I’m quite aware that there’s no such thing like a fixed end date for a pandemic. What we’re experiencing right now in Europe might actually feel like a slow fade out. And yes, maybe it’s just a brief break before the next variant arrives this winter but we’ve all gotten used to live with a decent amount of uncertainty in our lives by now. Whatever happens next remains unsure – it’s all about the moment. And right now it does indeed feel like the end of that two-year long turmoil that required a lot from us. We’re all allowed to celebrate things again for the first time in a while, whether it’s a get together with friends, seeing different places, favouring real meetings instead of video calls or by simply throwing yourself in a sweaty mosh-pit along with others. For me, the latter option definitely felt like a fitting way of celebrating. The occasion – Foals‘ also perfectly timed Berlin show. Originally envisioned as a continuation of the tour for their ambitious two-album project Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost from 2019, it got delayed two times and now worked as introduction to Life Is Yours, the group’s seventh studio album and a brand new chapter for the long-lasting British indie rock institution.
Needless to say, when you’re a longtime fan and you’ve been sitting on those tickets for 30 months the stakes are high. It wasn’t my first gig following the decline of the latest Covid wave but it definitely was the most important one; an almost cathartic moment of release and the power of live music. Luckily, Foals are one of the few bands that can pull that off and their audience was on fire right from the very first opening seconds of Wake Me Up, the song that opened that gig and also started this new chapter for Foals back in the winter when these moments still seemed so painfully far away from our Omicron reality. “So won’t you tell me if I’m dreaming?” Oh – hell no!
One day prior to that triumphant gig I met up with the band that just finished the first leg of the tour in the UK. Following the departure of keyboarder Edwin Congreave last year, the group now shrunk to three-piece, consisting of leader Yannis Philippakis, drummer Jack Bevan, and guitarist Jimmy Smith. It’s a sweet warm spring day aka the perfect setting to talk about Life Is Yours. But of course, we the big ‘C’ is still present and obviously shaped the new record, even more than the changed line-up. “Edwin’s departure was a long process so I think the pandemic shaped the album most,” Jimmy explains. “Over the past years Edwin more and more withdrew from writing so lots of songs were already written between the three of us,” Yannis adds and by the time the remaining members started writing the album he was already pretty much out of the picture.
Shaking off the weight
Written and recorded in various sessions the whole set-up was very simplified and according to the band there were still lots of spaces that needed to be filled when they entered the studio with a variety of producers like Dan Carey, Miles James and A.K. Paul (yes, that’s Jai Paul’s brother). That wasn’t the case in the past as Yannis explains: “I remember the time around ‘Total Life Forever’ when we packed to many ideas into those songs. When the producer came in it almost felt like we barricaded him out of the music. We didn’t want too many opinions; we simply wanted them to capture what we’ve done. This album feels more collaborative. The whole process was also different as we had smaller studio sessions with different producers. It aided us in writing in some way.”
Taking a radical turn towards simplification might have been the only way to follow the over-the-top-madness of the two Everything Not Saved albums which were a massive affair, packed with lots of gloomy, almost apocalyptic madness. I still the epic 10-minute long album closer Neptune is still one of the band’s most brilliant pieces of work but back then this really felt like the end of the line. Where to go from that? It’s a fair question but the band obviously didn’t plan to answer it that soon. “We haven’t really thought about the next record to make ’cause we planned to tour most of 2020”, says Jack. “We’ve also done the double amount of work for these two albums since we’ve written so much music,” says Yannis. In late 2019 the band had hypothetical conversations on what to do next. They had brief discussions about making a dance-like record but there was no big plan. Stuck in a small rehearsal space during the lockdown winter they found the direction by moving far away from the latest Foals releases and envision a better post-pandemic future.
“We were attracted to the idea of writing uplifting and poppy tracks. We wanted to exercise that part of our songwrting. And then you couple that with the fact that there wasn’t any nightlife and we didn’t know when we were ever playing a show again. That all subconsciously becomes part of a song. Shortly after that the idea came: Oh, when this all reopens and we can play again this would be the perfect record for the party of the world starting again.”
And yes, indeed it is. While Wake Me Up was the first mighty funk-infused kickstarter of that optimistic outlook, additional singles like 2am and 2001 already showed that this album is heading for a different direction. Funk and disco are obviously present and so is the band’s love for electronic dance music. The album’s final moments – The Sound and Wild Green – are probably the most pieces of club-infected material these guys have released so far. There are no big ballads or loud rock songs on the record. “We didn’t want to take as many left turns as we had done in the past,” explains Yannis, also acknowledging that the Everything Not Saved albums were party a bit packed with too many ideas. “It was quite expansive and indulgent in a good way,” the frontman says. “We wanted to deny ourselves. I personally didn’t want to write any heavy rock tracks for a bit. We wanted something that felt lighter.” Jimmy jokingly notices that they recorded at least one big prog rock moment but that didn’t make it on the album.
