Jimmy Smith of Foals: ‘We never thought we’d play to 1,000 people, let alone 10,000 people’

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Last time Foals were at Bestival was in 2008 when torrential rain turned the site into a quagmire which forced delays and left punters and bands alike bedraggled.

Since then a lot has changed for band and festival – both have improved greatly in reputation and stature.

Back then, the Isle of Wight-based festival had a 30,000 capacity. This year, its 11th, it’s on course to sell out 55,000 tickets and has won several more awards in the interim.

Meanwhile the five-piece are coming to the end of the touring cycle for their third album, Holy Fire, which has seen them rise from moderately successful indie band to a festival-headlining and Royal Albert Hall-filling act.

The Oxford band are back at Bestival next Saturday to headline the main stage, alongside other headliners of the calibre of Beck, Outkast and Chic featuring Nile Rodgers.

Guitarist and keyboard player Jimmy Smith, , told The Guide about their last visit: ‘I remember the last time we played there it was the worst weather imaginable.

‘I can’t remember much of it, which is a good sign. We just stayed on the night we played and got up to a bit of mischief.’

When Holy Fire’s lead single, Inhaler, was dropped in late 2012, it came as a surprise – a visceral rocker of the like that hadn’t been heard from Foals before.

‘I think it’s good to have something like that as a statement of intent,’ he says. ‘And we always try and make that first song different from the last time.

‘I like the idea of really stark contrasts.’

The album was released in February 2013 and since then it’s been sell-out tours (including two nights at the Alexandra Palace in London), hit singles and their first festival headlining set at last year’s Latitude.

Bestival, though, is the last gig on the band’s calendar for now.

‘It’s gone very quickly,’ says Jimmy. ‘We’ve only just started being able to take stock of it all, but it’s been a lot of fun.

‘You spend a lot of time worrying about things like the big shows, and the big build-up to things like the Albert Hall, and then it’s over in an instant and you sort of archive it, and you’re like ‘‘did that happen? That actually did happen, didn’t it?”’

The band first came to the music press’s attention in 2007, playing what was described as math-rock or art-rock. And while they were in possession of some great songs – Balloons, Cassius – they seemed destined for sizeable cult success.

‘We never thought we’d play to 1,000 people, let alone 10,000 people, or more,’ says Jimmy now. ‘You only sort of plan doing it for a couple of years, you sort of assume the worst and when it goes well, you haven’t planned for that.’

The last album was produced by acclaimed pair Alan Moulder and Flood who would coax the best performances out of the band by not telling them they were recording their practice sessions.

‘I always call it the red-light syndrome – you realise that you might have played the same thing 100 times but you start panicking and there’s the pressure, and you start thinking this is the finite version of this part which will be heard forever and you start playing it without any emotion, like a robot almost. But I much prefer it when they don’t tell you they’re recording.

‘I think in this day and age, it’s really easy with computers to hammer out all of the human elements, I love those little mistakes and bum notes – they’re real.’

The band have also recently returned from a joint-headlining tour of the US with Kentucky rock band Cage the Elephant.

‘We know those boys, because we toured with them over here in 2007,’ says Jimmy. ‘It was really fun, almost too much fun. They really do like a party.

‘Let’s just say we weren’t going in for early nights on the tour buses with a cup of Horlicks – it was the opposite. It was a lot of fun but I’m amazed no-one died.

‘We played really well too because they’re such a good live band, it made us play well too. Things have gone really well over there. We’re not an absolute sensation, but we’ve built up a good reputation over eight years, so we can play to reasonable size venues.’

Now the band are starting to look at album number four. For previous albums, frontman Yannis Philippakis has talked up the influence of futurology or voodoo on the songs.

‘Yannis comes up with those things’ he explains. ‘But they give you something to think about in the back of your mind while you’re recording, it adds a bit of magic to it. The voodoo thing, we were thinking what the hell does voodoo sound like? It’s a sort of sweaty environment, mystical stuff, and I think that adds something to it. Maybe it doesn’t, maybe it’s just nonsense. It just makes it more fun, to have some sort of new concept.

‘God knows what the new concept will be, maybe there won’t be one.

‘There’s been lots of sporadic writing. There’s loads of bits at the moment, a couple of bits that are near fully-formed, but we need to go into the garage and tinker with them.’

And they are more relaxed now about letting their sound evolve: ‘It’s more of a thing that happens and we try not to stop it, which we used to be really bad it. We would try and nip things in the bud if we didn’t think it sounded “Foals-y” or whatever, but now we let things go to their logical end, and they either kill themselves or they go to that logical end.’

Foals headline the Saturday night of Bestival, which takes place at Robin Hill Country Park on the Isle of Wight. It runs from September 4 to 7. Adult weekend tickets cost £195. Go to bestival.net