Everything Everything – Interview 2015

The New Complexity they call it. And the aptly named Everything Everything have it in spades. While their sound has been called ‘a riot in a melody factory’ and been compared to ‘Timbaland if he cocked an oblique ear to Yes’ , the band prefers to see themselves as simply a pop one, albeit one that does so much more than simply trade verses with choruses, instead preferring to deliver a technicoloured and multifaceted sound palette that speaks of sophistication and invention, whilst remaining very accessible, often joyous, and often sublime
Certainly, EE are a remarkably intelligent band, made up of members who are deep thinkers. Indeed, original member Alex Niven – who played guitar on a few of the early singles – left the band to become a full-time writer and poet, and is currently working at New Left Review, the highly regarded bi-monthly politics magazine. He, along with Jonathan Higgs and Michael Spearman are all from Northumbria, and met at school in Hexham where they played music together. Another Alex – Robertshaw – took over guitar duties in 2009. But, it wasn’t until they went their separate university ways that the idea for EE took shape. Like similarly musically complex minded bands such as alt-j, Foals and Django Django, the members of Everything Everything went to university with ideas of making music, deciding perhaps wisely that some kind of education would be needed as a priority in this present-day world, where safety/welfare nets are fast disappearing. Gone, it seems, are the days when particularly creative and talented people could develop their craft while drawing on the dole… But music has an almighty pull for some, and eventually it took over this foursome…
Whilst at Salford University studying for a degree in Popular Music and Recording, Higgs met Jeremy Pritchard, and plans were hatched to form a band after studies. Niven, Spearman, Higgs and Pritchard were to convene to start what Niven has called ‘…a sort of Paul Morley-inspired, poptimist aesthetic’, exemplified by the name they took, a kind of everyday word dressed up in some kind of universality… “It was the only one we liked at the time,” says Michael Spearman. “We have subsequently realised it was lyrics from (Radiohead’s) Kid A, although I think it was subconscious. But we all liked that record when we were 16 or something. We just liked the word, and the word next to it again, and the sound of it, and the look of it even… it has a kind of expansive, inclusiveness to it. Some people think we are some way elitist, but that is in no way our agenda. We always wanted to make hooky melodies because we wanted people to sing along. We like everything from Captain Beefheart to Beyonce. I think most people do. That’s the way it should be and that’s the way it’s going. You don’t have to go to some exclusive record store, you can download these things any time, next to Taylor Swift. Some people might think our name suggests we are picking up from lots of different things and influences, but that wasn’t our intention. But that’s fine.”
Spearman remembers the time they first played as a band: “Yeah, it was September 10, 2007, and we had a basement in the place we were living together. John already had some songs ready. It was tentative first steps, but it was good. At the time we were quite angular guitary, a bit punky. We played small venues in Manchester like Night & Day, and supported touring bands. After a while we wanted to expand from being a guitar band – that term is a bit misleading – John got a synthesiser, we got a laptop, and slowly built from there. It’s been quite steady progress, but there weren’t many moments when we thought: ‘Wow, we’ve taken a huge leap!’
As it transpired events did move fairly swiftly; they began working with producer David Kosten, and in late 2008 they released the single Suffragette Suffragette through XL offshoot Salvia as a 7″ vinyl release only. Synths were added to the sound in time for follow up singles Photoshop Handsome and MY KZ UR BF, both also vinyl-only releases. By the end of the year they had made it onto the prestigious and much referred to BBC Sound Poll of 2010, a list created by Britain’s tastemakers who vote for their favourite new artists. They are usually right in their judgements (Keane, Mika, Adele, Ellie Goulding and Haim are just a few who have come out top in previous years, each going on to to become big stars).
