Foals’ Holy Fire
Backstage at Terminal 5 during the afternoon is predictably hectic, I note as I’m rapidly led up steps and down hallways before bursting into one of their dressing rooms, where two Foals look up with mildly surprised welcome. But just as quickly there’s a change of plans, and I scoot down two more doors to interview the Oxford, England-based rock band’s Jack Bevan and Edwin Congreave, who play drums and keyboards respectively.
“We’re on rotation for interviews,” Bevan laughs. He’s upbeat and jolly, as contrasted with Congreave, who recedes farther back on the couch and contributes infrequent, sage commentary.
I first discovered the Foals in 2009, after a YouTube click landed on “Balloons” from their first album Antidotes. I was immediately fascinated by both the sound in relation to Antidotes’ cover art—the outline of a wistful-looking schoolboy locked in a droning gaze with his mouth open and colored in with static, bees, whatever—a perfect visual for their minimalist punk/math rock/industrial indie sound, tightly simmering blips of sound supporting raw, emotional vocals.
Holy Fire is now the third installment, released on February 11. It’s still very Foals in its compulsive interpretation of the ordinary life. The song “My Number,” for example, has a deceptively poppy sound, when in actuality the lyrics are contemplative, almost brooding: “You don’t have my number, we don’t need any trouble now/...‘Cause you don’t have my number and I don’t need no one else/ And I don’t need the city streets who create all the culture now.”
Bevan recalls their transition from idealistic progressive rock to something more generally palatable, less to do with finding commercial success than to enjoy a comprehension between band and audience. “We got kind of bored, we didn’t really communicate much to the audiences we were playing to, which were usually small and a lot of the time [the audience] were kind of beard-stroking men, very, sort of, elitist. And it’s not fun to make music when you’re never really getting anything back. And when [our guitarist at the time] left, we were like ok, fuck it, let’s do something totally different. Let’s just do something really fun, and something where there’s like no boundaries between us and the crowd, like it’s some kind of mutual thing. So we came up with the idea of having a party band almost that would play dance music and would be really fun and wouldn’t take itself too seriously.”
Fun indeed, but more in the way of a Judgment Day blowout. This is still evident in Holy Fire, with songs like “Inhaler” an absolute theatrical masterpiece, lyrically, sonically, abstractly. It building slowly with drugged-out rhyming lyrics, biding its time as though watching a crowd’s adrenaline rise, and peaking with the hoarsely screamed, “I can’t get enough….SPACE!” Somewhere there is a crowd going seriously insane.
The current Foals incarnation was not as premeditated. “It was a pretty spontaneous thing, we were out one night,” Bevan continues. “Had a few…”
“We were very drunk,” Congreave intercedes. They laugh.
“We kind of wanted to make everything rhythmically together, so we started playing stuff straighter. Playing in 4/4 time did most of the work and we could be quite weird around that framework. Like, Jimmy [Smith] learned guitar parts for songs that were quite intricate, but because it has kind of a throb to it, it doesn’t feel like too much.”
The new album is notably looser, containing less sharp-edged flutters of sound in favor of long spaces of distant ambience, sometimes with digitalized voices contorted into distorted yawns. Death metal echoes intersperse “Prelude,” while singer Yannis Phillipakis’ voice drips tenderly in the closing “Moon,” mimicking the changing fall of the moonlight during a midnight walk. The band went all out in preparation, renovating their London recording studio by dimming the lights, installing a seascape-like video on the wall, and experimenting with animal bones in place of drumsticks. But the voodoo rings more like a conscious homage than showmanship, or as Congreave calls it, a positive gimmick. The two readily admit the contrition in the making of the album with a mix of earnestness and self-deprecation. “We’ve always wanted to be a mode of escapism. We don’t wan to just be writing about having a job and drinking…nature is something that surpasses that.”
The Foals also changed up their recording style on Holy Fire, moving from their previous one-out-of-every-three-takes standards to first takes, easing up on the self-editing. Where their songs often self-referentially meld seamlessly in and out of each other from Antidotes to Total Life Forever even still on Holy Fire (“Olympic Airways” and “Spanish Sahara” being particular nuclei), the band attempted to free preconceived notion of Foals’ sound. They opened up their identity to ideas just as varied as their own musical preferences, which span from Kendrick Lamar to German three-piece contemporary jazz group Brandt Brauer Frick (Congreave pronounces, “They’re making music no one else is making”) to bluesy recordings of chain gang gospel, a big influence on this album.
“We decided after Total Life [Forever], our last record, we always knew what we were going to make before we made it. We had like a specific idea of what we wanted to record to be, and on Holy Fire we just decided to give ourselves total freedom and just write whatever we feel like.” On Holy Fire, the endearing one-notedness of the boy on the cover of Antidotes has stared itself into a more nuanced adult terrain: the Foals are opening a dimension for listeners that combines real experiences while replicating the natural, elaborate, and collective experience of it all sinking in later.