“I hadn’t listened to ‘Antidotes’ in a while before now, but it’s just that time, that place… it’s so fucking good”, says Dave Ma, the director and filmmaker responsible for large parts of Foals’ most eye-catching and important visual work.
The last two years have been nothing short of sensational for Foals. After adding to dates at Alexandra Palace and the Royal Albert Hall - both of which sold out twice over - the band’s ‘Holy Fire’ tour was capped off with a triumphant headline slot at Bestival, and confirmed their transformation to a fully-fledged arena spectacle. Dave Ma has witnessed that journey, from those raucous East Oxford house parties, to here; documenting it each step of the way and adding his own important spin to Foals’ visual output.
For Ma, Foals was the starting point for a career that has gone on to see the creative shoot videos for the likes of Bastille, the fraternal Jagwar Ma, and Delphic; the latter of which saw him brave, and quite beautifully capture, the Chernobyl site in the video for ‘This Momentary’. It’s a career that’s gone from strength to strength after his exploits with Foals. Taking him from Sydney to London, and then onto L.A, it’s a creative relationship that opened up a world of new possibilities for all involved. It’s Foals’ debut record ‘Antidotes’ that kicked it all off.
Ma’s journey with the band started before Foals as we know them had even been christened. “I was really in to The Edmund Fitzgerald,” the band that Yannis and Jack had played in together prior to their endeavours with Foals, he says. “To me that’s the source. They were probably the first band that I fell in love with when I moved to London.” While Foals offered something quite different to The Edmund Fitzgerald, there was something in those initial encounters that really made an impact. “It was just one of those moments when you see a band and you know they’ve got it right. They had this weird evolutionary step going on that nobody else did,” he says. Just as elements of previous ventures seeped into the sonic output of Foals, so did Ma’s enthusiasm, and after approaching the band following a show at The Pleasure Unit in Bethnal Green, a new friendship and creative relationship was forged.
While Foals were picking up a staple reputation for boisterous live shows, as well as the idiosyncratic hybrid that they were crafting musically, the buzz around ‘Antidotes’ was helped in no small part by the added impetus that a string of statement-like videos brought. These visual representations of Foals’ work made these Oxfordians all the more enticing, and if your attention wasn’t already fixed on Foals, it would be after those out-there shoots, making you ask questions and take note.
“Yannis always had these very specific visions. I didn’t know what the fuck William Morris wallpaper was.”
Ma became more than simply a director for these shoots, morphing into a pivotal part of the visual arm of Foals. “There was always a nice friendly tension between myself and Yannis. We were always trying to one-up each other with how obtuse we could be,” he says, recalling some of those earlier shoots. “There was lots of talk about hearts. We thought ‘Fuck fake hearts, let’s get some real fucking hearts’ and I stayed up all night before that shoot [for ‘Cassius’] sewing fucking pigs hearts. I remember being really proud of the stitch work I did on them. But it was all so DIY back then. Up until ‘Olympic Airways’ we were just fumbling our way through this thing, but we could do that because the music was good, the energy was there and the ideas were just flowing.”
Talk soon turns to the shoot for ‘Balloons’ and the video’s striking combination of loose conceptual metaphors and refined tastes. “I remember the crows in that video having some connection to coal and fuel - at least they did to me if nobody else,” he says. “We got some warehouse space in Peckham, and I was there for four days before the shoot building that backdrop. With my girlfriend at the time we wallpapered it with some William Morris paper. Yannis always had these very specific visions. I didn’t know what the fuck William Morris wallpaper was, but he had a really good eye and these slightly refined tastes that he’d drop in were really nice.” The metaphors may have been loose, but it takes nothing away from these visual productions ,and the added boost that it gave the band as they began on their ascent. “Yannis writes very vivid lyrics, and the ideas would come from that,” he explains. “The lyrics were always informing the visual side of things, and I hope that still comes across, because often I was trying to subvert and juxtapose the obvious. It would have been too easy to just get a shit-load of balloons.”
The relationship extended far beyond video shoots, too, with a friendship that saw Ma taking days off from his bar job in Old Street to head up to Oxford to hang out with the band, as well as jumping in the tour van to go out on the road. Documenting groups on the road was nothing new to Ma, and when Foals headed to New York and Seattle in 2007 the MySpace generation saw the emergence of a series of clips by the name of ‘Foals Suck’. Fast-forward to 2013 and things had changed up a little. From laughing about chipotle in supermarkets and outing one another’s nicknames, Foals were playing the Royal Albert Hall and Dave Ma was there to capture it. “It’s night and day when you look at those videos, and it’s such a highlight. It’s the journey that we’ve all been on. There was totally a moment backstage with just them and me in the dressing room and there was this ‘Fuck man, we’re at the Royal Albert Hall. You guys are playing the Royal Albert Hall’ moment. From a shitty little stage in Kilburn to the Royal Albert Hall. It’s nuts. Mental.”
With all that’s been said about video shoots, pigs’ hearts, tour memories and Albert Hall, it’s resoundingly clear that it’s the music that drives Dave Ma to the lengths to which he goes, and his enthusiasm for ‘Antidotes’ is as sincere and heartfelt now as it ever could have been. After arriving in London and falling for bands likes Charlottefield and The Edmund Fitzgerald, Foals offered something that was far more inclusive and accessible, but all the more conquering as a result. It isn’t difficult to understand where the determination to help make shit happen with Foals came from, when you hear the way that he continues to still speak about them. “Even though it’s so weird to think of the transition to Royal Albert Hall and Ally Pally - because it’s genuinely amazing - it makes perfect sense to me. I think that they’re good - seriously, one of the best bands of all time. They’re fucking amazing, and good people, and I love them.”
It would have been very easy to discount the arty, angular anthems as something that would quickly pass. But as Foals take to stages of 10,000 people, it’s tracks from ‘Antidotes’ that are still resonating as strongly as ever, and over the years it has come in to its own, staking a claim as a truly special record. It’s proven itself to live in worlds outside of that recording, or even the sweatbox shows in which it was first aired. “That record fused the best of both worlds”, Ma says. “This underground weird shit, next to stuff that anyone in their right mind would want to dance to. That’s a stroke of genius for me. There’s an intelligence to the way the music is put together that I find interesting, with the syncopations and such, that I really crave in music, but there’s just a universal catchiness and such a wit to the lyrics.”
“It’s very easy with new artists to draw comparisons to peers, but I really feel like Foals came out of somewhere that was truly, uniquely, their own,” says Ma. “You have to go back to before Foals, and to the bands they were in, to and that they played in. You see what was there and they flipped it on its head. That’s the amazing thing about Foals, what ‘Antidotes’ is, and where it came out of. They took the best bits of something that was really exclusive and flipped it on its head to make something that was insanely accessible and insanely danceable. I’m always going to be stoked on that fact that I got to witness what has happened with Foals from a very first-hand perspective. I was able to become part of this universe that they created”
For DIY’s full Hall of Fame coverage on Foals’ ‘Antidotes’, head here.