Foals' Yannis Philippakis on Recording Bees and Boiling Bones for 'Holy Fire'
When Foals set out to make their third album, Holy Fire the project took them around the world, flavored by locales as varied as a desolate street in Detroit, a river house in Australia, and frontman Yannis Philippakis’ hometown village in Greece (“It’s my sanctuary, basically. I go there to write.”). They explored funkier, heavier terrain (“Inhaler”) and more personal lyrical themes. And while songs such as “My Number” and the propulsive “Providence” pulsate with rhythmic, dancy vibes, they made a concerted effort to move past their indie disco beginnings into sonic experimentations that included late-night outdoor recording, bones, bees and foliage. While that may sound kinda trippy, as Philippakis explained to Hive, it was the absence of mind-altering enhancements that fueled their instinctual approach.
With Holy Fire, it seems location played an influential part, from the studio to places you visited inspiring the lyrics. With “Moon,” how did a tour stop in Detroit come into play?
It just sort of influenced the idea of thinking about cities melting away, and obviously Detroit is enduring a huge amount of degradation. And I had an experience in Detroit where I met this street drummer called Larry. It was a beautiful moment where he was just kind of crazed and high, but drumming like this kind of military snare style of drumming on a couple of bins [by] these sort of burned out tenements and tower blocks and ... it was just a very special moment in its visual power and also it just got me thinking about the fall of civilizations, basically.
Can you elaborate on what you guys did to enhance the studio environment?
We had a load of vegetation, like a truck full of ferns and ivy and creepers and all sorts of vegetation and flowers, and just turned it into a kind of mini jungle. We wanted to be surrounded by things that were growing at the same time as making the record, it was a process thing. Just ‘cause studios can be a bit clinical sometimes, and we wanted it to feel a bit warmer, and more natural, and more fertile.
"We collected bones from the High Street butchers around the studio and boiled the flesh off and tried to make percussion and rhythms out of them."
That sounds pretty cool.
Some of it was informed because we did a bunch of recording outside in Australia. Our friend has this river house outside Sydney and we went there and we were trying to do some demos, we were recording properly outside at night and we were getting attacked by insects. It was sticky and really humid, and it was just interesting to hear certain songs worked in a natural environment were far better than other songs that came from a more industrial city environment. The prior two records were made in windowless basements, in bleak surroundings, or at least very heavily urban surroundings. So we just wanted to take a little bit of that river atmosphere and have it in North London and try and keep the record feeling green.
Did you do anything else outside of the plants, or was that the main enhancement?
We collected bones from the High Street butchers around the studio and boiled the flesh off and tried to make percussion and rhythms out of them. And we actually recorded bees and insects and put the samples of that onto various tracks. “Prelude” has a lot of bees and flies samples inside the track, just to give it more of this kind of organic sonic fingerprint.
Did you use the bones for all the tracks?
We didn’t even use them really in the end. We went to some effort and it was kinda gross, like actually having to go through it all. but then, unfortunately, the sound was pretty disappointing.
With the bees, how did you record them?
We just trapped them in jars and mic’d them with contact mics and just regular mics and then released them. No bees were harmed during the making of this record, I’d just like to add.
That’s good to know. Were any of the band members harmed by the bees?
No, we were all good, we were all good. There’s a mutual respect between band and bee.
There’s a line in “Inhaler” that says, “I shimmy shake, I wake and bake” -- are you a wake and bake person?
I definitely have been. [Laughs.] At some points in my life.
I read that weed inspired at least in part [sophomore album] Total Life Forever. Did it also spark creativity for Holy Fire?
I abstained from things for this record. I felt like sometimes smoking weed really aggravated my propensity to overthink things, and I one of the things that was liberating when making this record was the lack of cerebral overdrive, it was much more like a gut reaction to everything. So I came at it like from a cleaner a place I guess.
You had a quote about indie disco being dead in NME: "We've always been pretty rhythmically preoccupied, but once the four-on-the-floor, hi-hat, indie disco stuff's dead and buried with a chain of garlic around its neck, that feels like a really fertile place to go to." What did you mean by that?
I just meant more like very specific Gang of Four in that it’s kinda indie, like offbeat disco stuff was just like being done to death. It’s just not what we wanted to do. To me, like “My Number” doesn’t really have -- it’s got a different type of groove, it’s not like this generic indie dance groove. I wasn’t saying we didn’t want to make dance music, or make music to dance to at all, but just to try and find fresher ways of doing it than the stock standard British export model of doing it.
If indie disco is dead. What’s next?
I don’t know. Muscle Pop.
Would you say this is muscle pop?
I don’t know. [Laughs.] It’s tough for me to say!
Holy Fire is out 2/12 via Warner Bros.