If the CAPS fit

Six albums and a book called CAPS LOCK ON in, Everything Everything’s Jonathan Higgs worries they’re starting to feel like a heritage act – but also says they’ve got lots of ambitions left 

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At the start of summer, Everything Everything published their first ever book, CAPS LOCK ON: a 304-page hardback containing the words to every song the band has released, as well as a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes photos, set lists and archive material from the past 15 years. The book serves as a celebration of the group’s against-the-odds success and provides insight into their restless creativity, but compiling it evoked mixed emotions for singer and lyricist Jonathan Higgs.

“That whole period of my life has got a sort of shadow over it,” he says shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “In another five or ten years I’ll probably feel all right about it, but right now the whole thing makes me feel a little bit sad.”

Pressed to elaborate, Higgs recalls an incident a couple of years ago when he was reminded of a song from the quartet’s debut album, Man Alive.

“It really upset me because I realised [what I was singing about] was the same problem that I still had then. I thought I had grown up so much and I hadn’t. The whole book is a bit like that. It’s overshadowed by one or two huge forces in my life and it’s not really until the most recent record that I’ve broken free of it.”

Raw Data Feel, Everything Everything’s superb sixth album, released in May at the same time as CAPS LOCK ON, reflects the singer’s heightened mood. “I feel alive,” he enthuses at the start of the 55-minute LP, which refines the quartet’s maximalist genre-meshing into 14 dazzling songs imbued with an uncharacteristic positivity.

“In truth, it’s about one of my friends who I felt like I had betrayed, but no one knows that.”

“I wanted to make a happy, positive record,” says Higgs, who formed the band as a student at Salford University in 2007 alongside bassist Jeremy Pritchard, drummer Michael Spearman and guitarist Alex Niven (later replaced by Alex Robertshaw). “I was feeling good. I was in a new relationship. I felt optimistic for real – not fake [fifth album] Re-Animator optimism. And we had a very limited time to make it, so we couldn’t overthink anything.”

Raw Data Feel entered the charts at number four, Everything Everything’s highest ever chart position and their fifth consecutive top 10. The group’s lasting success is testament to their ability to constantly reinvent their sound – a kaleidoscopic fusion of bloopy electronics, juddering hip-hop beats, dance rhythms, guitar solos, dystopian imagery and catchy pop melodies – without losing track of the idiosyncratic art-rock qualities that have long made the four-piece stand out.

It’s a formula that has garnered them a loyal UK following and critical praise. Two of the band’s albums have been nominated for the Mercury Prize (2010’s Man Alive and 2017’s A Fever Dream) and they’ve been nominated for five Ivor Novello Awards. They’ve also been frequently likened to Radiohead, a pivotal early influence that inspired their moniker (the name is lifted from the lyrics of Kid A song Everything In Its Right Place).

“We’ve seen a lot of our contemporaries fall by the wayside. It feels like a really strange era we’re entering into now where we’re sort of becoming a heritage act. We’re starting to get the nostalgia coin,” says a smiling Higgs, seated in a quiet corner of a trendy Manchester bar, populated by coffee-drinking millennials engrossed in their laptops.

Getting older hasn’t slowed down the group’s restless drive for innovation. To help create the songs that make up Raw Data Feel, the band teamed up with a professor at the University of York to devise an artificial intelligence (AI) programme that they nicknamed Kevin. The band then inputted the computer with text from the ancient epic poem Beowulf, 400,000 4Chan forum posts, the teachings of Confucius and the entire terms and conditions of LinkedIn. The responses that the AI came up with fed into song lyrics, titles and artwork.

“I had this huge printout of all the things that it said and I wrote down bits that caught my eye and sounded meaningful or funny,” explains Higgs, who has long had an interest in technology. “I was using the AI as a sound board really, kind of like a fifth member, and saying to it: ‘What do you think I should put here?’”

Higgs readily admits that cut-up literary technique he used for Raw Data Feel isn’t anything new and has been previously used by everyone from writer William Burroughs to David Bowie. In his case, the AI helped him approach song writing in a different way, although he’s loath to reveal which lyrics came out of the machine and which originated in his mind.

Higgs on stage this year at Tramshed in Cardiff. He says he’s in a far happier place now than he has been for years (Mike Lewis/Getty)

“Nearly all of [the songs] have some in and there’s one song that has a lot of AI in it. But crucial to this process is not telling people what’s what because it shows you how powerful it is. If I go, ‘That lyric comes from AI,’ then people will go, ‘Oh, yeah. That sounds stupid.’ But if they don’t know then they doubt everything and also probably give a lot of respect and meaning to something that is AI, which I quite like. If people are going, ‘Should I feel emotions when I hear or sing that? Or should I not?’ that means it’s worked.”

