“It almost feels like an act of defiance these days”: Foals embrace big guitar riffs on their heaviest album yet
Foals guitarists Yannis Philippakis and Jimmy Smith on their visceral new album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 2, the beauty of analogue effects and why they refuse to repeat themselves.
It’s safe to say 2019 has been a banner year for Foals. In March, the Oxford four-piece released their fifth album Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1, which hit No. 2 in the charts and garnered them their third nomination for the Mercury Music Prize. But they’re not done with 2019 just yet – October sees the band drop their second album of the year, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 2 and with talk of a 2020 Glastonbury headline slot heating up, it feels like this year will be remembered as the moment when the band ascended to the heights their 15-year graft has merited.
Not that guitarists Yannis Philippakis and Jimmy Smith have any plans to scale back the hard work now that they’ve reached the top. We catch up with them before a headline show at Moscow’s Adrenaline Stadium, at the tail-end of a mammoth world tour to support Part 1, which will kick off again once Part 2 has been released: “Yeah, it’s a lot,” admits Yannis a little wearily. “We’re doing 130 shows, I think?”
But Foals are used to mammoth undertakings – after all, this is a band that came off the touring cycle for 2015’s What Went Down and decided to make two albums in one go. But that wasn’t always the intention.
“There wasn’t a pre-considered plan,” says Yannis. “We just we had quite a bit of time off after What Went Down and that ended up in us just having a lot of material that we wanted to work on.”
“We always have a big list,” Jimmy explains. “The big whiteboard in the studio has always got something like 20 songs on it – and usually that’s knocked down to about 12…”
“For a long time, we didn’t know whether we would finish all of it, but we were just in a good place creatively,” Yannis picks up. “And so we ended up with having this body of work that we felt was too broad to put onto one record and that it would actually be a far more exciting artistic prospect, and more coherent, to put out two separate records that have that both have their individual characters, but kind of form a larger whole. We were just excited by the ambition and the scope of it.”
Lightning strikes twice
The decision to split the record up gives each a distinct personality – if the first half is the most atmospheric and expansive record the band have ever produced, Part 2 is the heaviest and most visceral.
“Part 1 really set out the themes that we wanted to express and then Part 2 is a continuation of that journey,” Yannis explains. “If 1 was more contemplative and considered, 2 is more an expression of rage and frustration.”
The theme that unites the albums has been a recurring one throughout their career – the encroachment of technology on our lives and the impact it has on humanity – but here, it’s steeped in cynicism.
“When we were recording Total Life Forever, I was really interested in this book, The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil,” Yannis explains. “It’s about the technological changes that would propel mankind into this new, perhaps utopian, way of life. And I was kind of ambivalent, but vaguely excited about it, but it has definitely come to a crashing halt!
“The potential of technology is being harnessed by major corporations to just act in ways that are authoritarian and darkly motivated. Technology should be trying to find ways of sorting out our environmental problems, but it just feels like that instead, we’re just being sold better and more addictive apps to keep our minds occupied in other ways, rather than engaging with the problems that are pressing… so yeah, I definitely don’t feel chirpy about it!”
Things might be thematically dark, then, but from a musical point of view, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost crams in a broad and exhilarating palette of sounds across its two parts, as befits a band who have a reputation for never resting on their creative laurels.
“I think we get bored really easily. It’s just boring to repeat yourself,” says Jimmy of the band’s creative process. “It comes naturally now. Part of the DNA is to keep evolving. And also the periods – like now – when we’re on tour, we’re listening to loads of different music, individually, will all feed into the next record by the time we get back in a room together.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s to do with the boredom of staying in one place,” Yannis counters. “It’s more about the excitement of where the next chapter is. There’s a kind of insatiable appetite to try to explore what the five of us are capable of without remaining in the same space.
“I think it’s necessary for bands to evolve like that. Redefining yourself is exciting and important – much more so than ever now. If you just stay in one place for too long, you’re just kind of condemning yourself.”
“It would be rubbish if we tried to do that and everyone was like, ‘No, we like the old sound better!’ That would be shit!” Jimmy exclaims. “I know that happens to some bands and you end up being stuck in a pigeon hole and that’s that – you can’t get out of it.”
One of the most striking facets of Part 2 compared to its ethereal and exploratory predecessor is the ferocity of the riffs that Foals are now bringing to the table. While still undeniably a Foals record, there’s a raw, scuzzy edge to the guitar parts that is unlike anything they’ve done before. “All the big ones are him,” Jimmy says of Yannis’ newly explored penchant for towering guitar parts. “He’s like a riff machine!”
“I think it comes from frustration,” Yannis explains of the album’s aggressive edge. “And also just from that feeling when you dig into your instrument, and the humanity of that. It almost feels like an act of defiance these days.
“The more we tour and the more I see other musical acts – everything now is clicked and gridded and run by computer programmes… most acts are using Auto-Tune in the front-of-house… and it’s just like, fuck all that! We just want to be able to just dig into instruments and create something that’s primal and vital and human and in opposition to the way that music is becoming more and more sterilised, careerist and calculated, you know?
