Just hours before the launch of Everything Everything’s European tour, Aisling Kraus and drummer Michael Spearman chat stage-side about cavemen, American baptisms and playing for petrol money.
“Intense”. “Complex”. “Frenetic”. These are just a sample of the vast array of adjectives used by music critics to describe the sonic essence of the genre-eluding four-piece Everything Everything. However, in conversation with Michael Spearman, drummer and one quarter of the band, these words don’t exactly spring to mind.
Seated merely a few metres away from the bustle of activity as the roadie team set up the stage at Dublin’s Academy, Spearman contrasts this hubbub with his relaxed nature. The musician is evidently unfazed by the anticipation of the sold out show only a few hours away, the first date of twenty-six during an extensive tour of Europe and the UK. Spearman’s laid-back demeanour in this setting is hardly surprising, considering he has gone through countless pre-gig routines as a member of Everything Everything since the band’s genesis in 2007. He seems all but oblivious to the activity around him as he articulately divulges thoughts about the band’s past, present and Get to Heaven, their latest, most powerful record yet.
Amongst shimmering synths, infectious bass lines and unpredictable rhythms are the signature falsetto vocals of front man, songwriter and laptop composer extraordinaire Jonathon Higgs. Another of the essential ingredients which identifies Everything Everything’s truly singular style is Higgs’ potent, pessimistic and at times, desperate lyrics. This is as true as ever on Get to Heaven, released in June 2015. Many of its tracks were inspired by current events at the time of the record’s writing, as Higgs took to watching looped news on television during the band’s break from touring in 2014. The result: songs about Ebola, beheadings and missing airplanes. Why does the album’s title convey such outright optimism?
“We were going to go with a lyric, which was ‘give me the gun’ from ‘Zero Pharaoh’ because it’s quite a violent… and angry record,” Spearman points out. “[But] when we brought it to the label they weren’t particularly happy with it, because there are shootings basically every week and things can go wrong if you put out a record at a bad time. Get to Heaven has got this positivity to it, and hopefulness, but it also could be construed as when people do violent acts to reach their heaven, because they think they’re going to be martyrs in heaven. There’s that little meaning to it, but mainly we just like the feeling of it, the hopefulness of it.”
“We decided not to water it down in any way. If anything, we’ve intensified it and we’re quite proud of that.”
With dance beat-driven tracks ‘Distant Past’ and ‘Regret’ at the forefront, Get to Heaven is an even more danceable record than its two predecessors: 2010’s Mercury Prize shortlisted Man Alive and 2013’s follow-up Arc. This is no accident, says Spearman. “Jonathon was writing a lot of lyrics that were… quite violent, quite angry [and] defiant… That’s fine, but I think that in order to make a record that people will want to listen to, we’ve got to make music that’s got a bit more life and energy and positivity to it. We didn’t want to make a depressed record, and Arc was a little bit too much that way — it’s a bit misanthropic… We thought it would be nice if people come to our gigs… and could just viscerally nod their heads and enjoy themselves. We don’t want people to be staring at their shoes, despairing, although you could probably do that if you read the lyrics and thought about them!” he laughs.
In stark contrast to this glimmer of positivity, a chink in the solemn lyrical chainmail, Get to Heaven’s bizarre album art depicts a surreal scene in which a blue cartoon man, it appears, is being grasped at the throat by a pair of deeper blue hands, in front of what looks reminiscent of a sunset. This image evokes more of a sense of frantic desperation than the “hopefulness” Spearman alludes to with respect to the album title. “We hear the record as a very colourful record, but the image itself is meant to be like when people get baptised in America — they look like they’re almost pained by it, even though what they’re trying to do is go to a better place and be rid of their sins. It’s got this kind of agony/ecstasy thing, and I think most people probably see more agony than ecstasy in it, but that’s what we were going for.”
Spearman speaks about Get to Heaven with conviction. Thus far, this has been a constant trend in Everything Everything’s interviews about the most recent record, with Higgs stating in an interview with NME that the new tracks are all “absolutely killer”. Spearman explains, “For this one, we did want to go out there and be confident — in the music, in the lyrics, in how we talk about it — because the last record wasn’t so confident… The songs are better than ever because we’re becoming a better band… It’s not that we didn’t want any subtlety in the album, because there is some subtlety… Actually, we had ‘Warm Healer’ quite early, and some other songs that were a bit more mellow in mood, and we thought, let’s not put them on because we want this record to be quite intense. [We knew it was] going to be divisive, but we’re always divisive anyway. We decided… not to water it down in any way. If anything, we’ve intensified it and we’re quite proud of that.”
One example of this intensity is ‘Distant Past’, Get to Heaven’s most dance floor-oriented track, which is accompanied by a video (directed by Higgs himself, as is the case with all but two of the band’s music videos) in which two cavemen engage in a bloodthirsty head-to-head battle. This is not the first time that Everything Everything’s work has expressed fascination with the primal aspects of humanity and of music. “I play the drums, and I think the drums as an idea have been around as long as man has because you could just hit a log with a bone or whatever. Absolutely, that’s primal, and that’s still what is great about rhythm, even if you’re listening to David Guetta or whatever. If you think about it, what is dancing? Why do we choose to get up and move our bodies around? It’s weird if you think about it, but it’s great. I’m so glad that [it’s] a thing!”
