British Rock Band Foals on Knocking Down a Wall With a Fire Extinguisher

Over the span of four studio albums, U.K.-based rock band Foals has gone from small-scene indie favorite to an international festival headliner. The group's latest album, What Went Down, debuted in August this year at #3 on the UK Albums Chart and #58 on the Billboard 200, making it Foals' most successful U.S. release so far.

Yet according to the band, becoming a world-renowned touring act hasn't come without its concessions. Namely, Foals has had to give up playing at wild house parties.

“We don't really do that anymore, but there was a joy and throwaway nature to our early shows,” recalls Foals bassist Water Gervers, who spoke with Westword ahead of the group's show with the Silversun Pickups at the Ogden Theatre on Tuesday, December 8.

According to Gervers, Foals’ DIY concerts happened back when the band was getting its start – usually occurring when bandmembers received invitations from friends or fans following small club shows they played around Britain. Apparently the parties could get pretty out of hand, including a time in 2008 when Foals performed in a dilapidated squatters' settlement in London, with the band set up underneath the building's only working light fixture.

“But the [light] was nailed during the first song, so we ended up playing the rest in the dark,” says Gervers with a chuckle. After that, the band could only see by the glow of cell-phone screens held by those in the audience. The light wasn't the only part of the building destroyed during Foals' performance. Later, the band took to whacking a flimsy plasterboard wall partition with a fire extinguisher until it it came crashing down.

Gervers remembers the extinguisher episode fondly. “It wasn't by my hand, if we're talking on the record here...” he says.

But by the late aughts, the impromptu house parties became less frequent. “We miss those shows. It was zero pressure and just having fun when playing for five to fifty people.”

Now, Foals' audience numbers can reach into the tens of thousands, such as when the band headlined Bestival in 2014 on the Isle of Wight. And though Foals retains a reputation for energetic performances, the reality of being a popular rock band comes with a different level of responsibility and preparation. The band has adapted to the demands of stardom accordingly, becoming more methodical as it has aged.

Take the recording of the latest album, What Went Down, for example. Gervers says that the album's producer, James Ford (who has worked with Arctic Monkeys and Simian Mobile Disco) made it clear that he wanted Foals' songs 99 percent rehearsed and completed before recording. What followed was a relatively calm two months in the quaint hillsides of Provence, France, recording at a little-known boutique studio called La Fabrique.

Compare that to the recording of the preceding album, 2013’s Holy Fire: Frontman Yannis Philippakis has said that the band tried to get “primal” by hanging voodoo posters on the walls and banging cow bones against their drum set.

By Gervers' admission, the craziest it got in Provence this year was “a few frosty dips in the pool. It was absolutely freezing. Once you've got half a bottle of local Burgundy in you, it helped, though.”

Throw in the fact that Gervers just had a kid – the first in the band to do so – and that's meant the band isn’t touring as extensively as it used to. “I don’t want to be away from home for huge amounts of time,” says the new father.

So perhaps Foals is falling into the tried-and-true narrative of young, rebellious rockers who've matured with age. But for everything the band may have lost in terms of unpredictability, it has gained in focus and consistency.

There probably won’t be any plasterboard walls coming down at the Ogden Theatre show on Tuesday, but since its DIY days, Foals has earned a reputation as one of the top live acts from Britain. While the band may reminisce about playing at house parties, there are still a few crazy antics they’re famous for.

For example, if you’re in the front of the crowd on Tuesday, watch your head. Yannis Philippakis is known for his stage dives.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker