Yannis Philippakis was just 5 when he and his mother moved from the Greek island of Karpathos to England. Still, the Foals front man often returns there to find peace of mind — or, as he did most recently, to compose music; in this case, for his band's third studio album, Holy Fire.
The singer's father still resides on the remote island, in a cliffside aerie where donkeys are the main means of transportation and Byzantine culture is still preserved in dress, dialect and local customs. And while the area does have a savage beauty, says Philippakis, it's definitely not the most relaxing of getaways.
"There are two ways of getting there: You can either get a boat from Athens, and that takes 24 hours, or you can fly, and it depends on what season it is, but there are usually just one or two flights a week," he explains. "The actual village where I'm from [Olympos, pop. 761] has no roads to it, just a dirt track, and it's very different from the rest of the island — it's essentially just been so isolated, it's like a time capsule.
"There's nothing quaint about it," the artist insists. "It's like sheer sides of shale all the way down, 300 meters, into this roiling, deep-black ocean. But when I'm there, I feel like I become part of something that's more archaic and pure, and it's a fair assumption to say that it's influenced my design for making music."
All of which helps explain the dark and brooding aspects of the music that Philippakis makes with his British compatriots. And while the group has been compared to the Talking Heads, Gang of Four and Interpol, Holy Fire sounds like nothing else on record shelves right now, with the possible exception of Vampire Weekend's latest.
The album opens on a quasi-industrial stomper called "Inhaler." (Philippakis was, after all, a huge Skinny Puppy fan as a U.K. teen.) From there, it bounces into the campy New Wave minuet "My Number," before shifting gears again for a delicately plucked ethereal ballad called "Milk & Black Spiders."
Musically, Holy Fire is a far cry from Greek folk music, but its emotional range suggests a more subtle connection. Philippakis recalls how local villagers would hold intense dances that could last more than 24 hours.
"You drink and you almost get in a trancelike state," says the singer, who also describes coffee shops where men spontaneously sing lines of poetry, all with a very strict meter. "Generally people are quite austere and repressed there. So they have these great outpourings of emotion through song, and then the next day it's back to normal stony faces again."
It's only fitting, then, that Holy Fire ends with a funereal dirge that thematically deals with a pending apocalypse. Philippakis' mother, in fact, is friends with physicist James Lovelock, who believes humanity pulled the extinction trigger on itself with the Industrial Revolution.
"There's a natural equilibrium to the idea of decline and fall," insists the scholarly Philippakis. "And the arrogance with which we have asserted ourselves on the planet, and how we feel like we have mastery of things like the genetic code. In order for that wrong way of thinking to be righted, it needs to be leveled down in some way, and I think that's a beautiful thing. There's a peace that we should feel at the end."