Foals' first foray into self-production yielded not one but two albums — but making them wasn't easy!
Four albums into a 12-year career that had taken them from sweaty house-party gigs to sold-out arenas, Foals decided to have a rethink when it came to making their fifth record. Exhausted after the world tour to support 2015's What Went Down, and temporarily sick of making music altogether, the Oxford-formed band's frontman Yannis Philippakis couldn't even face a guitar for nine months.
Then, in late 2017, he rented a production room in 123 Studios in South London, close to his Peckham home. There he slowly began creating sketches for what would in fact become Foals' fifth and sixth albums, the two companion releases Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Part 1 out now, Part 2 to follow in the Autumn).
By the time production proper began, the long-time quintet had been reduced to a four-piece following the amicable departure of bassist Walter Gervers. Instead of seeking a replacement, Philippakis and his bandmates — guitarist Jimmy Smith, drummer Jack Bevan and keyboard-player Edwin Congreave — decided to carry on in this new configuration. In the studio, synth bass lines now became more of an option on certain tracks, while the bass guitar roles were filled by either Philippakis or Congreave.
"One aspect of Wally leaving was that it meant that these roles in the band became a bit more fluid," says Philippakis. "Having Edwin taking over bass duty in the live room and opening out the bass lines in certain tracks was great. It created a different energy in the room that I think filters into the album."
On previous Foals albums, the band had worked with producers Dave Sitek, Flood, Alan Moulder and James Ford, but they decided to self-produce Everything Not Saved... Yannis Philippakis took on the primary production role in the band, but admits that it took him a while to become comfortable with this. "I was quite reluctant, to be honest," he says. "It was more something that was driven by Jack in the band, cause he just thought that it was time for us to try and go it alone in a way. There'd been a feeling in the band that we'd made a number of records and we'd never really got to scratch that itch of what it would be like if we saw everything through to the finish line on our own.
"The desire with this one was to explore new textures, without somebody coming in and moulding or polishing something. We wanted it to be a freer expression of the band that we are. Giving ourselves time was the big one and allowing ourselves the space to make mistakes. 'Cause, y'know, sometimes by taking the wrong turn when you're recording, you can end up in the right place."
Alone in his production room at 123 Studios at the beginning of the making of Everything Not Saved..., Yannis Philippakis encountered some very basic problems, which led him to recruit the studio's Brett Shaw as engineer and co-producer. "In general, I'm a Luddite," laughs Philippakis. "Like, I've only just learned how to use Logic. Every time I'd turn stuff off in that writing room, I had to get Brett to come and help me anytime I'd restart.
"One of the reasons why I got this small writing room in Brett's studio was to learn how to use Logic, 'cause up until then, for the last decade I'd been recording stuff just straight onto a loop pedal that I couldn't extract the layers off, or actual cassettes, or into my phone. The problem with it is not only is it unusable in many ways, but also, I fall in love with the sound of it. Then you're faced with the sort of digital starkness of things that are recorded 'properly'. That's been one of the things that we've battled with as a band; we fall in love with the grittiness of dirty recordings, whether that's four-track or on loop pedals that are oversaturated."
An unexpected benefit of this new approach was that Philippakis ended up recording parts in his Logic demos that would actually end up on the album, most notably the degraded, dubby bass line that is a central feature of the track 'Syrups'. "I think most of the first half of 'Syrups', with the exception of the drum beat and the vocals, is essentially the Logic version," he says. "And I didn't know what I was doing. I knew I had the preamps on too cranked and I was recording hot into the computer. But the result of it is some great sounds and textures in the early loops that are only found in naïvety, y'know. We wanted to capture all of the accidents and all of those new moments.
"The difficulty in making records in general," he adds, "is that often you never capture that initial burst of excitement, the first time when the magic comes into the room and you're playing something as you're discovering it. And the sound of that initial musical discovery, whether it's one person on their own in Logic or four people in a live room, we'd found that we'd never really managed to capture that in the past."
In tandem with the singer's early Logic experiments, the newly four-piece Foals gathered in a South London rehearsal studio to jam through new ideas. As recording later progressed over the span of a year, they would repeatedly shuttle back and forth between 123 and the practice room, reworking and sometimes utterly transforming tracks.
"Where the record has ended up is through the tension between the two different approaches," says Philippakis. "The tracks that I guess really got built up in a sort of sedimentary way, because of all the going back to the live room and then having to re-translate stuff, would be 'In Degrees' and 'Sunday'. That was quite a beast to record. It has three different drum kits in it. It was a massive session, that one."
