexit legacy where “our fathers run and leave all the damage they’ve done behind”.

Of the themes of the record, Yannis links ‘Everything Not Saved…’ back to ‘Total Life Forever’s preoccupation with the clash of humanity and technology, and particularly its title track, which concerns the singularity.

This is normal pub chat for Foals, but for those less familiar with scientific doomsaying, the singularity is the belief that artificial intelligence will soon surpass human intelligence, and the two will co-exist in a new reality that challenges our comprehension of what it is to be alive.

Author and futurist Raymond Kurzweil predicts that this Terminator-like happening will go down before 2045. “I remember thinking back then that they were quite distant, dystopian ideas,” says Yannis. “Now 10 years since we wrote that album, a lot of those themes are real.”

“Broadly speaking the internet is an incredible access to knowledge. All of the results of that and social media have a sense of utopia with regards to the technological processes that have occurred. As we’re aware, there are so many dark sides. There’s no way that A.I. is just going to be this great and benevolent thing. Even Elon Musk is afraid of it.”

Bevan agrees: “I read an article today about some US scientists who got A.I. to learn psychopathic behaviour from Reddit posts. That’s terrifying.”

Too right. This is no longer just the chatter of the Matt Bellamy types and tinfoil hat wearers. Black Mirror has shown us how this very real anxiety of the 21st Century is only ever a few steps away. While ‘Everything Not Saved’ is steeped in what Yannis calls “the post-millennial dread that everyone’s swimming in”, it’s not an album that offers any answers. He’s keen to stress that they’re not dabbling with “party politics, poll tax or Thatcher” but rather mirroring the mood of “discontent, disquiet and feeling ambivalent and troubled”.

How can you opt for sloganeering in such fractured times? “The only thing you can express is confusion,” concludes Yannis. “It makes the record a more valuable artefact. You can be a kid listening to it Venezuela or you could be mowing your gran’s lawn in Connecticut and the themes translate. We’re all in the same boat.”

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

Another bearded philosopher who said we’re all in this together was Jeremy Corbyn. Back in 2017, Yannis told NME of the “galvanising” effect of the Labour Leader as a “sincere politician acting in the interests of young people and wider society”. Do they feel as if Corbyn is living up to the hope he first offered?

“I can’t necessarily speak at large, but I’d say that my close-knit group of friends were certainly excited about Corbyn,” he says now. “There were things that we would have liked him to have done that he hasn’t done. As with any politician, you get swept up in the hype when actually, they all let you down.”

Edwin interrupts: “That’s not true. Loads of politicians don’t let you down.”

Yannis submits: “There’s just that type of hype around a politician. When you believe that they’re going to save us. The problems that politicians are facing these days… I wouldn’t want to be a politician, would you?”

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

The band are all too aware that the music industry is also in a state of confusion, particularly with what ‘success’ really means in 2019. “Isn’t it all in the algorithm?” asks Yannis. “That’s depressing”.

The sun was setting on the glory days of physical sales when they dropped debut ‘Antidotes’ over a decade ago, and now they find it “impossible to see the goal posts” – well, commercially at least.

Have they ever felt the urge to chase the streams and bang out a catchy, poppy ‘My Number’ or two? “That would be game over,” says Jimmy, before Yannis concedes that “if we wanted to play that game, then I’m sure we could. We’ve seen how other acts operate and we’re not like that,” he goes on. “We manage to do well despite that.”

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

All of Foals’ albums to date are certified Gold in the UK, and three out of four have hit the Top Five. There’s no shame in their attempts to make music that “has the potential to be appreciated by everybody,” Yannis says, as “there’s no romance or anything creatively interesting in making us a niche cult band”.

While they say they just follow art and that chart positions are “just vapour for the record label to worry about”, do they think they finally bag a Number One album this time? “I was actually going to buy ‘The Greatest Showman’ on the week that our record came out,” says Bevan.

And what about Glastonbury? Is headlining that a tangible marker of ‘Big Band Success’ or are they comfortable with this summer’s top slots at more modest festivals like Boardmasters and Truck?

“Headlining Glasto is the highest and most special show you can do,” says Jimmy, humbly. “But it has to be the right time. You don’t want to blow your load too soon.”

