At home in England, Foals command prime festival spots and headline arenas with their aggressive and atmospheric amalgam of punk and dance rock, having earned the title “Best Act in the World Today” at the 2015 Q Awards. As with many other groups from the U.K., however, that cachet doesn’t entirely translate to this country, where Foals play smaller venues, including the House of Blues on Nov. 1.
Bassist/singer Walter Gervers doesn’t mind the change. “We enjoy the sweatier, up-close-and-personal shows just as much as the big festival slots,” Gervers says. “At some of those [festivals], you feel a little far away from the crowd.”
For one thing, larger settings can make it more difficult for singer/guitarist Yannis Philippakis to leap into crowds, which he’s even done from balconies. “Once that happens a few times on a tour, then the crowd expects it, like ‘Oh, when’s he going to do his balcony jump?’ And that’s a bit of a shame, because some nights he feels like it’s not right,” Gervers says. “But he still likes to get down and into the crowd, because that’s how we started, getting face-to-face with people.”
Indeed, the decade-old group—rounded out by guitarist Jimmy Smith, drummer Jack Bevan and keyboardist Edwin Congreave—first played house parties in the same college town of Oxford as Radiohead, but with roots in post-hardcore and math rock.
“Yannis and Jack used to be in a very heavy instrumental band with wacky time signatures, and stuff at the time was kicking against a lot of other music, a lot of other Britpop,” says Gervers, 32. “The influence of American bands was exciting to us… all this stuff like Shellac and Fugazi that seemed so punk and exciting, and there were very few people in England that were trying their take on it.”
In Foals’ case, the results developed into rhythmic swirls that can evoke the Cure, Bloc Party or the Rapture, while interlocking guitars and percussion nod to more esoteric inspirations like Afrobeat and the minimalist composer Steve Reich. “That kind of repetitive, polyrhythmic stuff,” Gervers says. “[Yannis] said ‘Let’s be a band like the Rapture but try to play a Steve Reich part’… That sounds like a nightmare and things could get complicated and sound a bit wanky, but you can do very simple, driving 4/4 [time] and disco beats and allow the guitars to play.”
Reich’s rigidity in structure appealed to the members of Foals, Gervers says. “You can’t stray from the parts. Everything’s got to be in its right place or the rhythm doesn’t work.” It’s a formula that fuels the cyclical guitar lines in “Mountains at My Gates” and ping-pong polyrhythms in “Albatross” on Foals’ fourth album, What Went Down, released here in August. The quintet still writes around guitar loops laid down by Smith and Philippakis. “It’s such an easy way to write parts in the early stages,” Gervers says, “and you don’t need [loops] anymore when all of a sudden you’re playing the song.”
On most of What Went Down, produced by James Ford (Florence + the Machine, Arctic Monkeys), Foals adopt a more accessible, streamlined approach. Yet the album’s title track erupts as the group’s most visceral song to date.
“I buried my heart in a hole in the ground, with the lights and the roses and the cowards downtown,” Philippakis howls over an ominous synth chord before a walloping beat locks in, building to a thick, pulverizing chorus where he roars “When I see a man, I see a lion!”
One listen to “What Went Down” could tempt anyone to experience that title song in concert. “When we’re writing, because our live career is so important to us, we think about how something like ‘What Went Down’ is going to work live—and it’s going to be a moment in the set and [fans] need that sort of injection of energy and heaviness,” Gervers says. “It makes us grin really, because we can’t believe sometimes that we can get away with it.”
It can also propel Philippakis into the crowd.
Foals play House of Blues on Nov. 1.