"Yeah, there were some pretty large sessions by the end of it," laughs Brett Shaw. "The biggest was probably this 10-minuter called 'Neptune', which will be on the second album. I remember looking at the folder at the end of the session and it was 50GB worth of audio in there. I've recorded albums that are smaller than that!"
Brett Shaw set up 123 Studios in a warehouse space in Peckham four years ago, after the rent was tripled on his previous studio in Shoreditch. Shaw has been involved in music since the age of 16, when his band South were signed to UK trip-hop label Mo' Wax and went on to provide the score for the now-classic 2000 Brit crime film Sexy Beast. In more recent years his engineering and production credits have included Florence & the Machine, Lady Gaga, Clean Bandit and Daughter.
The building of 123 took some work, much of it by Shaw himself, and the facility's control room was designed by acoustician Nick Whitaker. "When I got here it was just a total shell of a warehouse," Shaw remembers. "It didn't have a roof on. I had to get the landlord to put one on and then I spent two to three months building it, getting very good at carpentry and stuff along the way. The wood walls have only been there for the last year or two. Going to listen to music in spaces that have wooden walls, even classical music, the way the strings bounce off, the reverberation is a lot nicer. I like the way it looks and it gives a softer reflection."
Two years ago, Shaw installed an SSL E-Series desk at 123, but for tracking he tends to favour his array of outboard preamps, which includes a Chandler REDD 47, Tree Audio Branch and Seventh Circle vintage Neve and API clones. "They give you a lot of colour on the way in, so I just wanted a desk that was essentially good to mix on, not adding a lot of colour," he says. "The SSL adds a little bit of a flavour, but it's just a sort of versatile desk that has a useful workflow."
After Shaw lent a hand to Philippakis in his production room, the Foals frontman suggested that the whole band get together with the engineer/producer in the main studio at 123 for a trial period. "He was like, 'Do you fancy doing a week or two just to see how it goes and get some ideas a bit further developed?'" remembers Shaw. "Then in those sessions I guess we got on to the extent he could see that this might work. He sort of made the joking comment, 'What are you doing for the next six months?' I was a bit nervous. Then it just went on and off and on and off for the best part of a year, basically."
"We sort of took over his life a little bit," laughs Philippakis. "The studio's great. It has a great atmosphere to it. It's very laid back and it's very light which was a pleasure to work in. Somewhere that felt light and warm."
"Yannis is the main sort of driving force of Foals," Shaw stresses, "and he has a very clear direction of how he wants things. But he's not so technical, so he left a lot of that to me. It was a bit like a creative forum. Everyone could put ideas forward and we'd really try them, whatever they were."
Given the nature of Foals' music — whether it be their harder, grungier side or their more dance-friendly tunes — there was huge importance placed in the preliminary stages on the rhythm tracks. Working with drummer Jack Bevan's Tama kit and the studio's 1966 Ludwig Super Classic, Brett Shaw dug deep into his collection of mics.
"It was always different, depending on what song we were doing," he says. "One of the advantages of having so much time was that I could experiment for each song with different miking techniques. But generally, the overheads were a Neumann U67 and a Flea 49: one on the top, one at the back, in a sort of Glyn Johns style. Or on some of the slower songs, it was Coles 4038s as overheads. Snare was usually a mixture of a Neumann KM84 that I'd crush a bit going into a Tree Audio Branch preamp and distort a bit, next to an Audix i5, which is not a very sexy mic, but it sounds good on a snare. The distorted 84 would do the warm, fat thing and the Audix would do more of a clean thing next to it and you can balance between the two sounds.
"Kick drum was the usual AKG D12, using a FET 47 or Electro-Voice RE20 at the back. Sometimes I'd put close room mics in, figure-of-eights, pointing at the floor, either side of the kit, which were either Coles or sometimes an AEA R44 and an RCA 77. There was no strict setup for any song. One thing I did use quite a lot on the slower, softer songs was the 77 sort of quite low over the middle of the drum kit, looking just over the snare and the kick drum. But that was just too mushy on the fast, hard songs. So I swapped that out for the Bock iFET looking down just over the kick drum and the snare drum, basically quite close to the drummer's knee."
Meanwhile, a single bass rig was shared between Edwin Congreave and Yannis Philippakis, comprising an Ampeg SVT for the miked sound and Zod Audio's ID DI. "It's a guy out in America who makes them," Shaw says of the latter. "But they've got the biggest, fattest, warmest sound I've ever heard in a bass DI. Yannis would come up with lots of ideas for bass. He's a bit like a riff machine. You sort of wind him up and watch him go and he'll just come up with 10 different ideas. He attacks the bass a lot harder than Edwin, who tends to play with fingers."
