Blue Monday – the third Monday in January – is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. This is said to be due to crap weather, broken New Year’s resolutions and the festive spirit having faded, leaving nothing but a big old hole in your bank account. Sound familiar?
Well, forget about it. Despite the chilly winter winds and the less-than-tropical setting of the concrete bunker in east London in which we meet for our photo shoot, Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis seems full of the joys of the spring as we shower him with confetti and talk about the good things ahead.
For the band’s ninth NME cover in their 17-year history, we’re here to celebrate the announcement of their upcoming seventh album ‘Life Is Yours’, a dayglo burst of effervescent rave-rock. Quite poetically, Yannis returned last night from shooting the video for banging new single ‘2am’ in Kiev, where acclaimed director Tanu Muiño filmed party fuelled scenes entirely at odds with the threat of war from Russia that looms at Ukraine’s border.
“It was a bit surreal,” Philippakis admits. “We had to make the call a few weeks ago about whether or not to kill off the idea of going to shoot there. We kind of risked it and everything was fine, but it felt touch-and-go.”
The band of brothers know all about touch and go: Foals are a trio now. Bassist Walter Gervers parted ways with the band back in 2018, while 2021 saw keyboardist Edwin Congreave leave to study Economics at the University of Cambridge and focus on his efforts, he said, to “mitigate the imminent climate catastrophe”. Yannis explains today: “We knew that Edwin’s departure was imminent. We discussed it over the years. He’s had other designs for his life; other priorities and interests.”
It was decided that Edwin would leave after the tour dates for their sprawling, apocalyptic 2019 sister albums ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’ Part One and Part Two, but COVID soon saw those plans scuppered and the calendar ripped up. Yannis says of his friend, who was among the founding members of Foals back in Oxford in 2005: “When the three of us wanted to start writing, it was clear for Edwin and for us that there was no point of him embarking on the next chapter of the band if he wasn’t going to see it through.”
“This album is all about that youthful excess of going out” – Yannis Philippakis
Yannis, drummer Jack Bevan and LA-based guitarist Jimmy Smith had to find a new way to be Foals. “We got through some personal stuff ,” Philippakis admits. “Jimmy’s been living in America and his outlook has changed quite a lot over the past year, and me and Jack had some different perspective shifts in our own lives.”
Hanging out with Yannis in person and chatting to the other Foals on separate Zoom calls a week later, the band’s renewed energy is plain to see. Case in point: Jimmy – nicknamed “Crow” – has leant Foals a dark, towering, moody presence over the years. When the band launched ‘Life Is Yours’ with disco bop lead single ‘Wake Me Up’ and with its colourful video back in November, we were met with a shock of blonde hair, a black feathery jumper and some fetching leather trousers. Crow had gone full-on Zoolander.
“He’s a lot happier,” says Yannis. “He’s much sunnier in his disposition, more relaxed. In certain ways he’s changed a lot, but it might be more that he’s finding his truer self. It just suits him.”
Jimmy greets NME with all the California chill and pep of a gallon of Sunny-D. “I feel totally different, in a good way,” he smiles. “I’m lucky in that these last two years of the pandemic have had positive effects on me.”
When tour dates were pulled, Smith quickly realised that he didn’t want to do them in the first place. Worn down by the “repetitive machine” of the music industry, he visited his girlfriend in LA and got stuck out there – much to his delight: “As a band, we haven’t really stopped for 15 years. You see other bands doing stuff when you’re not busy and you just think, ‘Oh, we should be doing this’. That all just went away because it had to.”
Before moving to the US permanently, Jimmy spent the past two years hopping the channel when restrictions allowed before getting locked down in London again when he returned to start work on Foals’ new record. Recharged, he and his bandmates headed into album seven with a new chemistry and compulsion.
“Everyone’s position got stronger,” says Smith. “Now it’s just the three of us, there’s no hiding any more. When we were a five-piece with Walter and Edwin, you could take a backseat. Now all eyes are on everyone and you need to step up. I’ve got to say more now. I finally feel comfortable calling myself a ‘songwriter’, so I can be more confident with that.”
Yannis agrees that the line-up shift has been seismic and came at a pivotal time: “Three is more of an unstable number, so it’s just going to take us a bit of time to figure it out. COVID meant we could come together having understood what it would mean for the band not to exist.”
When the first lockdown hit, NME checked in with Yannis to find the frontman staying sane by watching reality show Four In A Bed and making his own soap. While much of the future looked uncertain, he told us of his hopes of finishing off his long-mooted project with Afrobeat icon Tony Allen; the legendary percussionist died just weeks later at the age of 79. His passing, along the general global picture, made Philippakis acutely more aware of “getting older and being in closer proximity with the spectre of mortality”.
