There’s a band who have achieved a degree of success only afforded to the very few. A band that did it their way, via sheer hard work, and with a strong and meaningful undercurrent of real character behind them. A band who have never been signed to a traditional record label, and yet have shifted millions over their five album career. A band that have always worn their political hearts on their collective sleeves, way before the current climate saw it become fashionable to do so again.
They may not be mainstream but Enter Shikari are one of the biggest and best bands to have emerged from these isles these last ten or so years. They are also one of the last bands to have successfully emerged just before the internet, file sharing, downloading and social media revolution properly blasted off. When grafting on the gig circuit was still the best and easiest way to get your name out there. It’s hard to imagine for millennials, but that was how it was done if you were from the so-called ‘underground’, with minimal mainstream support available, and the gatekeepers of TV, radio and the music press offering little in the way of encouragement. However Enter Shikari were gaining traction in the mid-00s, and caught the growing tsunami of internet communications to further propel them into the hearts and minds of a fanbase that is notoriously loyal and hardcore. A band for the people, as it were. “It was the rise of Myspace – if you remember that one – that helped us create an online hub,” recalls frontman Rou Reynolds. “People would come to the shows via word of mouth and then be able and go and access music straight way. It was still quite a revolutionary thing. Instead of having to go to the show to get the CD, you couldn’t just go the local music store, because we didn’t have anything out. It made for an accelerated way to get the music to people. But, in terms of how we spread, it was very much the live show.”
The trio of Rou Reynolds, Chris Batten and Rob Rolfe initially formed Hybryd in 1999, and made just the one EP Commit No Nuisance, which was never officially released, as well as hitting the local band circuit, including plenty of Battle of the Bands competitions. Upon recruiting guitarist Liam ‘Rory’ Clewlow in 2003, they changed their name to Enter Shikari (named after a boat owned by Rou’s uncle) and they upped their game considerably, making a series of gig/band website-only EPs, many of those tracks finally ending up on their debut album of 2007, Take to the Skies. Some crucial support came from Kerrang’s Alex Baker, who (rather naughtily) streamed songs direct from their Myspace as he did not have a CD to play! A sold out gig at London’s Astoria in 2005 (the second ever unsigned band to do that, after The Darkness) and an appearance at Download festival all helped, too, as did their first proper single, 2006’s ‘Mothership’, that featured an accompanying video of a performance in Camden’s Underworld, that brilliantly captured the exuberance and energy of an Enter Shikari gig. By the time Take to the Skies dropped, they were ready to explode thanks to their relentless gigging, exciting music, and careful nurturing of a fanbase. Did they always want to be an independent band? “Not particularly,” admits Rou. “It was more of a necessity, really! We just kept doing things step-by-step, doing things ourselves, making EPs by using the equipment at school. We had a few friends who had bits and pieces and we had a makeshift studio in our bassist’s terraced garage, and recorded in there. We then all saved up our money, did paper rounds and whatever, when we were 16 and 17, and saved up for a van. A crappy, old and battered tour van. We booked our own shows, and did gig swaps with bands up and down the country. We did shows in St Albans (where they are from) and further into London. Eventually we started booking tours, and making our own merch, printing our own CDs, and all that business, bit-by-bit. When it came to record the album we got management in, and labels started to sniff about. But, we decided that since we seemed to have done so much of the work ourselves, it would be silly to take the risk. It was certainly a risk at that stage. It seemed the next natural step was to start our own label. We were lucky to get distribution, with PIAS, who we are still with, to keep everything independent, as a small family that works.
“With an independent label like our set up with PIAS, it’s different than majors. They can often be revolving doors. People work there, and then they move on. That happens a lot at majors, whereas it doesn’t seem to happen much at independents. The people we signed with way back in the day are still there. You feel safe and comfortable. Whereas a lot of the stories we hear, where bands signed to majors, because the people there got the music, and they seemed to genuinely love what the band was doing, and thought they could help. The next minute they had left. No one at the label cared about them any more. We are very lucky to still be with PIAS.”
This faith in themselves, and PIAS’s continuing faith in the band has massively helped to keep Enter Shikari on the road, a band who still retain full creative control over every aspect of their music. Their label, Ambush Reality, remains the vehicle by which they release their music, with the help of PIAS’s distribution and marketing know-how.
