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Foals interview (published in Metro, August 2015.)

Foals

I do have a sense of humour!” says Yannis Philippakis, with the defensive air of a man who doth protest too much. The Foals frontman acknowledges that a reputation for intense seriousness precedes him. “When you're in the press, you get turned into a one-dimensional caricature of yourself, and for better or worse... this is mine. But I do have a good time. It's not all brooding, chain-smoking and self-flagellating.”

Yannis, a bearded bear-cub of a man, is often described as seeming older than his age (he's 29), as though carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. In reality, he's deeply thoughtful and considered, and commendably reluctant to give the trite answer instead of the true one.

Sitting on a Shoreditch balcony on a rain-spitting summer day, surveying a vista of concrete and construction cranes, he has plenty to be thoughtful about. Foals stand poised on the brink of hugeness. The Oxford band are already a popular live act with three gold-selling albums, and their fourth, What Went Down, is widely predicted to propel them into rock's giddiest stratospheres.

The prospect of ascending to Muse or Coldplay status doesn't fill Yannis with joy. “I never grew up wanting to be in that kind of band. I'm pretty content with where we're at. It would be na´ve of me to think that other people who work with us don't have an insatiable appetite for how big the band could get, but that hasn't contaminated our approach. I'm not particularly craving to play bigger and bigger places. I fear the idea of being in a band where it's gorged and fat, in an arena.”

However, the size of venue Foals are playing has already affected their sound. “In the early days”, he remembers, “we'd play house parties or tiny shows in Oxford. But one reason why the music has got bigger, and less intricate and micro-detailed, is because the imagined space in our heads has got bigger, and certain nuances get lost. In the same way that if you're a painter, you work differently if you're painting miniatures than filling a gallery wall.”

Thus far, Foals have skilfully found a sweet spot between art and populism, and defied the old punk slogan 'F*** Art, Let's Dance' by proving you can have both.

That challenge is what's kept the band going: making our idea of pop music, and have it be accessible but not derivative or crap.”

What Went Down – so named because it's “a document, a set of coordinates for what's happened over the last two years” - is Foals' most direct album yet, recorded rapidly in Provence following the band's last tour to maintain the momentum of the shows, a conscious reaction to Yannis' previous tendency to “overthink” things.

I used to think it was a sign of intense dedication,” he explains, “being in the studio for 18 hours without a break, adding and subtracting things. But I've grown tired of that way of working. I had a pull towards a more light-footed process. And just as an aesthetic, a design thing, I was attracted to economy of sound, not to have something that's too dense.”

The producer enlisted to achieve this was James Ford, whose work with Arctic Monkeys particularly impressed Yannis. On past form, this may seem surprising (Yannis has directed barbed comments towards the Monkeys in the past). “I think they're one of the great bands out there,” he says now, with curt diplomacy.

His approach to the lyrics was equally direct. “If you're going to occupy someone's time for 45 minutes,” Yannis says, “I want to make sure I'm not writing about something fatuous or impenetrable. Making music is a way of connecting with potentially millions of people and being part of their intimate moments. I want to make something that, if some 15-year-old kid in Malaysia hears it, it's gonna be amazing for them. Or at least be entertaining on the way to school. I have a conception of the way music moves, in the world. There's a functionality to music. You're not just repeating 'I exist' into the mirror in your bedroom. You're doing something that has a utility and purpose.”

There's a noticeable masculinity - both savagely primal and touchingly vulnerable - to the lyrics this time. “Yeah, I am a man, right?” Yannis smiles. “But there's no overarching theme. I have trouble sleeping, and I wake up in the middle of the night, and I became interested in the way my brain worked, particularly if I've been drinking. Some of the tangents of thought are pretty odd, when you're half-asleep and half out of your mind, and it's good for coming up with an elusive and unconscious way of writing. I didn't sit down with a pen and paper and try and polish the lyrics.”

A sense of impending doom also seems to infuse the album. As Yannis ponders this, with impeccable timing, police sirens scream past below.

I get comfort in putting those worries into songs. It's a way of neutralising stuff. There are common anxieties to do with the future, the unpredictable, forces that are out of your control. Also, biological stuff, like getting older, just neuroses that people have. There's a sense of frustration across our generation at realising how disempowered we are. It's very clear how the structures of power work: the idea of a 'voice', and democracy, is not what it was.”

A case in point being his birthplace. Yannis, now only the second most famous person with that name, recently tweeted “There's only one way to vote – Oxi” before the Greek referendum.

It's terrible,” he says of the situation facing his ancestral homeland. “It's economic enslavement. Or economic occupation, basically. I've always loved Greece and I've probably romanticised it a bit. My father lives there and I've spent a lot of time there, and I've always viewed it as this free place. And when you see what's happened to it, I feel deeply disheartened.”

He gesticulates as he speaks, a tattoo of a giant cephalopod visible on one forearm. (“It's just an octopus”, he says when asked whether it's a Kraken or Cthulhu. “Just a standard, basic octopus.”) Warming to the theme, he continues.

Because you see how little autonomy Greece has, and the will of the people steamrollered by economic forces. The man on the street is the one who's really suffering. It strips everything away and you start to see how reptilian and f***ed up the structures are that actually govern us. It adds to that sense of being jaded.”

He harbours similarly pessimistic views on the music industry, particularly streaming services and download culture. “The value of a song gets reduces to nought-point-nought-nought-whatever pence, and that's wrong. A song is worth more than that. There will be consequences from this that we don't understand. You can get an entire life's work, an entire discography, in ten minutes, and never listen to it. Is there not something perverse about that? Someone's entire life and craft: you can take that almost for free. And it can sit there gathering digital dust in your digital box.”

The world-weary 29-year-old rubs his stubble, and adds. “But maybe I'm showing signs of my age...”

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