The first time I heard of Foals was in early 2008 when an old friend mentioned the band when talking about new bands to listen to adding, “I think you’d like them”. As he knew my tastes, specifically my shoegaze/Britpop obsession, I took notice and promptly sought out Antidotes from the Oxford quintet. Ostensibly an indie rock record it took cues from the weirder sides of post-punk: the danceable bass lines of Gang of Four, the shouted/sung vocal style of Wire, the skeletal guitar lines and brass of early Hunters & Collectors and the rhythms of Talking Heads combining them with more modern maths rock timings and percussion, unsettling synthesizer and obtuse lyrics with a predilection for avian creatures, flight and insects. It wasn’t an easy listen but it was a totally unforgettable one.
So to say expectations were high for their second album Total Life Forever, both personally and from the listening community at large, would be stating the exceedingly obvious but from the grandeur and exquisite melancholy of “Spanish Sahara”, the frenetic indie-pop of “This Orient” to the dance funk of “Miami” it met and exceeded them with uncommon ease. Total Life Forever elevated Foals into the rare league of artists who maintain credibility with a more accessible sonic palate, and thus gaining a larger listening base, whilst still remaining true to their experimental pop principles. Chris Berkley spoke to bassist Walter Gervers while the band was in Australia for the St. Jerome’s Laneway festivals and as it turns out some recording on the sly.
Is the Australian summer heat is treating all you poor pale boys in Foals okay?
Yeah, it’s factor fifty plus at the moment! It’s kind of killing us but, it’s amazing. Couldn’t have picked a better time to come over, actually.
You guys in Foals actually snuck back into Australia a couple of weeks ago and not to soak up the sun, but to do some work. You’ve sort of been ensconced in Sydney in the studio, right?
Yeah it’s been great, we’ve been just doing some work with a pal of ours called Jono at this studio in Sydney just for a couple of weeks. We thought basically we’d come out early before the shows started, not only to get over the jet lag but actually get some stuff done, get back to the studio before we forget any new bits and bobs that we’ve got going for the next record.
This pal of yours, this is Jono Ma from Lost Valentinos right? Who had done remixes and stuff like that in the past for you guys.
The very same.
Was he at you to come over and get you in the studio or did just work out that way?
Well it kind of worked out that way. His brother, Dave, has done the majority of our videos and photos and various things with us and we’ve known him for years so it just made sense to go with someone we knew and we’d met Jono a few times. It just seemed like fun and a good opportunity for him to do some engineering for us and we’ve been really pleased. It’s kind of cool to be recording bits and pieces already, it’s very early stages, everything is in it’s infancy, but it feels like we’re buying ourselves some time which is great.
I mean the last Foals album Total Life Forever came out less than twelve months ago, so this is not a proper actual recording of an album, this is you guys just getting some ideas down is it?
Yeah, it’s getting ideas down, just recording some bits before we forget them because we have a tendency as a band to jam new things and quite often in sound checks when we’ll be in a rush and we’ll be like “Oh you’ve got to remember that thing that we did!” and stuff gets lost. So it’s kind of important to document these things.
Come on, there’s even those voice recorders on iPhones now, there’s no excuse for not recording something all the time!
True, that is very true. Yannis has just got Logic going so we can actually fiddle with parts and actually do things proper!
So you’re slowly joining the twenty-first century are you?
(Laughs) It’s taken us a while but yeah. You see us walking around with those boom boxes!
Each Foals album has been recorded far from your Oxford home, I mean you did Antidotes in New York and you did Total Life Forever in Gothenburg. Do you need to go away to think about recording Foals now? Is it hard to do it at home?
It’s not that it’s hard to do; I just think it’s really healthy for us to go away on an expedition somewhere with an aim to not come home until we’ve finished the record basically. It’s nice to be away from distractions, it’s nice to let the environment where you go to have an effect on the record, which it definitely has in the last couple of albums and it just gives you an opportunity to work elsewhere and meet other people and be out of your comfort zone.
I think that’s what you need to be doing when you’re making an album because then the studio becomes home, it becomes headquarters and it’s more productive rather than going down the road to London a couple of days a week and then breaking out of studio mode as it where. You’re just completely engulfed in it which does make it hard work and it does mean that sometimes you do lose focus as well because you’re listening to too much and you’re there too much but it’s worked for us so far.
For both those first two Foals albums you guys used outside producers, both of whom coincidentally enough had been in other bands like Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio did the first record and Luke Smith from Clor did the second one, are you thinking about using an outside producer again for the third Foals album or are you ready to actually go it alone?
We’ve actually been talking about this already, but it’s always good to have an outside influence and an outside perspective and someone to stop us over working things and point us in the right direction. Because as much as we’ve learnt as a band we don’t know everything by any means and it’s really healthy to have somebody there who can say “Trust me, this song needs to go in this direction, let’s strip this out, stop noodling around” that kind of thing, and I think that if we were to do it amongst the five of us we’d never be satisfied and we’d just keep re-working songs and we wouldn’t leave things alone. So maybe in the future when we learn a bit more restraint then we’ll do that but I think definitely getting a relationship with a producer and with the engineers as well is incredibly important and it affects the records, usually.
Even if sometimes that can be fraught, because I know famously that you guys didn’t end up using the mix that Dave Sitek did for Antidotes, but it’s still healthy to have that person in there initially offering ideas and being the peacemaker sometimes when you guys in Foals are making a record?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Dave was so valuable for that and for advice to how to operate as a band. We hadn’t even made a record before and it was all quite alien to us and we felt the pressure a lot as well as people were waiting to see if we could actually make a good first record so he was really good at kind of tutoring us in the right direction. With Luke as well doing Total Life Forever, he had such good ears and a good head for sound and he was all about the quality of the recording like the input going into tools, or going into the desk, it needed to be of a high quality so we’d do a lot more live takes with all of us in the room and actually trying to nail it, play the song all the way through rather than going into a booth one by one which can be little bit soulless at times. He really made us work hard for it and it was quite tough graft but it was great. Without people doing that we’d probably just operate in a sphere that we were comfortable with.
And to that end, how cerebral an experience is putting a Foals album together and how much of it is gut instinct? I mean, you guys are probably quite a thinking man’s band, do you put a lot of thought into the way that Foals’ music turns out on record?
Yeah, definitely. We have quite a weird relationship with each other, the five of us, without being able to articulate to each other we really know what kind of direction we want once things start rolling. Yannis obviously writes all the lyrics and he’ll explain things and we’ll be on board so it’s really sort of a group thing but it’s always very difficult to explain, if that makes sense? We say to each other we all know what this song needs to do; we just may not be able to do it yet.
I’m quite envious that you guys in Foals get lyrics explained to you by Yannis, he should be doing that in a broader term. There should be lecture tours!
(Laughs) Yeah, I know! It’s very important to be on board with everything like that.
I think also lyrically though he also likes being that little trapped in an enigma as well, doesn’t he? It must be nice sometimes to not have to explain himself to the broader populous.
Sure, I think things get diluted a bit if they’re explained too much. Some things should just be left for people to make of them what they will. Often the lyrics don’t have huge messages behind them, he uses a lot of imagery in them which is just helping paint a picture. I think sometimes people read too much into things, but that’s fine.
(Laughs) Well you guys must be doing something right because you’re nominated for five NME Awards so people are getting it in some way.
Yeah I was thrilled about that; we’ve never won anything before so maybe we will this time.
I reckon this is your year for prizes, let’s make it happen!
Let’s hope so! To be honest it’s been such a good year anyway and we’re just so pleased that the album has been so well received that kind of stuff it’s not what makes it for us at all, but it would be funny if we got something!