“Even if it’s uncool to be writing rock riffs in 2019 – whatever that means – we’d rather just do that, and for it to feel correct, you know?”
Foals’ constant evolution in their sound has also come from an evolution of the relationship between the band’s two guitarists.
“In the early days, we had a very strict idea of what Foals should be – and that was very clean guitars, lots of really tight interplay, everything very staccato,” Yannis reflects. “I would often write both parts a lot of the time and then naturally, that strictness loosened up. Partly so that we could evolve and explore, but also because Jimmy needed space as a writer because he’s just an incredible musician. And the band only got better the more freedom everyone was given.”
“I know how to work really well with Yannis, and the way we play guitar together,” Jimmy adds. “I know where to put stuff and I like the dynamic of him doing the big riffs and me doing the annoying stuff!”
When it came to Part 2, however, that understanding of how to play together saw Jimmy make some sacrifices for the benefit of the whole.
“A lot of my stuff actually got taken off this album,” he explains. “Each of the songs on the new album, I had guitar lines through all of them. And they mostly got stripped out! Not because they were crap or anything, but just because ate up a lot of space. It’s like when you got such a big riff, you don’t need anything else over the top!
“I definitely lean more on the melancholy side for sure – that floats my boat. Much to some other band members’ concern, I love to inject a bit of sadness into everything… that’s probably why half my guitar parts got taken out! We’ve got this chirpy big riff and I just end up making it really sad!”
Go to any of Foals’ incendiary live shows and you’ll be greeted by the sight of Yannis giving uncompromising treatment to one of his trademark Travis Bean electric guitars – the aluminium-necked 70s curio has been an ever-present for the frontman throughout the band’s career and he doesn’t see it stopping any time soon.
“I like the fact that you feel like it’s playing you and not the other way around,” he says of his many Beans. “I like the weight of them and I like the fact that it feels like a commitment – and it doesn’t feel like a toy. It’s something that is crafted. It’s like, what’s the difference between using heavy metal cutlery and plastic? Well, I’d rather use heavy metal cutlery! It feels like that. Not in any kind of cold way, but it is definitely different. And I feel like it’s a kind of a potent guitar, y’know? It’s a commitment to play it.
“I like the fact that it’s ‘other’ as well, that it is different and rare. And they come from this particular era when it was viewed as being the next great evolution in guitar making and then, for whatever reason, they were kind of frozen in that time and every time you buy one, you’re essentially dipping back into that mindset of guitar playing in the 70s when they were viewed as being this futuristic evolution. So I like the romance around them as well, I guess.”
Yannis’s path to Bean-love was inspired by one legendary 90s record producer and a big gamble on the unknown.
“I had grown up being fascinated by Steve Albini and so I’d read about these Travis Beans,” he recalls. “I was after what was, in my mind, this really pure sound, so that’s why I was attracted to the Travis Bean with the Hiwatt.
“And I saved up for the best part of a year to get my first Travis Bean – having never played one! But then it arrived and I just instantly fell in love with it… though I think I’d decided to be in love with it before had even arrived! But since then, I’ve never really changed it up – I still just play with Beans and Hiwatts live.”
When it comes to live playing, Jimmy has always been a staunch Jazzmaster aficionado, but he’s recently mixed things up a bit, taking out four custom Fenders sporting the company’s meaty Shawbucker humbuckers in place of the classic single coils.
“They’re so good to me, Fender – they’re almost too good to me!” Jimmy chuckles. “I never get very long with a guitar before they’re like, ‘Hey take this new one out!’ But I feel like these are the ones. Neil Whitcher from Fender was like, ‘Do you want to do something cool and unique for this album tour?’ and I was like, ‘Cool, yeah!’
“I don’t remember who had the original idea to use Shawbuckers, I think maybe he suggested it because I wanted something a bit more pokey. I just wanted something a bit more attack-y. But they work really, really well and they feed back a lot more, which is nice – and they’re just a bit livelier. And then I got to choose the colours, which is for me the most exciting bit!
“Apparently, when one of these guitars came off the production line in Corona, the guy was like, ‘Whoa, what’s this!? We should put this into production!’ But I like the idea of just having these four guitars of my own that nobody else in the world has got. It’s wicked – I want to keep them now, I don’t want anything else! I like it when guitars get battered and weathered… mine are too bloody clean! You wouldn’t know that they’ve just done a world tour.”
If he likes them a bit battered, we suggest that Fender has become a dab hand at making guitars look that way straight out of the factory.
“Yeah, but that’s horrible!” he exclaims. “That’s so lame, that’s even worse! I’ll just keep my clean guitar… I’m not going to get them road worn!”
When it came to recording in the studio, both guitarists were free to experiment a little more with Jimmy using a vintage Telecaster, ES-335 and Les Paul Custom, with a Jazz Chorus, Fender Twin and Yannis’s Selmer head providing the oomph for both. Yannis mainly used one of his Beans – a 1000 Artist – and a guitar that had a nose for good tone…
“I used a 1967 Gretsch Country Gent, which I picked up in Cincinnati, largely based on its smell!” he laughs. “It was a proper ponger! We were in some musty old shop and I was just absolutely bowled over by its odour! And so I just had to take it home.”
