Foals’ Track By Track Guide To Their Blistering New Album ‘What Went Down’

If you’ve trodden the traditional ‘indie tykes to accomplished musicians to stadium-sound’ narrative arc, where do you go next? If you’re Foals, it turns out you barely blink. After writing ‘What Went Down’ – which is set for release on August 28 – in Oxford for nearly six months, in early 2015 they decamped to the south of France to record. They holed up at La Fabrique in Saint-Rémy-de Provence, a studio that has recently hosted Morrissey’s comeback album ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ and Nick Cave + The Bad Seeds’ ‘Push The Sky Away’, and brought along James Ford – the indie producer of the moment – who seems to have had a laid-back approach to making the follow-up to 2013’s ‘Holy Fire’.

“James didn’t want to channel anything into clear pathways,” guitarist Jimmy Smith states when we meet him and frontman Yannis Philippakis on the roof terrace of the North London practice studio where the Foals are working on their new live show. “Unlike other producers we’ve worked with, it was refreshing so see him just nudge things along.”

The results take the band into a realm that pushes at all the seams of what Foals can be – without sounding alien or difficult. It’s a record that is in parts sparser than ‘Spanish Sahara’, in others more big riffing than ‘Inhaler’. That plays to their way with chart-friendly pastel-flavoured indie, yet yawns with its own existential bleakness, sometimes on the same tracks.

Often laid-down in one or two takes, it’s the freshest, most punk rock Foals album since their 2008 debut, ‘Antidotes’. Philippakis seems matter-of-fact confident. “This is the record that most closely mimics the sound in our heads,” he suggests. “We wanted it to be lean. Both in the individual songs – less reverb, more punchy – but also as an album, so there wasn’t any negative space. We wanted to put the absolute best on there, and the 10 that made it are the ones that all of us were unanimous in liking.”

What Went Down

Yannis Philippakis: “The recorded version is the first one we ever played. I re-recorded the vocals but the rest of it is raw. It’s one of those moments you can have if you’re lucky in the studio where things seem to materialise fully-formed. We wanted it to feel like the moment when a predatory animal goes in for the kill: there’s a savagery to it.”

Mountain At My Gates

Philippakis: “I’d recorded the beginning riff on my phone ages ago. At the beginning it had a baggy feel, but became less so with more work. The central image – “I see a mountain at my gates” was from me getting more interested in seeing what would come out lyrically where there wasn’t a pre-conceived idea. Normally I write voraciously in books and journals, then harvest a lot of that for the record. This, though, came out instantaneously in the room.”

Birch Tree

Philippakis: “This was written when me and Jimmy were hungover in Utrecht, onstage doing a soundcheck. It felt kind of consoling at the time. Then we worked on it in Oxford, then I got really into this boxy old drum machine, and so the kind of hip-hop quality of the groove came from that. It feels summery to me, it has a sense of what West Coast music should be.”

Give It All

Philippakis: “That was one where it felt like – stripping all the support and architecture of the band away and allowing it to be just a vocal and some chords. That song more than anything we’ve ever done has been lead by its vocal. It felt like the purest bit of songwriting we’d ever done. It felt like a step forward.”


Jimmy Smith: “Chordally-speaking, it’s one of the most interesting things we’ve done. It goes from major to minor. As my girlfriend’s dad always says: major to minor is the key to great songwriting, look at The Beatles. You put a minor note over a major chord, and it ends up as something kind of menacing but really warm as well.”

Philippakis: “Some music nerd told me it has a ‘tierce de picardie’ – the end bit doesn’t resolve in the way it’s supposed to.”

Snake Oil

Philippakis: “We wanted a big riff-lead song, just to revel in the heaviness of it. That’s a song that wouldn’t have been written were it not for ‘Inhaler’. ‘Inhaler’ pierced the membrane on all of that. Though it starts very sparse and kraut-y, then builds and builds.”

Smith: “It’s funny, I was reading this book on krautrock and James [Ford] put it through all of his modulation at the exact moment I was reading the climactic bits about Can.”

Night Swimmers

Smith: “There’s a really weird element to our band which is the sort of African thing. We didn’t really know about it until Dave Sitek told us it was afrobeat. The hi-life vibe to this one is prominent, but there’s also this 909 drumbeat, Haçienda vibe too.”

Philippakis: “We jammed it out to the same drum machines, but I remember it feeling very evocative of a summer’s evening, the clarity that comes after a blistering day.”

London Thunder

Philippakis: “It’s probably informed by touring, being absent in some way. 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. It’s about being away and having some sort of experience that changes you, and waiting to return, knowing that the world you’re returning to will be subtly different because you are.”

Lonely Hunter

Philippakis: “It was written in this studio in Hackney, and originally the music was sort of hip-hop, kind of grime-y. It didn’t have lyrics for a long time – I was searching for a lyrical identity for the song, then I was basically crushed on the day after New Year’s Day, and went up the Oxford studio, which was when these lyrics about a new dawn, a new year, came out of it.”

Smith: “When we took it to France, Ford-o flexed his musical muscles a bit, and changed the whole dynamic.”

A Knife In The Ocean

Philippakis: “We were basically packing up to leave. We thought we had the album written. We’d played the other songs a lot, but that was one that just came out of a jam, once the pressure was off.”

Smith: “James had gone out to get a sandwich or something and then he came back and we’d written it. He was like: “What’s that?”. And then: “That’s definitely going on.” There’s elements of jazz. It swings. It’s got a Purdie Shuffle [drum solo made famous by session drummer Bernard Purdie] as the drumbeat.”

Philippakis: “The vocal line isn’t a normal vocal line for me. I’ve never done anything like that before. Musically, I think it’s the perfect closer to the record. It captures the essence of what the band is trying to do.”