Speaking with Edwin Cosgrave, keyboard player and occasional vocalist for Oxford dance punk quintet Foals, it's a little hard to imagine why he's quite so chipper.
The band is in its seventh hour in its touring van, making the lengthy drive from Minneapolis to Chicago, apparently with, in Cosgrave's words, ‘about half a million other people.'
‘I can't yet see Chicago on the horizon,' says Cosgrave. ‘But I am being assured at this moment that it does exist, in fact, somewhere out there.'
So what's the secret to Cosgrave's cheery attitude? As it turns out, he's just savoring the experience of touring — or more accurately playing — in the United States, a very different proposition than the band's frequently gigantic, sold-out gigs in its native United Kingdom.
‘I don't want to say it's more DIY because we're not like a super-DIY band, but it's a lot more old-school touring. In the UK we play for much bigger venues and everything is always absolutely perfect,' Cosgrave says. ‘And that makes for a very consistent tour where every show we play is exactly the same. Here we end up playing a lot of different environments. It's much more of a struggle, but I think that makes it more renewing. Because we never know what to expect, we come away from it feeling a lot more powerful, which sounds really cheesy. When we play in the U.K., we don't get into a rut, but it doesn't have the raw thrill that playing here does.'
That's the difference between being massively hyped critical darlings in one country and relatively under-the-radar charmers in another. Foals is composed of five Oxford lads, all but guitarist Jimmy Smith university dropouts who left to focus on the band, which lead singer Yannis Philippakis, drummer Jack Bevan and former lead singer Andrew Mears started in 2005 as a reaction to the self-seriousness of Oxford's experimental rock scene. Mears soon departed to focus on his own project, and Philippakis enlisted Cosgrave to chip in on keyboards — despite Cosgrave's relative musical ignorance.
‘I think they got drunk and asked one night, and I had nothing else going on in my life, is the story. Now, I'd never played in a band before. I picked up a few instruments when I was younger but certainly not in a way when I would feel comfortable playing in front of other people. It was thoroughly humiliating,' says Cosgrave. ‘They had two guitarists and a drummer filling every moment and I was asked to do something. It took a while for me to figure anything out. But I think they'd all gotten tired of the insular Oxford scene and wanted to open up the band to other influences and other people, like me. Doing something more pop that might actually get heard by more than 10 people.'
And they did, eventually — in fact, a lot more than 10 people. The band picked up blog attention and signed with influential U.K. indie label Transgressive, the home to (at varying times) Regina Spektor, the Pipettes, Iron and Wine and the Shins. Sub Pop picked them up in the United States.
Philippakis cut a swath through the U.K. press. A famously outspoken, boisterous front man, he only strengthened the band's image as rebellious upstarts, particularly after Foals threw out the initial mix of their 2008 debut ‘Antidotes,' instead choosing to mix the album themselves. That would be the mix prepared by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, a massively respected producer.
‘Antidotes' was a lyrically obtuse debut heavily influenced by the percussion of Afrobeat — but not in the friendly, immediately accessible way of Vampire Weekend. ‘Antidotes' favored high guitar lines, animated yelping and plenty of influence from techno. Drop one of its songs into Pro Tools and you'll see a dense, packed wave form, a massive block of sound with nary a moment of space.
Not so much on ‘Total Life Forever,' a nominee for the 2010 Mercury Music Prize — though it lost to the debut album from another ACL Fest act, the XX. Four of the band's members moved into an Oxford house together to draw up the songs of ‘Total Life Forever' and took advantage of the privacy and extra writing time to craft an album that's more varied, more contemplative and less hectic — without sacrificing the danceable beats.
‘A lot of bands get a modicum of success, so they have enough money to pay rent, so they go off and live with girlfriends or in different towns and the passions that make them a band kind of fade away,' says Cosgrave. ‘We wanted to keep that energy within ourselves. And we wanted to give the album space, not necessarily play as loud and fast as we possibly could, because we'd done that and didn't want to repeat ourselves.'
The residential origins of the album — and its recording, which took place in an isolated studio in Gothenburg, Sweden — also helped bring out a different side of Philippakis. Where previously the front man sang in riddles, Philippakis used ‘Total Life Forever' as catharsis, an ‘emotional balm,' he told U.K. newspaper the Guardian, discussing everything from heartbreak to his increasing interest in futurism. The title track is a reference to Raymond Kurzweil's ‘The Singularity is Near,' a treatise on augmenting the human brain and body with technology.
‘He was quite deliberative about it,' says Cosgrave. ‘The lyrics on "Antidotes" came from a lot of fairly liberal abstract doodling. With "Total Life Forever," I think he wanted to make the lyrics a lot more communicative, to have some degree of narrative, rather than just abstract imagery. He'd wander downstairs at 1 a.m. with his journal and just write and brainstorm, which isn't something we were really free to do before.'
Foals plays at 1:15 p.m. Sunday on the AMD stage.