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Nine Songs
Everything Everything

Jonathan Higgs goes in deep on the songs that shaped him, from childhood to beyond the apocalypse.

02 March 2018, 09:00 | Words by Matthew Neale

Jonathan Higgs remains fascinated by the musical elements that still inform his own band’s style: the thrill of novelty, the power of repetition, and the allure of narratives that defy easy resolution.

“I think about this stuff a lot. I read the news avidly, I think about where we’re going…” Higgs trails off as we wrap up our conversation about the songs he loves and the imminent decline of humanity. In many ways it’s a perfect snapshot of how the Everything Everything frontman operates, he’s relentlessly fascinated by the future but equally fearful of how the wreckage of the present will be assessed by future generations.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since bursting onto the scene towards the end of the last decade the Mancunian quartet have always had a flair for rendering global anxiety as something to be danced about. Even in 2010 their early singles "Photoshop Handsome" and "MY KZ, UR BF" seemed to spit out more ideas than their energetic math-pop knew how to contain. Though their sound has continued to evolve since then, the band have retained a spirit of both musical and intellectual playfulness that puts them head and shoulders above their peers.

In conversation, it’s obvious how much Higgs still gets a kick out of how a song - or one particular fragment from a song - can capture a feeling in a way that nothing else can. He talks of these moments like lightbulbs illuminating a cartoon character, a punctum that raises more questions than it answers. He talks of the discordant natures at the heart of bright melodies and of the joys that pierce the darkest lyrical turns.

More than anything, Higgs understands that the best songs and the best stories in any art form are the ones that always keep you guessing.

“Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” by The Zombies

“People kept saying that Odessey and Oracle was a forgotten classic and that The Zombies never got the attention they deserve, that’s when I checked them out and this song really stood out to me. It’s just on the right side of being over the top, because he’s picked this unsettling line - 'My hands won’t stop shaking,' - and he’s just repeating it again and again and the repetition alone is so powerful.

“It’s not judging, it’s not saying what was so terrible, just that his hands won’t stop shaking. The more times you hear that the more you think, 'Why? What the hell’s going on?' I think that’s much more powerful than some big description about what happened, or even how he’s feeling about it.

“It’s definitely something I’ve used lots of times in our songs, repeating something that might not seem that big, but once you’ve heard it a few times it starts to play with your mind a bit. Meaning becomes doubled and tripled and you begin to wonder why they’re repeating it. It’s a weird thing to do, repeating yourself; if you’re talking to someone, it’s kind of insane. I like the insanity that comes across in that.”

“She’s Leaving Home” by The Beatles

“Sgt Pepper’s was my childhood Beatles record. Again, it’s moving, but in quite an abstract way, just describing what she’s leaving behind. You don’t ever hear where she’s gone or why, but you get these little hints: she’s leaving home after living alone and yet her Mum and Dad are there. It’s all done with McCartney’s jovial style but it’s got this sadness in it, which I think he’s really good at - he’s done it lots of times, with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ being the absolute epitome of it.

“But that whole album made an impact on me as a kid. It’s a kind of dark, sickly-feeling album to me. It’s not very comfortable, it’s trippy and weird. You don’t really know where you are with it, it’s colourful, but in a ghoulish way. It’s a scary record for a child, because it’s just so weird. And ‘She’s Leaving Home’ holds you a bit closer than the other songs I think, even though it’s about someone leaving home. I also like the musical elements - the melody and the structure of it.

“The Beatles have been an ongoing influence in my life and I think if you like them as a child you’re always going to like them. But the great thing about The Beatles is the breadth and the evolution of their records, if you’re not feeling ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ anymore, you can dip in at different points and find different sides to them.

"There’s so many things they touched on. ‘Helter Skelter’ is basically the whole of The Who’s output in one song; the post-rock elements of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, that’s a fucking genre now! And they just did it for a laugh and never did it again. There’s so many little flashes like that and more than anything it just makes me feel like it would have been so amazing to have been around in a time when nothing’s been done.

