Hailing from Oxford, England, the five-piece group known as Foals have danced their way into acclaim with their second album, Total Life Forever. Musically, dance is where their rhythms lie, imitating beats from techno to funk to hip-hop. Instead of using conventional electronics, the band early on to convert these hits and polyrhythmic hiccups into beats produced by acoustic instruments and live drums.
Foals' music has a hint of world music and rhythms, sometimes labeled as "tropical prog" or attributed to the eclectic nature of bands such as Talking Heads. Although electronic sounds and keyboards still support the texture with ambient sheaths of sound, the twinkles of guitar in mesmerizing patterns and generous folk-like vocals offer emotions of color. Lyrics range from the subconscious elements of daily moments to reminiscences of past love. Combined with the body-moving grooves, these elements make a memorable aural experience.
For those of us that won't be attending this weekend, Austin City Limits Music Festival, Foals promises to be a mega-rock dance party, if you will, upstairs tonight at Fitzgerald's, where you'll be moving your body around to their swirling beats instead of the throng of crowds shoving you to get near Sonic Youth or the old-timers screaming in your ear over the Eagles.
Fresh off sold-out shows in Brooklyn and up north, Foals guitarist Jimmy Smith took time out to speak to Rocks Off while soaking up some Florida sun before their show:
Rocks Off: What was the common musical thread you five had as a collective when you formed the band? You all have a distinctive sound with a lot of variation of beats and colors. What was happening in the writing process early on in the rehearsals?
Jimmy Smith: We kind of had an idea to start with listening to a lot of techno and dance music, and we were interested in trying to transpose that into a band format. We wanted to make intricate dance music but with guitars and keyboard instead of on a lap top so we tried to do that and it actually kind of worked. That was the intial idea and it was exciting to go in our little practice room at Oxford University where Yannis was studying at the time and then we went to record.
RO: Tell me about the latest record and how you all came up with the material.
JS: It was a pretty interesting process, actually. We wrote most of the record in this house in Oxford and it was really nice for we were all living there and it had a basement that we soundproofed and we could play all our instruments in there and write any time of the day, that kind of complete freedom without the neighbors getting angry.
We wrote most of the record there and then went to Sweden to work with a producer named Luke Smith and went to hell and back and came back with a record! It was a stressful experience but a very rewarding experience."
Rocks Off: Let's talk about a few tracks on the record. One of my favorites and a popular one on the album is the title track. It starts off immediately with this 4/4 pounding rhythm and funk guitar riff moving into this layered vocal magic. How did that one come to be? You all have a way about subtly building colors and having a lot of dynamics in your music as well.
JS: Yeah, well that was mostly Yannis' song I think; he did that in the basement. We were listening to some old school funk music at the time and some good soul music. That is one of the songs off the record that shows a direct transition from the last record again with all the layers and the polyrhythms and stuff.
This time Yannis put a really good vocal line over it and we tried to go for this kind of chain gang effect because one of our favorite records is this Alan Lomax Chain Gang field recording from the South in like the 1930s i think. All you can hear is their voices and the pick axes, so it's sort of a rip off of that.
Rocks Off: What other types of music are you influenced by other than funk? As far as dance rhythms, what are some other genres that really have played a part in your music?
JS: I think between the five of us, we have a pretty broad range of styles and influences. There are some common threads like punk and even some metal music we're pretty in to along with folk. We all agree on a lot of music.
RO: How about the track "After Glow"? It immediately has this stereo panning trance rhythm and ascending/descending guitar lines supported by a soft yet intense drumbeat. Also, the music emulates the lyrics that bring us to the memory or feeling of that one person or love that always lingers with you.
JS: That actually came out as the jammy-est song on the album. I think we kind of played that one through at the practice space and came up with two major movements to it. It's got a soulful beginning and then the dancey end. We had to shorten it down in length for the record, but we left in kind of a jam format. That one was one of the most fun to record, actually.
RO: The opening track "Blue Blood" is mesmerizing, with this open energy that shines through. What was it like recording that song?
JS: That was a difficult one to record. We recorded all of these songs live in the studio. Our producer Luke was pretty adiment on us on getting every song right live. The heart of all the songs are recorded live. That particular song is pretty much totally live except for some keyboard overdubs. It took us a long time to get the feel for that one right, it's quite a delicate song.
RO: There is quite a difference between recording an album track by track versus recording live. How was that experience for you all as a band, and how was it different from recording the first album? This one seems to have a lot more open space to it as well.
JS: The way we approached these songs were definitely different, we didn't feel like we had to fill every space possible which on the last record it was like any bit of space was potential to put something in. Like I said, on this record each song was a lot more delicate, not to just whack on a keyboard or guitar just because you have an idea.
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It doesn't mean it should go on the record. We were quite strict with ourselves about what we played. We learned a lot as a band recording this record. I think that's one of the things that I'm most proud of that we didn't let ourselves run wild and ruin the record because of it.
RO: With this latest record and tour, you all have really grown notoriety-wise. Do you feel it's because people have passed around the record and created a buzz or do you feel touring, especially here in the United States, has been the greatest builder of your fan base?
JS: I think touring. We've been blown away by the amount of people that know our record. We played in D.C. the other day and a bunch of kids came with their parents from I don't know where, perhaps Virginia Beach, which is five hours away or something like that.
They said everyone at school was talking about Foals and going to see us that night. Touring has really opened our eyes to the possibilities of America. It's easier back home because there is a lot of press and a lot of people know us from our first album. It's more of a challenge out here.