But in the early days there was some doubt as to whether or not EE would sell well, their sound often depicted as being ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’. Indeed, they could be wilfully complex and lacking the necessary glue to make the music seamless and fluid, and therefore accessible to a wider audience. It’s something that the band have often talked about. “For the first album (Man Alive) we were very keen not to be pinned down in any way, or pigeonholed,” says Michael. “The second album is more settled, more melody led. We concentrated more on the writing, and creating stronger songs. We tried not to bamboozle the listener. This one (new and third album Get To Heaven) is kind of the best of both, in that it has some of the exuberance of that first record, with the strong melodic sense of the second. It’s a colourful record; it’s upbeat, and it’s defiant in terms of lyrics. It’s quite confrontational,” says Michael, in examining his own work.
Indeed, Get to heaven, is their best yet. Each song is a mini-pop symphony, made up of at least two or more movements it seems. But despite the disparate elements, it is held together remarkably well; partly through Higg’s distinctive voice, that endlessly shifts gear from high speed rapping to high pitched falsetto; partly via the musical style of the individual band members, in particular the penchant for the caribbean/African picking of guitarist Alex Robertshaw, but also through the lyrics of Higgs, which are for the most part are serious, and thoughtful, often about socio-political themes and incidents, such as the rise of the far right and extremism, primal human nature, power, corruption and lies. Perhaps most importantly, the band play off the seriousness and sombre-like qualities of the lyrics, with music that is playful, sometimes dancey, and rarely melancholy, hunting or morbid. ‘I’m rolling in my grave/Feeling like a grenade/Maybe you’re the coldest/if you never felt it’ sings Higgs on Regret while the band pounds out a Motown type beat, chanting the words Regret throughout, before the song segues into an upbeat chorus, and instrumental passage that features Robertshaw’s delightfully inventive guitar playing. “When John does interviews he talks about how a lot of the lyrics are angry, but when you listen to the album that is probably not the first thing you hear, although it is definitely in there… there’s plenty of bands who make angry records and angry music, but we like subverting things and being as interesting as we can, because we find that exciting. We are not trying to be clever – we are always consciously avoiding being ‘clever clever’ – we are just interested to put a sour lyric with music that is palatable, or maybe bouncy, fun even. We are not afraid to make music that is viscerally enjoyable these days. The first record we felt we needed to be really clever, and cerebral, for people to really get into lyrics. That’s all in there, but I think it can be enjoyed on a first listen basis. Get to Heaven is more accessible.”
And It is that. Whilst still sometimes displaying their ability to be intense and challenging, via the musical structures of the band and lyrics of Higgs, Get to Heaven, despite the seemingly random juxtapositions of song parts, somehow almost invariably gels together. They’ve become slightly more poptastic (for instance on ‘Regret’), but have retained the edge and the mature sophistication that has won them a legion of fans. “Some of the songs come fully formed,” says Michael about how the actual music comes together. “John will immediately know what he wants to go in and he has worked it out. Some, we know, are really good, and we put them in the ‘good’ pile. Some of them may be just a melody or a set of chords; we spent the whole of last year putting things together. I think sometimes people think we try and shoehorn things in to try and catch people out, but we are really not interested in doing that. When a song does a random thing, that is not good songwriting. It needs to hang together, that’s the sort of conversations we’ll be having in the rehearsal room. A lot of time, some of the things you work hardest on you let the dust settle for a while, then you might go, ‘mmm, not good enough’. You’re in that bubble of making a record and you don’t know what’s good anymore, and you’ve just got yourselves – and managers and friends, whatever – but you can feel quite alone, and it comes down to taste as to what songs should be included. We wrote a lot of songs for this record, and a lot of them didn’t get used. We’ve been more restrained this time. We have been accused of being ‘the more the merrier’ but I think we’ve got the right level for this record.
“The other thing about this record which I am really proud of is that it’s confident and bold. If people like our band then this record is the most ‘us’, even using sounds that are underproduced, from a pre-set, or a laptop sound. Back in the day we would have gone ‘woah, you can’t do that’, but now, even if it has a bit of cheapness to it, we like that because when you put it against this really lush sound… it’s what Kanye West talks about: the little bit of grit in that oyster. We like that bit of ugliness and tension without it being off-putting. That tension release is something we always talk about within the sonics of the music, or chorally or melodically, the way a melody may be a bit crunchy and dissolve.”