“The other great thing about the Beatles was that they put stuff on those records specifically for children, tracks like ‘Octopus’s Garden’. I think that’s something that’s been completely lost now, because children are given adult themes in a friend way now, rather than saying, “Here’s something you might actually like, being a child. Don’t worry about the other stuff.” Although funnily enough, with Get To Heaven we got so many people telling us that their children really liked it. We were really pleased about that - maybe it’s the colourful nature of it. It’s definitely something I want to explore more.”

“Lithium” by Nirvana

“It’s a cliché, perhaps, but I can’t say this about any other song: I can literally remember the first time I heard ‘Lithium’. I remember being in the room when my sister put it on, almost in the dark and I remember thinking ‘What the hell is this?’ Much like any other kid really. But it properly blew me away in one sitting and that’s never happened since. And with the people in that room, I started a band within a few months. We played together till I was about 17 or 18.

“How do you even talk about Nirvana? Everything about them is so perfectly packaged, but in an accidental way - the way they look, the way Kurt sings, the way Dave plays. It’s a ‘lightning strike’ sort of band, and you can’t really copy it, you can’t really take anything from it except attitude.

“The lyrics are kind of awful if you actually sit down and go through them, but when you’re 14 they’re absolutely amazing. All of it works really well for a really specific time in your life. It’s absolute dynamite, and still is, I see more Nirvana t-shirts now than I did when I was a kid.”

“Another Body Murdered” by Faith No More and Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.

“This was something of an anomaly in Faith No More’s catalogue, from a film made in the early ‘90s called Judgement Night. The soundtrack was a sort of experiment where they would get bands - white people, essentially - and they would couple them with hip-hop groups and see what happened. This was one of my first introductions to hip-hop to be honest and it wasn’t even ‘proper’ hip-hop, it was bands playing with rapping over the top.

“I just thought it was absolutely amazing and I couldn’t get enough of it, this worn-out tape. ‘Another Body Murdered’ was one of the best tracks on it and it ended up introducing me to loads of bands and loads of rappers and this wasn’t like nu-metal, it was mostly edgy rappers. But then there was also a track ‘Fallin’ with Teenage Fanclub featuring De La Soul, things like that. It gave me a really broad introduction via a medium I already understood, which was bands.

“But because it was a faceless tape, I didn’t really know who everyone was or who was doing what on each track. I didn’t realise then what cultural lines might have been crossed, because it was all just blurred into one: here’s the guitar, here’s somebody rapping. It didn’t matter to me at all and I think that was a healthy way to discover that sort of music.”

“Climbatize” by The Prodigy

“I loved The Prodigy and obviously this album The Fat Of The Land was a big deal for us. I was about 13 years old when it came out and I’d already come up on their other two records, but this was just ‘whoa’. It was the best thing I’d ever heard. I can remember my brother talking to me about ‘Climbatize’ and saying that he got stoned to it and I remember thinking how cool that was. The production is just phenomenal across all their records to be honest.

“It felt like a new world to me then, this deeper dance thing; even though it’s not even dance music, really, but that was my childish interpretation of it. I loved that squall and I just thought they were a great band.”

“Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M” by Simon & Garfunkel

“I often listen to Simon & Garfunkel now and think they’re terribly produced, but they’re certainly a band who are perfect performers on record. There’s something to be said for their restraint; on a lot of tracks you think there might be a drummer but it’s just so quiet in the mix. When you think about what The Beatles were producing at the same time it’s kind of crazy actually - but it doesn’t matter, because their voices were always there when you needed them and that was all you were listening to essentially. They would supply the harmony for each other, as well as the melody and the words.

“’Wednesday Morning, 3am’ has got this absolute perfection to it. Fleet Foxes get pretty close in terms of recording multiple voices, but it’s not somewhere people tend to go. I loved it so much, because you could sing with it and you didn’t even have to sing either of their parts; there was always room for more. I always liked choral music growing up, but I felt that this was what choral music should be doing.

“I’ve always loved this particular song: just the sadness in it, the description of his girlfriend and the description of having to go because he’s committed a crime. It’s a really weird angle about these few hours he’s got left and it makes me sad every time I hear it. There’s loads of stuff that I didn’t understand in it too: a ‘hard liquor store’ for example. I had no idea what that meant! But they went to dark places.

