Foals’ Yannis Philippakis tells us about The Yaw and his record with Tony Allen: “Our spirits got on”

FoalsYannis Philippakis has shared the first taster of his long-awaited project with late Fela Kuti legend Tony Allen – as well as launching new collaborative project Yannis & The Yaw. Check out the single ‘Walk Through Fire’ below, and watch our interview with the frontman above.

READ MORE: Tony Allen, 1940 – 2020: Afrobeat pioneer whose skill and talent inspired the world to skip and swing

Philippakis has been teasing the project for some years, first revealing news of sessions with the drummer to NME back in 2017. The pioneering Afrobeat musician, who played with both Fela Kuti and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, died in 2020 at the age of 79 and the music had been in development for some time ahead of his passing.

Now, Philippakis has announced that their work together will be released this August on the ‘Lagos Paris London’ EP. Completed with Allen’s regular collaborators Vincent Taeger (percussion, marimba), Vincent Taurelle (keys) and Ludovic Bruni (bass, guitar), the collection is also launched today with the funk-driven single ‘Walk Through Fire’, and marks the start of a new collaborative arm for the Foals singer: The Yaw.

With a yaw defined as “the twisting or oscillation of a moving ship or aircraft about a vertical axis”, this shall be the first of future projects with an ever-revolving set of collaborators.

To mark the launch of the project, NME met Philippakis in Damon Albarn’s 13 Studios in West London – a place he described as “Tony Allen’s spiritual home in London” having done much of the recording for The Good, The Bad & The Queen there, with the drummer even living upstairs for a period.

“I feel unburdened now,” said Philippakis about finally having the music with Allen out done. “There has been this unfinished business that has been occupying my vision for the future. I had to finish it. Especially after Tony passed away and in the midst of COVID; it became much more of a serious project. We had to try and do it justice. It feels good, and I just people to hear it and for it to be out.”

Philippakis’ love affair with Allen’s music first started when Foals would party to Fela Kuti’s music when they shared a house together in their early days in the ’00s.

“We’d listen to a bunch of old Afrobeat records,” he recalled. “The record we’d listen to the most was a compiled Tony Allen ‘best of’ that had ‘Progress’, ‘Afro Disco Beat’, all of his classic tracks from throughout the years. That record got absolutely hammered – it got worn out.

“Fast forward a few years later and somebody we knew in common was trying to get Tony to collab with more and different people; some more unexpected collaborations. They called me and said, ‘Do you want to go over to Paris to write some tracks with Tony?’ I jumped at the opportunity, but down the line we were on tour. Time passed, the tour took its toll, I came back knackered and I almost didn’t go.”

He added: “I was just broken by the end of the tour, and the idea of schlepping my guitar and going to Paris for a session seemed insane, but I was encouraged to go and it changed my life. It was one of the best musical experiences of my life.”

 

Check out our full interview with Philippakis below, where he told NME about dealing with the death of Allen, imbuing the record with a “Parisian protest spirit”, what’ to come from The Yaw, his work in theatre, the future of Foals, and being pals with David Schwimmer.

NME: Hello Yannis. Tell us about that first meeting with Tony Allen. 

Philippakis: “I went to Paris, and I walked nerdily and nervously through this studio where everyone was smoking – obviously because it was France. We were in this big basement studio that was very 1970s, kind of naff, but full of amazing instruments. There were a lot of Air’s synths in there, a bunch of different West African percussion, and Tony was just sitting there in a fog of smoke.

“I don’t think the whiskey bottles had been opened yet but they were in proximity. He wasn’t super friendly straight away! He was writing with these French guys – the Vincents – and they’re the Frenchest men in the world. They set me up, we chatted and we all got in the room. I pulled out the riff that is ‘Walk Through Fire’, Tony came into his drum area and just started playing. It was crazy. I just felt like I was lifting off slightly. We just jammed it and by the end of that day we had cut the majority of the first three tracks on the EP.

“I went back the next morning, we did a couple of quick structural things, some handclaps, and that was kind of it. It was set it motion. We became friends just through that initial jam. It felt like the whole room warmed up.”

At what point did it feel like you’d broke the walls down and Tony became a friend?

“We came out of that jam and Tony was like, ‘Actually, this guy is kind of alright’ – rather than just some random dude that’s walked in off the street. It felt like the music connected us. He didn’t expect me to sing the way that I did. I really don’t think he was even that familiar with who I was when we went in.

“Once that happened we had ‘Rain Can’t Reach Us’ and ‘Walk Through Fire’ – those first two tracks had been played then we were smoking a spliff, sharing whiskey and getting on.”

Foals’ Yannis Philippakis with Tony Allen. Credit: Kit Monteith

How did you land on the sonic DNA of this record? You obviously didn’t want it to sound like ‘Foals featuring Tony Allen’ or vice versa…

“We didn’t have any pre-destined idea for it. The first riff was just one that I thought would be cool, and we guided everything through intuition and followed the creative impulse. With the mix of the influences of Tony and I, it was bound to be something slightly ‘other’.

