“We’re a much more honest and comfortable band and we’re not afraid of our weirdness”, says Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs when reflecting on the band’s evolution from futurist indie upstarts to art-rock titans. “When we put out something now that’s weird, the fans like it more, not less”.
The Manchester quartet are renowned for embracing the unconventional and challenging the status quo with their abstract, engrossing brand of art rock since forming in 2007.
Their debut, 2010’s experimental bonanza Man Alive, saw Higgs along with Alex Robertshaw, Jeremy Pritchard, and Michael Spearman charge into the mainstream and earn a host of admirers thanks to breakthrough hits MY KZ, UR BF and Photoshop Handsome, earning a Mercury Prize nomination for their efforts.
Now, 10 years later and with another Mercury Prize nomination under their belts for 2017’s A Fever Dream, the honesty and comfortability exerted through the musicianship that Higgs cites has blossomed into the steadfast confidence that oozes throughout their stunning fifth studio album Re-Animator.
Its writing process saw Higgs and Robertshaw return to basics using just a guitar, piano and vocals, throwing themselves into the mindset of: “How would Neil Young write?”, turning away from the vast array of effects and electro soundscapes often associated with Everything Everything and focusing on what makes a pop song.
Higgs explained to Daily Star Online: “Although it should be the easiest thing to do, one of the hardest things in the songwriting world is to make that engaging or as good as all the crazy sounds and the exciting stuff that comes later.”
The initial approach may have been simplified but the end result is one of their most sonically enthralling albums yet as they teamed up with Grammy Award-winning producer John Congleton to record the album at London’s prestigious RAK Studios.
Stand out tracks such as Violent Sun, It Was A Monstering, and Moonlight are gargantuan, cinematic wonders, while early single, the fractured-yet-soaring In Birdsong, is Everything Everything at their most vulnerable as they get into the mindset of what life could have been like for the first self-aware human.
The record goes deep lyrically. Higgs was drawn in to a podcast discussing the theory of the bicameral mind – the idea that two sides of the human brain were separate, an almost divided self, leaving us in a “zombie-ish state” before the two melded and ushered in the dawn of mankind’s consciousness – a re-animation.
Inspired and with his mind firmly mind-blown, it led to Higgs examining the 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, in which the the theory is also applied to the origin of gods.
“There was something in it that really moved me”, Higgs explains further. “I knew there were things I could take from it, like the idea of hearing a voice in your head and thinking it was a god – these ideas about self realisation, following your own path and voice, thoughts about having a duel personality almost, having a dark side and a light side.
“Those type of things that are quite commonly felt by a lot of people but maybe not in this context.”
The frustration of lockdown hasn’t stifled their work ethic, either. Higgs tells us he has been working on music videos in the build up to Re-Animator’s release, culminating in an immersive, first-ever virtual reality album launch tonight in a bespoke space hosted in partnership with Sansar.
And they’ll finally get back on the road with a UK and Ireland tour scheduled for March and April 2021.
Everything Everything’s fifth record is more than a re-animation – it’s an invigorating next chapter of a band flourishing at the height of their creative powers.
Daily Star Online caught up with Higgs for a lockdown chat about Re-Animator’s creation, how he immersed himself in the bicameral mind theory, how they recovered from their lock-up blaze, and his vision of the music industry in a post-Covid world.
Hi Jon, how are you? How has lockdown treated you and the band?
“It’s been more work than pre-lockdown. We made the record and were about to make a video, and this happened. I had to make all the videos from pretty much day one of lockdown. We’ve done four and I’ve started work on another one. I’ve been working really hard on those.
“Just trying to organise how we’re going to exist as a band has been a lot more decision and stuff than we thought we’d be doing. Far from being time off, it’s been harder work than otherwise for us.”
It’s an unprecedented time for everybody. How does a band navigate a situation like this to keep the flow going, especially with an album build up?
“It’s crazy, isn’t it? We’ve been quite lucky compared to some bands with timing. We did finish it back in December. The record is done, nothing is going to delay that or get in the way. We have the music. The only thing we don’t have is the video stuff that thankfully I can do. Or any gigs, which is quite a big change.
