Headed back to town for a concert Wednesday night at the Riv, I spoke with Foals guitarist Jimmy Smith about avoiding expectations, the importance of maintaining a strong live set in the internet era and much more...
As the music industry continues to struggle, a strong live set has become a critical component of the success of most bands. Virtually every moment of a live show is being recorded and fans are often more likely to search for an artist on YouTube than they are to purchase an album.
Over the course of its ten years, Foals has moved from clubs, up festival bills and into U.K. arenas on the reputation of their live concerts and the continued growth and experimentation that have come to define each of their four studio albums.
One of the most difficult things for a young band finding its identity to do is avoid expectations - from labels, fans, promoters and more. But Foals haven't just steered clear of them, they've actually managed to cultivate a following that is happy to follow them wherever they wind up heading.
At this point, there's nearly no expectations - which makes it an exciting time to be a fan of Foals.
Following nearly a year straight of non stop touring that found them headlining U.K. arenas for the first time, Foals is finishing up a tour that finds them back in American clubs and free of some of the pressure that arena billing brought with it. "It’s been very low pressure and we can actually enjoy playing. I think we’re playing better than we’ve played on the whole album tour so far" says rhythm guitarist Jimmy Smith.
As Foals gears up for a show Wednesday night at the Riviera Theatre, I spoke with Smith about the importance of the live set, how his band went about avoiding expectations and where Foals' future lies. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. You guys have been on the road for basically a full year as you make your way back to the Riv here. How are you guys holding up?
Jimmy Smith: Good. We’re almost at the end. We just did the west coast and Texas. We just did South America. And now this is the last run on the east coast and that’s it. Then we’re done. So the end is in sight. So we’re enjoying ourselves now.
We’ve been playing Chicago for as long as we’ve basically been in a band really. It’s one of the first places we went to outside of New York in America. We love Chicago.
Q. After a summer in arenas and at festivals, what’s it like coming back to clubs in America now?
JS: It’s nice for us. Certainly, after the festivals, and the arenas as well, there was quite a lot of pressure on us to perform well. We weren’t nervous as such. But we didn’t really appreciate – I think it was like a silent pressure that was just sort of slipping over us. Once we got that out of the way…
Actually, this tour has been really, really fun. Because it’s been very low pressure and we can actually enjoy playing. I think we’re playing better than we’ve played on the whole album tour so far. We’ve just been enjoying it I guess.
I think we’re really lucky that we have fans and we have a following that is willing to kind of change with us or give us the space and the time to be able to evolve a little bit
Q. Obviously Foals has a strong live reputation. You guys don’t cheat with backing tracks or anything like that. In this era of YouTube, where people are recording every single band moment on stage and are more likely to search for a band on YouTube than they are to buy an album, how important is it to have a strong live set?
JS: I think it’s very important. I think it’s always been important really.
I don’t know. I guess there’s more… Bands basically survive off playing live now and touring. Because there’s no money left in record sales or anything like that. So if you want to make it your job and want to do music as your full time life, it’s good to be good live. It helps! We like to be invited back to places. (laughs)
Q. Does it bother you to see all of the stuff that bands pull live now in kind of an artificial attempt at enhancing the concert experience - the backing tracks, prerecorded stuff, hidden supplementary musicians?
JS: It does bother me on one level because I just see it as a cheat really.
We have to work really hard to be able to play our songs live. We work really hard to try and translate a studio album into a live show. And these people don’t even bother. They just get someone to sit in the room and program it all for them and then just hit space bar. But I think the joke’s on them in the end really.
I feel bad for the audience. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they don’t even know? But I feel they’re being cheated a little bit. These bands that have a sound that’s bigger than what they actually are. But whatever. The joke’s on them. They can just keep on doing it forever, you know? I’m sure when they get to be multi-millionaires they’ll maybe feel a bit sad about it. Maybe not.
I don’t really care. But we’ll never do it.
Q. From day one, it would seem like you guys placed a priority on eschewing expectations. And it would seem now, four albums in, you’ve kind of developed a fan base that’s willing to follow you along wherever you decide to go. How hard was that though (especially early on)?
JS: It’s weird. It’s not easy I guess. We’ve always just sort of done what we’ve done and luckily people have been into it. We haven’t compromised too much on what we want to do.
I don’t know. It seems quite easy for us. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous – it’s been quite a hard slog over ten years getting to where we are now – but it hasn’t really felt hard. I think maybe just because we love doing it so much.
I think we’re really lucky that we have fans and we have a following that is willing to kind of change with us or give us the space and the time to be able to evolve a little bit. Maybe that’s what makes it easier. I think maybe if we were constantly told we had to sound like one thing and we were battling everyone’s expectations than it would probably be a lot harder.
I think we were afforded quite a lot of freedom to do what we want. Which is good.
Q. What Went Down has been out for a little over a year. Have you started to think about new music or started to play around with any ideas now onstage or during soundcheck?
JS: Not really actually. We’re all a bit weary of starting a new one too soon.
We do want to take a little bit of time off basically. I think we’ve scheduled about six months after this tour just to sort of get away and remind our friends who we are and our girlfriends who we are, stuff like that – maybe go paint a couple of walls in our houses. Then I think we’re going to come back after we’ve rejuvenated a little bit and hopefully have a nice, fresh appetite for music. I’m sure we’ll write some stuff in that time off separately.
I feel like we all want to really, really make a truly great album. We always say that – but we want to make our best album yet. And I think this one’s gonna take a bit of time to do that. We’ve got to dig a little bit deeper and see what’s down there.
So we’re gonna take it easy a bit.
I feel like we all want to really, really make a truly great album. We always say that – but we want to make our best album yet
Q. I’ve heard you say that in working with James Ford on the last Foals album, What Went Down, you learned the benefit of preparation - entering the studio prepared. Do you think that's an approach the band will take again when the next record starts taking more shape?
JS: We have no idea to be honest.
We keep talking about this, about the next album. And every day our sort of plan of attack changes. So we really have no idea what we’re going to do.
That was a really great turn in the last album. And it made a lot of sense to do it that way. So we’ll see. I’d like to do it that way again. It’s never the same experience so we’ll see.
But the answer is we have no idea.
Q. A significant part of the Foals story right now, and the band's success, would seem to be the fact that you guys actually seem to still get along. Obviously, there’s so many bands that don’t. How difficult is that to maintain on the road, touring the way you guys do, and how important is it to the band?
JS: It is difficult. I’m not gonna lie: we have times that we fall out with each other and stuff like that.
I think we kind of quickly arrived at the idea that we’re kind of like brothers, like a family really – we’re not all best friends. In doing that, you can sort of love and hate a fellow band member - which is useful. Because it can be very frustrating spending ten years with the same other four people.
Also, you’ve got to learn to bite your tongue a little bit. You can spend all hours of every day arguing with your fellow band mates about something. There’s always something to argue about. I think a lot of it is just knowing when to bite your tongue, keep your head down and kind of go with the flow a little bit.
But it is difficult. Relationships can get frayed.
Q. Well, again, you weren’t shy about where you wanted the last album to push Foals as a band. It would seem you pretty much achieved that. Where do you hope to see things go from here?
JS: My hope is just to stay there for a bit. I don’t want it to move too fast.
Also, I don’t know if I want to spend my whole life playing in arenas. The arena level can start to get a bit sterile.
I don’t know really. I’m pretty happy with where things are to be honest.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Wednesday's Foals concert below)
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 7:30PM
Also performing: Bear Hands
Click HERE to purchase tickets