Yannis Philippakis on working with Tony Allen, their collaborative project Yannis & The Yaw, and new EP 'Lagos, Paris, London'

Interview Yannis & The Yaw: Legends Only

Finally completing his long-in-the-making project with the late, great Tony Allen, ‘Lagos, Paris, London’ marks the first chapter for Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis’ new collaborative vehicle, Yannis & The Yaw.

For the best part of a decade, Yannis Philippakis has been quietly nurturing what he describes as “a secret harbour to put your ship in when it’s stormy outside”. A collaborative project that began back in 2016 when a mutual friend introduced the Foals frontman to legendary drummer and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, the fruits of their mutual labours had been occasionally hinted at during interviews since, but never made manifest. Then, Allen passed away in 2020 at the age of 79. It seemed, to the curious outsider, as though that particular ship may have departed the harbour for good. However, for Yannis, the opposite reaction occurred.

“[Tony and I] had conversations in the past about how exciting it would feel when we released it, and now sadly he’s not here for that, but that’s also one of the things that pushed me to get it out,” he begins. “Covid had frustrated us, and other projects had slowed it down. But there was a feeling that – even though Tony was 77 by that point – he was so youthful that he was gonna be around forever; that we could finish that track later. After he passed away I was talking to [other collaborators] the Vincents, who were my window to him, and we felt compelled to complete it.”

When Yannis sits down with DIY about the project, he’s still days away from its launch. Soon, the propulsive groove and intricate, Afrobeat-indebted interplay of debut track ‘Walk Through Fire’ will announce Yannis & The Yaw to the world, but for now he’s enjoying having the information still tucked up his sleeves. A world away from nearly 20 years of being “at the coalface” with Foals, the whole ethos of The Yaw – named after a spinning, shifting axis that reflects the malleable nature of the project – is of liberated creativity, without the need to think about, as he puts it, “shifting units”. This first EP is centred around his partnership with Allen, and as such is titled ‘Lagos, Paris, London’. Future releases, he anticipates, could have a trio of other coordinates, dependent on who was involved. “It might be like, ‘Berlin, Athens, Brisbane’. Hopefully not Brisbane…”

Initially, Yannis was meant to be one of a number of contemporary musicians including Kevin Parker and Christine and the Queens who’d been singled out to work with Allen for a floated album. But when he turned up at the studio, knackered from a long Foals tour but pushing through for the sake of working with a long-term musical hero, the chemistry began to click before they’d even finished setting up the room. “It transpired quite quickly that Tony didn’t know who I was at all, which was funny,” Yannis chuckles. “He was sat there, quite meditative, with a cloud of smoke around him. Then I started playing that first riff from ‘Walk Through Fire’ as a way of soundchecking and, before I knew it, he was in. For me, it was such an electric feeling, having always heard him through a speaker where he felt remote and out of reach, for him to then be within a riff that I was playing. We bonded very quickly after that.”

From there came the EP’s second track ‘Rain Can’t Reach Us’ – a string-bolstered, slow-building epic – that pushed the pair into more unchartered waters. “‘Walk Through Fire’ is nearer to some of the things he’d done before, whereas ‘Rain Can’t Reach Us’ is quite different and he was excited by that – that it was more intense and had a harder energy to it,” Yannis explains. Laying down three songs in two days, the session began to take on a life of its own outside of its original intentions, and over snatches of time throughout months and years it became their own body of work.

“Tony [Allen] had this wisdom to him, but also he was super fun and quite naughty.”

Yannis Philippakis on working with Tony Allen, their collaborative project Yannis & The Yaw, and new EP 'Lagos, Paris, London' Yannis Philippakis on working with Tony Allen, their collaborative project Yannis & The Yaw, and new EP 'Lagos, Paris, London'

Since 2008 debut ‘Antidotes’, Yannis and Foals have long stated the influence of Allen, Fela Kuti (who he drummed for), and Afrobeat as a whole. Allen himself, meanwhile, was a keen collaborator later in life – playing drums for The Good, The Bad and the Queen alongside stints with other Damon Albarn projects, and working variously with everyone from Danny Brown to Charlotte Gainsbourg to Jarvis Cocker. “He had this wisdom to him but also he was super fun and quite naughty; he had a wicked sense of humour and he’d drink quite a bit and smoke a lot of weed,” recalls Yannis. “I felt like I could take a few leaves out of his book in terms of being able to make music for that long whilst still retaining a sense of lightness.”

As well as providing a studio buddy with an appetite for fun to rival his own (EP track ‘Under The Strikes’, Yannis notes, was recorded “after a fair amount of whiskey, which you can probably tell by the playing as well because it was very free indeed…”), Allen also pushed the frontman to tap into the new surroundings he found himself in, and write lyrically about the city itself. “He has a history of political songwriting and he encouraged me to write more about what was going on in the streets, and for it not to be an introverted process. It was inspired by Paris and the idea of peril and discontent; that society is fractured and how you see that more and more everyday.

“We talked about Brexit and the feeling that there’s a general lack of optimism within the West. He’d lived in Paris for a long time and he was speaking about how it used to be this free place, [whereas now] there’s a general sense of society fraying,” he continues. “I was reading a book recently called End Times that says that every society has a peak, and when you pass the peak, instability increases, general optimism reduces, it even manifests physically in that people’s biology slightly changes. Those things feel quite pertinent at the moment. It feels darker, like there’s this wall of unsolvable issues. Things used to work; there was an expected efficiency that things should work and those things don’t seem to work anymore. The energy crisis, getting whacked for enormous bills seems, on a basic level, very unfair and incomprehensible. It’s like a Tetris to the bottom.”

It may be a world-weary eye that casts its gaze out from the lyrical world of the EP, with the aforementioned ‘Under The Strikes’ directly referencing the “mounds of trash” that piled up in the Parisian streets as workers downed tools. But the very essence of ‘Lagos, Paris, London’ is one fuelled by unity, kinship and all the good stuff: a project that spans countries and generations, finding magic in the things that bind rather than divide.

“The EP was inspired by Paris and the idea of peril and discontent; that society is fractured and how you see that more and more everyday.”

Though The Yaw has Yannis’ name at the start of it, it is most distinctly not his break away as a solo artist. “I would like to do a solo record at some point, but I imagine it would probably be more insular and melancholic,” he suggests. “I want to write quite a crushing record where the lyrics come first and foremost, and it’s poetic and bleak. That’s what I see the solo record looking like.” When he brings the EP to the stage for a trio of dates in Amsterdam, Paris and London this September, he’ll be joined by EP collaborator Vincent Taegar taking Allen’s place on drums, alongside a collection of as-yet-unannounced others. The sets, he says, “will be jammed out, with some unreleased material and maybe a cover.”

That same month, meanwhile, The Other Place (an alternative retelling of Antigone, set in the housing crisis) will open at the National Theatre, featuring music composed by Yannis – his second collaboration with director Alexander Zeldin. At some point during the year, he suspects Foals will probably get back in the writing room too. “We’re definitely going to do another record but we just don’t want to hurry,” he notes. “We need to find out what the spark is gonna be because we want to make a great record and you do that by being hungry for it instead of feeling like it’s your duty.”

Though it’s taken years for ‘Lagos, Paris, London’ to pull up its anchor and set sail into public waters, it arrives as a fittingly unified send off to an artist who changed the face of music globally, and prime ground for what’s to follow for Yannis and his new Yaw. “It being culturally diverse is exciting, and it being with Tony Allen sets the tone for that,” he concludes.

‘Lagos, Paris, London’ is out 30th August via Transgressive.

Tags: Tony Allen, Yannis & The Yaw, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the May 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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