Alexander, upon surveying the sheer vastness of his globe-spanning kingdom, is said to have actually cried because he had no more worlds to conquer. But there will be no tears for determined Foals bandleader Yannis Philippakis—this Renaissance man still hungers for more fields of conquest, and basically, the sky’s the artistic limit. There’s just one minor limitation, he swears—having the time to fit everything in.
“I get kind of anxious sometimes, thinking that I’m going to get to a point in my life where there will be all these unexplored avenues that I didn’t follow,” sighs the Greek-descended, London-based tunesmith, who just issued his seventh set with Foals, an upbeat, Chic-sleek disco record dubbed Life Is Yours, featuring frequently falsetto-sung anthems designed to jolt listeners out of their pandemic doldrums. “And I’m sure there will be that feeling with other things, but at least the things that I know are tangible and within reach? I feel like I have a duty to myself to actually finish them.”
On deck in the near future: A full-length, nearly completed collaboration with late Nigerian percussionist Tony Allen, of which he’s particularly proud—it just needs some production tweaks; an album of Greek music, featuring some of its fabled folk instruments (his father, who lives on the country’s tiny windswept island of Knossos, just hand-made him a new acoustic guitar that he’s itching to try out in the sessions); some possible film and/or theatre scores; and maybe even an elegiac poetry collection. “I think that would be amazing,” the 36-year-old enthuses. “And I think after that, I can finally go on holiday, just go and have a holiday in Greece. But then all of that has to be after our U.S, tour, which I’m very excited to do. And it is coming soon.”
None of this is pretentious posturing on Philippakis’ part. It’s just the direction in which his intellectual curiosity points him—he has no choice but to follow. And traditionally, driven composers like this always seem to make the most consistently arresting art. But then again, he’s a virtual tangle of contradictions. Unlike his incendiary, stage-diving concert presence—as depicted in the 2019 Toby L tour documentary Rip Up the Road—offstage, the singer is retiring, thoughtful and philosophical, to an almost professorial degree. And he positively delights in confounding Foals-fan expectations. “I definitely wanted to write a dance record, and it definitely feels to me like the influence of Chic is in there,” Philippakis notes. “We wanted to allow ourselves to just live and die by the groove on this album, and it was a fresh approach for us and it’s been awesome to play live. So it’s definitely a doff of the cap to Chic and Prince and all of that—all those masters of rhythm.”
Life Is Yours slams open on the shimmery-funk title track, then slithers into the perfect chant-along concert kickoff, “Wake Me Up.” It’s followed by an even bigger stadium-sized crowd-pleaser, “2 a.m.,” then a Nile Rodgers-savvy “2001,” a West-African-inspired anomaly called “Flutter,” the falsetto-chirped “Looking High,” a Devo/Pixies-quirky “Under the Radar,” a Rose Royce-tooting “The Sound” and a scintillating cascade abetted by more falsetto, the closing “Wild Green.” “And I’ve always had a falsetto,” Philippakis clarifies. “But I think it’s been maybe more emphasized on this record, more up front in the mix. And I guess also with these things, what we didn’t want to write was a heavy rock record, so the real reason why there’s more falsetto is there’s less screaming. There are less full-throttle vocals that I might have been known for in the past, because they just really didn’t seem to fit.”
The music was produced by Dan Carey and John Hill, and tracked at Peter Gabriel’s swank Real World Studios in Bath and Kinks founder Ray Davies’ legendary Konk Studios in London. “I didn’t get to meet Ray—I don’t know how often he comes in anymore,” says Philippakis, slightly disappointed. “But we got to use some of his synths, which was pretty awesome. And it’s an amazing room with an amazing vibe in there. And that’s definitely an increasingly rare environment—it’s almost like a museum piece of how a ’70s studio should be, with wood paneling, a great desk, tape machines, all analog. It was an absolute treat to be there.”
Naturally, the singer’s favorite album cut is its most intricate and sonically intriguing—“Flutter.” “And there’s something about it being on this record—it’s almost destined to be overlooked, because it’s surrounded by these more obvious songs,” he says. “But then with ‘2001,’ just in terms of sheer songwriting, it is one of the pinnacles of what we’ve ever done. Just as far as being able to write a song that is infectious and summery, and has those nods to acts from the past and eras from the past, but it’s still got an edge that sounds like it was written now. To me, it’ll be one of the songs that I look back on from this record, and it will always have a place for me, you know?” Framing it from a bigger, climate change-related perspective, he can’t stifle a somber sigh. “And it’s definitely suiting the drought summer that we’re having this year over in Europe and the U.K.”
This apocalyptic subject—how mankind has stupidly doomed itself to extinction, and the hour is growing late—sends the Q-, NME- and Brit Award-winning Philippakis skittering off onto another topical tangent, like the prescient physicist James Lovelock and his Gaia theory, and his regular warnings of upcoming fires, floods, droughts and mass Northern migrations as the Earth heats up. “And he died recently,” he adds. “But I agree with him, and it’s terrifying. But maybe there’s some solace in feeling like, as a species, we had a good run, and it’s tragic that it may be about to end. But nature will heal, so I have faith in nature.”
If you were planning the perfect celebrity guest list for a chatty dinner party, you’d most assuredly want to save a seat for this Foals fellow—his conversational skills are so diverse and non-sequitur-fluid that there’s no topic that ever seems to stump him or not elicit a carefully considered opinion. (Mention that he slightly resembles the angular-haired actor who plays a leading character’s boyfriend on HBO’s wicked British series Industry, and he not only knows said gentleman, but they also used to run in the same thespian circles when he was studying art, French and literature back in Oxford.) He’s a tad embarrassed that he hasn’t kept abreast of all the newest novels, but this is due to all of the time constraints placed on him by all those pending project deadlines he’s been facing, he says. So he’s compromised by switching, temporarily, to more easily digestible poetry, his favorite being a versatile new American wordsmith named Hannah Sullivan. Another tangent he explores is veteran art-rock outfits like DEVO and Talking Heads, and how their decades-old music still manages to sound fresh and vital today.
“It’s about endurance—art that endures,” reasons Philippakis, who has also acted onstage and directed rock videos. “And also, I think it’s important to endure each other, as people. We need to adore and endure each other. And you know, very little of what we admire in humanity are things that are ephemeral. I’ve been watching this classic BBC series called Civilization, about the great works of art, from pre-history onwards. And everything that’s in this show is something that’s endured, and nothing that hasn’t endured Is even talked about.
“So that’s the hope of any musician, I think—to make something that endures.”
Life Is Yours
is out now via Warner Music U.K.
Listen to Foals’ 2010 Daytrotter session below.