He adds: “In relation to Tony, it was understanding that even though he’s gone physically from the world, the music that he made will go on forever.” Yannis has plans to return to Paris, where Allen was living, to finish the project, which has brought his creativity into focus: “When I’m gone, the songs will hopefully live on. There’s an alchemy in looking at music in that way. It’s not just about what’s happening in the room; we’re building this body of work to be left behind. It’s realising that this is a full vocation.”
Being in a band, says Yannis, provides “a clarity” and “defines my identity”. An existential crisis was only amplified by the quiet of lockdown: “You get into a nebulous questioning of ‘Who actually am I? What do I actually do? What do I want to do?’” The frontman lives in Peckham, south London, and the quietude of lockdown in his usual vibey neighbourhood helped to inspire ‘Life Is Yours’: “All there was was this slightly crazed devotion to just coming in every day and that being in the only thing we did. It really helped my mental stability.”
Everyone felt lucky to be in their dank rehearsal space near his home. A purple patch of creativity blossomed, aided by a very fixed vision. “We knew what we wanted to make before we sat down to try and make it,” Jack tells us. “We’d gone as far as we wanted to on the last two records and wanted to pull it back to basics to revisit what made us good at the very beginning.”
After the ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost’ double album, Foals sought to make something “more concise, more rhythmic, more direct, more fun”, and a little more in keeping with the very physicality of their punky 2008 debut ‘Antidotes’. There are no post-rock odysseys like the last album’s ‘Neptune’; absent, too, are the gnarly riff of their classic tunes ‘Inhaler’ and ‘What Went Down’. “We wanted to write music that would be a forcefield against the darkness, rather than try to proselytise people,” says Yannis. “It’s almost a 180 from the doom soup I was bathing in when writing ‘Everything Not Saved…”.
Decamping to the Peter Gabriel-founded Real World Studios near Bath in the summer of 2021, Foals recorded a Technicolour tapestry that Yannis describes as “self-administered medicine” and Jack a “coping mechanism” for the pandemic, which the album largely blissfully ignores.
“A few years ago, we were trying to be competitive with Arctic Monkeys” – Jimmy Smith
The opening title track is a trancey, tropical balm, evoking what Yannis calls “an optimism and consolation after a dark time”. Ode to escapism ‘Wake Me Up’ is the fully-realised disco infiltrator they’ve always threatened to write, while surefire hit ‘2001’ cuts a surprising ‘Uptown Funk’ shape over memories of being “lost in a sugar rush” and a “violent high”. What’s it about? “Illicit substances and seaside good times!” smiles Yannis.
Elsewhere, ‘Looking High’ is a sweet pop gem that evokes all those nights out we so sorely missed, the house-y ‘The Sound’ is the best trip Foals have ever taken us on and closer ‘Wild Green’ acts as a fittingly hypnotic and meditative comedown. “That song is about regeneration,” says Yannis. “After COVID and the destructive power of nature, the spring returns to show the healing power of nature.”
As a dopamine-soaked reimagining of the debauched freedom that we’ve been lacking for too long, ‘Life Is Yours’ makes for one hell of a tonic. “This is our idea of a going out record,” says Yannis. “We were thinking about parties, club nights and being drunk on the bus at 2am trying to get home. All of it: the excitement before you go out, meeting up with your friends, the wild abandon. ‘Who’s got the pingers? Where are we going?’ This is all of that youthful excess of going out.”
Jack notes that the timing couldn’t be more perfect for an album like this. “It’s a sun-kissed summer party record with a lot of heart,” he smiles. “If I was not in the band, I would want to hear this kind of record myself after everything we’ve all been through. Maybe we’ll see a trend of these kinds of positive albums. Being in lockdown and lamenting the changes of the world created the potential for a lot of really miserable and rubbish COVID albums that are going to age really badly.”
Looking forward to the third Summer of Love, Yannis references the rise of acid house and MDMA that ignited a movement in the late ’80s: “As we re-emerge, this could be like ’89. This has the potential to be an iconic year, and I’d love this record to be the soundtrack to that – to be there for that house party, that barbecue, that drive to the ocean, when the face masks are a distant memory and it’s just you hugging your mates in the middle of a field.” Yet Jimmy laughs when he notes the need to not get too carried away: “As anyone in their mid-to-late 30s will tell you, there is a turning point where hangovers start becoming quite ‘medical’”.
It’s true that many bands at this stage of their careers might consider hanging up their glowsticks, but as an outfit first formed for house parties, that love of the sesh is built into Foals’ DNA. It’s what keeps them a festival favourite for new generations of indie fans with every record. The trio you’ll see tearing up an arena this spring remain the same in essence as those scrappy, crazed lads who squawked through ‘Hummer’ at an infamously feral secret party in Bristol, filmed for an episode of cult teen drama Skins, back in 2007.
