Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
EE Re Animator promo

Modern life is rubbish

27 August 2020, 09:12

As the band prepare to release their fifth album, Everything Everything's Jonathan Higgs is caught in a familiar fantasy: returning to a primitive past.

After establishing himself as a master of abstraction, Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs just wants to tell it like it is – if only we'd let him.

“I mean, there are some songs on Re-Animator where I couldn't be more clear and people are still trying to interpret me like... 'What does he mean?!'” he laughs. “I mean, I'm just saying that, mate. But I've set myself up in a way that now … I can't really be direct.”

Despite his protests, Higgs has, to be fair, just written an album inspired by a theory of primitive brain mechanics. The lead single, the walloping “Arch Enemy”, tells the winding tale of a split-minded man who mistakes his inner monologue for the voice of God, and ends up praying to a sentient Fat Berg festering in the sewers beneath him. Whilst the message is there, “Where Is The Love?” this is not. Does writing through a conceptual lens help lessen the anxiety of handling such dystopian subject matter?

“Maybe it was anxiety that made me write like that to begin with,” Higgs admits. “But now it's just … boredom? I'm sick of seeing and hearing the same things, when there are different colours you can paint things in, and different combinations of emotions. That's what intrigues me. I don't think people go through their lives like” – he puts on an uncanny robot voice – “'I am thinking of this one thing right now.' We're all thinking a million things at once. You're thinking about your girlfriend but you're also thinking about … Trump! Or how you're going to be very old one day. Or you're thinking about the way it feels when you break your leg and it makes you feel alive. All these things are combined in the mind, so why not in art?”

“There's nothing wrong with having a strong, pure feeling and writing a song about that. I guess I just rarely do. I'm always clouded by other things.”

But Higgs and his bandmates have simplified their sound a lot since they first got nominated for a Mercury back in 2011. Whilst their debut Man Alive was definitely pop, there is a chasm between the gentile new single “Violent Sun” and the frenzied flamboyance of tracks like “Qwerty Finger” and "Schoolin'" – back when every bar fought for your attention. Re-Animator's arrangements are sharp but not intellectual, with a fondness for robust backbeats, thrumming synth hooks and a notable absence of guitar noodling (“Alex hates the guitar,” jokes Higgs. “I'd say he's one of the best guitarists in the country and he doesn't even like them. He'll be like 'Oh, do we have to have the guitar in this one?' And I don't think you find that in other bands, especially ones with superstar players.”)

There are strong, pure feelings on the new record, too. “In Birdsong”, the first single, is written from the perspective of an early human whose experience of the world is overwhelming. Its chorus ends with the line “I'm vapour in your love” – beautiful, but also quite unfiltered. “Yeah ... that's a good example, actually,” he says. “I'm very led by emotions and I definitely I can be quite irrational when it comes them. So that kind of … disproves what I was just saying,” he laughs, conceding that the difference now is what he wants to give the band's listeners.

“I used to care about breaking new ground and now I care about translating a feeling into something someone else can feel”. Higgs says that the aforementioned 'Bicameral Mind Theory' – which posits that, when humans first evolved, our left brains and right brains were separate, with messages delivered between them – sparked a lot of lyrics on Re-Animator. But understanding the theory isn't really necessary to 'get' the record. “The way that theory made me feel was what I wanted to communicate. I didn't really care if people understood the science behind it. I mean I don't fully understand it. It's not even that well supported. And I don't want people to be thinking 'Well, how does this left brain / right brain thing work?'. No. I just want you to know that there's this amazing feeling you can have by thinking about how consciousness started. And isn't it amazing that we have consciousness at all? Life is insane.”

“And it doesn't matter if you understand what chords we're playing or how this rhythm works or... all that kind of crap that used to mean a lot to me. I just wanna get you to feel stuff. Which is probably what everyone has said since the dawn of art isn't, it?” he smiles. “It's just taken me a long time to get here, that's all.”

The first two videos that accompanied this album – for “In Birdsong” and “Arch Enemy” – were both created by Higgs, who's been utilising lockdown to brush up on his 3D animation skills. Learning a new craft has been a way of 're-animating' his own creativity: as he puts it, “When something's brand new you do a bunch of crazy shit you would never think of.”

The new videos themselves are both impressive and unsettling. “In Birdsong” strings together images of broken, crystallised bodies in half-formed landscapes, assumedly the brilliant fruit of Higgs' new-starter experimentation. “Arch Enemy”, in contrast, brings to life the song's nauseating Fat Berg protagonist and ends with a city drowning in its own waste. I confide that this last one really grossed me out. Higgs responds with a jubilant shout.

“Yes! See, in the song, the description is that he's just a faceless, blobby, horrible thing,” he grins. “And we decided purposely to make him really stupid-looking.” The creature's manic, roller-eyed expression was nicked from The Crazy Frog, which Higgs describes as “the crap-est thing in the public arena to refer to”. “It should have been even more grotesque but the guys in the band were like... 'Jon, this is going to be a single'.”

Higgs credits his dad – who collects skulls – for seeding his fascination with the grotesque. Growing up, animal heads were often left, skin still intact, on the doorstep of his childhood home. “There is one human one, too,” he teases. “And there are all sorts of techniques for getting the flesh off. You can boil them, although apparently boiling is a very bad technique. And there are different chemicals you can use. We got some flesh-eating insects from Africa once to take the flesh off really quickly – they escaped though."