“There are obviously aspects of what people might identify as ‘a Foals sounding riff’ because it’s me playing guitar. One of the tracks has a loop that was written in the same era as some of the [2019 albums] ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost [parts one and two]’ stuff, and it just didn’t make it into the room with the boys.

“Obviously his style of drumming is inimitable and you know it’s Tony Allen, but by virtue of the collab it’s something slightly other.”

Did Foals drummer Jack Bevan get jealous of what you were up to?

“Tony is one of his favourite drummers so he was always super positive about it! Maybe he wished that it could have been something with the whole band. Tony and I did one improv gig at [Philippakis’ club night] Milk in Paris and Jimmy [Smith, guitarist] joined in. We were hoping that we’d do more together live, but alas…”

Once we spoke and you said you were walking through Paris during one of the many strikes – trash was piled high and things were burning. A lot of what Tony did was quite socially-minded, so how did you approach the lyrics to this record and bake in that very French defiance?

“I needed to not write the lyrics from the same perspective as I would more intimate Foals tracks. I wanted it to be more protest-driven. The language that Tony and I shared was him encouraging me to write lyrics that were more socially-engaged.

“You couldn’t shy away from it, and Tony encouraged me not to. There were literally mice peaking out at you from garbage piles on the way to the studio. That sense of combat and social decay permeates the record. By virtue of it being a collaboration between the two of us, I probably felt empowered to write a certain type of lyric that perhaps wouldn’t feel quite right within Foals. It has that Parisian protest spirit to it.”

What does the EP tell us about that?

“There should be a feeling of galvanisation, and that all isn’t lost. You can create beauty around and outside of things being on fire. The record is soundtracking this feeling of precipice. It doesn’t impart a specific message other than being the soundtrack to the protest. It isn’t didactic in any way – that isn’t my style.”

Foals’ Yannis Philippakis. Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

When Tony died in 2020, how did that impact your relationship to the songs?

“We had done a couple of other sessions where I would stay on in the studio and Tony would leave some days. Then COVID struck and we lost all momentum. It became something that was on the back-burner. It probably could have quite easily dissolved into the ether. We had plans to pick stuff up again after COVID, then I was just hit with this news that he passed away. It was quite sudden and no one expected it. He wasn’t young, but he was healthy and he was strong. It just shocked everyone.

“After feeling grief and putting his records on for a couple of days, it just became clear to me that we had to finish it. There was something crushing about not having completed it while he was alive. It was so close to completion and I just feel like it needed doing justice – just to finish it off, get it out and to show people what a cool thing we had made. It needed to be done right and in his memory, out of respect for what was a chance encounter with him in a way.”

What made it feel like fate?

“We met in a studio, he didn’t really know who I was, he didn’t give a fuck, we smoked some hash together then we wrote some wicked tunes. It sounds a bit hippie, but our spirits got on. It was like something larger than the realities of our lives. We wouldn’t exchange stories. There was a lot that we didn’t have in common, but what we had in common was  a shared language that was separate to your everyday experience of making a friend. That’s why it’s such a special experience for me in my life.”

How did you overcome that challenge of finishing this without Tony and keeping it imbued with his spirit? Did you hear his voice in the studio?

“Thankfully the Vincents had worked with him a bunch so they could say what Tony would and wouldn’t have wanted. They guided a lot of that principle, but a lot of the tracks were almost finished and most of what needed completing were my parts.  We didn’t actually mess with that much of the original tracking. Most of the tracks were done from a jam done twice – they weren’t replayed, there weren’t multiple takes.

“We didn’t make this EP like a record or an album where there’s a defined destination and an idea of perfection that we were striving for. It was liberated. It was very rough and ready and very fast. Once the instrumentals had been captured, they weren’t tinkered with much at all.”

Tony Allen (Picture: Bernard Benant / Press)

How did it feel when it was finished? Did you feel like you had a record that Foals would have partied to in your house back in 2008?

“Yeah, probably! Some of it felt like me being invited into a Tony track and getting to do karaoke over it. I felt like we’d made something precious and rare. It’s one of his final recordings and is a collaboration that can never exist at any other time. It can never be recreated. I love combination of cultures and generations of me being born in 1986, Tony being 70-something when we started recording and from Lagos with an incredible life story before being based in Paris.

“All of these cultural and generational components and experiences that we brought in while looking at life through two different lenses. It just feels like a treasure to me.”

And your mother is South African, so you’ve always had this music in your life?

“I have. I came into Fela Kuti a bit later, but there’s definitely been a lot of Soweto music and South African music that I grew up with. That’s partly why I play guitar like I do. I took more inspiration from records my mum was playing than I ever did from Jimmy Page or any rock guitarist – that’s not really my lineage.

“I play the guitar in a very crude way where it’s not schooled in the canon of rock music from the UK or anywhere else. The sound that I chase with the guitar is one that comes from more of an African place. Whether Marley, Nigeria or wherever, there’s a shared style of guitar playing that gets me out of my seat.”

What can you tell us about the context of ‘The Yaw’ and what you’re launching here? What happens next?

