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“You Can’t Change What You Do Because Of What People Think” – In Conversation With Foals

If you’ve been reading Howl & Echoes throughout the past year, you’ll know our collective adoration for UK five-piece Foals. Fresh off the bat of their glorious new album What Went Downthe group were in town across New Years 2015-2016 to headline Falls Festival, and a few sideshows across the country. We hung out with guitarist Jimmy Smith, and keyboardist Edwin Congreave, in Sydney before they took to the stage at the Hordern Pavilion. Speaking on everything from loving Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, to hurtful comments on the internet, to listening to fan criticism, and what makes an album the best album in the world, it was as hilarious as it was insightful.

How was Falls Festival?

J: It was good, yeah it was fun. Byron was the best one. It would’ve been good if there were more of them. We did Laneway a while ago, and there was loads of them! Anyway, Tasmania was really good, we were a bit jet lagged over New Years, we saw in New Years on stage in Melbourne which was great, but I was really jet lagged, and knackered, and the party afterwards was crap! But New Years is always crap. Byron was really really cool.

Did you get to see any other acts playing?

J: I got to see Mac DeMarco, who I fucking love and have been waiting so long to see and he was amazing. And then we saw Young Fathers, who were fucking awesome.

Oh nice! They’re playing here tonight.

J: Are they?

Yep. And I can’t go because I’ll be here seeing you guys.

J: If I were you *Edwin laughing* I would go watch them. They’re really good.

E: Yeah, we’re on terrible form at the moment.

J: They’re a bit better than us live. A bit different I guess. But I’m biased.
E: I saw Django Django play three times because they played before us, I’ve never seen them before but I’ve become a massive fan. It’s so intoxicating, it’s like a whole world. Everything they do, all the sounds. I just love the whole show.

So, I run my website with another girl and she’s cried the last two times she’s seen you play.

J: In pain?

Yeah. She was like, this is the worst.

E: Did Yannis land on her?

*laughs all around*

Tears of emotion.

J: Shit. That’s cool.

Yeah, at Falls this year, and Splendour in the Grass last year. On that note, one thing I read about What Went Down was that you’ve said there’s a few heavier songs on the album because those really went off when you played live. Was that more about the audience going off, or you guys having so much fun on stage?

J: A combination, really. The main thing is it’s really fun for us to play this heavy songs and big riffs. it’s what you wanna do when you play guitar, it’s what school bands do. It’s the first thing a band does, like covering Led Zeppelin. It’s really fun I don’t know how far we’re gonna take it.

Oh so we won’t be seeing a Foals metal album next?

J: *laughs* we don’t wanna be a totally heavy band, I find that really uninteresting. But it’s certainly a lot of fun, and it contrasts really well with the quieter, cleaner, “poppier” songs. But it’s so nice, you hit a fuzz pedal, there’s a bit of feedback, everyone’s like ‘woah!’
E: You need the dynamic.

And it’s great to have those peaks and troughs on the album as well as on stage.

J: It’s gotta be balanced. Otherwise it’ll be shit.
E: It’s a defining feature of the band, which isn’t going anywhere. Putting out a record that has all of those ups and downs. I can’t imagine the next record just being one thing.

J: I guarantee that’s what people think we’re gonna do.

Go heavier?

J: Yeah. So we’re gonna go acoustic.
E: Yeah or we’ll do five solo albums, and we’ll see whose does the best.

This question’s for you Edwin. A few years ago you did an interview after Holy Fire had come out-

E: Oh, shit. I never said that. *laughs* what was the question?

It was just about audience reactions! You were talking about how when Spanish Sahara came out, you said it was confusing to fans at that point in your career because people maybe didn’t understand just yet what Foals was all about. Did you feel like the band was going to respond and change your sound accordingly?

E: I think when everyone heard it on the radio, it premiered on Zane Lowe’s show, his Hottest Record or something. We’d never really had that before, we’d put out one record, we never had something that big. All the previous singles, it was a slow build-up, we gradually formed our audience. But with Total Life Forever, that was such a shock to everyone listening. There was no context whatsoever, the only thing most people had heard was Antidotes. So I seem to recall comments like, ‘what the fuck?’

J: They’re still doing that. I read some horrible comment last night, I can’t remember how I found it. It was some girl being like, what the hell are you doing, why are you doing all these fucking disgusting, shit, slow songs, all this heavy fucking shit, it was really scathing, like, ‘get back to your math rock!’ Oh my god, it was horrible. Bye bye, that was one fan I’m happy to lose.

So do you take fan response into account when you’re writing, or is it more that you create what you want, and if they like it then they like it?

J: Well if there was mass hating then we’d be like, well we’ve probably done something wrong. But I don’t think you can really listen. Well, no, you listen, and you can take it on board if a lot of people didn’t like it, but you can’t change what you do because of what people think. Otherwise you’ll make the worst album. It’ll be a deeply confused album because every single note you write, you’ll be thinking about what someone thinks of it. And I think almost all of the best albums in the world were made in total seclusion from that.

And perhaps the worst were written when they took on too much from others.

J: Yeah, or when they took too much advice from outsiders. It’s a really fragile ecosystem, writing a record, you can’t let too much in or it’ll get polluted.
E: But back with Total Life, it was a precarious moment because it was so new, so we would have been affected by it. Fortunately the majority of people were saying that they loved the song.
J: And now people change their mind. *Puts on a weird falsetto voice* “Oh I love Spanish Sahara!”

Once it gets popular!

J: Exactly!

But now, fans are more used to the variety, and you’re less likely to get people criticising a big change like that. Well, except for that one girl.

J: Except for this girl. Who I WILL find, by the way. I will kill you.

