British math rock band Foals first hit the international scene in early 2008 with the release of “Antidotes,” a refreshingly experimental and unconventional album that demanded the indie rock scene take note. The group, which is signed to Sub Pop Records, followed up the album with the sophomore release, 2010’s “Total Life Forever,” which paradoxically marked both a maturation of sound as well as a bit of a departure into the unknown, thereby simultaneously establishing the band as unpredictably raucous and obsessively calculated. Keyboard player Edwin Congreaves took the time to answer some questions about the band’s just-begun North American tour, playing live, working on the third album, the quintet’s philosophy on music and how airplanes are just like fast buses.
So you’re setting out on the road to tour with Freelance Whales. What exactly does “co-headline” mean? Will you be switching up the headliner on a nightly basis? Do you share the stage, taking turns after every song? Is it like a live battle on stage where you have a “song off”? Will it be a live mash-up experience? And what (or where) are you most excited about with this upcoming tour?
Co-headline means, I think, that we’re not allowed to argue about who’s the more important band. They’ll know soon enough, though. It’ll be obvious, just by the way we swagger around our cavernous individual backstage rooms, freshly squeezed OJs in hand. We are releasing a split 7" together, so I suppose the next step could well be a live collaboration. Freelance foals…? Freelance fails, more like.
What can fans expect from your live show? How much do you rely upon things like programmed beats, loops, pedals, et cetera? And how do you feel about programs like Ableton Live, which are geared toward being integrated into and used during live performances?
We’re pretty militant about keeping it live, for better or worse. We’re proud of our mistakes and our tuneless warbling (I’m not just talking about the vocals). It’s also really important for us to be able to improvise and jam aimlessly between songs. We’ve seen so many bands (many that we love) rely on backing tracks in various ways, using it as a security blanket, and it limits and to some extent debases the potential of live music. It seems to be a kind of default setting now for a lot of bigger touring bands, keen to sound as polished as possible on festival PAs. Good for them, I guess.
Obviously a program like Ableton live is an exciting creative tool, and it’d be foolish of us to dismiss it entirely. Truth be told, we’ve never really looked into incorporating it. There [are] five of us on stage, you know, and the main problem that we seek to address is that we play too much and make too much noise. The last thing we need is another instrument.
Anyway, we use some drum triggers, and I think in the future we’ll be using some samplers and sequencers, possibly through laptops. But Jack’s never going to be to a click and we’re never going to have any kind of backing track.
When will you stop and set aside time to work on your next album? Have you even thought about a musical direction for that? “Antidotes” was a very catchy, danceable math rock-esque debut, and “Total Life Forever” is admittedly much more atmospheric in sound and less “surface level"… so where will this third album fall in the sound spectrum? Which I guess really begs the question about intention when you set about to write a new album: is there an agreed upon sound or direction? Or, much like songs evolve between the recording studio and the live performance, do you just start writing with no predetermined idea and what comes out is what comes out?
We spent some time in Sydney in January demoing, and in the last few weeks off in Oxford we’ve been writing as well. We’ve got a new studio all to [ourselves] that we’re fixing up and the aim is to write over the summer and autumn with a view to finishing something next year. In theory, the musical direction will make itself clear after a while. We’re keen to keep the process intuitive, with, as you say, [no] predetermined ideas. The most important decision we need to make is which producer we’re going to work with, as that will stamp a clear identity on the record.
In that same vein, how have you seen yourselves transforms as musicians? Of course, it doesn’t always happen in ways that you notice, but when you look at yourselves as the band you were when you first started playing together compared to the place you’re at right now, what is most noticeable, or startling, or surprising?
Probably that Yannis sings rather than shouts, and that we’ve more or less reneged on every principle that we formed the band with: i.e. no chords, no reverb, meticulous and obsessional structuring, et cetera. It’s only for the best. And I think it’s fair to say that everyone is pleasantly surprised at how Jimmy has come out of his shell and is becoming a song-writing powerhouse.
How do you feel music should be experienced (ideally anyway)? More specifically, your own music: Is it more of a thorough art, where albums should be listened to in whole, from beginning to end, perhaps viewed on some sort of conceptual level? Or considering the immediate accessibility of music today and the idea of downloading an individual song or putting it on a playlist as opposed to being concerned with complete albums… do you think that it’s more important to view things on a more micro level?
Music should be experienced any which way a person wants to experience it. I’m not fussed by the decline of the album – it only appeared in the 1960s, anyway, and there’s been a whole lot of terrible ones since then… I’d hope that our music can be enjoyed both in the album-format that we spent blood and tears creating, but also shuffled up as individual songs. If people want to listen to our music on youTube on their iPads while travelling to work on a Segway that’s fine by me. Good luck to them in love and life.
What do you think about the authenticity of the music experience? When a song is originally written and then later the band goes on to record it or even play it live, do you feel that it cheapens or distorts the original meaning? Or do you feel instead that each subsequent listen, take, variation is organic and multi-level and part of the process of what it means to perform a song - with the music reinventing itself every time?
It’d be pretty crazy to hold the former opinion, wouldn’t it? In our experience, the recorded version of a song is way down the line from its original incarnation – which only really existed in [our] heads the first few times we jammed it out. It’s the feeling of unlimited potential during the initial creative burst that needs to be captured in the studio, and I have no real idea how to do that. I guess that’s what makes a great producer. We had some good reinventions on “Total Life Forever” – songs that had morphed way beyond what they were in our little basement in Oxford but that had found a new energy.
As musicians, what do you value more: the written recorded songs in a tangible format that can exist in a person’s home, or the experience of playing them live to a room or stadium full of people? And taking yourselves out of the role of performers and just acting as consumers of music, does that change what you’re more interested in?
It’s so easy to say "both,” but I’m gonna go with it. But which do we enjoy more? Playing live is easier and more viscerally enjoyable. There’s [instant] feedback from hundreds if not thousands of people, and there’s never any reason to dwell on shortcomings. But the studio is more challenging and much more of an artistic obsession. We get so stressed in the studio, and we all have crazy ups and downs. There [are] days where you convince yourself that you’re gonna give it all up and go study law instead. Weeks, in fact. We’re moody bastards, basically, but it seems to go hand-in-hand with the creative drive. After we finished “Total Life Forever” we all seriously thought that we’d blown it and that it was all over. Most of us couldn’t even bring ourselves to listen to the record for months afterwards. But, well… that’s faded. And the artistic success of that record has buoyed us all up over the last year, and will probably continue to do so while we write the next one.
What are the most challenging or difficult things about what you do? On the flipside, what are the most rewarding or worthwhile aspects?
Er. Being away from home for months on end is an obvious challenge. Most of us are in long-term relationships and I think it’s fair to say our respective partners are thoroughly over this lifestyle. But I’m in no hurry to stop touring. Travelling around North America is as exciting as it was the first time. Admittedly, I can’t say the same thing about Northern Europe, but… hey, they do good cheese. Generally speaking, we have varying opinions on how rewarding touring is, but I’d say its difficult aspects are made considerably worse by relentless self-abuse.
The most rewarding aspect? Certainly not the elusive $$$s. I’d say that the band provides a kind of emotional safety net for us. We definitely wouldn’t know what else to do with our lives. And of course we get to see the world. I’d only been on a plane once before we started touring, and now I think of them like very fast buses. So that’s good.
Foals co-headlines a sold out show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco tomorrow night with Freelance Whales. Opening for the bands will be The Naked & Famous. The show begins at 8 p.m.