In initial tracking, with all four of the band playing, the team were looking to nail really only the drums and bass. "Sometimes we kept a guitar," says Philippakis. "If it had a kind of charm to it, then it was useable. Largely we wanted to try and capture some excitement, to get the core skeleton of something and then dress it up as we went on. There's a couple of tracks where it is actually all the initial takes. The 10-minute-long track 'Neptune', that jam space that happens in that song was something that was totally natural in the room and we just played it out."
"I tried to keep it as live as possible," says Shaw. "Because they are essentially a jam band — a lot of their writing comes out of jamming together, which is a really good thing. There aren't enough bands like them doing that kind of intricate jamming thing that songs come out of."
Recording Jimmy Smith and Yannis Philippakis' guitars was a highly experimental and freewheeling affair, involving chains of guitar effects. "They've got more guitar pedals than I've ever seen a band have, ever," Shaw laughs. "They've got, like, three crates of guitar pedals that would get splayed across the middle of the control-room floor. At any one time you could reach for about 200 guitar pedals and get interesting sounds."
Chief workhorses in the effects pedal department included Audio Kitchen's The Big Trees valve preamp; OTO's BIM 12-bit delay unit, BAM Space Generator and BOUM Warming Unit; along with a Klon KTR Centaur overdrive, MWFX's Judder analogue sampler/repeater; and Hologram's Dream Sequence pitch-shifter/sequencer. In addition there was also much use of a Maestro Echoplex and Roland Space Echo for delay, and the Eventide H3000 Harmonizer.
According to Shaw, Smith and Philippakis can be quite competitive over which of them could create the most interesting or unusual guitar sound. "Cause they've got this thing where if one of them gets a sound first, then the other one's not really allowed to step on their shoes," he laughs. Overall, Jimmy Smith tends to use a Fender Jaguar through either a Fender Twin Reverb or Roland Jazz Chorus. Philippakis favours Hiwatt amps or his 1960s croc-skin Selmer, and almost exclusively plays Travis Bean guitars. "I've played them since I was 18," he says. "I play other guitars in the studio, but they're just a unique-sounding guitar. To me they sound like how a guitar is supposed to sound. There's something transparent and pure about them in a way. It's not coloured in one way or another. I find that it's quite a blank sound in a good way. The neck is super flat and you can play higher on it, which is probably part of the reason why in the early days loads of our riffs were written above the 12th fret. The other guitar I played quite a bit on the record was a '67 Gretsch Country Gentleman that I picked up in Cincinnati, and it smells like your grandma's house."
Foals' use of synths increased on Everything Not Saved..., with Jimmy Smith and Yannis Philippakis sometimes abandoning their guitars in favour of keyboards, to supplement the main electronic role in the band played by Edwin Congreave. Much use was made of hardware synths, including 123's Roland Juno‑60 and the band's Korg MS‑10 and Minimoog Voyager. Philippakis meanwhile experimented with a Rhodes Chroma Polaris, which he'd picked up while on tour in the States. "I had some MIDI instruments on Logic for the track 'Café D'Athens' — a marimba part and a vibraphone part — and I sent the MIDI into the Chroma Polaris. It's just an amazing synth. Very intuitive and it felt like an important synth for us to use on this record."
More synths were employed when the sessions moved temporarily to Studio La Marquise in Paris, where Foals decided to "maul the tracks" with producer and Air keyboard player Vincent Taurelle. "He had some great synths," says Philippakis. "He had a bunch of Air's synths he was looking after — a Yamaha CS‑50 and a Memorymoog that's on a lot of the tracks. Working with Vincent, it's spontaneous and it's aggressive. The way that he works is not sonically polite. He's oversaturating a lot of things: tape, his desk, reverb chains. He likes to drive things really hard and likes to experiment and he's got a bunch of modular gear that's great.
"We'd been working for a long time in 123 with Brett and we'd got into a kind of groove of how to work, which is great. But sometimes that needs to be challenged. The songs needed a bit of roughing up and Vincent's the guy to do it with. He has access to an amazing percussionist and there's vibraphones and marimbas and all sort of other instruments. So I definitely feel like, going in there, it's like a child going into a sweet shop and he's Willy Wonka!"