“We don’t want people to be staring at their shoes, despairing, although you could probably do that if you read the lyrics and thought about them!”
Another recurring theme throughout the Everything Everything discography and video archive is animals, and in particular, human beings as animals. Spearman explains that this is “one of Jonathon’s obsessions — that we are just animals, we just happen to be more advanced. How did that happen? Are we actually better than any of the other animals? Probably not!” Spearman chuckles. “[If I were an animal] I would be a shark, they’re my favourite animal. We went shark diving a few years ago in South Africa. We flew out really early and straight off the plane we went to get in the sea with some great whites, it was such a strange thing to do. There’s just something about being in awe of something that can kill you and being reminded that you’re not necessarily the top dog.”
The song lyrics and music videos of Everything Everything, particularly on Arc, exhibit an intrigue with the timeline of humanity on a panoramic scale. Spearman says that “lyrically, Jonathon is really interested in looking at mankind [on] a big scale, but also shifting… from a relationship or something small, the minutiae, and then widening the lens to look at us as a whole scheme of things.” What’s more, the band likes to play around with different eras, both in the story of human beings, and from a sonic perspective. “We put an old gramophone in all of our videos because we like the ideas of not setting things in a particular time. It’s the same with the music; we try to put older sounds with newer sounds and try to put things together, which shouldn’t really work… The idea of future/past gets mushed together. We talk about future/past all the time, or the idea of Star Trek where it’s a ‘60s version of the future. It’s the same with our stage wear, it’s not placed in a particular time.”
Spearman and Everything Everything’s guitarist Alex Niven are originally from Newbrough, while Higgs and bassist Jeremy Pritchard grew up in Gilsland and Kent respectively. The four chose Manchester to be their musical home when starting a band together. With a multitude of majorly influential acts including The Smiths, The Verve, The Stone Roses and Oasis hailing from the city, surely there is huge inspiration to be found there for ambitious new bands. “It affects us in a way that we, in some ways, want to react against it a little bit and try and be different, but all of those bands were kind of radical in their own way, and we really respect that… Tony Wilson, who signed the Happy Mondays and all those bands in the ‘80s, had this sense of radical thinking, of ‘how do we do this differently?’ It wasn’t money-driven, it was more, ‘let’s try and do something different and make our own scene in Manchester rather than everyone going to London’. We’re so glad that that’s still in the air, and that [Manchester] has that legacy to it.”
According to Spearman, one’s environment can significantly impact music in other ways, too. “I can see why Joy Division and all that lot wrote the songs they did, living in Manchester now, because it is raining all the time, and grey and sometimes depressing. Equally, I think good pop music comes out of those sorts of situations. If you look at Europe, a lot of those sunnier places… don’t really produce great pop music, but Sweden does, because it’s a similar climate, because people would rather be inside making music than outside playing beach ball.”
“There’s just something about being in awe of something that can kill you and being reminded that you’re not necessarily the top dog.”
It’s no secret that Everything Everything haven’t always claimed as much limelight as they have done of late, and that their success didn’t happen overnight. The four members frequently speak openly about struggling to gain recognition in the band’s early days, playing to dishearteningly small audiences just for the petrol money to reach the venue.
In spite of these difficulties, Spearman claims that given the chance to go back, he wouldn’t do anything differently. “I think we were really lucky because we’ve now got to see every single scale of things. We get to play in arenas — not our own shows but we still know what it’s like. We’ve played most of the festivals. We’ve seen it from the smallest venues, driving in our car, all packed in… to being on a sleeper bus and doing the rock star thing. A lot of bands, unfortunately, miss out on the first few years where you’re getting battle-hardened with arriving somewhere and the gear is terrible and you can’t hear anything, because that makes you a better band. If you just suddenly have a hit on the radio and then you’re playing massive venues, it’s great, but you miss out on becoming a band, in a sense. That’s why some of those bands don’t necessarily last the course; they don’t realise what hard work means sometimes, and it’s important.”
It’s clear that Spearman believes that bands have more important things to consider and strive towards than racking up digits and being at the top of the charts. He offers Arcade Fire as an example of a current, mainstream act that has triumphed without churning out megahits. “I think [they] have done a really great job [despite] not being on the radio that much, at least over here: not having huge hit singles, but playing huge gigs and having their own identity… They know what they stand for, and they say no to things, they do some really cool stuff without ever being too esoteric or too elitist. They’re a really big band [who] do it on their own terms and I have a lot of respect for that, because it’s very, very difficult to do.”
In our time of leaks, free streaming and pirate downloads, many artists are resigning themselves to the reality that the days of making millions from record sales are all but dead (unless, of course, your name happens to be Adele Adkins). Spearman appears to agree with this school of thought, but admits that he and the rest of the band pay little heed to the attendant figures, for fear of becoming too heavily influenced by them. “There’s room for Spotify, and [streaming] probably is the way things are going to all be going… but we don’t look at the numbers that much. Other people do, our manager tells us some numbers, and we go ‘great!’ We don’t want to be looking, and saying: ‘which is the most popular song? Let’s do another song like that!’ — that’s the danger of looking too much at those kinds of statistics, because second-guessing yourself is quite a dangerous thing.”
Get to Heaven is out now.