The Big Read – Foals: “It’s been a decade of the unexpected and they’re all disappointing surprises”

As Foals prepare to release their second album of 2019 with the bombastic and visceral ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 2’, Andrew Trendell meets the band in a fighting spirit to look back on a “decade of regression” and what may lay in store for a generation wading through the aftermath.

“We’re going mudlarking, right?” asks Yannis Philippakis as Foals arrive along the banks of the Thames for their second NME cover shoot of the year – the 12th of their career. “That’s fucking awesome – I’ve always wanted to go mudlarking.”

Er, what?

“It’s when you go on the tidal bank and look for little coins and stuff.”

Drummer Jack Bevan is equally keen. “We should get metal detectors! Do you have metal detectors?!”

We do not have metal detectors. We do, however, have an assortment of broken musical instruments strewn across beach to create a sense of post-apocalyptic melodrama, and we’re hoping for a cameo from the humpback whale that was spotted in the Thames this morning. Sadly, the day ends with the news that the whale, nicknamed ‘Hessy’, was found dead further down the river in Greenhithe near Dartford, Kent. RIP, Hessy.

Photo Credit: Andy Ford

Many of London’s streets are today clogged with Extinction Rebellion supporters calling for the government to take definitive action against climate change. While we have the Foals boys pose around our display of riverside destruction of shards of guitars and cymbals, police helicopters hover overhead, and it seems as if the gaggle of chattering schoolchildren and tourists photographing us from outside the Tate Modern might think that we’re taking part in some kind of environmental protest stunt. I fear I may have shattered such illusions when I had to chase away a swan that was ruining one of our group shots.

There’s a serendipity to all of this. Foals’ new album, ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost: Part 2’ deals with the aftermath of the catastrophe described in sister album ‘…Part 1’ – a world of dying wildlife, constant surveillance, social dislocation, fire and brimstone. Penultimate track ‘Sunday’ opined that “time has come and time is done” as “cities burn, and we’ve got youth to spend”, before closer ‘I’m Done With The World (& It’s Done With Me)’ did exactly what it said on the tin. Merry England was now a wasteland ablaze. ‘Part 2’s first lines on ‘The Runner’ however, vow to keep on charging through the embers.

Despite all the chaos that surrounds us in 2019, Foals are still driven by hope and optimism. Their proactive approach has led them to activism. Keyboardist Edwin Congreave has been involved in the Extinction Rebellion movement, and the band have joined the Music Declares Emergency campaign alongside the likes The 1975, The xx and Radiohead. Together, the music industry body “stands together to declare a climate and ecological emergency and call for an immediate governmental response to protect all life on Earth”. You may have caught Foals carrying a banner that read ‘NO MUSIC ON A DEAD PLANET’ on the Mercury Prize red carpet last month.

“Fay Milton (of Savages) is an old friend and great drummer,” says Yannis. “I was talking to her about Extinction Rebellion then we signed up to Music Declares Emergency. We’d been carbon offsetting before that and we’d been aware of environmental problems. It’s definitely disturbed me for a while, that’s why a lot of the lyrics on these two records pertain to that.

“On the day of the Mercury Prize, we thought it would be good to bring exposure to Music Declares and just to get that sentiment across. It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, everyone knows what’s going on with the environment and everyone’s making changes’, but it’s one of those echo chamber things where you forget that actually lots of people either don’t care, don’t believe it or don’t act upon it.”

Photo Credit: Andy Ford

For their day to day life as a band, Foals are hoping to make their own small differences by cutting plastic out of touring, as well as admitting that they’ll have to soon discuss “how we tour, how often we tour and where we tour”. But even with thousands camping in the streets in protest as we speak, do they feel like we could be on the brink of real change on a huge scale?

“I think it’s necessary,” says Edwin. “Is it possible? Probably not in the way that people intend. Things are going to change very dramatically, very soon, and that’s inevitable, but there’s change with a capital C which is what’s needed and that’s something else. You can see it in small groups of people, and that’s one of the great things about Extinction Rebellion: you hang out with a small community and the change is already there. There are a lot of forces of darkness to get past.”

