Foals’ Yannis Philippakis on the “brutal” music he’s written for new play ‘The Confessions’

Foals' Yannis Philippakis. Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis has spoken to NME about making his theatrical debut by penning the music for new play The Confessions, as well as his long-mooted project with the late Tony Allen.

Having opened at London’s National Theatre last week before a press showing last night (October 23), The Confessions is an emotional, gut-wrenching and powerful play written and directed Alexander Zeldin – telling the story of his mother’s life across eight “tumultuous” decades across two continents and a series of complex relationships.

Philippakis and Zeldin have known each other since their days at school, when they would sneak away to smoke together on a nearby riverbank. Speaking with NME, the artist explained how the director had “a reputation that preceded him a bit” as someone “ferociously intelligent, but with a naughty streak”.

“We’ve just been in each other’s lives for a long time, but with differing orbits and different worlds,” Philippakis told NME. “Both of us have been circling towards working together over the years, and then the orbit got closer and we’ve finally been able to make something together.”

Their creative partnership came into fruition during the pandemic, when the two would go for long walks together around London when they were allowed.

“We had this great one around Blackheath and Greenwich when the weather was pretty blustery,” said Philippakis. “That’s when he just started talking about this idea of writing a piece of work to encapsulate his mother’s life. It was really inspiring.”

He continued: “I was shocked by the story, because I had met his mother a few times. My experience of her was that she was very permissive. Alex would invite people round to his house on a Sunday night and people would be smoking dro’ all over the house. Alex would invite street musicians to his house, we’d have school the next morning, and there were just all these people reading poetry and doing drugs in front of his mother!

“When he told me the story of some of the things that had happened to her and her arc from growing up in Australia to all of these shocking things that happened to her until she moved to England. Alex described this moment when her mother was nearly pushed off a cliff with murderous intent, and I told him that I could write music for that moment. That’s what bonded me to working on the project.”

Explaining how he approached penning music away from the context of an arena-filling indie band, Philippakis recalled it as “a really fascinating learning experience”.

“Alex was super free in not really giving me any direction,” he said. “It was liberating, and amazing stuff came out of it. I just went on my own to the studio and didn’t really use the guitar at all. Everything started off on a Roland Juno synth, and I’m not a very good synth or keyboard player, so I had to really push myself. It was quite frustrating and slowed down the pace of what I was doing, but I found that tension of not being fully adept at the instrument quite inspiring and gratifying.

“I ended up writing something quite beautiful out of that perseverance. I would send stuff to Alex and he’d always just encourage me and say, ‘Go further’.”

Yannis described the material as “harsh and brutalist in a way” with “metallic blasts of sound”.

“We refer to one of the repeated sounds as ‘an ancient elephant’ because it sounds like a primal blast from a brutal past,” he said. ‘I wrote a lot of music for Alex, and kept asking, ‘How much music can the play and the theatre take?’ One big thing I discovered was that what’s right for theatre is very different to what’s right for something filmed.

“That was a big chasm to understand, and I now have a bunch of very cinematic pieces of music that might be for a different project. A lot of the challenge of doing this has been in approaching how and when the music should be used, supportive and discreet.”

The Confessions, starring Lilit Lesser, Jerry Killick, Pamela Rabe, Eryn Jean Norvill, Joe Bannister - Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage
The Confessions, starring Lilit Lesser, Jerry Killick, Pamela Rabe, Eryn Jean Norvill, Joe Bannister – Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage

The frontman continued: “There’s one piece of music called ‘A Farewell’, which is my favourite and is super emotive and melancholic. It’s quite manipulative in a way. It’s played quite quietly over a scene where two characters declare a love for one another that’s so passionate it’s almost cannibalistic. It’s beautiful to have actors live inside that musical moment. The first time I saw that was in rehearsals in France, and it was a rush that I’ve never had in the band.

“Some of the music is super loud and almost attacks the play. There are scenes where it’s confronting, and I really enjoyed making something jarring that fights aspects of the play and shakes the theatre.”

For Foals fans looking to see the play, the frontman said that they would find “some musical DNA in there that they’ll be familiar with”, and that the score may evolve into something else later down the line.

“Some of the pieces being used may go on to find their final form in a song,” he said. “There are definitely a couple of pieces that I will finish as songs at some point; I don’t know in what project. By seeing the play, you’re going to see the embryo of something to come.”

“There are loud and cool sounds, but no spicy indie bangers!”

From here, Yannis said that he was “open” to doing more soundtrack and score work – particularly with Zeldin – with a dream of eventually penning music for “some kind of crazy, out there, twisted musical”. He also said that he’d be taking away some lessons on staging that may influence future Foals tours, but that the band would be taking time to re-charge after their upcoming shows in Australia to complete touring for 2022’s ‘Life Is Yours‘.

The Confessions, starring Amelda Brown. Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage
The Confessions, starring Amelda Brown. Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage

After that, Philippakis said that his long-awaited project with the late, great Fela Kuti icon Tony Allen would finally see the light of day – having been in the works since 2017, long before the percussionist’s death in 2020.

“It’s pretty done now,” Yannis revealed. “We’re in the very final mixes. David Wrench [David Byrne, The xx, Frank Ocean, Sampha, Caribou, Blur, Arlo Parks, Florence + The Machine] has mixed it. It’s going to come out next year.

“I need to figure out how to present it to the world and come up with a name for it. Hopefully we’ll play some shows to honour the project and to honour Tony. I’m really excited and think people are going to love it.”

Speaking to NME about the project earlier this year, Philippakis said: “The songs have amazing grooves obviously, with Tony Allen on drums. They’re quite dirty, quite rough, fun, polyrhythmic and some of them are quite up-lifting. There’s something generally liberating about having a separate project. It feels like a holiday, in a way. Even thought I always put 100 per cent of myself into everything, by virtue of it not being a Foals project it feels liberating in certain ways.

“The lyrics are slightly different and slightly more political. They’re less introspective and have more of a social edge. I was walking to studio in Paris through trash-filled streets due to the strikes, so some of that crept in. I don’t want to give too much away. I want it to be a document of the time that we were together in Paris and for it to be faithful to this Parisian band with Tony as the drummer.”

The Confessions runs at The National Theatre until 4 November. Visit here for tickets and more information.

The post Foals’ Yannis Philippakis on the “brutal” music he’s written for new play ‘The Confessions’ appeared first on NME.

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