We're brainy - and proud

Breakthrough indie rockers Foals are led by an Oxford drop-out with a penchant for reading philosophy between gigs


By Jessica Elgot, December 22, 2010
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Foals:  “Music is a spiritual thing, it should be pure” says band frontman Yannis Philippakis (second left), although he hopes to emulate Madonna in writing an international pop hit

Foals: “Music is a spiritual thing, it should be pure” says band frontman Yannis Philippakis (second left), although he hopes to emulate Madonna in writing an international pop hit

When Foals first arrived on the scene, they looked like the definitive geeky "indie kid" band, with eyes hidden beneath dark, sweeping haircuts, artistic beards, staccato guitars and yelping lyrics.

Their infectious hooks and boisterous concerts might not have sounded overly heartfelt, but they had rapid commercial success, with their debut album, Antidotes, reaching number three in the charts.

Then Foals got serious. The band's second album, Total Life Forever, felt like a departure - a deeper, more mature work. But for frontman Yannis Philippakis, the record was a natural progression.

"For me it's been a totally linear thing. I don't want to make albums from a place of fear; a lot of careers are about finding a niche and quarrying it for all it's worth. I want to take risks."

I went to Ukraine to find where my genes come from. It didn't go well

Perhaps the biggest risk they take is to wear their intellectualism on their sleeves. They are self-consciously brainy. Philippakis was an Oxford undergraduate; his lyrics are influenced by his interest in politics and philosophy. The second album's name is taken from the writing of American futurist Raymond Kurzwell. The band members do party on tour but, he says, they like to read a lot as well.

The 24-year-old singer/guitarist began his degree in English Literature at St John's College but dropped out in his first year to concentrate on the band. "I know it strikes people as reckless; it seems like the last thing someone should do. But it used to annoy me that it seemed to be the thing that defines us."

Brought up in Oxford, Philippakis is the son of a South African-Jewish mother. His name comes from his Greek father, who left the family when Philippakis was six. His mixed heritage has made him feel like "a bit of a mongrel", he says.

"I felt my Greek side was quite dominant growing up. But just before I left school I found some photos from 1912, of my extended Jewish family from Ukraine. So I decided to go back there. I had an appetite to try and find where my genes came from. It was a weird place; I went on my own and didn't speak any Russian. Let's just say, it didn't go well for me."

As an angry teenager growing up in Oxford, Philippakis used music "as part of a teenage rebellion".

"I was quite an obsessive teenager; I had so many little fads I would become consumed by. I once spent a whole summer doing kite fishing . But music was the one constant among all the other captivations."

The band have deliberately stayed away from the east London indie scene, and live in a shared house in Oxford where they have built a studio. Philippakis says: "I don't want us to be subsumed into someone else's 'scene' in London. I moved there when I was 18 and found it incredibly lonely and competitive. I like being back in Oxford and I like being close to my family. As I get older I find myself wanting to retreat more and more from an urban lifestyle."

The band has just returned from months of touring, which included playing Glastonbury, the capitals of Europe, and across America. Next year they will travel round Asia and play festivals in Australia. Philippakis is finding it hard to adjust to being back, and to confront how much laundry needs to be done. But, he admits, he does need some respite.

"When you're playing live, you have the challenge of creating a set and you get that initial sugar rush, there's the attention, there's the physical reaction of the crowd to your music but… I guess what I'm trying to say is, touring can get tiring. I'm glad to be home. And I'm restless; I want to make more music."

With two commercially successful albums under their belts and tours across Europe, Australia and the US, Foals are still yet to attain megastardom. It is difficult to work out exactly where the band can go from here.

"Are you asking whether we're content?" Philippakis smiles. "We try to be. There are two different kinds of success once you find yourself in the belly of the music industry. Don't get me wrong, we are definitely ambitious, but I'd like to think like to think it's not about avarice. Music is spiritual thing for me, it should be pure. But I also like pop music and I like the challenge of making accessible music. A kid in Mozambique can whistle Madonna's Like a Virgin. There's a real craft to that.

"I don't want to be a cult band. And that's not to do with money or fame or bigger shows. For me, the energy is diluted at bigger shows. Prince can pull off 30 nights at the O2 arena, but I don't think Coldplay could, even if they could sell the tickets."

The future, as Philippakis sees it, is something less Kurt Cobain, more Countryfile.

He says: "One day I would like to write a piece of music which allows me to quit and have a little house and some beehives in the country and I will feel creatively sated and when that happens, that will be a good day for one and all."

Total Life Forever is released on Transgressive Records

    Last updated: 11:44am, December 22 2010