What went down at Yannis from Foals’ Oxford Union talk

The Foals frontman returned to "old haunts" for the hometown Q&A

Of all the truly great indie stars of the 21st century, Yannis Philippakis from Foals surely ranks near the very top. A firebrand attitude, paired with a bookish, philosophical mind, he’s the kind of figurehead that elevates a band to greatness.

With the Foals frontman invited down to Oxford Union to give a talk at his old university (the Union president admitted that they had been “trying for years” to get Yannis to come talk at the prestigious venue), NME was granted access to the Q&A. Here’s what went down.

On his short-lived time at Oxford University

Yannis famously dropped out of Oxford University after just one year in order to pursue the band full-time, after being offered a record deal by Transgressive. Discussing the decision with some lucky Oxford Union members ahead of the formal Q&A, he admitted that it was “an honour to be back.”

“I felt like [the band] was what my main drive was in, so I deferred,” he explained, “Thankfully it went well and I just never went back.”

Yannis studied English Literature at St. John’s College during his time at Oxford. Looking back, he admitted, “I have a dual view of it. I liked aspects of it. The intertextuality course I liked a lot. I was stretched a lot, which is good – in the music industry you’re quite vegetative and mollycoddled, in a way. But the idea of having to follow a course just wasn’t for me at the time.”

“I got both the town and gown thing,” Yannis also stated, in reference to his upbringing in Oxford, and subsequent year at Oxford University. “I walk past St. John’s all the time and it’s hard not to think how things could have been different. And technically I’ve still deferred, so you never know!”

On Foals’ early years

Touching on pre-Foals group The Edmund Fitzgerald, Yannis explained: “Once Foals started, the idea was to have a band that was more outgoing – we wanted to play parties and escape from the constraints of the bands we’d had before. They were more serious. The music scene at the time was more outgoing, and was very influenced by dance music.”

He admitted that he owes his success to a certain level of compulsion to succeed: “I was far more driven than I ever would have admitted to have being. I had a burning desire to get to a point where I could create, and that would be my main status of being.”

On success and advice for younger groups

“You need to tap into some inner belief,” Yannis says of the ‘recipe for success’, “and being quite hostile to external forces is quite helpful. If you have something good to say and you have something beautiful to make and you listen to your own initiation and consciousness, hopefully that will see you through.

“All the good music and literature and art has been made by people who have ownership over it. They’re not things that are faddish, or modish, or ephemeral.”

On Foals’ long-lasting line-up

When asked about Foals’ line-up – which has remained almost completely the same since their inception in 2005 – Yannis explained that their “friendship” was an integral part of the band’s being.

“Our band needs to feel like we have a conflict with the outside world,” he explained, “That’s important for us – having a central core and an intuitive language is quite important.”

He admitted that there was some level of healthy conflict: “There’s times when it’s hard not to punch each other in the face. It’s like a family – sometimes you wanna have a fight with your brother or you want to scream at your parents. I don’t view it as a professional enterprise – I don’t view it like a job – I just view it as a bunch of friends who have a common quest. There’s the mercenary side of the music industry that we have to deal with, but we approach it from a place of friendship.

“If you’re spending months and months in a sweaty tour van, with Wotsits fermenting in the background… if you’re not friends it’s going to emanate into a problem.”

He also revealed that their collaborative songwriting process is integral to their existence, stating: “I won’t name names, but there are bands that some of you might like where they’re not really bands – they’re the product of one person’s mind.”

On his favourite and least favourite Foals songs

Asked by one audience member which of his songs were his favourite and least favourite to play live, Yannis explained that the favourite changes from night to night. However, he revealed that at present, ‘What Went Down’ is a favourite “because I get to go full ballistic on stage”, and ‘Spanish Sahara’ is “a song that, throughout the years, has always been a pleasure to play.”

Predictably, he cited ‘Cassius’ as a song that “we’ve wrestled with, in some ways”, but admitted that if there’s a song they truly dislike, they just leave it off the setlist.

Foals live

On his biggest influence

Yannis listed experimental cellist, composer and producer Arthur Russell as his primary influence and favourite artist.

“I love Arthur Russell,” he said. “There’s a lightness and sublime quality to his music that I feel is unending.  I will never not get joy from his music – I know that I will listen to him forever. “

On streaming sites

When quizzed on his oft-negative views on music streaming, Yannis conceded somewhat, but elaborated on his holistic view of the impact of streaming.

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve warmed to it. I’ve probably realised that you can’t just scream at a mountain and expect it to get out of your way,” he laughed. “I made some comments to do specifically with the royalty rate on streaming which I thought was not only financially affecting musicians adversely, but it actually devalues the currency of music. I think that if you save up money and you buy a record you live with that record. You invest in music and you want to live with it – one of the problems I have with streaming is it encourages a type of listening where there isn’t any investment in it.”

Going on to explain that he’s seen a change in the way songs are written, specifically with regards to the immediacy of streaming platforms, Yannis stated: “Money aside, and wider discussions aside, I just think that’s a shame for music. Some of my favourite songs take four or five minutes to blossom.”

He concluded: “Our music is on streaming platforms: we can’t argue with it, and it’s becoming an unarguable fact that that exists. I’m not mad with anyone who uses streaming services but… I like vinyl. I like the smell of vinyl.”

On whether he would rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck

“I would rather fight one horse-sized duck than 100 duck-sized horses, because there would be some glory in it. Whereas 100 duck-sized horses, it’s just… mean.”