Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #132. Subscribe to our print edition here!
After three years of rampageous grinding on the back of their scene-defining 2015 record, What Went Down, the English pop-rockers in Foals declared it was time for a little well‑deserved respite. Then came an inescapable onslaught of new ideas – two albums’ worth, in fact – and now they’re right back in the thick of it. Words by Matt Doria.
It’s only been out for a couple of weeks, but we’re just about ready to declare Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1 a unconditional classic. The fifth album to come from the British dance-rock debonairs in Foals is tight, bright and deliriously fun, littered with pulsating keyboard melodies and undercut with a swathe of glittering synths.
It’s also the first half of an ambitious two-chapter showpiece; Part 2 is set for release this September, and it exists in somewhat of a paradoxical sphere – those who disagree with our praise for Part 1 can breathe easy knowing there’ll be a sonic shift in its sequel. Those who find themselves swooning over its unapologetic energy, on the other hand, will be stoked to know there’s more of the same to sink their teeth into on the horizon.
“Both parts are complete records in and of themselves,” says frontman Yannis Philippakis. “We spent a long time working on the sequencing of the tracklistings, and making sure that both parts could be listened to and appreciated as standalone works. But there are a lot of threads between the two records – obviously in the title and the artwork, but in a lot of the themes as well. In some ways, I think the second one is almost a response to the first. So you can totally enjoy them individually, but I think it’s important that they’re also viewed as part of the same whole.”
The unabridged artwork for Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – two isolated photos linked by a thematic copula – is reflective of the fluctuation in dynamics between Part 1 and Part 2. The first is dominated by the striking bright pink of the photoshopped foliage, mirroring the sharp, idiosyncratic buoyancy of its more pop-heavy inclinations. Part 2, on the other hand, is a little more homely, characterised by the deep, full-bodied greens and luminous yellows of the unscathed weeds reigning over a tombstone. It hints at a more sophisticated rawness, with an enticingly sinister undertone.
Naturally, thus means fan can expect to hear a chunkier and more stripped-back side to Foals on the latter half of the project.
“I’d say the guitars are probably more emphasised on the second record,” Philippakis assures us. “The riffs take charge a bit more than they do on the first. I think we just tried a few different approaches with it all – y’know, I ended up producing these records a lot more than I did on earlier ones, so I had to spend a lot more time thinking about the sounds in a way that, in the past, I’d leave to the producer while I concentrated more on the performance aspect.”
With the sheer amount of ideas they had kicking around in the studio, it made sense for Foals to self-produce this ambitious masterstroke. Through as much, they were allowed a freedom in their creative latitude that they’d never experienced before, and a level of inwardness with the songs that – in Philippakis’ case especially as a guitarist – allowed them to realise their own musicality in ways that they’d never considered in the past.
“When you’re playing the guitar as just a guitarist, it’s quite difficult to distract yourself from the part,” he considers; “You’re playing it as a musician that’s inside the song, and your enjoyment of the song is just derived from what you’re playing, and if that’s challenging, or interesting, or inspiring to you. But I think that the difference, in this context, is that I had to distance myself slightly from the material by listening to it through the speakers more as a listener would, rather than a player; trying to extract who the person is that’s playing in the song, and then appreciating and guiding them from in front of the speakers.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is just that you can kind of lose sight of what’s best for a part when you’re playing it – when you’re too deep inside the song itself, it’s hard to be subjective about what it needs to improve. So I think that it was beneficial to have that bit of separation.
Sharing his armoury of axes with rhythm guitarist Jimmy Smith, Philippakis had quite an impressive toybox to rummage through. A rack’s of Travesteens, a few choice Jazzmasters from throughout the years, and a Gibson 347 were amongst the pile – but there’s one guitar that stands out amongst the rest, for, well, an interesting reason: a 1967 Gretsch Country Gent. “I found it on tour in America, and it just stinks,” Philippakis laughs. “It smells like mildew, or like a room in your grandmother’s house that hasn’t been cleaned for a while”
It was love at first whiff. “We went into this sketchy little secondhand guitar shop next to a venue in Cincinnati,” Philippakis rhapsodises; “I think I went there to try out an old spring reverb I’d seen online, and this dude just handed me the Gretsch. All the white trimming on it had rotted into this almost-beige colour; it looked like it’d been in a room full of heavy smokers for quite some time.
“The colour of it is just sort of dank – it’s like pond scum green – and the moment I started playing it, I felt like I had a connection with it in a past life. It travelled around with me through blues rooms across America. So I bought the spring reverb, and then I went back to the venue and did our soundcheck, and the whole time, I was just thinking about that Gretsch. I had to get our tour manager to loan me the money so I could buy it, because I just fell in love with it. Well… Mainly the smell. The smell and the colour.”