Our blustering Prime Minister is one such force. “What did Boris Johnson call Extinction Rebellion this week?” asks Jack.

“Crusties in hemp-smelling bivouacs,” replies Edwin. “He’s certainly got a way with words. Well, there kind of are bivouacs there and there was some hemp going around, but he’s totally underestimating it. The majority of people there were totally normal – young and old. The change that could happen could be quite bad because we could end up with an autocratic government, and that’s not that far away. I think that hope could disappear very soon.”

Photo Credit: Andy Ford

Most alarming of all has been the vitriolic backlash that those from certain corners of society have levelled against Greta Thunberg. The unexpected bright light has been at the forefront of fighting climate change and, as a 16-year-old, has made it her mission to sacrifice what’s left of her childhood to call upon the powers that be to give her generation their future back.

The more liberal and conscientious masses have already made an icon of her. Among them, The 1975 recently championed her message by releasing a track featuring an empowering speech from the young Swede, warning the world that “Everything needs to change, and it has to start today –it is now time for civil disobedience, it is time to rebel”. Frontman Matt Healy hailed her as “the most punk person he’s ever met”, and punks wouldn’t be punks if they didn’t upset the old guard. Just this week, headlines were made when an effigy of Thunberg was hung from a bridge in Rome to deter Extinction Rebellion protestors.

“Even if you’re on board with the message, it’s quite difficult to accommodate into your thinking that things have to change to that extent – and that life can’t continue the way that we’re accustomed to,” says Yannis. “Essentially, that’s with opulence, comfort and consumerism. She’s basically the figurehead for being told that you can’t live the life that you’ve been brought up into, and that’s quite a painful thing for a lot of people to deal with.

“I think that one reaction to that, particularly on the right wing, is to just try and discredit her. They can’t hack the truth.”

Despite the horror that surrounds us, the band are in high spirits today. They’re still pumped by the goodwill levelled at March’s ‘Part 1’ and the rollercoaster tour that followed – despite a recent casualty. Foals recruited former Maccabee Felix White for guitar duties at the Mercury Prize last month, after Philippakis sustained a grizzly hand injury at a family gathering in Greece.

Photo Credit: Andy Ford

“It was my father’s cousin,” he tells NME. “He’s touching 60 and he knows a lot better. We’d all been drinking and he was trying to prove that we all had the same blood in our veins. He was like, ‘We’re blood brothers’, but only one of us bled in the end, so he let down the side, didn’t he?”

Ouch. That must have been scary – for a guitarist to risk losing a hand.

“I just knew it was bad,” says Yannis. “It didn’t hurt straight away but the stitches did. They put tobacco on it, which is an old Greek remedy. When we were in the church they opened a bunch of Marloboros up and just put ‘baccy on it to soak the blood up.”

Jack replies: “Oh, you must have loved that!”

“Yeah!” says Yannis. “I got a proper headrush on it. It was the first proper headrush I’ve had in years! It was pretty hairy but it’s fine now. And I can still shred. Come at me!”

And shred, they will. Having just released an album and rounded off an epic and raucous world tour that took in Glastonbury and two sold-out nights at London’s Alexandra Palace, most bands would be considering winding down at this point. But the beast that is ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost: Part 2’ won’t allow it. “We’re just getting wound up,” says guitarist Jimmy Smith.

Do you see yourselves back at Glastonbury next year?

Yannis: “Yeah, hopefully we’ll go back. We’d be well up for playing a non-secret show.”

How was the rest of your night after your secret set?

Yannis: “It was a bit of a mad one, wasn’t it. We were getting followed by cameras led by director Toby L [Transgressive Records founder, who was making the new Foals documentary Rip Up The Road]. That’s coming out, which we’re all quite worried about. We’ve only seen the trailer.”

Jack: “It was one of those nights out where you have flashes of split-screen memories of certain things happening. I do remember the cameras following me around when I pulled one of my friends’ pants down and started spanking his bottom.”