Another addition to the team in the later stages of recording was James Ford, the Arctic Monkeys/Gorillaz producer who had helmed Foals' previous album What Went Down. Ford was brought on board both as a consultant and as someone who could provide additional production. "James added lots of bits and pieces and ideas," says Shaw. "We kept a running dialogue with him throughout the album. Sometimes we'd have tracks where we'd need some advice and we'd reach out to James and say, 'What d'you think is the best way to go about this?' And he'd send back some ideas or say, y'know, 'Try this and that.' It was kind of useful to have that to bounce off."
"All the way through I was sending him tracks," says Philippakis. "There were some tracks that we thought would benefit from letting James squeeze the extra 10 percent out of them or just shine a different light on them. So he did that on 'In Degrees' and then there's some tracks on Part 2 where he helped massively."
Mixing duties for both Parts 1 and 2 of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost were handed over to Mark 'Spike' Stent. "He mixed the final versions," says Shaw, "and everything just got a bit more beefy and bigger-sounding."
"I thought that we had fully inhabited the songs for long enough," says Philippakis. "It was quite possible that we'd lost all sense of perspective. It was probably a good time to have an experienced outside pair of ears. He sent me mixes every few days and I just sent him reams of notes."
Eventually, Foals completed over 20 songs, and it was decided that the tracks should be released as two albums. The result is the most ambitious and experimental music that the band have yet produced, which at the same time maintains their commercial appeal. Ask them to define the two albums and, while cagey about the second, Philippakis will say, "I think the guitars are more emphasised on album two, basically. And in some ways, it works as a response to album one."
"The first one I think is a lot more groove-based," says Shaw. "There's probably more experimenting, and the second one I think is a lot more direct. There's one track on there that is probably Foals' hardest, heaviest song. But it sounds great. It's one of those that the fans in the mosh pit are going to love."
Having no real constraints on their studio time, Brett Shaw and Yannis Philippakis chose to set up a circle of mics in the live room at 123 to try out different vocal sounds. "Yannis sort of insisted on finishing all of the music before we got into the vocals," says Shaw. "I set up usually six microphones in a circle and he could just sort of skip between any of them at any point. You can just record a bit and see what it sounds like."
The circle of microphones generally comprised a Shure SM7, Neumann U67, Flea 47, an Altec 633A 'salt shaker', an AEA R44CX ribbon and a Yamaha NS10 speaker cone used as a mic. "The 'salt shaker' is a real lo-fi, gravelly thing," says Shaw. "That worked on some of the songs where Yannis really pushes his voice hard and heavy and dirty. The SM7 is probably the mic he's used most on the other albums. He'll sort of fall back on that, 'cause he knows that it's worked for him throughout the years.
"On the slower songs and warmer vocals, the Flea 47 sounded great. He'd get up close to that and it'd give it a big, deep dimension. The ribbon AEA again sounded pretty nice on the softer stuff. And then we messed around a lot on the backing vocals singing through the NS10 cone. He'd often like singing through an Echoplex."
"The Echoplex was quite integral to the vocals," says Philippakis. "Often it's the main effect. I feel like between the NS10 cone and the Echoplex, those were the two vocal textures that kind of allowed us to use different mics, but we always knew that there would be a kind of repeated thread. There would be a sonic motif running through both albums. And also it was just to get away from clinical vocal sounds where it's too crisp and too clear. I feel happiest when there's dirt and there's some impurities in the sound."
In the vocal chain, the preamps tended to be the Tree Audio Branch and the Chandler REDD 47, while various compressors were used. "I'd usually go through a Teletronix LA‑2A, sometimes a Distressor, sometimes an API 2500," Shaw says. "Just a little light compression on the way in. I got in trouble once for overdistorting a vocal cause I liked the sound of it [laughs]. He told me not to commit to things after that. On the end of 'Syrups', I was driving the tube stage of the LA‑2A by distorting the output and then attenuating it on the Distressor afterwards, taking the level back down. I think it sounds great. But it was just a bit too sort of grain-committed. And it got used on the album exactly how it was. But yeah, after that I sort of backed things down a little in terms of my recording!"
At one point in the vocal process, feeling that cabin fever had set in, Philippakis disappeared to Greece for a week. "I'd been in the studio solidly for over a year, basically," he says. "Y'know, one of the aspects of this way of working was I felt that there was more than the usual amount of pressure on me, because fundamentally the buck stops with me about the production. So there was a point definitely where I was cabin-fevering. I needed to go to Greece just to clear my head for a few days. And actually I think it was great. Actually, I should've spent most of my time in Greece...