Before the album was released they took to the stage for a series of shows, and it helped convince the band that they had made something good, and to be proud of. “The crowds didn’t know the songs and they went down really well. We were blown away by the reaction.”
Much has been made of the lyrics of Higgs throughout Everything Everything’s oeuvre. On the surface they are intelligent and thoughtful, if at times sometimes angry, and at others, introspective, occasionally a little opaque. Themes of media manipulation and political and social apathy litter their music. It’s all rather refreshing in this day and age when mainstream pop and rock is often afraid of discussing politics, economics and social affairs. “Arc is a fairly depressed record, lyrically,” says Michael. “It’s quite passive. He’s talking about things that are maybe wrong or he feels are getting him down,” he laughs, ironically. “There isn’t this sense of ‘what are you going to do about it,’ and I feel this record does have that. It’s quite angry, it’s quite defiant. It talks about – a lot of bands wouldn’t set foot in this area – things happening in the world, politically. Last year was such a violent and difficult year globally, and more than ever with the media and 24 hour news and because the world feels smaller now, it’s not such a feeling of ‘it’s over there’. I think lyrically – I’m not saying it’s wrong or right – he’s talking about things, like what drives people to extremism. It feels like in the west that capitalism is something we’ve just grown up with, and it’s our way of life. On the whole, we are a kind of Godless society, and in the west there is this sense of not knowing what is meaningful any more. And then on the other side you’ve got this religious extremism, where they do really feel vehemently about what they are fighting for. Obviously, we can say they are wrong and that some of them are terrorists. But, It’s interesting looking at those two sides; apathy on one side – ‘isn’t the world awful. Never mind, I’ll go and get a coffee from Starbucks’ and on the other side some people are willing to kill themselves. Those are some of things he gets into (as on the album highlight, the brilliantly constructed The Wheel (is Turning Now)), speaking from the perspective of someone who is attracted to extremism. It’s very difficult to talk about. It’s not Jonathan Higgs’ own opinion necessarily, he’s just trying to look into that world and look into their eyes. It’s tricky. It’s another thing we talked about, getting that balance right; you don’t want to make a record where you’re preaching, it’s more about trying to capture a feeling, and what it is to be alive in the world, and that is hard to do without sounding pretentious. It’s difficult to get the tone of that right.”
A relatively self-contained band (they do almost all their own videos, and even though uber-producer Stuart Price is credited as producing this album, the band had plenty of input it seems) they did, however, employ the services of New Zealand surrealist illustrator Andrew Archer to do the cover, which again delves deep into the world of faith and hope. “We wanted something bright, because of that sense of desensitisation, and where everything is in bold letters these days, pummelled with info, which is what we talk about a lot with the album. It’s based on a faith healer – it may not be obvious – but the man in the image is being faith-healed, his face a kind of agony/ecstasy expression. It’s going back to those themes of power, extremism and desperation. I don’t know if anyone gets this from it but when I look at it I think there is a sense of hopefulness in his eyes; he’s looking to heaven, looking for something better.”
For the most part, EE do retain a sense of hopefulness and empathy despite some of the lyrics that speak of disenchantment and disenfranchisement, a big factor within their success. Are we nothing, if not optimistic in the face of helplessness about the world in general? After all, Higgs doesn’t deal in easy, uninformed caricatures. For instance on ‘No Reptiles’, :where his opinion is that world leaders are just ‘soft-boiled eggs in shirts and ties’. And, they’ve got plenty to look forward to as the new album has been generally very well received and their fanbase expands. In particular they are looking forward to playing Brixton Academy later in the year, as well as their home town Manchester, at the Apollo, a venue where they have witnessed many of their favourite bands over the years “A lot of the time it’s a pleasant surprise,” says Michael, about how the band are received. “In general we’ve been very lucky, people have been very warm to us. Even online, we seem to get very nice comments from people. I’m sure that is not universally the case, but it’s a nice feeling that people want to listen to the thing that we do in our room. All you can do is hope there is someone out there who wants to listen to it. And thankfully, it seems there are.”
Jeff Hemmings