How does it feel to be starting another campaign for another record so soon after the last one?

Yannis: “It’s both quite daunting and really exciting at the same time. We’re having to pace our energy over a longer period of time. We do have a break where we have a couple of months to recharge before we hit the road properly. By the time we start touring next year we’re going to be raring to go again. Going into it, we knew that this would be the most ambitious, stretching and demanding project by virtue of the two albums.”

Was the last tour quite gruelling?

Yannis: “Yeah, I thought I was hoping that I could tour in a healthier way this year – and it turned out sort of the opposite way. I just dropped into sports mode and revved through about eight months of touring. I went proper turbo-nitro and the wheels fucking fell off!”

Jack: “Have you seen that movie Speed? It was like that. If the bus ever went below 50mph it would explode. Yannis was the bus.”

Yannis: “I had to check myself in for a full body check-up with all-sorts after a certain period. The beauty of the two-part album is that I now get to go into the second phase of touring with the same expectations and the same result!”

So there’s a lot of work to get your head around?

Yannis: “Not just musically, but the visual representation of the two albums too. Having to do more videos, having to do more press, more touring. It’s weird to be doing interviews now again when you feel like a lot has already been said, but we’ll look back at these two albums as being the most demanding period of our career – and some of the most rewarding. Just because we’ve pushed it out further.”

Photo Credit: Andy Ford

In the NME review, we described ‘Part 1’ as being like “‘Antidotes’ on a protein shake or ‘Total Life Forever’ on a pinger”. I put it to you that ‘Part 2’ is like ‘Part 1’ after a Bloody Mary and a cigarette – ready to get rowdy and do it all again.

Yannis: “Yeah! Well, you said it, not me. From a musical perspective, ‘Part 2’ is fully-charged – certainly the first half, which is probably the most energetic and relentless set of songs in a row that we’ve ever done. The relationship is that ‘Part 1’’ was more textural and dance-y, and lyrically it was more from the perspective of viewing what’s going on, whereas ‘Part 2’ is on the run. There’s a twitchiness and a paranoia. It’s about trying to pick yourself up and dust yourself off after the wreckage of ‘Part 1’.”

It feels like a record begging to be played live, and the track ‘Black Bull’ seems to tap into that muscular energy more than anything you’ve ever recorded. Is that why you chose to launch the album with that?

Yannis: “‘Black Bull’ was partly informed by playing live. I felt lyrically that the song could act as a blotting paper for all of these unpleasant aspects of masculinity. When we play songs like ‘Black Bull’ and ‘What Went Down’, sometimes I get into this type of mode as a performer that’s arrogant, puffed up and obnoxiously masculine. That was in my head, that it would be one of those ferocious tracks that I would probably shapeshift in. I just wanted it to have this bruised, unpleasant masculine energy to it – and to find a way to cage that energy into the song.”

The last time we spoke, you said that “the only thing anyone can express is confusion”. Do you feel that this album reaches any kind of closure, or just asks more questions?

Yannis: “Towards the end of the record, the only fitting conclusion for all of these songs is a song like ‘Neptune’. It’s the biggest song we’ve ever written. Musically, it’s a fitting and climactic finale, but lyrically too you’re departing everything that you’ve seen in the run-up.”

At over 10 minutes long, ‘Neptune’ is pretty epic. It does feel like the sprawling successor to ‘Spanish Sahara’. I love the lyric “now it’s time to go from the white wards of England where the crows line the rivers and roads”. What are you trying to say about England in 2019?

Yannis: “To speak candidly, a lot of the record is set in the UK – or at least there’s a lot of imagery about London and foxes and stuff in the first part. The opening line of that song is about leaving the UK. To me, it’s about going through the stages of various places where I’ve felt at home, but really it’s about moving through life. It’s about death too. There are lines in there about the digital afterlife. I got interested in when people die and their social media accounts are still there. There’s something ghoulish but also immortal about that. It’s about dying and finding refuge in space. They’re some of my favourite lyrics that I’ve ever written. It’s meant to be proggy in the best sense possible.”

