Everything Everything released their third album Get To Heaven this week, and it's emerged as one of the strongest, most vital works of the year. In our review, we said that: "[the band] aren't exactly at the vanguard of a rebellion as such, but they're clearly willing to start a dialogue. This is pop music with complex narratives, and if the masses are willing to listen, they could be the band that recharges the UK charts with genuinely meaningful music."
Written in 2014 in the wake of an unending tide of atrocities, the band created a blend of pristine indie-pop with harrowing subtexts about terrorism, politics, and humanity.
It was produced with Stuart Price (Madonna, Take That, Kylie Minogue), and is a marked departure from it's predecessor, Arc.
We spoke to the band's chief lyricist and singer Jonathan Higgs about exactly what's going on during their mission to Get To Heaven - after all, if one thing remains constant between the foursome's albums, it's that they're not the easiest bunch to decipher.
It's written as a letter to someone who is close a person who's done something terrible. Basically, it's three times removed from the person who did the act themselves, and I'm talking to somebody - maybe their son has joined ISIS and is rejected from society or their wife has become a monster - about this feeling of not understanding why what is happening is happening, or how anybody could ever be driven to something terrible. I'm almost trying to comfort them... but there are also bits in the song that suggest that in the right situation anyone would do the same thing, and that's really very scary, but I think it's worth saying. It's something people won't consider for a second - that they could be one of these monsters if they were in different circumstances.
It's looking at the fact that history repeats itself - that comes up a lot on the album. If you look back at people a thousand years ago, think how violent they were and how much we've learned since then, then turn on the TV and look at what we're actually up to... it doesn't feel any different to me. I think we're foolish to think that we're somehow improving the way we interact with each other; everything still comes down to this question same question of 'why can't you be more like me?', which is what all conflict boils down to, be it conflict of religion or conflict of politics. All these insane things still dictate who gets killed and who doesn't. The main thing I'm saying is that I want to go back to before we had all this complexity. Can't we just go back to when all we had to do was catch our dinner and build a shelter? Maybe that's where we should've stayed - as animals.
It has this central theme of 'rising above', and that's really where the joy of it lies. The whole idea of it is that it's slightly sarcastic, where I'm talking about really awful things happening - there's an old man burning himself alive, the streets are filled with soldiers and tanks - and the narrator/protagonist is just responding with 'oh... where did I park my car?', as if completely desensitised to it. There's horror in our faces every day, and we are slowly caring less and less. I care less and less, and it's worrying that I'm becoming desensitised to the sheer amount of horror. This phrase, 'get to heaven', is something that everybody is arguably trying to do in their own way - even the people who are blowing themselves up, they're just trying to get to heaven... it's just a different heaven. I love the fact that the song sounds so positive, but it could be siding with terrorists as well. I like that duality.
Loads of the time on the record I'm setting out the stall, like there's clearly something bad happening and then I'm suggesting that maybe I would be on that team with one or two changes in my life. I'm not resolutely patriotic, I'm not into the general narrative of the West. I'm quite 'anti-West' in a lot of ways, and I do sympathise with some - some - of the things that people would never even consider. That's not at all to say I agree with any of the awful, awful shit, however. I'm certainly closer to that stance than a lot of people... but talking about these things and understanding them is important, as opposed to putting them in a box and throwing them away; that's a way to perpetuate the problems in the world, and, as stupid as it sounds, I feel far too bold to be doing that. I feel that there's not better things to be doing. We should be more mature about it.
It's not actually [about girls going to Syria]. Someone wrote that in one of the early interviews, and everyone else copied it, which is understandable, but it's not the crack. I wanted the album to be littered with predictions and clues that I was going to become a terrorist... become the other. I wanted people to piece the album back together after it'd finished and find these clues, and one of them is in "Regret" - this feeling that I'm going to do something soon and you're all going to hear about it. I wanted that threat to open the song and be a constant unnerving thing throughout the record. I can see how does work in the context of girls going to Syria, or that kid that just went and got killed though.
All that feels so local to me. This recurrent issue with ISIS, there's people like Jihadi John... he's from England, some of the people he's killed were from very near me. Those guys, very ordinary guys, were just thrust onto the world stage, and it's fucking crazy... "Regret" is about the importance of the individual, as in one guy's knife against one guy's neck becoming global news. The power of that is insane. It's the most powerful thing you can do on Earth, apart from kill yourself, I suppose.
