Foals are a five-piece dance-rock band currently living in and native to the town of Oxford, England. That’s where Yannis Philippakis (20, vocals/guitar), Edwin Congreave (22, keyboards), Walter Gervers (23, bass), Jimmy Smith (22, guitar), and Jack Bevan (21, drums) met and bonded over a shared sense of humor. Bored with the interchangeable electro records they heard at every party, they decided to make the kind of music they wanted to dance to. “We wanted to make music that was very technical, that wasn’t just party music, but at the same time you could dance to it,” explains Yannis.
Christening themselves Foals in a nod to Yannis’ surname (which means “little lover of horses” in Greek), the band installed themselves in a tiny rehearsal room and started bouncing ideas off one another. Tensions ran high. “I was shocked by how critical every one was of each other,” says Edwin. “We’ve always been very self-critical,” expands Yannis. If the high-pressure atmosphere strained intra-band relations, they quickly identified a winning formula: driving percussion high in the mix, guitars played above the 12th fret, no chords, plus splashes of synth color. The result was pristine, perfectly-formed dance rock such as “Balloons,” “Hummer” and “Two Steps, Twice.” Clean lines, like the schematics for a piece of precision engineering, and there’s something strange about those guitars.
“They’re meant to sound like insects,” says Yannis. “They’re played high on the fret board—we even hold our instruments up high. The result sounds like a cloud of insects forming these strange harmonies.”
Last June, Foals traveled to Brooklyn, NY to record their debut album, Antidotes, with TV on the Radio guitarist and producer (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars) David Sitek. Yannis recalls: “The first thing he said to me when I spoke to him on the phone was, ‘If you want to make a glossy pop record then don’t work with me.’ We thought, ‘He sounds great.’” Recording took five weeks. The horn section from afrobeat band Antibalas played on five tracks and Celebration’s Katrina Ford sang on another. “The album is porous,” says Yannis. “We allowed ourselves to have a dialogue with the influences and people around us. You can pretty much hear us smoking weed on it and people walking in and out of the studio. It’s a document of the time and it’s the truest record we could have made.”
Foals’ nano-tech precision is a result of Yannis’ obsession with sonic tidiness and the reductive approach of the aforementioned Steve Reich, the man who introduced the concept of minimalism to popular music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “I can’t stand messy music,” says Yannis. “It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing. It doesn’t interfere with everyday life: it’s aesthetic. I like music that has a structure, an order and a pattern. And I like it when patterns fit together in weird ways.”
As well as Reich, Foals cite minimal, German techno tracks such as “Plumbicon” by Monolake and “Dead Man Watches the Clock” by Dettman/Klock. “But we like all kinds of stuff,” says Yannis. “Devo, Glenn Branca, Battles, Arthur Russell, Nelly Furtado. Justin Timberlake. Jack listens to electronica. We like taking the best bits of other music and forming a new whole. That’s not an original idea, but I think what comes out of it is fresh.”
Live, Foals don’t so much fizz with energy as explode like a well-shaken bottle of champagne. &ld quo;It’s like we’re all battling for supremacy on stage,” says Edwin. It’s no exaggeration to say they are the best new live band in the UK.
Meanwhile, the lyrics are striking, surreal images seemingly disconnected from the music, boyhood reveries drifting over crystalline soundscapes. “They’’e not narratives,” says Yannis. “They’re usually an image that’s seared on my brain. For example, “Balloons” is a love song, but I had this image of hot-air balloons being elevated on some strange fuel. I had this image of thousands of hot-air balloons in the sky. Other lyrics are about partying and girls, but at the same time they’re about sine waves and cosine waves. I want the lyrics to heighten the music, not to smother it.”
The sometimes surreal lyrical imagery is complemented by Foals’ artwork, all of which is created by the “sixth member of the band,” Tinhead. “He creates something visual that matches what we want the music to sound like,” says Yannis. “There are all these weird lines, humming birds and bright colors. He chops up things like Soviet imagery and pastes it next to flowers. That cut ‘n’ paste approach reflects the music.”
But what about Andy Roddick?
“I read a book by David Foster Wallace called Infinite Jest,” says Yannis. “It’s about drugs and tennis. I’m fascinated with tennis. I like Roddick because he’s an all-American hero; he could be out of The Great Gatsby. He’s got the fastest serve ever. It’s beautiful. It’s like ballet. It’s so clinical. I’m more into Andy Roddick than any musician. I based the lyrics for our song “The French Open” on the Andy Roddick/Lacoste advert.”
“No, we don’t understand his obsession with Roddick either,” says Edwin.