Pedals have always been the cornerstone of the Foals sound and it’s no surprise that the sonic experimentation evident on both parts of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost necessitated some pretty hefty pedalboard use.
“With us, the standard operating procedure is Boss,” Jimmy says. “The RV-5 reverb pedal and the DD-3 delay – the fuzz pedals that we use are by Fuzzrocious and there’s the POG – that’s like our most basic setup. We could do anything with that kind of thing. Oh, and the green Line 6 delay pedal – the DL4 – if I had a gun to my head, I would have to pick that as my favourite guitar pedal of all time.”
“For me, I really like the Audio Kitchen Big Trees pedal for overdrive,” adds Yannis. “I use that both live and in the studio, just to have that natural drive. And I also just like to crank preamps up into the mixing desk. I used the Chandler Germanium Pre Amp and we were just cranking that until it broke up.
“But I’ll leave the pedals to Jimmy, ’cause he went on this huge pedal shopping spree! So he can talk a lot about that!”
“I got into the EarthQuaker Devices pedals a lot,” Jimmy begins, accepting the challenge. “I use the Rainbow Machine pedal a lot live, and it’s a bit bonkers, but you can get some pretty insane one-off sounds out of it… but good luck trying to recall any of it, there’s no save button on that thing! And the Interstellar Orbiter as well. We love using filter effects – it’s really useful for making two guitars that are essentially doing the same thing sound really different.
“There’s this delay pedal called the Echosex…” he continues, cringing. “Awful, AWFUL name. It’s so bad that I actually had to put a bit of gaffa tape over the ‘sex’ bit so it just says ‘Echo 2’, it just pissed me off so much, but it’s an amazing replica of a Binson drum thing.
“And Space Echoes are invaluable to us,” he adds. “I know they’re getting quite expensive now, but if anyone should buy one thing, it’s that. Actually the Echosex thing – god I hate that I have to keep saying it – is actually pretty fucking close to the Space Echo. It’s got a knob on that does tape warp, and it’s a very warm analogue sound.”
Analogue sounds might not be what you’d expect from a band that made their bones with crystalline delay and reverb sounds, but Jimmy reveals that they’ve moved on from the high-end digital processors.
“Obviously, we’ve got all the Strymon things, but we’re trying to get away from that sound now,” he confirms. “That Crystallizer thing seemed to be all over every single record once the blueSky came out! Also, they’re just too complicated for me, to be honest – I like pedals to be simple. Take the DD-3 – it’s badass, and you can do so much with it… and it’s so simple. But then on one of my pedalboards there’s a DD-7 and I’m like, ‘What the fuck is this?!’ They made it too complicated! I mean, you need a degree to use Chase Bliss’s pedals!”
“That’s what I meant earlier about digging in and having that connection,” Yannis adds. “I feel like a lot of the lifeblood of creativity is dependent on the actual relationship with the object I’m using – whether it’s a pedal, or it’s a guitar, or a keyboard. I think it’s to do with the fact that the primitive feeling of hitting a button or of just using your hand in a percussive way is important.
“I don’t like plotting something out in a computer grid and then just hearing it back. I just feel like there’s something missing for me there. And it’s the same with stompboxes, it’s the same with being able to turn up an amp and feeling the physical volume of it hit you – I think all of that stuff is important. Maybe that is just because of the era that we grew up in, but for me it’s not the same without it.”
“It brings up a lot of problems when you’re trying to recreate an album live!” Jimmy chuckles. “Because you might have a sequence of like 10 pedals that you can’t remember the order… But it’s just the simple fact that it’s more fun – being on your knees on the studio floor playing with sounds with your own hands rather than watching someone doing it with a mouse.
“There’s something nice about like going into our storage unit or into the studio and seeing all the different types of pedals on top of each other – the different colours, different knobs, designs… it’s just nice, isn’t it? Pedals are fucking cool!”
As their fellow Mercury nominees The 1975, Idles, Anna Calvi, Fontaines D.C. and Black Midi demonstrate, UK guitar music is in a wonderful and diverse place in 2019, but this wasn’t always the case. Foals have endured through a period at the turn of the decade when obituaries on ‘the guitar band’ were being written left and right.
“I actually think around Holy Fire was the moment,” Yannis recalls. “It seemed like it only felt like was just us and the Arctic Monkeys out there!”
“It’s fucking weird now!” exclaims Jimmy. “We were hanging out with The Murder Capital the other day, and it’s like we’re their fucking grandads! It’s weird because they sort of look at us like we’re survivors, but it’s kinda cool y’know? It feels nice!”
“I think it definitely makes us feel that we have something to say, you know? And that there’s some enduring worth in what we’re doing,” Yannis adds. “It’s also just cool to see how many great bands are coming out of the UK at the moment, and how fresh it feels. It feels like it’s really resonated with the culture and it’s cool to be still a part of that.”
Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 2 will be released on 18 October 2019 on Warner Records.