Lots of things go into the song, but it comes out quite benign in the end. I think about all this a lot more when I actually write lyrics down. It's more a song about regretting mistakes and wishing things were different.
When you first hear it you might think I'm naming all the seasons, which I'm not of course, but it's this idea of the cyclical nature of growing older and becoming jaded, or part of the establishment... becoming just like all your forefathers and making all the same mistakes. I used to be much more idealistic than I am now, and I worry that I'm caring less about other people and things like that. Neurotic bollocks [laughs]. The verses deal with the fact that throughout time you always kings and paupers, mixed with some of the stuff that was happening in Israel last year with the children being killed on the beach and just how wrong that was. The end breakdown bit about the baboon is a paraphrasing of this 17th century insult - 'you are a thief and a murderer and you have stolen the face of a baboon', or something - and when I first read that, I just thought that it was the most weirdly specific insult. It sounds quite modern as well, I think, and if someone said that to me now, it'd mean just the same. The fact that such an old insult still has the same meaning now brought the whole idea of the song back to me in a very realistic way: things haven't really changed.
This is as close a touchstone to UKIP as you're going to find on the album, but really it's about the wider scale. It also brings in the idea of religious leaders and charismatic, corrupt leaders, or even men as gods. I guess it's more generally about the idea of a person being elevated above others and having power over them, which is also what the image on the front cover is supposed to be as well. A lot of the verses talk about mildly racist stuff, and my reaction to it (feeling sick), and the amazement that these people are getting anywhere at all. As usual, in the chorus, I'm kind of doubting myself and going 'what is it about this guy? Is it the way he calls your name?', and thinking maybe there is something. Maybe I'm being drawn in as well. I mean I wasn't drawn in by UKIP for a fucking second, but that's not to say I couldn't be drawn in by something equally abhorrent that caught me at the right time on the right day.
If the record is leading up to, or in the aftermath of, a horrific event, then "Fortune 500" is the event. It tracks the awful thing second-by-second, and it's a metaphorical break into Buckingham Palace, and getting the Queen, drilling a hole in her head to let the spirits out, killing all the dogs... it's got this core of doubt in it though, and the narrator/protagonist keeps saying to himself 'they told me I should do this... I don't want to but I think it's the right thing to do'. There's this line - "I've won! I've won! They told me that I've won!" - it's the sense that this guy's there, bloodied hands with sirens blaring outside, having a moment of realisation, asking himself 'what the fuck have I done?'. It's supposed to be the last few seconds of doubt that goes through a suicide bomber's mind, feeling peer-pressured into blowing themselves up. The fact is though that this is happening all over the world, and people are getting cajoled into doing crimes that they don't know much about. The horror of the doubt is far worse than the act, for the terrorist I mean. It's this 'oh shit... maybe this isn't what God wants'. I think it's the darkest moment on the record.
It's difficult to describe, but it's basically a very angry rant at pretty much everyone, including myself, with a central theme of 'you don't give enough, you say you're gonna change but you never have the time', but then me replying with 'I'm preparing, I'm gonna do something... it might be good, it might be bad, but in my animal heart I'm getting ready'. The verses are these quite insulting lines telling everyone that they're stupid shits [laughs]. It's a nasty sentiment, but I'm just as bad. Some of the funniest stuff on the record happens in that song too, like the line "Eyes so close together makes it hard for the sniper," and I don't know if anyone's realised that. Me and my brother, when we were kids playing games, we'd talk about sniping each other right between the eyes, but in a cartoon, if you're stupid your eyes are so close together they're touching and it makes it impossible to shoot between them... I find it funny anyway [laughs].
It's an extension of what I was saying before about men as gods wielding far too much power corrupting them. Pharaohs are really the ultimate example of that - they somehow managed to get thousands of people to spend hundreds of years (or however long) to literally kill themselves dragging stones meant for a huge tomb, and they had slaves buried alive with them too so that they would have slaves in the afterlife... just the most insane shit, really. They were revered as gods. I was very interested in North Korea a while ago, and what's happening there in the way they deify their leader, and what that means and what it would feel like, and how fucked up it is. The central question being asked in the song is would you say no if you were offered that power? I'm also asking why - why you wouldn't say no, why won't you just turn it down? At the very end of the song I say 'I'll smash up your Pharaoh and I'll take it myself; I'll be corrupt... I'm no better'. It's the expression of absolute power corrupts absolutely, and then me being sucked into that corrupted wormhole. Despite it being kinda laid-back sounding, I'm being pretty snarky about it all, like when I sing: "They tell me he’s a household name/only no one has a house anymore..." or the general feeling of 'oh well, everything's fucked up, but at least we have the Pharaoh!'
