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Foals' Yannis Philippakis on Writing in the UK, Performing in the US, and Dutch Courage

February 19, 2019

By Bryan Altman, February 19, 2019

Between 2013’s Holy Fire and 2015’s What Went Down, U.K. rock outfit Foals has gone from being local critical darlings to a bona fide headline act across the globe. On March 8 the band will release the first part of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, a double album that frontman Yannis Philippakis has described as a commentary on the state of the world and “a feeling of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems we face.”

I meet Philippakis at Bar 2A in Manhattan, and over a Lagunitas IPA and an apparently always-in-season Montauk Summer Ale, we discuss writing lyrics in pubs, “breaking America” as a British band, and the departure of longtime Foals bassist Walter Gervers.

Are you into craft beer at all, and have you noticed its rise?
Yeah, of course, massively. I only got into ale in a big way over the last few years. I’ve got a friend who works for Beavertown Brewery, a London craft brewery—they’re really great.

I’ve got into a lot of the English ales, of which there’s a massive variety. Not sure you’d call them craft but they’re often quite small breweries.

Sounds like they fit the bill.
There’s one really great craft brewer in London that I love, they’re called Kernel, and I think they were one of the first craft breweries in London—at the base of the London bridge. They make great beer.

So when you’re out in London or even the States, what are you drinking?
My favorite ales in the U.K., I like Southwold by Adnams. I like Doom Bar, which actually is quite widely found. And I like spirits as well. Love whiskey.

Any places in Oxford you like to grab a pint?
Yeah, so, I wrote all the lyrics to this record in pubs, and actually there’s one called the Rose & Crown. It’s been around since the 1700s, I think, and that’s a great, proper old English pub. It’s got a vibe there. And in London there’s a great pub in our neighborhood called Skehans. It’s an Irish pub—but not as you know Irish pubs. It’s an actual Irish pub rather than a facsimile of one. That’s a great one. My favorite pub in Peckham is called the Montpelier and that’s another neighborhood pub. I think the garden element of the pub is quite important. Pubs in general, in terms of their role in English society, I think is a pretty fascinating thing. The idea of being in Britain without pubs is like—I don’t know. I just wouldn’t want to live in a Britain without pubs. It’s a cornerstone to how British society works.

As far as the decision to turn this into a double album, you really just had a sick amount of songs and couldn’t whittle it down?
Yeah, but it’s also the shape of the songs. We felt there were songs that were working in tandem, or there’s a symmetry to them. We felt there were two opening tracks, two closing tracks, two centerpieces in certain ways. There were two threads running concurrently. We absolutely didn’t go in with the intention of making a double album. We also didn’t want to release them as one double album at the same time, that was another conscious decision. But yeah it was in response to the material.

Why didn’t you want to release them at the same time?
I just think it would be too much to digest and it wouldn’t do justice to the songs. It’s important to feel like there’s a sense of proportion to the record. To me, a record should last 45 minutes, and I want to become familiar with every nook and cranny of it. So allowing the record to have its time in the world on its own and for it to be familiar, digestible, appreciable and then move on to the second one without inundating people with a huge, Victorian volume—a tome of work—like, have fun sifting through that. That to me is just not enjoyable. And as a project it’s just a richer project trying to sequence two records as separate entities and thinking about how to represent that with artwork. And in terms of touring it means the touring remains fresh.

With Walter’s departure, was this something you all saw coming, or did it come out of nowhere?
We knew that he had other desires for his life, and that he had more personal responsibilities than some of us did. Some of us are still living in Peter Pan land a little bit, and he’s a real adult. So we felt there were a lot of competing demands on him. And also none of us realized we’d still be doing this band. When we started the band we didn’t realize we’d be giving so much of our lives to it, and I think for him he’s always had a desire to pursue other things, and he’s getting to do that. It’s sad when you part ways with a member—particularly because we all get on really well in the band. But fundamentally he’s happier, and also it did act as a catalyst for us in some ways so us to approach this record differently, and I think that needed to happen. We were talking anyway prior to his departure about wanting to go through some change. We felt that What Went Down was sort of the end of that chapter, the end of a decade, and the desire was to try to make something that was in contrast to where we were at during that point. And having said that, if Walt were still in the band it would have been easy to slip into some familiar habits. But having him depart meant we were forced to adapt and forced to approach it differently. So I think in a creative aspect it was a propeller.

Is there anything in particular you do to get yourself ready for a show?
I mean we drink a bit before the shows. There’s some Dutch courage that goes on before the shows but it’s like, you know, the show itself gets us there. The energy from the crowd, the energy on stage, the volume of it. I think just the physical volume is just something that takes you there.

There’s something we chase with our shows. I think the best shows we’ve ever played we have this sort of ecstatic moment, and those shows don’t happen every week or every month, But when you get on stage you’re chasing those moments. So it kind of forces you to try and reach that place, which is why it can get sort of, [manic] or whatever.

You guys just announced this tour and sold out two nights at Brooklyn Steel in 24 hours. What’s the band’s relationship been like with America, and how has that changed now?
I mean, New York’s always been huge. I think it was the first place we came to play and there’s always been a feeling that we’re fully understood in New York, and in a lot of the other major cities. America’s such a huge and complex country that it’s like, you can be in different worlds one day to the next, so it’s hard to generalize and sum up the experience. As is common with a lot of British bands coming here there’s an element of feeling that you have to do the grind, and feeling that you have to tour more, you know? I think that we’re in a great place here. We’ve got some great fans out here and the shows are great. In the early days when we came—particularly after riding the hype in the U.K.—it was like, we’ve been in this hype bubble in the U.K., and coming here was like, “Well, this is psychologically puncturing.” You have to get used to it, just the scale of it. You can tour the whole of Europe and you can do it in like three weeks, whereas here you’re here for months.

I feel like we’re well known now in a way we weren’t in the beginning. But there’s a strange relationship between the U.K. and the U.S. in terms of the phrase “breaking America.” And there are bands that are huge here that no one bats an eyelid at back in the U.K. There are blind spots—and we have a common musical history, but there are obviously some stark differences. So I think we’re in a great place to come here and play great shows. And it’s good, and it’s comfortable and it’s awesome. It’s in a good place.

The common thread you mentioned about the state of the world—does that have to do with America and American politics?
Yes, absolutely. I think what’s happening in American and in the U.K. is symptomatic of a wider social fraying and that’s feeding into the backdrop of anxiety and confusion that’s present in the lyrics of the record. It’s about what’s the right way to proceed, and how can we have a meaningful discussion. It feels like these are new problems, a lot of them, as well, in terms of the polarization. I remember when we were coming here in the early days and being aware of the deep splits in American society in the most obvious form in the media, and thinking, ”Thank God that hasn’t fully come to the U.K.” And now in the U.K. it is as bad I would say. And that’s something that is troubling. And that sense of unease is something that’s fed into the record.

And that’s the common thread through both halves.
Yeah. The first album ends in this kind of resigned, exhausted, bleak pace in a way.

Title-wise, too…
Yeah. And album two is a response in some ways. There’s a sense of urgency and a sense of perseverance. Perseverance is something that defines us and the ability to keep going and finding worth and hope in that in some way. But yeah, the landscapes are the same—as in the concerns are the same across both records, definitely.

Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part I will be released on March 8. Tickets for their tour in support of the album are on sale now.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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