Foals have seen their status rise from indie darlings to big arena megastars, and they’re loving
it, writes Ed Power
YANNIS Philippakis can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. “You don’t think we’re big enough to play top of the bill at Glastonbury?,” asks the Foals’ singer, dripping incredulity.
I’ve mentioned the rumour that Foals were first choice as emergency replacement for Foo Fighters at the UK’s biggest music festival last year when David Grohl broke his leg — a slot that in the end went to the Libertines (with Florence Welch stepping up to headline).
“When they had an issue with the line-up, the people at Glastonbury made phone calls,” he explains. “Obviously they’re not going to call just one band. We were one of the groups they rang up. We weren’t ready to do it. The Libertines did it. We are doing that very spot this year — second from top of the Pyramid Stage. We weren’t in the right place last year.”
Foals are perhaps the biggest young band in the UK at the moment. Their last two albums topped the charts in Britain and went top five in Ireland, and they will confirm their status with a headline appearances at Reading and Leeds Festivals later in the summer. Before that, they are en route to Ireland, bringing their mix of Talking Heads cerebral funk and Led Zeppelin bombast to Live at the Marquee in Cork. For anyone fearful that rock’n’roll may be on its death bed, Foals are a cause for hope (they’re also a scintillating live proposition).
Philippakis is polite but not one to suffer fools. Even as Foals have graduated from pokey indie clubs and obscure music websites to arenas and Sunday supplements, he has maintained a wariness of the press — a suspicion returned with interest in some sections of the UK media (suffice to say he isn’t rushing out to pick up NME each week).
“Certain more conniving elements of the music press think we’ve made some sort of tactical decision to become a bigger band or write hit records. The word ‘stadium’ gets used. I don’t really know what that means. I just don’t feel we make stadium rock. It’s an outdated term.”
In February, Foals undertook their first arena tour. Philippakis was nervous going into the opening date in Dublin. The stage is where this often shy and withdrawn artist cuts loose: he’s an accomplished surfer of crowds and climber of balconies. Does performing in arenas curtail his freedom to interact with an audience?
“No, I love it,” he says. “It’s been quite a slow build so it didn’t feel totally alien. There were one of two nerves in Dublin as to what it would be like to perform on that scale. We got into it really straightforwardly. It didn’t feel cavernous or overwhelming. There was a lot of energy in the room. I enjoyed it.”
Philippakis’ father is Greek, his mother from South Africa. He grew up leafy Oxford and studied for a year at the university, dropping out to focus on Foals. There has always been a tension in the city between ‘town and gown’: the working classes in their council estates and the toffs rolling in to take their degrees.
The singer has spoken of not quite feeling at home in either world (he was dumbstruck by the privilege and glibness he encountered at college). Music was his way of negotiating this low-burning identity crisis. He formed his first band, the Edmund Fitzgerald, in the early 2000s; when that outfit’s self-serious instrumental rock began to feel a chore he quit and started Foals instead.
He regards his testy relationship with music journalists with a certain pride. Many of his favourite musicians were likewise condemned as sell-outs when they moved on from the ‘toilet circuit’ of smaller venues. Philippakis believes himself in good company.
“This always happens. There are certain elements of the music press that root for you in the initial stages. They look on you as the underdog. This has happened time and time again, with bands that have an independent spirit. As they get bigger, there’s a point at which the media dubs you a sellout or claim you have compromised to reach more people. With us, I honestly don’t believe that’s the case. I’m not interested in being a bigger band. I want to be a better band.”
Philippakis speaks from experience. Foals’ first album, Antitodes, was hyped to the stratosphere in 2008, the British music press hailing the quintet the most exciting new group in the UK. However, the canny frontman was aware throughout that he was tangoing with the devil: there were a lot of average alternative acts around and he didn’t want to be dragged under with them when the tide turned (as it did, with the media lamenting the rise of ‘landfill indie’).
So Foals held themselves back and consciously retreated from the spotlight. Two years after Antitodes, they released a strange, if rather lovely second album, Total Life Forever — and then transformed into a multi-headed rock monster with 2013’s Holy Fire and 2015’s What Went Down.
“The second record is quite different from the first and the third from the second. We keep evolving. There was maybe a smaller gap between What Went Down and Holy Fire — we didn’t feel we had fully run all the juice out of that model yet. We have now. After this tour we’re going to take a break and find a different approach once again.”
In Dublin, the crowd was notably eclectic, indie veterans mingling with teenagers who would have been in school pants when Antitodes came out.
“I’m pleased our audience is so diverse. When were first started a lot of bands were getting hyped. Our audience was quite young and hip — very scenester-esque. That’s cool for a while. However, that crowd can be very fickle and we never set out to make music for them. We want to make music for everyone. I love it that there are 60 year-olds and 16 yea- olds at our gigs.”
Foals headline Live at the Marquee, Cork, on Tuesday, July 5
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