Perhaps Glastonbury 2020 will be their year. With follow-up ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 2’ dropping in October, it seems that they could well have the momentum behind them. Described as “two halves of the same locket”, there are tensions and themes that bind the albums, but ultimately ‘Part 2’ is set apart to “contrast and give a different energy to the period”. They tell us that the sister LP is “like a second round of ammo”, “a little more blistering” and “captures the vibe of their live shows” like never before. It ends in an unedited 10 minute wig-out.

“One of the things that we feel that we’ve struggled with before is that our creative desire and ambition has not been able to be conveyed on a 40 minute, 10 track album,” says Yannis, now well-rehearsed in his spiel for the two records. “What you end up having is a sacrifice to make this condensed statement. With this approach, we can finally convey the full artistic vision of the band with two statements that are vital and powerful and not in any way compromising.”

This year The 1975 will release new album ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’ within 12 months of last year’s ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’. So this move wasn’t just a bid to outdo them?

“We didn’t actually know they were doing that,” replies Yannis, “But then you look and see that since then Ariana Grande has said she’s doing two, Marina [formerly ‘And The Diamonds’] too in a way, and Vampire Weekend have made a 17 track record. It’s all a response to the fact that the consumption of art now is so rapid that you have to feed the beast.”

Bevan claims that they may very well take the two album approach again in the future, admitting that it may be “too hard” to go back to editing their vision down to a dozen tracks. You’re gonna be hearing a lot of Foals, and not just from inside the band.

Yannis has been working on an EP of material with renowned Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen in Paris. Before that, he returned to his ancestral home of Karpathos in Greece to hang out with his dad and visit his “favourite place” – their family’s third generation coffee shop Cafe Philippakis. “It’s quite spartan, anything goes,” he tells us. Anything? “Well not anything at all, actually – it’s quite strict. Lots of Cutty Sark whiskey. Lots of cigarettes”.

Meanwhile, Jimmy tells us of his progress making a record about a cosmonaut lost in space. “Why not an astronaut?” probes a curious Yannis. “Because I like the imagery of the Soviet space race,” Smith replies. “Something that really stuck with me is that during the space race in America, lots of monitoring stations picked up distress calls from Russian cosmonauts lost in space. They were just pleading in Russian, and that was the last anyone heard of them before they just disappeared out of the orbit. What must those people have felt like to not only be abandoned by your country, but the whole fucking planet?”

“Do you ever feel that way, Jimmy?” asks Yannis as he laughs across the pub bench.

“Sometimes, yes. Imagine feeling something so horrible all whilst looking at something so beautiful.”

In another unusual extracurricular move, Edwin has rejoined academia and has spent the past few years “doing a degree in maths very slowly” in his spare time. “The music industry isn’t the place for mental activity, and I could feel my brain slowly falling apart,” says the keyboardist. “I found myself getting quite concerned. I took some remedial action and five years later I’m still doing this sodding degree.”

Yannis chuckles and says of his bandmate: “We’ve come off stage drenched in sweat, there’s a bottle of bourbon getting necked, then within five minutes of us playing ‘Two Steps, Twice’ Edwin will be dry as a bone with his nose in a book. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And finally to Jack, who says he says his next venture is most likely behind the grill. “At some point I’m going to go down the celebrity chef route. Smokey Jack’s BBQ would be a good name, or Saucy Jacks”.

Foals NME Big Read
Photo Credit: Fiona Garden

Pints are downed and cigarettes finished as we wrap up by brainstorming more potential names for Jimmy’s Russian space record and Jack’s BBQ pit. ‘Post Yuri’ and ‘Food Is Good’ are among the best. These hobbies, projects and dreams exaggerate the differences between this motley crue, but there’s a brotherly tie and unspoken understanding that creates a singularity all of its own.

“Walter was probably the nicest member of Foals, so without him, you’re left with four sharp edges in a room,” laughs Yannis. “Those sharp edges have to find a way to get on quite quickly or the whole thing turns into an unbearable nightmare.”

Not everything can be saved, but Foals seem to have made it. Nightmare averted and amid all other chaos, they are totally in sync: one man down but closer than ever, four friends with one unbreakable bond, two albums with one vision. They’re the nuclear family that refused to implode.

‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1’ by Foals is out now.

Photography Fiona Garden, Art Direction and Creative Stying Emily Barker.