It's written as if I'm rejected from society just about to do something awful. I wrote that at a time when I was feeling quite separate from, even against, society as a whole. I was feeling quite hateful towards my own country and my own place in the world, and feeling like I didn't really like Britain or what it stands for. I don't necessarily feel like that all the time, but I do sometimes.
The song has this theme of fat pouring down the streets and clogging every hole - that's how I was feeling about the general public, me included. We're just this blobby, inactive, privileged, big, pale blob, and I wanted to use this metaphor of this massive fat-tsunami washing through the city streets and going into the gutters. That was how I felt; it was how I felt about a big do-nothing society that hadn't changed. It all comes back to being fat really... it's like one of the things that you just see; I'm kind of fat, and I don't like that about myself.
A few of my friends have become conspiracy nuts in the past few years, and I flirted with that idea for a bit, but I realised that it's really romantic to imagine a world run by reptiles with a super-evil plan masterminding eveything. It's much scarier, and much more likely, that the people at the top are just fat, bald, old men, like soft-boiled eggs, that are just weak-willed, with no strong feelings (good or ill). They're lily-livered and easily swayed and quivering and wobbling. To me, that's a horrible thought, but it also makes me feel guilty: if I was at the top, would I be a weak-willed, quivering, chubby overlord?
In terms of the song's darker stuff, with the line "I'm gonna kill a stranger", there is also the follow up line: "So don't you be a stranger...", which obviously means don't be a stranger, don't leave me, don't go away etc., and it that way it's almost a cry for help. But then it also means 'I won't kill you... if you're my friend'. It's got this double-edged feeling throughout. Then the song changes and I'm likening myself to a fat child in a pushchair, sort of helpless and inactive and no use to anyone in the world that needs help. I'm just idle, and no one wants to be idle, but we find ourselves in that position living in this country. We're passive, and we just get out our phones and move on. I wanted to say that in a sharp, insulting way to maybe make people snap out of that, to make them nervous and embarrassed. It's not horrifying, but it's a bit cruel, and I wanted to be cruel to people listening, and to myself. But then I'm saying "It's alright..." so it's again this weird accusatory-slash-helpful tone.
The song ends with me saying 'just give me one night, one moment to feel like I'm on the right path', pleading to just feel like I am helping the world, that I'm not useless. I think people have definitely connected to that and that sentiment of not wanting to continue as a negative or passive force in the world.
We decided to end with "Warm Healer" a while ago. One of the first things we said when we started making the record was that we were not going to have any quiet moments - all high energy - and that we weren't going to make a record like our previous one. Then we had this song, that wasn't quiet, it was still a bit dancey, that was almost calm. Resigned maybe. It's almost romantic. I'm much more wilting in that song, and the anger from throughout the rest of the album has finally gone. It's called "Warm Healer" as it's almost soothing, like saying 'c'mon let's have a hug' after all the trauma. We thought that was a good way to end - not by insulting people and telling them they're shit, but with saying 'let's move on; let's be better' but not in a preachy way. I often feel like I wasted far too much of my life, and I'm asking 'where's my youth gone?' It's a lament about that, but there's positivity in it too. I think.
I didn't realise how much of a bad place I was in until after we'd recorded the album and I'd got some distance. I re-read my lyrics when I had to put them in the booklet, and all this shit - like one song after another after another about how much this guy hates people. I thought 'holy shit' as I don't really feel like that now, and I realised that a lot of that stuff had to come out in one way or another. I felt very, very upset with the way people treated each other last year, when we were writing, and a lot of that came out as anger. It made me feel a lot better to sing about it, and a lot of what was said really needed to be said by someone, even if I didn't. Even if my main message that people get is 'I don't know what's going on but I think you're all dicks... does anyone else feel like this?', that's important as no one was saying even that. Everyone was just letting it all go on, only saying 'ooh, isn't it terrible?', but not engaging or trying to understand why these things were happening, or not even having an opinion about our role in all of it. I just felt like I needed to say something, even if that is on a poppy-indie type record. Perhaps that's not the best way to do it, but I have that platform, so it's the one I used.
Everything Everything's third record Get To Heaven is out now on RCA; you can stream it in full below.