Acclaimed English rock band Foals had planned on taking a rest after wrapping up 18 months of relentless touring for 2013’s Holy Fire album. But, riding on musical high, the band couldn’t quiet the new ideas that came when they tried taking it easy.
So off to the studio Foals went, just to try a couple things, but instead the band found itself jumping right in, creating the first pieces of what would become What Went Down. Released last August, the album became the band’s highest charting U.S. release and earned the Foals the prize for “Best Act in the World Today” at UK’s Q Awards.
“We didn’t actually intend to do it that way,” says guitarist Jimmy Smith. “We were all totally knackered, but it turned out that musically we were on fire. We took a couple weeks off and then went back to our studio in Oxford and were just trying out ideas with no real intention of starting to write a record. But they were good ideas and there were a lot of them, so it just rumbled on from there and before we knew it we were recording.”
The album kicks off with massive, heavy riffs of “What Went Down,” a single that Smith says was a conscious effort to top the frenzy the band had unleashed on Holy Fire.
“The main riff for that song was there from the beginning and the middle section came together just before we went into record,” Smith says.
That riff came from singer and lead guitarist Yannis Philippakis, but as the band moved forward with What Went Down, the songwriting balance between Philippakis and Smith brought out the nuance that makes the record Foals’ top-to-bottom best work.
“We really liked that sound but we definitely weren’t going to make a whole album sounding so heavy like that,” Smith says. “We like to explore all the other sides of our band as well. That’s what we did on Holy Fire, that balance of heavy and quiet and we basically continued with that.”
In an interview with NME, Philippakis says he was channeling his “inner madman” for his lyrics and vocals for What Went Down, which was recorded at Studios La Fabrique in the south of France, in the same village Vincent Van Gogh was institutionalized after cutting off his ear. Smith says he only heard the “inner madman” comment after the record was finished, but that spirit definitely impacted the album.
“With him singing the way he was singing on that record in the practice room, I guess it made us play slightly harder on some songs. We channeled into his inner madman in a way a guess,” he says.
With a steadily growing international fanbase since 2008 debut album Antidotes, Foals has developed a strong identity in the minds of fans and the music press. But Smith says the band itself had no preconceived ideas about What Went Down. Or about what will go down next for Foals.
“It always feels like we’re finding our way,” Smith says. “We’re never truly satisfied. You put so much time and energy into writing a record and it gets whittled down to 10 songs and put out in the world and that’s that. We’re already talking about the next record even though it’s quite a long way away. We’re quite restless musically.”