With all this body horror present in his art and his upbringing, I'm saddened to find that the album's title isn't a reflection of Higgs' love of the 1985 R-rated classic. “It's named after the film only in a sense that I think I probably heard the title as a kid. I said to the guys, 'I think we should call it Re-Animator' and then quickly watched the film in case it was terrible or racist or... but it was pretty good. Pretty stupid too.”

The title works in other ways, though. To Higgs, a 're-animator' is anything that tugs you out of autopilot – something that “makes you think suddenly 'Oh my God, I am alive! Isn't this amazing!?' rather than just going about your life like a zombie.”

“And I think a lot of people go through life like that. I certainly do. Without really sort of … living – very disconnected from nature and instinct. We've changed everything so quickly that we're still trying to get to grips with living in the modern world. And we're not really suited to it. No one is, could how could you be? 500 years of progress, so much has changed, and yet we're so disconnected from what we should be doing.”

“It's kinda like Fight Club. When you get punched in the face, you're suddenly an animal again, you're alive again. Or when you have sex, or fall out of a plane. Just for one minute, you're an animal. And that's kind of where you're happiest. And then you have to go back to attending to all this” – Higgs scrunches up his nose in contempt and holds up his phone – “… crap. Like, this is somehow what it means to be a homo sapien. It's not. It's just a load of bollocks that we've made.”

Does Higgs think there was a point where humanity got the right balance between primitive life and civilisation? “Supposedly it was around the year 1400, but I don't know who made that rule. A sort of balanced state with enough agriculture and medical breakthroughs, when we weren't completely fucking the planet either, and we weren't completely disconnected from ourselves. I'd maybe put it a bit before then...”

You don't have to look far in Higgs' lyrics to find allusions to us 'fucking the planet'. He's very careful not to romanticise the pandemic, but the fleeting moment earlier this year when there were no planes in the sky, and fewer cars on the road, clearly affected him. “All that's turned back now,” he says, gravely. “But for a brief magical period nature kind of … bounced back. I thought that was really great. Unfortunately it was at the expense at lots of awful things happening in people's lives, so we can't dwell on it too much.” The band's own imaginings of the environment 'bouncing back' tend to have a more vengeful edge – I'm reminded of the “Duet” video, and a vision of the lads caked in volcano dust. I wonder if he's in support of the idea that pandemics and the like are just nature's 'payback' for the sins of humanity.

“Well, it depends if you think nature has a will,” he responds. “I think the Earth will be fine in a billion years, but it depends what you think that means. We might not be here in a thousand years. Life of some description will continue, and that's worth celebrating. But I don't think it'll be us.” How long have we got? “I mean, we've managed to put ourselves in a position where it could be not long at all. Of course I like the fact we have the lives we live, but I've also felt pretty unnerved about the consequences. The Air Miles my tomatoes take; the Fat Bergs we create under our cities; the lead in the sky. There's this sense of unease and un-sustainability of it... the waste.”

“I don't think climate change will kill every man and woman on earth – there's no reason why it would – but it could get pretty close.”

Despite his warm Northern intonation, Higgs' sadness at the state of the world fills the pauses in our conversation. As on my desk, the Smartphone he held up as an emblem for everything that is unnecessary about modern life still sits a few inches away from him. As methods like mindfulness and minimalism have taken off in the last few years, I ask gently whether he's found any similar, perhaps less trendy, ways to declutter his life, or reconnect with himself. He laughs quietly.

“Erm... no. Not really. I have a little bit but I haven't gotten very far. And I've had an awful lot of weird stuff go on during this period, so it's been quite difficult. There are so many distractions. And I love my phone, and I love all this crap, really. Maybe at the end of the day all of this is just a middle-class fantasy.”

“I think that's the big message of all the music I make. It's not saying 'Throw it all away and let's do something'. It's saying 'Uhhh, it's shit isn't it?' and 'Don't you think it's a bit shit too?' and everyone goes 'Yeaaaah! We really understand you Jon” – a dry laugh – “'Let's all just not do anything'.”

Higgs points to a lyric from “The House is Dust” on Everything Everything's second album, Arc, as typifying that sense of terminal impotence. “I'm living proof that nothing gets done. That's sort of my mantra, really. It's a big shrug. I don't know how useful it is, other than connecting with people and making them go 'Yeah, we also aren't going to try and change anything... let's just sing about it'.” Surely there's some merit in that? “Yes – but it's being the bard during.... there's greater value in doing the thing, the hard thing. I'm sort of journaling the easy thing.”

Re-Animator will be Everything Everything's fifth album – a milestone few bands of their stature reach. Higgs is full of praise and appreciation for his band members, and says their success has a lot of do with a collective absence of ego. “We've always split everything four ways and there hasn't been any hierarchy in that sense. I think that kind of stuff ruins relationships in bands. It's important to take care of your friends.”

He's also conscious that, without wanting to sound too authoritarian, everyone understands their role. “When lots of bands begin, they're like 'Yeah, we'll all write the songs and we all do everything', but after a time you realise that people are better at different things. We've found ourselves very well suited to everything that needs doing – like, I can't do finance or send emails or sort stuff as I'm a totally chaotic person, but I'm very creative and I can do musical and visual stuff. Likewise, Alex is very good at doing creative stuff but also he's great at pushing and challenging us musically – as I say, I'm quite happy to fall back on simpler things, and he wants us to keep pushing the envelope, which I think is a great combination.”

At least ecosystem inside the band is functioning just fine. With such a supportive team around him, Higgs has spent these last, long months writing new music. “I can tell you, no question, if I didn't have these particular people in this band, I wouldn't be able to do this,” he insists. “There's loads of shit they do that I can't. And visa versa... hopefully.”

Re-Animator is out 11 September.
Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next