Just recently they released their fifth album, The Spark which, like three of their previous four albums, was a top five album. Yet it’s in the live arena that Enter Shikari really make their mark; their combination of electronic, hardcore, punk, rap, metalcore, drum’n’bass, dubstep and pop striking a chord throughout the UK, Europe and, even into America, where they continue to develop a following. When I speak to Rou they are working on the stage show for the upcoming tour of the UK. “We are still working with the same stage designer as we have been doing the last eight, ten years. We’re working on the stage set up and all the lighting. We like everything to be done on instinct, to get across the right atmosphere. That is a lot of fun. And we’re doing surround sound on this tour. That takes a lot of programming. You have to take the songs to bits and reconfigure how everything will sound, and what will be coming out of the four speakers. It’s a bit intense, but it’ll be fun.”
Is playing bigger venues boosting the creative aspect of a live show, and has that fed into the new album? “When you get to venues of this size, it can go two ways: it can be a very sterile venue with lots of corporate advertising, your classic arena. Then you get these big warehouse venues or big and beautiful venues like Alexandra Palace. Luckily, we’re mostly doing the latter, the more interesting spaces. With that you can create your own atmosphere. You can make the venue yours. That’s something we’re really interested in. It’s not just the music that becomes a creative thing, it’s the whole show. It becomes quite a theatrical thing. It’s something we’ve always been interested in. Last year, when we did our first headline arena tour, that really boosted our confidence.
“I don’t think I wrote the music for this album any differently, with arenas in mind. But playing those size venues gave us the confidence to push ourselves even more.”
The Spark is, in typical Enter Shikari fashion, an energetic album. Although largely gone are the turbo-charged hardcore punk songs of old, reflecting the fact the band are getting older, albeit more adventurous. Rou is still very much a political animal, his lyrics often railing against corporate greed, environmental degradation, and political expediencies. Of course, a lot has changed since their last album, 2015’s The Mindsweep. “I think people are now prepared for the most crazy thing to happen, or the most shocking thing to happen. On a global scale there have been so many things in the last few years. If you had told someone a few years ago that this would happen, they wouldn’t have believed you. The thing that ties everything together, is the rise of this mindset of nationalism. Ten years ago it was more a sort of quaint form of patriotism. And now it has blossomed into this dangerous force. At its philosophical core is a very cowardly and strange retreating back into our borders, pointing of the finger, and calling everyone else an alien or a foreigner, instead of a human being. It’s a very strange mindset, especially when you think about the earth as one living, breathing organism. It’s become a very strange and bitter atmosphere. We talk about this on the album, especially on the track ‘Take My Country Back’. We also talk echo chambers, how social media reinforces your own views, and becomes emboldened, so then when you do meet someone who has a slightly different view it quickly turns to anger. They don’t agree with you, when they are so used to everyone agreeing with you, so used to reading articles that reinforce your opinions. It creates a dangerous atmosphere where it’s all about debate, rather than discussion. I think that is one of the main things that is holding us back.”
It could be argued that recent events have sort of blown the barn doors open, and we are now having a lively and much needed debate, if only to challenge ingrained and institutionalised racism and the like. Isn’t that a necessary step in forcing some real change, hopefully for the better? “Yes, certainly,” agrees Rou. “Apathy was a huge force, and something politicians were very aware of, which is why youth services and education fees and things like that, have been taken the piss out of. And that is something that has kinda vanished, especially in this country, through Jeremy Corbyn. People who would normally not even have a look in, no interest in politics, are suddenly enthused. I think that is very exciting. It gets people talking, and it’s only then we’ll see some change and progress.”
Rou’s philosophical musings also take centre stage, on tracks like ‘Airfield’. Here, he sings: “It’s common for people to believe, everything happens for a reason / I’m sorry, but that’s false and it’s poison.” What do you mean by that? “It doesn’t have to be a religion philosophy. It comes from religious philosophy, but it has become a wide, pervasive, more general thought. You hear it so much in pop music. There are so many songs that say things happen for a reason. It’s something we’ve found, at its core, actually quite disgusting. You get into reasons of what is behind, you know, a child getting cancer, or something. It implies there’s something greater, a greater story that we’re all just pawns in. It becomes quite sickening. That obviously shouldn’t be confused with the fact that adversity or hardship can trigger some form of positivity, or you can learn something from, or grow from, or become stronger because of some form of adversity. That doesn’t mean the adversity has a reason, that just means it has a cause and an effect. That’s just me railing against banal pop music, recycling phrases without understanding what they mean.”
