Foals Refocus and Release Holy Fire, Their Best LP Yet

Oxford’s Foals had major buzz coming right out of the gate. All three of their records have gone gold in their homeland and the last LP, 2010’s Total Life Forever, was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize, an annual award for the best record released in the U.K. and Ireland. The latest, Holy Fire, finds the band taking the best pieces of their previous records and swinging for the fences. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we chatted with Foals drummer Jack Bevan about the record, its famous production team and breaking big in America. The band plays two shows at the Neptune Theater — though the first is sold out — on May 31 and June 1.

You traveled to New York to work on your first record, Sweden for the second, and you spent time in Sydney demoing this one. Why the urge to travel so much during the record-making process and do you feel like locale manifests itself in the resulting output? The location where you record is always going to affect the sound of the record and how you approach making it. On our first album, going to New York was really exciting for us. We’d never been there before. It’s an amazing city, all that energy and excitement. We immersed ourselves in that. I don’t think we really realized how trendy Williamsburg, [Brooklyn] was and what kind of place it was until we ended up there. On the second record, we did that in Sweden and that definitely isolated us from pretty much any other human contact. There was a period where [singer and guitarist Yannis Philippakis] didn’t even leave the studio for about two weeks. Literally didn’t even leave the building. Doing Holy Fire in London, we were a little bit concerned that it wasn’t going to give us the same amount of excitement because three of us live in London and the other two live in Oxford, so it doesn’t have that same new excitement, but I think that being somewhere we knew so well allowed us to concentrate on what we were doing. There were no distractions.

Can you talk about working with Flood and Alan Moulder, who have made some incredible records together for bands like U2 and Smashing Pumpkins? Why them and what did each bring to the table? We’d worked with Alan Moulder before in that he mixed Total Life Forever and we got on with him so well that we thought we’d love to try and record with him. The whole band were huge fans of Alan Moulder and Flood together, like [Smashing Pumpkins’] Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness and Nine Inch Nails. We just kind of threw it out there, not expecting it to come off, and somehow they said yes. Flood is kind of like a film director. For instance, we’ll play a song and then he’ll suggest, “Can you do that an octave higher on the bass” or “can you cut that fill out of the second verse?” And Alan would be in the control room and he’s kind of more like a sonic doctor, where he knows how to get incredible sounds out of pretty much anything, but especially guitars and drums. It was a pleasure to experience the two of them.

You guys seem to reinvent yourselves with each record. Did you talk about what that evolution might be this time out? Was there talk of wanting to make a more commercially viable, arena-ready album? I think we always strive to make different sounding records but I don’t think we’ve been aiming to expand in an arena kind of way. We’ve always wanted to communicate better and to more people without compromising what we’re doing.

As the drummer, what’s your relationship to samples, loops, etc.? Do you have all the parts worked out in advance or is that something you contribute to in the studio as part of the production process? We write the majority of the music together as a five-piece, so we’ve usually written all the drumbeats in advance. Sometimes in the studio we’ll realize that something doesn’t really work so well and we’ll have to go back to the drawing board and I’ll think of something else. For the first time ever, there are a couple of songs I’m just not on. “Stepson” is a loop that [guitarist Jimmy Smith] made on his guitar pedal. It sounds quite percussive but it was actually made using all guitar effects. And then on “Moon” I didn’t drum on that at all. And it’s actually quite nice to have tracks like this where I can listen objectively. When it’s something that I’ve played on it’s hard to not hear other things you might have done or take it apart.

Can you talk about a song like “Providence,” with its odd time signature and how you balance the flexing of your musical muscles with also trying to be pop, which doesn’t always jive? I feel like there’s almost three sides to the band, where we want to make songs that are emotional and sorrowful and can connect with people. I think songs like “Spanish Sahara” and “Late Night” are good examples of this. But there’s also the side of the band that wants to make heavy, brash, visceral music, with songs like “Inhaler” and “Providence.” But then also there’s the side of the band that wants to make pop music. It’s satisfying being able to be in a band where we can be quite diverse. We can play songs that are heavy and songs that are poppy and songs that are quiet. It’s good for all of our creative outlets. I don’t really feel like any of us need to have a solo project or a side project because we’re getting everything out in Foals.

Why did the title Holy Fire speak to you and where did it come from? Holy Fire came about after the recording process. We kind of felt like the album sounded like the album cover. The cover was chosen very early on. It’s a National Geographic photograph from the ‘60s of these men riding horses into the ocean. Just the fact that it was at twilight; it just felt exactly how Holy Fire felt in the studio, as a record.

How did you come across the image? Yannis found it in an old copy of National Geographic that he had lying around at his mom’s house. And then we had to get in touch with the photographer. Luckily he was alive and living in America and we got in touch with him and got him to agree to license us the photo for the front of the record. People had to search death records and telephone books to find him so we were really excited when we got it because we were so set on the cover. Had we not been able to get it we wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves. Once we got the cover locked down, we had a few different ideas for titles and Holy Fire just seemed like the one that tied everything together. The record, to me, feels very sun-kissed and fiery and orange and glowing and a title like Holy Fire is ambiguously spiritual.

Do you know where the phrase originated? I’m not entirely sure actually. Yannis presented us with maybe five titles that he came up with and there were a couple we liked but unanimously we all liked Holy Fire.

Is the band a democracy? Yeah. If there’s someone that doesn’t want to do something, we’ll talk it out or try and convince the other person — or they’ll convince us. We move as a unit. Yannis is definitely the band leader, so in any sort of group dynamic there’s going to be someone who heads the meeting and then people that have larger voices, but I’d definitely put us as a democracy.

Is success in America important to you? It’s something that we’d love to achieve and it feels like we’re chipping away slowly and steadily at doing that. It’s a tough question because I’ve never really thought of things like that. There’s a real sense of achievement in going to a city and playing to 30 people and then coming back a year later and playing to 200 people and then coming back and playing to 700 people and then 1500 people. That really is how it seems to work in America.

Was it different for you in the U.K.? In England, it’s a much smaller country for starters, so word travels quicker. Hype is something that is a really big factor in England. It’s like shaking a bottle of Coke or something. The minute a band has started, if they’ve got anything sort of original going on, people start going crazy. In England, within two years of the band’s existence, we sold out a 5,000 capacity room in London. And that’s crazy. I think you can get big really quickly but I think you can also be forgotten about really quickly. There’s a lot of bands who will put out a debut record, people get really excited about it, they’ll play huge venues and then their next album will flop and they’ll be gone. Whereas it feels like America is less fickle.

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