As someone with a history of using doomsday world-going-to-hell imagery in his songs, Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs might be better mentally prepared for the coronavirus pandemic than most. Released in 2015, their third album, Get to Heaven, saw the Manchester art-pop quartet foresee the rise of President Trump, while over the last decade, Higgs’s lyrics have tackled other sources of dread such as the rise of populism, Isis, climate collapse and post-Brexit division.
“Our lock-up burned down on the first day of lockdown, which added a bit of drama.”
“I’ve always thought a lot of our records have been like warnings,” says Higgs, via Zoom, from his parents’ house in Northumberland, where he’s visiting. “Not about a pandemic, but certainly politically. Our third record was about the rise of a charlatan cult leader to power and all the ways that could go wrong and lo and behold, that sort of happened. And a lot of the other horrors we talked about happened straight after.”
For their fifth album, Re-Animator, due to drop on 11 September, they sought to make a less anxious, comparatively more positive and hopeful record, infused with innocence and awe towards nature and the wonder of life. “This is the record we decided to make less apocalyptic and then an actual apocalypse happens, which is ironic,” notes Higgs wryly.
That apocalypse has thrust Everything Everything into the challenging and surreal position of trying to conduct an album campaign with Covid-19 restrictions in place. Their quarantine got off to a torrid start. “Our lock-up burned down on the first day of lockdown, which added a bit of drama,” says Higgs. Both he and bassist Jeremy Pritchard lost their first ever guitars – gifts from their grandfathers – in the blaze. “We were insured but obviously they have a lot of sentimental value,” he shrugs.
Fire aside, he’s spent lockdown learning a host of 3D animation software in order to try and film the band’s videos in unique ways after they were prevented from meeting up. In June, he found himself alone on a motorway bridge in Stockport, self-filming the video to teaser track Planets – a song about crying out to be loved – armed with a chimpanzee puppet.
“I was trying to film it with one hand and operate the puppet with the other, whilst cars were driving past in the blazing sun,” he remembers of the bizarre experience. “I was thinking: how do I get across the mournful need in this monkey’s face? Then I suddenly stopped and thought: what the fuck am I doing?!”
More rational perhaps was the band’s decision to play a remote headline set for Big Issue North’s vendor fundraising Big Busk at Home.
“Homelessness should be important to everyone,” says Higgs. “We certainly enjoyed doing it and we’d do it again. It’s a pity it has to be video and not reality, but hopefully there will be more opportunities to do stuff like that to come.”
Sitting in his old teenage bedroom is perhaps an ideal location for Higgs to reflect how far he’s come since he moved to Manchester and formed Everything Everything – completed by Pritchard, drummer Michael Spearman and guitarist Alex Robertshaw – in 2007. Now redecorated with tasteful pictures of elephants, these walls used to be festooned with posters of Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead – a touchstone the band are frequently compared to owing to their ability to straddle the high-wire between avant-garde and commercial – indeed, they were once dubbed “the Radiohead you can dance to”.
When they released their Mercury-nominated debut Man Alive in 2010, Everything Everything were the eccentric square pegs on Radio 1’s playlist, deploying inventive shape-shifting songs about hooking up during an air-strike (MY KZ, UR BF) and body image (Photoshop Handsome). Re-Animator’s reference points are typically varied and esoteric – it’s influenced by acid trips, existential angst and arcane theories of evolution. Higgs’s main creative wellspring arrived when he stumbled across psychologist Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which posits that the two sides of ancient man’s brain were next to each other but functioned independently – so one side would hear the other sending instructions via a disembodied voice.
“It was this bizarre theory about essentially having two brains in one in our evolutionary history and hearing a voice coming from one side of the brain to the other and thinking it was God,” he elaborates. The son of two biologists, it spoke to him (in a non-Godlike manner). “It felt magical and I wanted to get that feeling across: of awe and wonder about the miracle of consciousness. I love having a spiritual experience through science. A religious experience has never worked for me because I’m too much of a scientist at heart.”
If 2017’s A Fever Dream represented the final of a frenzied trilogy of albums about the death-cult of mankind, Re-Animator feels like Everything Everything’s scorched-earth aftermath recovery. The title refers to an experience that enters your life and makes you feel alive.
“It could be the birth of a child or a traumatic event like a death or a political awakening – anything that makes you feel like you’re not on autopilot anymore,” says Higgs. “A lot of people are going through life not really living it. They’re just experiencing it and doped up on comfort – me included.”
