During the sessions for his band's new record in the South of France, Yannis Philippakis — singer-songwriter-guitarist of the English quintet Foals — often passed a building on the outskirts of town where in 1889–90 Vincent Van Gogh was hospitalized after slicing off part of his left ear. It was a good place to contemplate madness — a running theme in the modern-rock turbulence of Foals' fourth album, What Went Down. "The songs were almost finished before we went there," Philippakis says. "But some of the place is in there."
There is certainly "nothing civilized," he admits, about the title track, an echo-laden rush of riffing and vocal psychosis that is harder and darker than anything on Foals' more art-pop LPs — 2008's Antidotes, 2010's Total Life Forever and 2013's Holy Fire, all British Top 10 hits. "I wrote our first record when I was 19 — I was throwing cryptic pictures in the songs," Philippakis recalls. Now 29, he is "preoccupied" with the way technology and the media "afford us a way of looking at ourselves that isn't real. We're so divorced from the savagery within us."
The singer also suggests that Foals — who include drummer Jack Bevan, guitarist Jimmy Smith, bassist Walter Gervers and keyboardist Edwin Congreave — are really "two different beasts. There's the one on earlier records and the one unleashed onstage." The latter "was given more oxygen on this record."
"We're so divorced from the savagery within us." —Yannis Philippakis
Foals formed in 2005 in Radiohead's hometown, Oxford, where they still write and rehearse in a studio that "stinks, has no daylight" and is so small, Philippakis says, "that all five of us can't fit in there at the same time." Born in Greece, he grew up in Oxford with his brother and South African mother, an anthropologist; his Greek father, an artist, left the family when Yannis was six.
Philippakis dropped out of college in Oxford, where he studied literature, to focus on Foals. But at 12, he began keeping a journal that he still tends to as religiously as possible ("I wrote in it yesterday") and draws from in songs like "Albatross" and "A Knife in the Ocean," on What Went Down. "The music is collaborative," he says when asked if Foals are ultimately his band. "But I use it as a vehicle to express things."
Foals have three gold albums at home. But Philippakis believes the band has a U.S.-breakthrough record in What Went Down. "I don't pretend to know how America works," he concedes. "But I feel this is our time."