Protest and socio-political awareness seem to be on the rise these last few years. Is this something you sense with today’s music and lyric writers, that artists are addressing issues more and more, whether global or local, on both the macro and micro levels? “Yeah, definitely. But, I think some of it is a bit cynical. Some people are jumping on a bandwagon, and seeing it as making a quick buck now that vast swathes of people are very angry and are demanding that art starts to actually represent them. But there is some incredible stuff as well, and not just in the underground. I would say there is more socially conscience pop music than there is in punk music at the moment, which is kind of sad, but also amazing, because that speaks to a much bigger audience. Saying that, there is still a huge amount of the other end of the spectrum, the more manufactured, narcissistic pop music, that glorifies anger, or whatever else.”
What about the song ‘Shinrin-Yoku. What does that mean? “It’s Japanese. It doesn’t have a straight translation into English, but the closest is ‘forest bathing’. It’s when nature comes to the rescue, I suppose, when you can go out into nature, be it a forest, mountains, whatever. All the scientific studies are beginning to show just how beneficial it can be. Whether it is lowering blood pressure, stress, cortisol. For me it was almost an ode to nature. In today’s ultra-capitalist world nature is often looked at as a commodity, instead of something that is health and life giving. A lot of us, especially city folk, feel the longing to get back into a raw, natural beautiful landscape. Through deforestation or animal agriculture or whatever else, its becoming harder and harder to find those landscapes.”
Throughout Enter Shikari’s history Rou Reynolds would occasionally cast aside his greater, outward concerns and write about personal issues. Here, he does so again, particularly on the atmospheric, and relatively gentle rhythms of ‘An Ode to Lost Jigsaw Pieces’, where the anger and frustration gives way to contemplation, and matters close to the heart. “It’s basically about loss in various forms. The first half is mainly inspired by a recent break up I had. To be honest, I had spent most of my adult life in long term relationships. I’ve been in two long – six, seven year – relationships. The first half is about the almost crippling fear of being alone after coming out of a relationship, and the uncertainty. How does one confront the world without that person by your side, who has been there a long time? The second half is mainly inspired by the death of my last two grandparents. I guess what conjoins those two ideas is when you feel you have structure to your life; the family structure, and the loved ones around you. And when that suddenly crumbles. I’m analysing that feeling of re-configuring one’s life, and all the negative emotions that come from that.”
There doesn’t seem to be an easy cure for loss, I venture. “I find music is very meditative. It can help to at least distract from the emotions. That you can process them somehow. There is no easy way out of that. It’s just one of the things that we all have to deal with.”
Rou’s voice has also come along markedly. Mostly gone are the howls and growls that used to infiltrate much of their earlier material. The death of David Bowie, like it has for so many, left its mark on him, but perhaps in an unexpected way. “When he died, as people often do, you feel you should go in on their catalogue and celebrate their life and work. I can remember me and my mate did what we called a Bowieoake party, a night of singing to David Bowie songs. I had the software, a free trial you had for two weeks, and after that ended I carried on for another two weeks, just by myself, singing mostly David Bowie, but also other singers. I generally only sing my own music. I use it as an instrument on top of creation. I found it really formative for this album, I found myself gaining more confidence in my baritone and my falsetto, and a lot of that is studying Bowie and his technique.”
The Spark is bookended by short instrumental passages, ‘The Spark’ and ‘The Embers’, that suggest a greater concept behind the album. “They were put in at the last minute,” admits Rou. “They are there as palate cleansers, I suppose,” he laughs, “to ease you into the album. To create the atmosphere of the album. ‘The Spark’ is supposed to suggest ‘fresh air’. A spark can be so small, and insignificant, but it can have huge results, and become something quite significant. A lot of the album is about coming through adversity, and tiny little things that can trigger a big change, or a progression. What I was trying to do with this album was marry the personal and the political, to ensure that human vulnerability is laid bare, and to not be afraid to speak about emotions.”