“By the time I’d heard something like ‘7 O’Clock News/Silent Night’ the whole collage thing had been done so much and it didn’t seem that powerful to me. You’ve seen a hundred films that do it now and having sample speech in songs isn’t that crazy. But I bet when it first came out it would have been pretty amazing.”

“Electro-Shock Blues” by Eels

“I was a big fan of Mark Everett ever since I heard ‘Novocaine For The Soul’; I heard it once on the radio and bought the album the next day. It was perfect, almost like a Nirvana that were still alive. Little did I know that was their only song that was really like that, but I still fell in love with them, I loved Beautiful Freak. I guess I was following them so closely and thinking about his various woes so much and then this record came out. It was set in a hospital and a lot of things seemed to be set in a hospital for me, musically, at that time - The Bends had a lot of those themes on it too, for example.

“On the one hand there was this idea of the monotony of being in a hospital, the absolute depths of his misery, but at the same time he can’t seem to stop himself writing these theme tunes for happier scenes, like ‘Susan’s House’. He’s just got these terrible, heart-breaking lyrics but attached to these jovial little songs. There’s also loads of really cool sampling and the musique concrète stuff he does, particularly on Electro-Shock Blues, where there’s lots of ambience and you don’t know what instrument is playing what. It’s got a kitchen sink sort of vibe.

“Arrangement-wise too you’ll get really unusual stuff happening; lots of bass and then something weird with no drums. He broke a lot of rules for me when I was starting out and I started thinking, 'Well, you don’t have to have that in your song if you don’t want...' You could just have the beeping from a heart monitor and sing over that.”

“Cue the Strings” by Low

“I think I came across this record because it was produced by Dave Fridmann and I was interested in him at the time because of other stuff he’d done, particularly The Flaming Lips. I heard this record and asked other people about it and they were saying, 'Aren’t they kind of folksy?' And I was like, 'No! What? Have you not listened to them?' Because this album does have that quiet, acoustic thing at the heart of it, but Fridmann has produced it like In Utero or something. Almost all of the instruments are pushing at the top of the range and it gives this really weird feeling of a loud quiet band.

“This song ‘Cue The Strings’ has this kind of crappy, wind-up string sound, that sounds like it’s been recorded onto tape a hundred times with two voices singing over it. That’s all that’s in it. But you get this feeling as it goes on that it’s absolutely massive and it’s hard to describe why, but I think it’s something to do with that production, the way it’s just biting at the distortion level.

“It’s got this swelling feeling that’s like the sun rising and that matches the lyric; 'Here comes the cold sunshine.' You get the feeling of being on a planet that has no atmosphere and when the sun rises you’re going to get burned up. It feels like such a huge sound but it’s really only two voices and a keyboard. I think that’s a great example of the power of production.”

"He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot" by Grandaddy

“This is another great example of repetition, something simple and small that carries a huge resonance. There’s that line he keeps repeating: 'Don’t give up, 2000 man.' That whole record has got this incredible apocalyptic feel and the scene they paint over and over again is one of Earth covered in detritus from this era that’s become obsolete; something happened to humans and now all their crap is left everywhere, their computer keyboards and so on.

“I’ve used that idea six times in my own band: the title ‘Qwerty Finger’ is about a qwerty keyboard that washes up on a beach and at the end of ‘NASA Is On Your Side’ you’ve got children climbing over fridges. It’s because that imagery is so powerful and I don’t think anyone really went there again.

“I kind of believe that will happen and I don’t know if I believe it because of Grandaddy or because it’s a rational thing to think, but I do and I do still believe that our time will pass and all of our technology and crap will come to nothing. That’s a big influence for a band to have on a little boy I think.

“This song is probably the best one on there and the way it just keeps on going is incredible, both in terms of its length and that churning message: 'Don’t give up'. It made me feel that I was the start of life around that age, the ‘2000 man’ and that’s very powerful stuff if you hit the right kid at the right time.”

Everything Everything are on tour throughout 2018 including a show at Alexandra Palace 10 March. New EP A Deeper Sea is out now
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