Whereas previous records were written on the road touring, the band took a year-long break to work on Re-Animator, before it was recorded in a two-week bust with producer John Congleton, who’s previously helped guide records by St Vincent and Blondie and who helped them streamline their sound and not second-guess their instincts. Unplugged from a schedule, and given time for his mind to roam, Higgs found himself informed by mid-thirties malaise, the sense that life was catching up with him. Over the last two years, two of his fellow bandmates became fathers.
“I’m 35 now, and I’m watching all my siblings having children and even my own band have them now and I don’t. I’ve just come out of a long-term relationship and I’m spinning off and searching for something to believe in – all those mid-life crisis type feelings,” he says.
That quest to discover himself led to fleeting experimentations with acid.
“It was purely out of boredom and wanting some kind of change in my brain,” he says. “Although I didn’t think it at the time, it influenced songs like In Birdsong and all this existential stuff about the magic of nature.”
The metaphorical pram in the studio has altered the band dynamic as well.
“It’s changed our view of what we want the band to do in a positive way,” he says. “Do we want to sing about the same things or something more hopeful? It’s made our music more three-dimensional, because it’s not just: ‘Here we are again – four young men, the same things we were talking about last time. We’re still angry!’”
On the funky lead single Arch Enemy, Higgs turns his cloud-busting falsetto to lyrics about a sentient deity-like fatberg seeking to smother the earth in blubber. Despite seeming absurd, it’s an allegory for something Higgs is still angry about – climate change.
“Fatbergs can only exist through greed and waste. To throw away something as potent as fat is such an insanely grotesque place we’re at in society,” he boggles. “The image of throwing it down the toilet and forgetting about it spoke to me a lot about how we treat the earth – it doesn’t go away, it turns into this disgusting problem.
“So I envisaged the fatberg as a vengeful god that wanted to come back onto the streets and flatten everyone in fat and say: ‘That’s what you do to the earth – how do you like it?’”
Initially, he worried the song was too outlandish – even for a man who once tried to persuade his bandmates to shave their heads and cosplay alt-right neo-Nazis for the A Fever Dream album campaign, something he was reminded about when a fan spotted his and Robertshaw’s lockdown buzzcuts and presumed it was the direction they were going in.
“I wouldn’t do it now – simply because it’s out of date,” he laughs.
“I asked the band: ‘Is the fatberg too stupid? Should I change the lyrics?’ They said: ‘No, it’s one of the strongest visual images you’ve ever used.’”
Originally, they tentatively planned to shoot the video in the sewer, but, poleaxed by the pandemic, Higgs resorted to animating a cult of dancing fatbergs instead. Another track, Big Climb, mines a similar seam – it’s a climate change emergency-themed anthem for youth. Though he’s heartened by the rise of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion he says it’s too easy to leave all the work to them.
“We all have to deal with it and no one wants to. But they give me more hope than I had 15 years ago because climate change is something that’s always been on my mind, and at least now that’s at the forefront of young people’s minds. I don’t care what actions they take – they can mess up my day if they get people talking about it.”
Now music is arguably facing its own extinction event. Like many bands, Covid-19 has wiped Everything Everything’s schedule for the year. Looking at the future of the industry, there’s a chink in Higgs’s newfound optimism: bands are splitting up, grassroots venues are fighting tooth and nail to survive, and monthly music bible Q has folded. He rightly baulks at the devil’s-advocate argument that this period might be a boom-time for musical artistry.
“No, there’s not going to be good music at the end of it because there’ll be less music and only the most commercial things will survive and that’s not good for art,” he says. “Creative people were just about getting by and now they’re not, so instead of working on amazing music, they’re probably too busy trying to get a job in Tesco that they don’t want. Some of the bedroom singer-songwriters might have written good songs – but they’ll be about the pandemic and I’m not going to listen to them.
“People seem to think the pandemic’s going to cause a lot of creativity. I don’t, because nothing’s going on in the world. Unless you’re lucky enough to be isolating in the country and have fallen in love for the first time, there’s little to inspire you.”
Despite being written pre-Covid-19, the timing of Re-Animator’s release has, again, proved serendipitous. Its taster track, the haunting and beautiful In Birdsong – about hearing birds in the sky and knowing you’re alive – chimes during a period when people have been finding a sliver of solace in nature. “There’s a lot of redemption and reanimation and hope in the record, which is coincidentally what people need right now,” agrees Higgs. “So again, we’ve managed to predict the future – by making a record about the recovery period before the bad thing happened.”
Re-Animator is released on 11 September. Everything Everything tour in 2021
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