FRENETIC POP ON THE UP AND UP, AND ABOUT THE DAWN/DEMISE OF MAN
Words and Interview By Laura Studarus.
It’s easy to imagine that Douglas Adams would have loved Everything Everything. Like the late Hitchhiker’s Guide scribe, the Manchester quartet deals in larger concepts such as life or death—parceling out their observations into a deceptively digestible package that plays well with pop culture.
Filled with jittery synth-pop refrains, art rock posturing, and razor sharp turns of phrase that would give Ford Prefect pause, Everything Everything’s second album Arc is a logical expansion of their Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Man Alive. But while the statement is bolder, the content is more personal, a decision that—to hear frontman Jonathan Higgs tell it—all came down to a matter of choosing connection over curiosity.
We caught up Higgs, who told us about getting personal with fans, taking a step of faith in recording the new album, and, on a “lighter” note, the rise and fall of mankind.
With your music’s frantic pace, why is it that you haven’t been snapped up for a promotional deal with Red Bull? You clearly have more energy than the average human being.
I think so, yeah! God knows why. We’re too weird for them, maybe.
How much did performing your debut Man Alive live influence the writing of Arc?
We were touring that album for the better part of a year. As a result we saw a lot of other bands play. We got to learn what parts of the record connected with crowds, and which bits we thought worked or didn’t. You don’t know that stuff when you’re a new band making your first record. So going into the second one, we had a much better idea of lots of things really. About music, basically. And communication, I guess.
Things that you wouldn’t necessarily know intrinsically.
Yeah, I think so. You’ve got to go through it to know it. Obviously we thought we knew everything. As you do… In many ways, that first record and that first touring process was kind of a big learning curve. We went into it pretty naively, and we came out of it quite knowledgeable about a lot of stuff. It was kind of our teenage record. Even though we were in our 20s.
Given that Man Alive did get a fair amount of attention in the UK, including being nominated of a Mercury Prize, was it more difficult to write this album, knowing that you had an audience waiting?
Well, the first time around no one gave a crap. No one knew who we were. Of course we knew that we must have done something right. That’s what we kept telling ourselves; just trust what we’re doing. Last time we were right. Lots of thought we should have chosen different songs, or changed this or that. But we’re going to do what we’re going to do. It paid off really well.
With the second record, we weren’t going to write the same album again. We weren’t going to fall into all those traps of trying to please people that we think need pleasing. The last thing anyone wants is [to] try and promote something that none of us believes in. We had to trust ourselves and try and make it good for us. Then we’ll see what the critics say. It’s not for them, it’s for us. People seem to like it sometimes! [laughs]
So is taking that step liberating, or a bit scary?
It’s a bit contradictory, but it’s not much fun without the other one. I think it’s good to have a bit of fear, otherwise you’re just really blasé and turn into a bit of an asshole. But you can’t be too worried about what people are going to say…Then you just become completely pointless.
Does Arc match the music you heard in your head when you started? Or is writing more about the discovery process for you?
After we had done Man Alive and we had been through the campaign, I felt that we had not made the splash we should. People weren’t understanding me. There was a persona in the music where people were looking at us like a freak show, and it was like, “What’s he talking about?”
I heard “that’s cool” on one hand, but on the other hand I wanted to make a connection to people. So we did set out to make a more understandable record in lots of ways. Lyrically, structurally the themes, everything. We wanted people to know, not just try to guess everything.
How important is it for the listener to understand you personally?
It’s becoming more important to me. If you give two or three years of your life to an artistic product, and you’re touring the world, and people are giving you the same blank looks everywhere you go, you want to say, “No, this is my life, this is everyone’s life! It means a lot to me!” I want to make it easier for more people to think, “I know you, and I know what you’re getting at here.” It’s not a sort of quick-dip message anymore.
It’s probably my age, I don’t know. We’ve done the part where we try to surprise and shock people. Now I just want to get close to people.
So it’s about connection over curiosity.
Yes. Exactly that.
Does Arc have a special meaning to you? The title seems like an interesting choice, since it has a high point, but it also slopes downward.
I think a lot about the dawn of man and the demise of man—whatever that may be. It’s quite a human thing, to ponder where we’re going. Are we at the top of civilization? Is it downward from here? Or are we at the bottom of a curve? I like the thought of juxtaposing the arc in my own life—whether I’m at the bottom or the top or where I’m going with the big picture of life and where it’s going. The curve of an arc seems like a beautiful way to describe the big stuff and the small stuff. It’s also quite a cool little word. It’s pretty descriptive without being alienating.
You sound like a bit of a philosopher.
I’m just a bit of dreamer I guess. I’ve always thought hard about the origin of mankind. It’s fascinating. It’s got to be the most fascinating thing to think about: how it began, and the other logical thing, where it’s going and when it will end.
Do you hold any personal beliefs on how mankind began or how we might all end?
At least about how it began. I’m pretty clear on that. I read as much as I can about science and life on earth. I feel as though I just about understand it now. Where it’s going, I don’t know. I guess the only way to measure what mankind did in the past tense is to go to a point where it’s ended and have a look. I guess that’s a negative view. Mankind has to end in order to appraise what we did. I don’t know how proud we’d be of what we’ve done. It’s a somewhat negative angle. But that’s the human condition, is it not? [laughs]
Overall, do you lean more towards pessimism or optimism?
I’m very good of making the best of bad situation. So I guess in that sense I am an optimist. But my cynical Britishness tells me that most things will fail and that we’re all doomed.
How much of writing music for you is about using it as a platform for expressing these big ideas?
I never throw away lyrics. I never feel like this is not a moment to say something. There are moments in music where you don’t want some dense crap about the end of the world. If it were all just one color it would be very very boring. So I jump between my life and my woes and the woes of humanity, and other things that are going on. Ridiculous elements of living now. The shop culture, and loads of things about the media. I wouldn’t ever exchange a good lyric for something that’s just sort of “Party time!”
Do you feel like musicians have a responsibility to bring meaning to their music? Or can it simply be about entertainment?
Everyone’s an individual. I wouldn’t go up to Nickelback and say, “You must stop singing.” There’s no responsibility or anything like that. It is an amazing opportunity, if you’re one of those bands that gets played on the radio and stuff. But you can reach just as many people making a political video on YouTube. But no one would want to watch it. I’d never be preachy, should you squander your opportunity to talk. Who cares? Not everybody wants to hear that. Everyone has got their own faults anyway. I don’t want all my tunes to be packed full of meaning. There’s parties, and pop, and pure emotion as well. Emotion is the best kind of music.
It goes back to what you said. If everything’s one color, that’s sort of boring.
Exactly. If there’s never anything of substance, nothing that you’ve heard in your life, it’s kind of boring. You’ve got to find a balance between being purely emotive and being ruled by ego and superego and that crap. One without the other is just no fun.
With working on Man Alive and Arc, was there a level of escapism evolved in writing and recording?
Yeah, definitely. I love playing computer games and turning off the lights, and turning the headphones up and properly escaping. Making music is quite an escapist pursuit. There are a lot of rules, but you can break all of them. They aren’t set in stone. Escapism is a great way of describing it. You can just jump into this total made up world, where everyone is concerned with how much these things matter, when none of it really matters at all. It’s made up, completely divorced from reality.
If humanity’s arc does end on December 21, of this year, as the Mayans’ predicated, what’s going to be your soundtrack to that?
Probably “Friday” by Rebecca Black.