Karpathos is a minuscule Greek island in the south Aegean sea, 24 hours away from Athens by boat with roughly 6,000 inhabitants in 10 villages. With a population of 761, its dinky waystation of Olympos is even more remote, says Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis, who returned to his birthplace to compose portions of his U.K. band’s third outing, “Holy Fire.”
“All the cars have to park outside the village because it’s precariously set on the top of a cliff, and all its alleys are very thin and not made for automobiles,” says the musician, who appears with Foals at the Fillmore on Thursday. “So you walk everywhere or use donkeys for transportation. It’s so isolated, it’s like a time capsule.”
Before moving to England with his mother at age 5, the singer absorbed Karpathos’ rich, ancient culture, learning traditional dances and folk songs from his father, who still resides there.
When he formed Foals in 2005, his exotic upbringing, he says, “was part of the structure of my brain, and I would say it’s a fair assumption that it’s influenced my design for making music.”
That explains why inventive “Holy Fire” songs like the stomping “Inhaler,” a new wave-ish “My Number” and the apocalyptic rumination “Moon” may sound like Greek to some listeners; there’s no modern reference for them.
Growing up in Britain, Philippakis, 26, adored industrial music and complemented his school uniform with black nail polish and Skinny Puppy-painted Doc Martens. That gear-grinding influence colors “Holy Fire” as well.
But his homeland still affects him.
“Anthropologically, there are lots of unique customs there, in everything from the way inheritance is divided to traditional dress and these intense dances that last for over a day,” he says. “My bone marrow feels like it expands when I’m there, and I become part of something that’s archaic and pure.”
His favorite local tradition is one in which his dad often participates, when Olympos men gather in a coffee shop and spontaneously bark strict-metered lines of poetry to musical accompaniment.
“It’s the one forum for men to express emotion because people are generally quite austere and repressed there,” he says. “So they have these great outpourings, and then the next day it’s back to normal stony faces again.”
Given Philippakis’ innate curiosity, “Holy Fire” also taps into Haitian voodoo subculture, Alan Lomax field recordings and samples of buzzing bees. But mainly, it’s Karpathos.
“The natural landscape there is incredibly striking and empowering,” he says. “It’s sheer sides of shale down 300 meters into this roiling, deep-black ocean. It’s a savage beauty — there’s nothing quaint about it.”