Foals Are Writing the Soundtrack to an Apocalypse

Foals Are Writing the Soundtrack to an Apocalypse


PARIS — The Foals keyboardist Edwin Congreave met Yannis Philippakis, his future frontman, at an ice cream shop in the English town of Oxford. Congreave had just been hired, while Philippakis was cheekily returning to a scene of a crime: He’d been fired a few weeks earlier for incinerating the shop’s mascot, a polystyrene toy cow, in a toaster oven, to impress a girl. Both also briefly matriculated at Oxford University. “I dropped out because I was an idiot,” Congreave said. “But with Yannis, it was clear he was supposed to be a superstar of some sort.”

Foals — a brawny, dancey, heartfelt rock band — came up in the late 2000s playing hometown house parties and South London squats built out of abandoned hostels. “Chaos,” said Philippakis, 33, gleaming-eyed when asked what he remembered from those days. “And a kind of beautiful naïveté. And, like, I never felt tired.” He smiled. “There was one gig where a whole wall got demolished by fire extinguishers and everyone was on ketamine.”

Philippakis recalled this, over many cigarettes and one sparkling water, on the roof of a Paris venue overlooking the Notre-Dame cathedral, a few hours before a recent Foals show. Last week, the band released the second half of a two-part album, “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” that explores the apocalypse by way, abstractedly, of the climate crisis. “The hedges are on fire in the country lanes,” Philippakis broods over spare piano and synths on “I’m Done With the World (& It’s Done With Me),” “and all I want to do is get out of the rain.”

It’s an earnest, audacious project. And it’s right on brand. In the decade-plus since they were playing druggie house parties, Foals have grown into a very specific modern-day anomaly. They’re signed to Warner Bros. and Q Prime management, home to Metallica, Muse and Disturbed. They’ve also been nominated for Britain’s esteemed Mercury Prize three times. They are now one of a spare handful of contemporary, critically acclaimed and commercially viable rock acts.

They didn’t always seem destined for wider audiences. For their 2008 debut, “Antidotes,” Philippakis said he wanted to make techno with guitars: “I almost set out a manifesto. No chords, everything played staccato, really clean.” The result was a wonderfully strange collection of stop-start bangers. Back then, he sang with the microphone facing stage right. Finally, a manager intervened: “You’ve got to start [expletive] facing the crowd.’”

But looking back now, the band always had ambitions. “I was really worried that we were going to have a taste of it and it was going to be taken away,” Philippakis said. “We’d seen a lot of bands in the U.K. get pumped up by the NME and then implode.”

By their second album two years later, “Total Life Forever,” they’d moved away from the obliqueness of their debut and smoothed out the staccato. Soon enough, Philippakis said, “I felt like we couldn’t be erased.” Albums in 2013 and 2015 followed, before this year’s double release. Now they’re gunning for the top slot at the Glastonbury festival. (SkyBet has them as a 7/4 favorite, alongside Paul McCartney and Fleetwood Mac, to headline next year.)

Their live show is purposefully boozy and shambolic. Philippakis likes to clamber onto balconies and other high-rise structures, or to float his way to the bar and slug a shot. “It needs to be almost shamanic,” he said. “The show is a chase: We’re chasing that transcendent moment. You’re getting yourself to the edge of yourself — and then, ideally, losing yourself.”

The guitarist Jimmy Smith, 35, explained how they get there. “Yannis drummed it into us from a really early stage: Play every show like it’s your last,” he said.

There have been times, the 34-year-old drummer Jack Bevan said, that the show got so out of hand, he stopped playing altogether: “I felt like, ‘If I keep four to the floor, he’s going to kill someone.’” Congreave, 35, said their frontman can even wander away from the song: “Sometimes Yannis is doing a solo and he’s kind of — in another world. He’s — playing cosmically. And he’s playing — the wrong notes.”

In the last few years, Philippakis’s climate-change anxiety has started to keep him up nights. Channeling that into the music, he explained, was about trying to engage beyond the immediate concerns of his romantic or filial relationships, the stuff that powered the previous albums.

Philippakis wrote the lyrics for these new albums in a furious month and a half, almost entirely in pubs. He wanted the lyrics to pour out of him. He hoped to archive, naturally, “the insecurities and perils” of what it feels like to be alive today.

Congreave, the band’s in-house cynic, said he’s glad Foals are talking about climate change but added, “We should be running around screaming, not having conversations.” Philippakis, though, said he tries to avoid nihilism and “oh-dear-ism.”: “I’m always looking to convert life into music.” And it’s true; someone has to write the songs that people listen to while they feel bad that the world is falling apart.

Both the double album and the overtures to the climate crisis can also be seen another way: as a grander statement, a shot at a wider relevance. Peter Mensch, a co-founder of Q Prime, has worked with stadium rock bands since the 1970s, and is candid about the band’s place in the firmament. “We’re standing on the SS Her Majesty’s Ship the Album and we’re bailing water as fast as we can!” he shouted over the phone. And while he doesn’t want Foals to change, he believes they can still access a bigger audience.

“There’s a whole bunch of people who are obsessed by Foals,” Mensch said, “and there’s a whole bunch of people who don’t know who they are.” He said he’d love for Philippakis to write a hit. “Chances are that it won’t [happen],” he added. But he wants the band to reach megastardom, “And I will literally die trying.”

The Paris show, an underplay to a 700-capacity room, was packed full of young people. Some were, consciously or otherwise, cosplaying as Philippakis, in loud, short-sleeved button-ups and thin gold chains. They shouted along with him and followed all his commands, including one to crouch down to the floor mid-breakdown on “Inhaler,” then pogo back up.

At the end of the set, Philippakis abandoned his guitar and waded into the crowd. With one hand he held his microphone; with the other he clasped hands with a fan. From between the crush of bodies it was hard to tell if it was for balance, or for that extra oomph of communion.



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