When you’re recording, do you want the audience to have a particular reaction – or do you just want listeners to react in some way?

J: Well a positive reaction would be nice! Or maybe even a negative one? Yeah, some sort of reaction would be great.
E: Imagine if there was no reaction at all.
J: Well we did a show that had no reaction. It was K-Rock Christmas Party (in LA), some horrible radio show thing where you’ve got to play or they won’t play you on the radio. It’s “dance, monkey, dance!” territory. We played to a lobotomised crowd, teenage fans who like, what are they called? Twenty One Pilots. It was an emotionless crowd. So yeah, anything to avoid that.

But when we’re writing our music we think, “What’s gonna happen when we play that live, what’s it gonna do to people?” And you have a fair idea – what it does to you, it’s probably gonna do that to other people.

Okay so you sort of internalise it – how it affects you?

J: Yeah, when you’re playing, writing, in a room and you’re like, “Oh fuck that’s so sad,” or you feel really angry. And you know, we’ve got thick skins because that’s what we do for a living, so obviously it will affect other people more than it affects us.

E: I do remember being quite shocked and confused when we first started making music. We were just signed and getting released. And all of the ways I felt about the music, I thought it was the best music that there could possibly be, and finding it so emotional and powerful, and then finding out that some people just didn’t have that reaction to it. I was just like, “But, this doesn’t make any sense! How can you listen to this music and not feel exactly the same way?” I was quite young.

J: It’s like the Radiohead syndrome. When people ask what’s your favourite band and you say Radiohead, and they go, “yeah, just doesn’t really do it for me!” Like, I get it, but I still can’t fathom it. It’s like… how?

But even with people who do like Radiohead, every album is so different that two people could say they’re their favourite band, but still have a totally different experience.

J: For me, it’s OK Computer, then Kid A, tied with Amnesiac, then Hail To The Thief.
E: Not that he’s thought about it. *Jimmy laughs*

Yeah, I go between OK and Kid A as my favourite.

J: I have to do OK because it was the one that got me into them, and it is kind of still a rock album. But Kid A is fucking amazing, probably better than OK Computer. Anyway, don’t get me started. It’s funny when bands shit on Radiohead. If they were to release any of their albums, probably even Pablo Honey, they would be heralded as the greatest band ever. But when you’ve got a collection that’s that good, you know, it’s difficult. I feel sorry for them.

E: But who shits on Radiohead?

J: Oh, some people. I can’t think of any now. They’re like, ‘oh it’s so depressing!’

 E: It happens to me quite often, I’ll share a new song with the band, I’ll say, “Check out this amazing track, oh my God!” And they just don’t get it.

J: We are winding you up a lot of the time!

What was the last song where that happened?

E: It was Hello by Adele. *Jimmy laughs* No, seriously! The day it was released. I’d never really liked Adele that much, but I heard the song and thought it was absolutely incredible. I found it so powerful, I was like, “Guys, guys, you’ve gotta listen to this!”
J: I felt bad though after. I was like, “Oh, she’s just singing loud, who cares?” But I went and watched a live session on TV, and it was really cool, she’s fucking cool, so I take it all back. I just think her music is terribly dull. But again, it ticks his boxes, but not mine.
E: It keeps happening, and it becomes more of a mystery to me, the older I get. I feel like I’m losing track of how to relate to other people’s music tastes.

L: Is it important to do that?

E: Well I’d like to have some idea of how other people interpret and appreciate music, and I seem to have less of an idea now than I did in the past. I think it’s because I’m thinking about it more. When I was younger I didn’t really care. But now, it’s such a mystery that I can listen to a song that to me, is like a perfect song, but someone else who I really respect doesn’t like it at all.

J: It also happens more when you really get into something. Like Mac DeMarco. It’s not on Edwin’s radar, but I was SO into Salad Days. I bought into it, I got the fucking tshirt. So I loved it. And there’s this girl called Julia Holter who released an album last year which I just love, but I’m holding it back from the band because I know it’s gonna get fucking slated. 

E: It would be helpful if you could take a person, and do a sort of backwards family tree of their musical discovery. Like the moments they first heard records, what their parents played, because it gets to who they are at the moment. So when I’m talking to Jimmy we’ll be talking about something we have in common, but there’s all these roots that are different, and that explains why you like one thing and I like another. I don’t know how you’d trace that though. So, we both LOVE The Flaming Lips, probably in equal measure. They have an amazing ability to reinvent themselves.

J: Steven Drozd is the genius behind that band, really, in that he writes all the music.

E: We love them equally, but our love of them is based in very different roots, and bands like them, who I listen to, and yet Jimmy doesn’t. It’s really interesting.

It IS interesting!

J: That makes people think it’s interesting. Even if it’s not.

E: Oh that reminds me! I was having Christmas dinner with his girlfriend, there were some family members I hadn’t met. Her uncle is really interesting, really smart, but he’s definitely… Well, he likes to talk. He’s got lots of opinions. He was just talking about the financial situation in Australia at the moment, he was monologuing. It was actually really interesting, but he went on for about fifteen minutes. And at the end he sort of paused, and said, “that was a really interesting analysis.” He was just applauding himself. And he just stopped. I was desperately trying to see if anyone else was flinching! I would love to have that kind of self-confidence, to just talk, and then think, wow, that was so fascinating *claps*.  Think that’s my main aim in life, to develop that.

J: I don’t think you’ll ever get there. And you certainly won’t be in the band if you do.

E: Aww. You see what I have to put up with? This bullying.

J: It’s not bullying, it’s just a threat *laughs*

Check out our photo gallery of Foals with Django Django, live at the Hordern Pavilion