“We’ve got live streaming and Insta chats but it’s not really the same as promoting a record normally. We can’t put a tour on sale. We can’t do any TV or radio promotion. It’s been kind of worrying and frustrating.
“Now the initial ‘this is weird’ bit has gone, it’s now kind of a bit boring. We’re just waiting around hoping that somehow we can play gigs again but we know we can’t really for the rest of the year. We’re twiddling our thumbs a little bit.
“I thankfully have the videos to do but the other guys have been losing their minds by now. We’re lucky because we’ve managed to stay doing our job and a lot of people haven’t. In that sense we’re really lucky.”
Everything Everything have returned fifth album Re-Animator, your first since 2017’s A Fever Dream. It’s going to blow a lot of people away when it’s released. What was the writing process like this time around? What are the themes running throughout it?
“In terms of how we wrote it, we gave ourselves a whole calendar year to do it because we wanted it to be good. We didn’t have the pressure of a big touring schedule. We’d done all the campaigning for Fever Dream. We had a new label who gave us the freedom and the time to make a good record, rather than trying to rush anything out.
“Me and Alex gave ourselves some rules. This time was to make the songs really, really good just on guitar and voice, piano and voice, anything like that. The thinking being if they’re really good with just that, when we add all the other crap on top, they’ll be really, really good, rather than starting with all the bells and whistles. You can get lost in it all doing that.
“You can sometimes forget there’s a song at the heart of it if you’ve got really cool sounds and crazy s*** going on. I came across this ridiculous idea that I decided I wanted to put into music…about having a split brain and dawn of consciousness, and all this insane s***. I felt this amazing feeling when I read it about wonder and awe and magic and the miracle of life. Almost like a religious feeling but it was all based on science.
“It was really exciting to me rather than just saying ‘oh, by the way now I believe in God’. It wasn’t really like that at all. It was about ‘have you heard this scientific thing?’. I really wanted to translate that feeling to the listener. I didn’t really care if they followed the science side to it. That was the basis for the themes and the type of thing I wanted to get across.”
Is that the bicameral mind idea?
It’s interesting. I was reading up about the theory. How do you take something so complex and form it into lyrics and song form?
“It’s tricky. There was a podcast where I heard all about it and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew this isn’t a pop theme. This is not going to work if you just try and talk about it literally. That would be shocking!
“There was something in it that really moved me and I knew there were things I could take from it, like the idea of hearing a voice in your head and thinking it was a god – these ideas about self realisation, following your own path and voice, thoughts about having a duel personality almost, having a dark side and a light side.
“Those type of things that are quite commonly felt by a lot of people but maybe not in this context.
“The whole thing surrounding consciousness and going through your life like a zombie and not really thinking about stuff, or being brought out of that state by an event. Something like, actually, the virus is a good example of something I decided to call a ‘re-animator’, like this has brought lots of people back to reality and they’ve started thinking about what really matters to them rather than chugging through life without thinking about stuff. I think a lot of people are feeling like that. I certainly feel like that.
“We’ve had a couple of band members have babies, and that’s really changed their lives. It’s brought them out of the auto-pilot they were on, I think. I can’t speak for them, but that’s how I felt. That was the human side of this theory.
“There’s a lot of material there for emotion and for stories about living life and love and feeling the magic of the world, rather than it being a purely scientific thing, which isn’t romantic at all. It just sparked it in me.”
You went back to basics, focusing on melodies and harmonies this time around, looking at songs more like ‘how would Neil Young write?’ – how refreshing was this taking on that mindset in song writing?
“I write on laptops all the time. I barely sit down with a guitar and I seem to play the same old stuff when I do. It’s a real challenge just to be a songwriter and not somebody who messes around with sounds and drum beats. Obviously all that stuff is important but take it away it’s scary to go you’re only allowed a guitar and your voice, and you’ve got to make a really good song.