You said ‘Part 1’ was very much preoccupied with the clash of humanity and technology and the pitfalls of that. Does ‘Part 2’ advance on those themes?

Yannis: “I definitely think it does, it just depends what you mean really. It’s more of a narrative thing. That wasn’t intended in the writing, but ‘The Runner’ from the new record is definitely a response to ‘I’m Done With The World’ from the last one. It’s talking about running through the embers after the fire. There are moments that are upbeat and about trying to persevere and pursue things.”

So it’s not wallowing?

Yannis: “No. You need to get moving. The second half of ‘Part 2’ descends into an imaginary landscape where you’ve got no energy left and the only thing you can do is just leave. Saying that, even when things are bleak and you’re faced with challenges, of your own internal psychology or external ones that we’re facing as a society, there should be a sense of momentum and perseverance. There should be a sense of hope. ‘Wash Off’ is about not allowing yourself to succumb to negativity. It’s about shaking off the shackles that are both within you and outside of you. Sometimes that can be hedonism or trying to find a sense of purpose in personal relations. You know, not descending into nihilism.”

Photo Credit: Andy Ford

As the end of 2019 draws closer, the decade looks set to end with people camping in the streets to save the planet, a cartoon villain US President and a huge question mark hanging over the future of the UK amid Brexit confusion and its inherent division. We haven’t even bothered to think of a name for this decade yet (The Teenies? The Twenty Tens?), but how do Foals feel that the last 10 years will be defined?

“As a decade of regression, probably,” Yannis replies. “I don’t think anyone in 2010 saw any of this coming. You couldn’t have foreseen Trump, you couldn’t have foreseen Brexit. Even though climate issues were definitely on a lot of people’s minds, the rapidity at which it’s become a problem that needs solving couldn’t have been foreseen. I don’t know it there’s a nifty little term for it, but for me it’s been a decade of the unexpected – and they’re all disappointing surprises, I would say.”

On a more personal level, Jack continues: “Our second album ‘Total Life Forever’ came out in 2010, so that’s been pretty much our whole career. It feels like it’s been the most important decade of my life. It’s so hard to think that way. When you’re in a band, you think about things in two year cycles with each album. With my own personal life, the easiest way to group things together is to go, ‘Oh, that happened during the ‘Holy Fire’ era.”

Do they see themselves embarking on any kind of anniversary tour when all the dust has settled on the ‘Everything Not Saved’ project? “We’ll make a big deal out of ‘Total Life Forever’ when it’s 30-years-old or 40-years-old,” says Jimmy. “I think five year anniversaries and 10 year anniversaries are a bit gimmicky.”

Photo Credit: Andy Ford

Yannis however, is a little more philosophical at the idea of taking stock of their journey so far.

“We’ve built up a body of work over this decade that we’re really proud of,” he tells us. “It would be cool to try and do something where we play each album every night. It would be a lot of work. Selfishly, for ourselves to marinade in our own juices and be like, ‘This is how things progressed’. We’re usually so in the moment that we live in the record at the time, but to be confronted with the amount of growth from ‘Antidotes’ until now would be cool.

“It could be fun to do at some point when we’ve got nothing else to do and just want to escape our tiny little lives and the tiny little domestic nooses that we’ve created for ourselves.”

As for the immediate future, 2020 will see Foals play some of the biggest gigs of their career. With the launch of ‘Part 1’ taking in a lot of smaller venues, mid-sized festivals and what the industry refer to as “underplays”, now they’re gearing up for “enormo-domes” – and promise a lot of stagecraft and fancy visuals to create “a 360, immersive experience”. Not only that, but you’ll be seeing another new line-up too. After original bassist Walter Gervers left the band amicably before they recorded these two albums, the subsequent 2019 tour saw Everything Everything’s Jeremy Pritchard step in on four-string duties. However, he was only ever on loan…

How did Jeremy effect the chemistry of Foals on the road?