Instead Life Is Yours feels like a warm summer breeze that celebrates the feeling of euphoria and grooving ecstasy with dignity and combines it with the band’s strong songwriting. In some ways it’s a nice call-back to their much loved 2008 debut Antidotes which also saw them combining math rock with techno DNA. This time, the sound however appears to be richer and less head-strong; the album feels like a very intuitive affair but the foundation – the band’s love for electronic music and grooving structures remains. “I barely listen to dance music,” says Jimmy while laughing before Yannis ways in that the group listening habits are varying a lot.
“Electronic dance music has always been a part of Foals. When we started playing together I remember Jack being very much into Warp Records. Edwin opened us up to more minimal techno stuff like Kompakt Records and that definitely influenced our early stuff on ‘Antidotes’ which was an attempt to transcribe that sound. ‘Total Life Forever’ was also inspired a lot by disco which we listened to back then.’
Working with different producers really helped to bring external influences to the album. Miles James is an expert for funk and live percussion as Jack confirms. “Working with Miles was very good for me as drummer as he tunes the drums in a very specific and detailed way. He’s all about squeezing the right groove out of you. He’s a good hype man.” And I got to say the cohesive groove that runs through Life Is Yours really holds these tunes together and is also well-received on the recent shows. During the set a funky disco tune like 2001 does indeed find a fitting spot between the band’s harder rocking moments and the more quieter ones. The audience in Berlin was definitely digging the vibe although most of them haven’t heard this one before.
Before the gig Jimmy tells me that he noted it took the crowds a bit longer to get going following the end of lockdown. “They loose their inhibitions and it’s really wonderful to watch. And by the end it’s just people going bonkers and everything’s back to normal. Maybe even more.” Yannis agrees: “We played a handful of shows last summer in the UK and you were still sensing that it’s a bit unusual. But these past shows are among the best we ever played.” Well, I can honestly say that the crowd in Berlin was on fire from the start and that included me who was probably smiling all the time. There was such a positive spirit within the room as if there is a new level of appreciation for things like concerts we took for granted for so long. Jimmy sensed that as well: “I’m enjoying everything a lot more. It’s a more positive vibe and almost everybody I spoke to was very enthusiastic. It’s very infectious.”
Look, we are all aware that the world didn’t suddenly turn into a place of love and peace. Things are still pretty much fucked up on global scale but busting your head in the sand isn’t an option as well. Every now and then it’s okay to shake off the weight of the world from your shoulders. There are good moments that make life more bearable – and most of them include other people. And a good party can help with that which is why me and the Foals reminisce about some of those memorable party nights of our lives. Since we’re in Berlin, Jimmy obviously picks a night at the Berghain. “I remember being at Panorama Bar and they opened the shutters when it was already in the morning and the sun came in. That was wonderful.” One of Jack’s most profound party memories was the celebration of his 30th birthday in Medellín, Colombia after the played there in 2015. “Somebody set up a Function One soundsystem on top of this mountain at a log cabin. There were maybe 50 people there and it went on to the early morning,” he recalls while Jimmy remembers that night mainly from being sick by the bonfire.
Yannis thinks a bit longer about his answer but ends up telling an epic story about a secret party in Oxford which Edwin and he attended, hosted by the Piers Gaveston Society. “It was very posh, very secret. You can buy tickets for it but you don’t know where it is. You’re just get picked up by busses and go there. To this day I have no idea where Edwin and me went. It was a big rave outside.” Jimmy adds that there were also orgies and stuff going on. “You obviously weren’t allowed to bring cameras in. And it went on a while. I mean, nobody heard from me for forty hours,” says Yannis. With laughter Jimmy adds: “We thought you were dead, man.” Yannis smiles: “I woke up after a twenty hour sleep at my mum’s place and I thought Edwin would have gone by then but then he came down from the upstairs bedroom. I remember my mum being pretty shocked about that.” Following a collective laughter our interview slot reaches its end as we are still talking about parties and go-to tunes (Jack always picks Holy Ghost by The Bar-Keys as his favourite and the entire band is really hooked up on Donna by MMM right now).
It’s moments like these that make life worth living and for this summer Foals are the band with one of the most fitting and inspiring records to celebrate exactly that – going outside, getting together with others, singing tunes, dancing a long and embracing the fact that you don’t need to the craziness of the world drag you down twenty four seven hours a day. If a band like Foals can shake off the heavy guitar-loaded weight of the past, so can you. Life is ours, let’s not forget that this summer, shall we?
Life Is Yours by Foals arrives on June 17 via Warner.