Tuesday, April 29, 2008

U.K. quintet Foals take us on a rockin' nostalgia trip

Foals singer and guitarist Yannis Philippakis has a soft spot for ’90s Chicago technical rock music. With a side nod to Don Caballero, he’s quick to identify local favorites Sweep the Leg Johnny as his favorite band. “I have everything they’ve ever done,” he brags, even tracking down a rare demo that was released in tandem with a zine. “Finally!” I think to myself. It’s refreshing that we at last have evidence that arguably the hardest-working band in Chicago from 1995-2000 has made a positive impact on a younger generation of musicians. Just like Sweep, Foals are quick to be labeled “math rock,” which Philippakis finds “totally bizarre.” He adds, “the British press call [math rock] a new thing because in England, [bands like Sweep] never really integrated.”

Their debut album, Antidotes, is a whirligig of a ride incorporating indie rock, dance punk and impressive technical proficiency to boot. While previous reports have the band shunning the final mix of TV On the Radio’s David Sitek as “too spacey,” Philippakis has nothing but high praise for his work—if not for his production work, then for his personal impact. “I think [TVOTR album] Cookie Mountain is without a doubt one of the best records put out in the last 15 years,” he proudly states. But when it came to the actual recording, Philippakis adds, “it wasn’t about sounds. He challenged our ideas of why we made music. He had a very special and profound effect on our band. We got shook up by him.”

It was Foals that did the shaking at Subterranean last Saturday, April 26. Taking the stage and getting into their preferred horseshoe formation (Philippakis faces stage left instead of the crowd), I immediately thought of that old early ’90s dare-I-say-sure-why-not-dare-say “emo” trick of facing backwards during the set, the practice of shunning stages, the tortured soul who can’t bear to see people’s faces. Hell, we’ve all been there, or maybe most of us have. I didn’t find it offensive one bit, as Foals did an excellent job of engaging those in attendance. I instead found it completely nostalgic. In a good way. I was standing next to Chris Daly of Sweep the Leg Johnny, and he felt it too.

They cruised through new single “Red Sox Pugie,” and just killed it during “Cassius” and my favorite track on Antidotes, opener “The French Open.” Songs like “Electric Bloom” actually sounded better live, as Philippakis played extra percussion and sang the hooky chorus, “It’s just another hospital” along with the sweating, adoring front row. “We try and set off reciprocal energy from the crowd,” he explained earlier, and when I asked if they improvised at all on stage, he replied, “depends how well it’s going.”

Things are going really well for Foals: They're on the last leg of their first U.S. tour, heading to Japan, doing the European festival circuit, and then back to Chicago for Lollapalooza. Get ready for an explosive live show and if you’re old enough (har har) and maybe a nice dose of that good, ol' time “remember when"? - Bob Nanna