With some bands, success comes easily. A single gets picked up by radio, becomes ubiquitous and suddenly they’re on everyone’s lips. More often though, it comes through a combination of talent, patience, bloody-mindedness and sheer hard work. It’s fair to say that Foals fall into the latter category.
The mid-to-late 2000s was a fertile time for British guitar bands, and Foals’ spiky but accessible mix of post-punk and indie rock made them hot property from the start. But few people could have foreseen a career trajectory which has, slowly but surely over four albums, brought them from cult concern to their current status of arena-touring, festival-headlining standard-bearers of British guitar music. It all become very real when the Oxford band played their first ever arena gig in Dublin earlier this year.
“We were pretty nervous,” guitarist Jimmy Smith admits from his home in Cologne. “It was new territory for us and I remember soundchecking and thinking, ‘Oh god, it sounds so bad — it’s so big and empty’. But then when the show happened it was really good. It felt like a regular gig — the energy was the same, which is what we were really worried about, that it wouldn’t translate if it got too big. So, it was a big sigh of relief after that one.”
Next up for Foals is a headlining slot at Belsonic festival in Belfast on June 23. Incredibly, it will be their first gig in the city since two visits way back in 2008, when they played the Spring & Airbrake and then the Mandela Hall.
Not surprisingly, Jimmy doesn’t remember much about those shows (aside from some rotten weather) but while he says he’s looking forward to coming back to Belfast, he admits he’s still getting used to playing gigs at this level. The video screens and light show they use now are a far cry from the grotty Oxford venues they started out in.
“We’re good friends with our lighting guy Davy, who’s actually from Belfast,” he says. “So before the tour we went and sat in a big aircraft hangar somewhere outside of London and listened to a recording of one of our shows and he showed us everything. It was pretty mind-blowing and bizarre. We were all thinking, ‘Oh my God, is this really where our band is?...’
“I’m still getting my head around it, to be honest, and the festival season is going to mess with our heads again. It is weird. It all turned out fine in the end — they’re shows, at the end of the day, the kind of thing we were doing when we played in a pub. It’s just a much bigger pub.”
A day later after Belsonic, the “logistical nightmare” of carting all of their gear from Belfast to Somerset in 12 hours permitting, it’ll be another few rungs up the ladder, as the band have landed a plum slot at Glastonbury. The top of the festival poster reads: Muse, Coldplay, Adele, Foals, Beck, ELO. Not bad at all.
“Yeah, pretty amazing,” Jimmy says. “I rang my mum up and she’d already seen it, which was pretty annoying. It’s incredible to be where we are. I’ve been going to Glastonbury for years and it’s the one I really care about, festival-wise.”
That’s why — counter-intuitively — the band turned down a similarly impressive slot last year, which ended up being occupied by the returning Libertines. At the time, Foals were getting ready to release their hugely successful fourth album What Went Down, but they hadn’t played a gig in some time, nor worked the new songs into their set. It was a big decision, but the gamble paid off.
“We were like, ‘Surely we should do it because maybe we’ll never get offered it again’, but it was a good decision not to because this year at Glastonbury is just as good.
“It would have been awful, we wouldn’t have played any new songs. We would have come back with the same old set we played last time. I think it would have done us a lot of harm, to be honest.”
This time they can go at it full-tilt. Rarely off tour for long, the band are known for their energetic live shows, and while Jimmy admits that he personally doesn’t do that much differently on stage now that they are playing bigger venues (“you have to grit your teeth and just hope for the best”), it’s up to their charismatic frontman Yannis Philippakis to work the crowd into a frenzy.
“Yannis works really hard to get the audience involved,” says Jimmy, “and he likes getting into the audience, which helps to break the divide a little bit. But as far as I’m concerned, I just play it like I mean it.”
Yannis is well-known for his crowd-surfing — is it safe to assume that we can expect to see some of that at Belsonic? “It probably is, yeah — unless he gets scared,” Jimmy laughs. “We just played a show at this festival in Atlanta and there was a big gap between the crowd and the stage, and a huge bush in the way. He had to go through the bush in order to get to the crowd, which was pretty funny to watch.” Talking to Jimmy, there’s the sense that he and his bandmates are learning the role of major arena band on the job.
Their roots are in the small DIY punk scene in Oxford — having each played in various different bands in the city, they coalesced as Foals in 2005 and have been gigging solidly ever since. Jimmy even admits that until his band started playing arenas, he’d barely ever set foot in one to watch a gig.
“It was mostly small shows in Oxford, to be honest, in indie club The Zodiac,” he recalls of his teenage gig-going days.
“That was as big as it ever got, really. I can’t remember going to an arena. I know our bassist Walter saw the Smashing Pumpkins a few times in arenas, and Tool, Nine Inch Nails and people like that. But I don’t think I ever did.”
That begs the question — would the 16-year-old Jimmy be into Foals? “Yeah, probably. I’d like to think so. That’s a good test of a band, isn’t it? So is ‘Would you be into your music now if you weren’t in the band?’. That’s always a bit of a killer one. And the answer is , ‘Yeah, probably’. I’d probably be into, like, 80% of Foals. There are probably some songs I wouldn’t like.”
Which side of the band are you less keen on?
“Probably the more overtly poppy stuff. On this record, I think the balance is really good, but on all the other ones there are at least one or two that are just a bit grating.
“But I played a part in their creation so therefore I get the right to kill them.”
The Foals play Belsonic, Titanic Belfast on Thursday, June 23 at 6pm. Tickets cost £32.50 (general admission) from ticketmaster.co.uk