Jimmy: “Jeremy was the Trump of Foals. No one saw him coming.”

Edwin: “All of a sudden, he was there with his quiff.”

Yannis: “Ha! Yeah, Trump with better hair. Well he slotted in amazingly well. In touring without Walter, we were anticipating a real void. With all due respect to Walter, I just found that Jeremy fit in so well that it lessened any potential misty-eyed forlorn thing.”

Jimmy: “It’s extraordinary how well he fit in, actually.”

Jack: “You sound almost cynical, Jimmy?”

Jimmy: “What has he done to us?”

Yannis: “He’s played really well and we’re really going to miss him. He’s not going to be touring with us for ‘Part 2’. He’s got to back with that other band…”

Edwin: “The so-called ‘Everything Everything…’”

A lot has been said about the Mercury Prize felt a little more ‘dangerous’ this year. Would you agree?

Yannis: “Performance-wise it was the best one that I’ve been aware of. Slowthai was fucking great. Black Midi were absolutely bonkers. It felt like a genuinely visceral and political year, in a meaningful way. I thought it was great. It felt prickly and sharp-toothed – especially when Slowthai came out with Boris Johnson’s beheaded marionnette.”

What do you make of the backlash of people saying the stunt stunk of double-standard and was inciting violence?

Yannis: “That’s the thing, if you look at it the other way and some fucking far-right dude came out with fucking… ”

It would be a different reaction if Morrissey did something like that on stage with someone on the left who he has criticised…

Yannis: “Yeah if Morrissey came out with that it would just be fucking…What’s happened to Morrissey? He’s just become a massive…”

Jimmy: “Weapons-grade bell-end.”

The furore that surrounds Morrissey’s big mouth is another that’s likely to rumble on well into the next decade. For Foals, their message remains indelibly married to the music. Next month sees the release of their new feature-length tour documentary Rip Up The Road. Their old Transgressive label boss Toby L was granted access all areas to record over 200 hours of footage of the band throughout the year.

“The one thing he said was that he wants people to want to form bands after watching it,” Yannis tells us. Here’s hoping. But what’s it all for? In the trailer for the movie, Yannis begs the question ‘How meaningful is it to be a musician in 2019? Is there a wider purpose to it?’”

It’s a bloody good question. Does he feel any more qualified in answering it?

“I went to see a play called Faith, Hope & Charity the other day at The National Theatre,” Yannis tells us. “It was researched in East London community centres and it’s about injustices in society, community choirs and people who have fallen on hard times. They’re either homeless or in difficult positions. The choir element of it is one of the communal activities that people want to do. The play is a faithful representation in many ways, and openly participatory of these community centres. In the second half, they did a version of ‘You’ve Got The Music In You’ – that old rave track but a capella. Honestly, it was amazing.

“I had a chat to the director [Alexander Zeldin] afterwards and he said, ‘You wouldn’t believe the joy and solace of when people get to sing together’. It’s the one moment you get to forget all of the crap and difficulties of the rest of your life. You have to have that in-built in you and you have to be able to express that.”

Yannis concludes: “What it reminded me was that music, as an expression of something, lifts you out of any dark situation – or at least it can do. There’s a reason people have been singing for centuries. Since ancestral man, music has been a core expression and it’s important. When we’ve been talking about political situations or environmental situations, there’s always a place for music. A world without music would be bereft.”

Wading through the shit, Foals’ resolve – and that of the people on the streets today – is infectious. There’s something troubling on the horizon, but the sky isn’t on fire just yet. To save yourself, the planet, or all that you stand for, all is not lost. Keep on running.

Foals release ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 2’ on October 18. The documentary Rip Up The Road will premiere at London’s Doc N’ Roll film festival on November 11, before being released on Amazon Prime Video on November 15.

Tune in to NME Radio from 00.01am on Friday October 18 for our exclusive track-by-track guide with Foals talking us through ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost: Part 2’.

Creative Production: Emily Barker

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