“Although it should be the easiest thing to do, it’s one of the hardest things in the songwriting world, is to make that engaging or as good as all the crazy sounds and the exciting stuff that comes later.”
Songwriting and producing has evolved so much in the last decade, and a decade before that, I guess when you strip it all back you think ‘oh, that’s what it’s like’ again.
“It’s not like it’s a forgotten art but it’s not at the forefront that maybe it should be. It should be if you want the song to be really good. We always want that but we wanted to be very strict about it.”
It’s incredibly varied sonically throughout, too. There are some real tender moments, like In Birdsong, but other mind-blowing set pieces, too. The epic Planets changes tempo and atmosphere, Moonlight seems like a real centrepiece, Violent Sun is also a huge, rousing album ender. Are there any tracks that stand out that you’re particularly proud of?
“Violent Sun is the big one for me. I really love that song. I rarely really love our own songs but that one captures a certain thing I really wanted to capture. We did it in a way that surprised me.
“I really love In Birdsong. I said early on to the guys that I wanted to make a piece of music that sounded like becoming conscious, as ridiculous as that sounds. I said to John Congleton, the producer, can you make it sound like there’s been a mistake, or a mastering error, so people complain and think that we f***** it up (laughs).
“Towards the end of that song it starts distorting and doesn’t sound cool. It sounds wrong, like we have made a mistake. He did a really good job of that. I wanted it to feel like we captured something that shouldn’t be allowed. That we sent a probe out to a black hole and it came back with a sound that broke the microphone, that kind of feeling. That’s very conceptual for a bit of distortion. That was the idea, that we weren’t allowed and we’d captured non-music here.”
You mentioned about John Congleton’s production. It was recorded at RAK, too. What did John bring to the table and what was it like recording at a prestigious venue?
“It’s a beautiful place. We’ve done a few odds and ends there but not recorded a full record there. It was nice to see all the history on the walls.
“The biggest album for us that was done there was probably Radiohead’s The Bends. It was in the same room as we were doing this. We kept talking about it saying ‘the magic that they put in there is going to be on our record’. That was nice.
“The big thing about this record was we did it so fast. We did it in two weeks. We wrote it over a year but got it straight out in the studio. John was the reason we did it so fast.
“We would play the song and say ‘the song’s done’ but we’d be like ‘no, no, we’re going to do 17 takes of the bass, and 18 for the drums’, but he’s like ‘no, you’ve done it. You’re a good band and you’ve just played a good song. Next!’
“That was really refreshing for us. It took away a lot of the anxiety you get when you’ve got the freedom to redo mistakes or keep bettering yourself. If that’s gone then you trust that you are a good band and you be one for five minutes and then you’re done. I think we’ll try it again recording it like that. It resulted in a good record.”
Is that the most you’ve enjoyed the experience compared to previous releases?
“It’s the best we’ve had in a long time. Nothing is going to beat the first time. We were secluded in the middle of Wales, in the middle of nowhere, in a farm house. It was all new to us so that was definitely the best.
“Doing it fast and trusting ourselves is a really nice way of doing it. It gets across more emotion on the record, rather than this perfect unrealistic thing when everyone played everything perfectly. It’s not a real representation of anything.”
I guess that it’s a snapshot in that period without having to refine everything.
“Exactly. It’s more real that way.”
The band suffered a blow just as lockdown hit with the fire at your lock-up in Manchester. How much of a set back has that been for the band?
“It’s one of these things where usually it will be a disaster but honestly we’ve made our record and we haven’t got any gigs for a year, so it’s just hassle. It’s not going to ruin everything. It’s something we have to deal with.
“Unfortunately we lost some sentimental guitars. All of our equipment was in the live room. Jeremy lost some bass guitars. They were sentimental. He can probably replace them with insurance but it’s hassle more than anything, just a bit depressing.
“Just rifling through the chard remains of all your equipment is a bit sad. We’re going to put some of the instruments to good use. We’ve got some ideas on how to do that. We’re not going to bin them, we’re going to use them for one last thing.”
Something positive has come out of it…
“Exactly. We going to give it one last go.”