“It still feels like we’re coming up” – Jack Bevan
The ‘Life Is Yours’ tracks are certainly gonna put a donk on the upcoming Foals live experience (the twice-rescheduled tour finally kicks off in April). In London alone, they’ve sold out four nights at the Olympia and one at Brixton Academy, shifting over 40,000 tickets. That’s enough to fill the O2 arena twice.
“It all started for us with parties, listening to techno and things like that,” says Jimmy. “As much as all the guitar music influences went in, so did all the dance stuff. We were forged between the two”. Yannis also notes how their ravey genesis keeps their music “fresh”, their live shows “rowdy and wild”. He adds: “We’re not softening around the middle and slowing the BPMs down and looking inward. It’s still fibrous and electric.”
Once known for his sharp tongue and dog-eat-dog approach to interviews, Yannis is now more relaxed, safe in the knowledge that Foals are a big band existing on their own terms. Seven albums into their career, how do they balance the notion of eternal youth with being what some might call ‘indie statesmen’?
“I mean, I don’t agree with the ‘indie’ bit, I guess, weirdly – or the statesmen bit,” Yannis chuckles. “I don’t agree with any of that really!” Creasing at the notion of Foal belonging in a stuffy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-type affair, he continues: “I balk at that a little bit. But I definitely feel that we’ve endured.”
Jack agrees, using a helpful analogy to tell us where Foals are at. “Say you have a house party; it’s that feeling that you’re in the middle of it and you haven’t got to the early hours of the morning where people start leaving and it gets a bit grim. The fact that we’re still in the prime time bit of the party feels good. Inevitably with a lot of bands, you sense a trajectory in decline. It still feels like we’re coming up.”
The zen Yannis of today certainly doesn’t seem quite the same man who called David Guetta “an abomination” and “just bullshit” in an interview with Digital Spy in 2013. In the same year, asked about heritage acts such as The Stone Roses topping the bill at festivals, told The Daily Star: “I’m bored of seeing some dude from the ’90s headline; it means nothing to me”.
Admitting that he may have had “a rep” for his spikey ways and “competitive edge” in the past, Yannis now feels at peace with Foals existing “in a lane of one”. He shrugs: “There are obviously bands who are bigger or whatever, but we’re in our own space. When you’re in a young band coming out, it can be a different vibe. I used to be a more prickly person, but now I’m mellow… a little bit.”
Jack puts Foals’ former edginess down to “insecurities, ambition and a fear of the unknown”. When placed on the same bill as fellow dance rockers Friendly Fires back in 2008, he found himself asking: “‘Who the fuck are these guys?’. He was immediately disarmed upon actually meeting the band, and he and singer Ed Mac have been best mates ever since.
“The only party that this record isn’t for is a Tory party” – Yannis Philippakis
In 2013, when Foals beat Arctic Monkeys to claim Best Live Act at the Q Awards: Yannis told the crowd that “you don’t need Elvis Presley impersonations” to succeed. Jimmy remembers today: “A few years ago, it actually really bothered me because we were trying to be competitive with Arctic Monkeys.” He explains that he told his fellow Foals: ‘For starters, they’re so much bigger! I think you guys are forgetting that they headlined Glastonbury fucking twice! That’s big!’ But we’re just drifting around on our own iceberg now.”
Free of pressure, Foals can just enjoy the rapturous world of ‘Life Is Yours’. After finishing the Tony Allen project, Yannis intends to “take some time to fill back up again” and “have a dormant pupal stage” when the touring cycle ends in late 2023. Jimmy, after enjoying a year of “growing weed in [the] living room and playing synthesizers” during his London lockdown, has built up a vast wealth of “personal” solo music that he’s currently laying down in LA.
For now, ‘Life Is Yours’ is that naughty little do that you don’t want Sue Gray hearing about. Incidentally, Yannis has plenty of ire spare for Boris Johnson and the “disgraceful” partygate clusterfuck that continues to unfold at Downing Street. Hopeful that BoJo and his cronies are on their way out sooner rather than later, he smirks: “The only party that this record isn’t for is a Tory party.”
Corruption, anxiety and “doom soup” still leave a sour aftertaste for the frontman, but he’s determined to emerge with a fresh perspective: “We’re in a time now where death isn’t a remote concept. We were trying to write something to relish and rejoice in being alive. Life is something to be cherished and enjoyed.”
Foals’ new single ‘2am’ is out now, with ‘Life Is Yours’ set to be released this summer. Their UK and European tour kicks off in March