For a long time Oxford-based band FOALS might have been mistaken for just creating shallow hipster pop. But during the course of the past years the band around front man Yannis Philippakis evolved into something way bigger than these poor stereotypes. Their partly epic songs bridge the gap between experimental math rock, catchy indie hits and a certain appeal for the dancefloor. And on the band’s most recent album Holy Fire they even come with a larger amount of soul and blues-like edginess. Progress is part of the group’s nature and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping yet.
A live album and DVD from this year’s show at the Royal Albert Hall is out these days and the group is – once again – back on the road. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION took the chance and sat down with band member Ed and talked about the new release, ideas for the future and how he loves to live under the ‘dictatorship’ of Mr. Philippakis.
“Holy Fire” has been out a while yet. And sometimes, in the course of time and while playing the songs, you might discover new aspects of it. How do you see the album in retrospect?
I think we always think we can do things better. Probably the song selection on this one since there are a few songs we didn’t put on the record and we would have love to put on it. But in general the response was so good that I don’t wanna argue with that. (laughs)
What happened to these songs?
They were almost finished but we didn’t really nailed them in the studio. They might come in handy in the future in some other form.
Are you satisfied with the year so far?
Yes, of course. We got the chance to play way bigger shows. And the tours have been really enjoyable since normally it is also quite hard work. But we’ve come to a point where we make a bit of money with it and get to play cool venues. Ones that are big but not too big. We can still feel the energy in the room and that’s very powerful. And another thing that Yannis talked a lot about is that he now has a certain feeling of satisfaction on stage. He’s in the right place in his life and when he’s on stage, playing the guitar, he feels like he made it.
So, you’re not tired yet?
Oh yes, we are. (laughs) But the last thing you wanna hear from a musician on tour is that he’s tired of playing. It’s boring. All my friends in London, who have daily jobs, are tired as well. Even more than me. So, in the end, that’s the better way of being tired.
In my opinion every FOALS album brings in new aspects to your sound. What would you say was the aspect on “Holy Fire”?
Definitely this whole bluesy component. But also these American rock influences. You can call it a certain ‘macho’-like self-confidence. (laughs) And I think the songwriting stepped up a bit on certain levels. But I also think it’s more diverse than the other records.
You mentioned that American rock influence. I really like the hard and fury direction of tracks like “Inhaler” and “Providence.” Any plans on continuing with this?
It’s definitely something I would love to continue in the future. I prefer the heavy side of FOALS. When we go on tour we always play the songs live that have the most energy on the record. I would really love to make a whole record that sounds more like this since I think the show would also profit from it. ‘Cause half of the songs from the new album we don’t play…
… ’cause they don’t work live?
No, it’s not that. But we’re very simplistic when it comes to a concert. We’ve been very cowardly in the past and we really want to please the crowd. And that’s why we want to play more of the aggressive songs. For us as a band it’s psychologically important to let all sides of the band out. Jimmy, for example, is much more into slower stuff.
You’re releasing a live record and DVD these days. Basic question – why?
(laughs) Well, everyone in the band liked the idea of a live recording at some point. And it’s obviously a quite fun thing to do. It was actually our managers idea. And it was also his idea to play the Royal Albert Hall and combine these two aspects together. It was kind of weird. When he presented us the idea I, personally, found it too ambitious since it’s usually a classical venue. And I like the idea of playing grungier venues. But he persuaded us to do it and it went hand in hand with the filming. It was shot by our friend Dave Ma who’s done a lot of videos for us. We’ve known him since 2006 and he knows us very well. For him it was a big chance since he’s basically a huge sucker for concert films.
Did you feel any pressure before shooting it?
Yes, obviously. I got pretty scared and I was mainly concentrated on playing and doing nothing wrong. It was one of these films where we can’t change it in the end. In the end it was surprisingly easy for us as a band and we had a lot of fun.
“FOALS has always been the project of Yannis. He made it happen.”
Do you have any favourite live albums from the history of pop music?
There’s a live album by SWANS which is called Swans Are Dead. Do you know them?
What a shame. They were one of those bands that moved so fast between genres. They started as an industrial/ gothic-like band and than discovered how to make really beautiful music later. It’s an amazing record. it doesn’t sound live but it’s just so good.
Ed, you once said in an interview that Yannis lyrics are quite cryptical and sometimes hard to understand. Does he actually ever explain them to you so you as a band can get a better musical feeling for them?
We’ve done that in the studio on the last two albums. The producers got Yannis to explain the intention and feeling of his songs. We want to colour them emotionally in a musical way. Quite a ‘hippie’ aspect. (laughs) But also quite often there’s no big story behind the lyrics. Yannis just started to evolve that on Holy Fire. He wanted to make it more transparent. And when you go back to Antidotes it was different at the time. It might appeal cryptic but this is just because he made up the lyrics as he went along. And that’s not a bad thing. Back then the vocals were just another element to the music. Like an extra instrument.
Speaking of Yannis, he seems to be a very prominent frontman. Lately it’s quite often just him appearing in the music videos. Is this a role he choose by himself?
That’s more a decision by the director of the music video. And, well, also one in terms of budget. Especially when we are on tour. When we did the Bad Habit video we were on tour in the US. So we had just one day of filming. It was easier just to have him in the desert and not all the five of us. Plus he’s a quite charismatic frontman. He makes sense in the video, I don’t. (laughs)
But does this role also reflects his musical leadership?
Oh, yes. He’s a very strong leader.
But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
(laughs) I never said that. We’ve seen a lot of bands in and around London or Oxford who work quite democratically. They discuss thousands of things and details and never get anything done in the end. But FOALS has always been the project of Yannis. He always wanted to do this. He made FOALS happen, he got the people together, he got us signed and he sent our demos out to – I don’t know – fifty different people or so. He also booked our first tours so Yannis has always been the driving force. You can’t really criticize someone for being dictatorial when he did something like this.
So, the tour is still going on until next spring. Any plans for the future? I know you’ve got a ‘house label thing’ going on with Jack from FRIENDLY FIRES…
It’s just an opportunity for me to DJ an to do the music I grew up with, which is house music. But there’s currently not much to say about it ’cause we haven’t done so much yet on it since I’m constantly on tour. A few years ago me and Jack discovered that we have the same musical taste. So, we love our bands as well but we also love DJing a lot. So, we’ve got a record label and got some things coming out next year. We’ll see how far it’ll go but it will always be some sort of underground thing. It’s not like it is in competition with our bands.
And we’re ending the talk with our usual question about hope and passion.
Uh, the big one right at the end. (laughs)
Indeed. Would you consider yourself a hopeful person.
I’m a very negative person, actually. Although this might be a bit too simple since I’m more complex.
In this context… I like the closing track on the new record, “Moon.” It’s actually a quite bittersweet song about the end of the world but you made it sound quite hopeful at the end.
I could best describe this one as a synthesis of Yannis and Jimmy’s attitudes. Yannis took it down a pretty dark road with his lyrics while Jimmy provided the hopeful ending of the song. Although you can see different aspects in each and every song I would say as a band we’re pretty hopeful.