“I don’t have the answer to that, and that in itself excites me. I just wanted to put this record out. To me, the Yaw is a kind of collaborative orbit that exists going forwards. I like the idea of it being on this axis that spins: members can rotate, future collaborations can occur, but there’s no pressure for anything. I want this to be something that is fluid and solely driven by freedom and creativity, and not by any concerns. The Yaw is just an open parachute, and we’ll see when it gets deployed.”

Foals’ Yannis Philippakis. Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

Anyone on your bucket list to pull into The Yaw’s orbit, or Yawbit?

“Yawbit – I like that! I’ve been talking to a Malian guitarist called Gimba so I might do some sessions with him. I’ve got some old recordings with Karl Hyde from Underworld and I think it would be cool to revisit those and do some collaborations there. Maybe even some Greek musicians? I like the idea that The Yaw would be a culturally diverse project, so it’s not staying in one place for too long.”

“This record is called ‘Lagos Paris London’, maybe the next will be ‘Berlin Athens Burundi’ or something. We could have these triangular locations and see how the records come about.”

READ MORE: On the cover – Foals: “Life is something to be cherished and enjoyed”

There are live shows on the way too, right?

“There will be some live performances of the music. The band will probably be made up of the collaborators who worked on the record, and then some players that used to play with Tony or are from that lineage.

“It’ll be the EP and maybe some other bits that were floating around at the time or stuff from those Milk nights, but it’ll have quite a wild and free improvised spirit to it. It’s going to be a jam.”

This is more of a collective, right – and not the launch of ‘Yannis Philippakis – solo artist’?

“No, not at all. If I was to do a solo record it would probably not be this. This is meant to be an archival presentation of an amazing thing that happened. I very much believe that I want it to be out now in 2024, but if I was to record something from scratch right now, it wouldn’t be this.

“This is definitely meant to be a homage and a release of the work that happened with Tony Allen; it’s not like ‘The Yannis Philippakis Experience’.”

The last time we spoke was before The Confessions, a play that you wrote the music for. The show was great, and we hung with Friends star David Schwimmer at the afterparty. Are you getting a taste for that world?

“The Schwim! He’s been coming to Foals shows for a few years now. I like the creative world of it, and I want to have a hydra-headed creative output. I want to be able to just be expressive, creative and productive in different disciplines. Being in the theatre world or the film world where the music has this supporting role is really interesting. It’s just as creatively challenging and as musically inspiring, but it lives in this other shape that isn’t to do with being in a band or playing on stage.

“It’s to do with my identity. I like that you can write music that’s discreet and much more based on how it interacts with actors and the stage.”

Foals’ Yannis Philippakis. Credit: Andy Ford/NME

Do you have anything else in the works right now?

“I’m doing the music for another play. It’s by the same director Alexander Zeldin, it’s about Antigone, it’s going to be on at The National Theatre next year, it’s got Tobias Menzies [The Crown, Outlander, Game Of Thrones] in it, Emma D’Arcy [Wanderlust, Truth Seekers, House Of The Dragon] and Emma Mackey [Sex Education, Death On The Nile, Emily].

“It’s set in present-day Britain, steeped in the housing crisis and in the tragedy of our time. It’s going to be intense, dark, heavy and cathartic, and I’m just starting the music for it now.”

And The Schwim will be there?

“The Schwim will be there”

Is he the most famous Foals fan?

“I’m not sure, actually. It’s either him or one of the Royal Family or something.”

Is Foals’ Jimmy still working on his ‘Cosmonaut’ solo project?

“He is The Cosmonaut, so it’s hard to hear what he’s up to. I spoke to him the other day and he’s definitely writing some stuff. The thing with Jimmy’s stuff is that it’s so good I always just want to harvest it for Foals records.”

Has there been much progress on the follow-up to Foals’ last album ‘Life Is Yours’?

“Absolutely none, which is fine. We just finished touring it in January, and before we make another Foals record we really want to have some time at home and apart to individually get replenished and be inspired – not make one out of a knee-jerk sense of obligation. We want the next record to be really special.

“We’ve been busy so it’s good to go out and smell the roses for a bit. I think we’ll make something special. It’s fucking great that Walter [Gervers, bassist] is back and it will feel great when we’re writing in the room together. I think it could be the best Foals record yet. This space that we’re going to have over the next year will be crucial. The only thing we know is that it won’t be anything like ‘Life Is Yours’ – as is the Foals way. I’m pretty sure we’re going to subvert and get into some interesting, new place.”

Yannis & The Yaw’s ‘Lagos Paris London’ featuring Tony Allen

‘Lagos Paris London’ will be released on August 30 via Transgressive, and is available to pre-order or pre-save here. Check out the tracklist below:

1. ‘Walk Through Fire’
2. ‘Rain Can’t Reach Us’
3. ‘Night Green, Heavy Love’
4. ‘Under The Strikes’
5. ‘Clementine’

The post Foals’ Yannis Philippakis tells us about The Yaw and his record with Tony Allen: “Our spirits got on” appeared first on NME.

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