Even without the assistance of AI, Higgs’s lyrics have always contained surreal turns of phrase and flourishes of nonsense wordplay. The chorus to No Reptiles, a standout tune from 2015 album Get To Heaven, memorably goes: “It’s all right to feel like a fat child in a push chair. Old enough to run. Old enough to fire a gun.” Cough Cough, from 2013’s Arc, describes a eureka moment that “hits you like a cop car. And you wake up just head and shoulders in a glass jar”. A track on Raw Data Feel – that may or may not have been co-written by an algorithm – contains the linguistic curiosity “And the fox in the alley is as dead as the Holy Burger King”.

Higgs insists all the songs are about something, although their true meaning is often obscured or buried under metaphor and simile.

“The whole idea of me as a frontman or me as a lyricist is all about distractions and masking and covering things up, trying to tell my story without anyone realising. It’s been like that since day one. Our first record, you can’t tell what the hell I’m talking about. In truth, it’s about one of my friends who I felt like I had betrayed, but no one knows that.”

Despite their outward appearances, Higgs says a large number of Everything Everything songs are about his past relationship troubles.

“You’d think it was about these other topical things – colonising Mars or this amazing new science, which I am interested in – but usually if I’m sad in a song it’s because of this.”

Other Everything Everything tunes have documented the Northumberland-raised singer’s struggles with depression and mental health, while past albums have delved heavily into politics, touching upon white privilege, the rise of Ukip, Brexit and Donald Trump. Politics is a subject that Higgs says he now has zero interest in writing or talking about.

“It’s just so hopeless that I’ve given up commenting on it. I feel as though it goes without saying that I feel the Tories are bad and Brexit is bad. If you listen to those songs you can probably guess how I feel about everything that’s occurred since. I don’t think anything has improved or really changed. Probably most things are worse and it’s a bit of a crap period in history. I’m sick of hearing people give their opinions on it and I don’t want to be one of them. So I don’t tweet about it anymore. I don’t sing about it anymore. I don’t actually read about much of it anymore.”

Higgs turned 37 in February. Getting older has made him reassess his priorities. “Do I really want to be sat there scrutinising what some terrible politician has done or do I want to actually enjoy my life? I see people around me trying to teach their kids about what’s actually good and what’s important in the world and I want to reflect that in my art because I’ve given them [politicians] too much of myself already.” Reflecting on current world events – before Boris Johnson’s resignation – he believes “it’s not interesting to make a political record now, because politics aren’t actually interesting now”.

The move towards writing directly about his own emotions coincides with changes in his personal life. Although he’s reluctant to go into detail, the singer says he’s now in a far happier place than he has been in for several years. The pandemic was a particularly tough time.

“I was in a living situation that was far from ideal and it got progressively worse to the point where I left and everything was much better after that,” he cautiously reveals. “It was an awful pandemic for me, but then it was for a lot of people.”

Looking ahead, Higgs says he can’t envisage a time when he’s not singing Everything Everything songs and that the group, who tour Europe and the UK this summer, still have plenty of outstanding ambitions. “I want to do some soundtracks. We’d love to do more collaboration. We will want to open up our global fanbase and obviously we want a number one album. We feel like we’re just getting started – six albums in.”

When the four band members started out in their early twenties, the plan was for them to avoid cliches and forge their own unique path through the music industry, marrying playful experimentalism and weighty themes to catchy accessible pop. They’ve stuck to those same ideals ever since and while mainstream recognition has so far eluded them, Higgs takes pride in their ability to not only survive an increasingly anodyne music scene but thrive within it.

“It feels like the more that we are ourselves, the more our fans seem to like it. Any time we step towards compromise they reject it.”

His mouth turns into a sly mischievous grin as he ponders what he is most proud of about the group.

“All of the weird shit that we’ve managed to sneak onto the radio,” he says chuckling. “Some of the stuff that I’ve said in those songs – they’re not rude or naughty – but they are just so goddamn weird. And that’s always made me smile a lot. I love the fact that people like us for being ourselves. That feels amazing as an artist – to not feel that you have to run towards something all the time. To just be yourself and have people come to you.”

Raw Data Feel is out now on Infinity Industries/AWAL. CAPS LOCK ON: Lyrics + Debris 2007-2022 is published by Faber Music. Everything Everything play: Holmfirth Picturedrome on 19 August; Kendal Brewery Arts 20 Aug; Sheffield’s Float Along festival 14 Sept; and Neighbourhood Festival in Manchester 1 Oct 

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