In 2018 you headlined London’s Alexandra Palace. Do you still have good memories of that show and would you say it was a landmark moment for the band?
“Oh yeah, big time. It was an amazing night. Sometimes you have these big shows you look forward to and you hype them up. Sometimes they’re like any other show in a big room, but this really was different. It had an atmosphere and electricity to it that doesn’t happen often.
“Everybody was united in this awesome way. We played well and we had people in the crowd we were amazed that came to the show. Ed O’Brien from Radiohead was there. Some of our heroes were there, our parents were there, it was an amazing night, a real high point.
“It was one of the last gigs we played, which is ridiculous.”
Are you looking forward to getting back out there?
“Big time. I wish we could do it now. 2021 is too long away. It’s already been too long and we’re aching to play these new songs but we can’t. We just have to slowly release videos and hope people remember them in a year’s time.”
Have you got plans for these songs for the live shows?
“We’re thinking about how we’re going to do them. We’ve done a few live streams where we’ve played the songs. It’s obviously not a gig but you can tell how good it is going to be when we finally get to do it.
“It’s just the waiting that hurts.”
How do you think the music industry is going to look next year when everything does start getting back on track?
“It’s going to be a very strange. There’s going to be a big backlog. Things like Glastonbury and however many hundred bands who have missed this year are going to expect to play next year, and however many are supposed to play next year. There are going to be things like that that are going to be a total s***show and people are going to be disappointed by not being able to fulfil the stuff they want to do.
“It’s going to be a massive problem putting gigs back on. You can say ‘it’s safe now, gigs are back on’ and put a tour on sale, but who’s to say anyone is going to go to it? It would be perfectly understandable that people don’t go back to gigs for a long ass time no matter what the government says, or what bands do.
“You have the position you are going to put on smaller tours or smaller venues, or put on ones where people are socially distanced, they’re not going to sell very well and venues are going to do badly. You’re going to see the real effect of it.
“We’ve been cushioned at the moment through various furlough schemes, charities and people trying to keep venues opened. But when we try to restart, that’s when s*** is going to hit the fan, I think. Unfortunately.”
It’s going to take a long time for things to get back to normal.
“Even things like touring Europe or other countries having different things going on. America’s not looking too hot with the virus right now. That might be a bigger problem than people realise. It’s all screwed. Then we’ve got Brexit to think about as well. It will probably a load more hassle for touring.”
With the release of Re-Animator, how do you think the band has evolved since the first album?
“I think we’ve become a lot more honest and a lot more easy to have an emotional connection with.
“I think it might have been a bit difficult on the first record. The first couple of records, I as a persona was quite distant and tricky I think, lyrically. Even the way I sang. The music was quite alienating. But that was also what drew the weirdos in, which is what we are, and what our fans still are, really.
“We’re much less anxious about that stuff now. We’re a much more honest and comfortable band and we’re not afraid of our weirdness. When we put out something now that’s weird, the fans like it more, not less.
“There was a long time where we thought ‘is this too weird? Should we be doing this? Why don’t we just write modern music so we can get more fans’. But any time we moved in that direction at all, it was the least popular thing we did. We thought ‘let’s stop f***ing around. Let’s be who we are and do what we think is good. We will get the fans that like it. There’s no point of trying to change into something we’re not.
“We never really did but it’s noticeable that any toe we put in the water in that direction never really had the reaction we’d expect. It was always like ‘give us your weirder stuff please’. It was self affirming in a way.”
What are your hopes looking ahead with Everything Everything?
“Once this record’s out we will probably start writing music again because there’s nothing else to do.”
Are you already thinking about the next idea?
“I am. I’ve been up to my neck in video stuff but at the back of my mind I’m thinking I could probably write another song round about now. I know Alex has. He’s started to doodle around with some demos.
“Once these videos are done, what else will I do honestly? Usually we’d be gearing up to go on tour, but that’s not happening, so yeah, we’ll write some more music.”
Everything Everything’s Re-Animator is out now via Infinity Industries