Everything Everything: "The riots were kind of inevitable… if you’ve grown up to 16 with absolutely no opportunities"

Rob Pollard interviews <i>Everything Everything</i>'s Jonathan Higgs.

Formed in 2007 by University of Salford students Jonathan Higgs, Jeremy Pritchard, Michael Spearman and Alex Niven (since replaced by Alex Robertshaw), Everything Everything have established themselves as one of Britain’s premier indie bands. Their debut album, Man Alive, was nominated for the 2011 Mercury Music Prize, and helped forge their reputation as an outfit full of musical ideas. Their ascent looks set to continue, with new album Arc being well received by almost every music journalist in the country, and the first single from the LP, Cough Cough, has seen the band enter the Top 40 for the first time.

I spoke to frontman Jonathan Higgs ahead of the band’s world tour to uncover his politics and get an insight into life in Everything Everything.

Your second album Arc is out now and being really well received. It seems like a busy time for the band promoting the record and getting ready to tour. How’s everything going?

It’s all going great. Obviously, we were a bit nervous before we put it out but everything’s come together really well: the song’s done really well; the record’s sold really well; we’re in the charts; and we’ve had really good reactions all round. So yeah, couldn’t ask for much more, really.

Your first record, Man Alive, also got a great reception. It must feel good when the work you produce is appreciated by your fans and by the music critics.

Yeah, absolutely. One of the only things that we were wanting to definitely do was do better than last time. We thought if we did worse we’d be going backwards and that would be a bit sad, but we’ve done better so we’re really pleased.

For you, what are the main differences between Man Alive and Arc?

It’s quite clear really: we’ve made it far more open. It’s far less cluttered and far less difficult to work out what’s going on or what I’m saying. I think we tried to straighten it out and make it less distracting and more solid and strong. There are fewer places to hide I think, so that’s the main thing. It’s clear now who’s doing what. It took us a long time to be confident enough to do that.

I think I’ve heard you talk in the past about how you somewhat dislike this label that’s been attached to you of being an ‘intelligent‘ band. I’ve always thought it’s because it may seem arrogant or non-inclusive. Is that still a concern you have?

I don’t know, I mean, obviously there’s nothing wrong with being an intelligent band, I just don’t know how relevant it is. I think, really, all it can do is put people off. It’s just not relevant. No one knows how clever Michael Jackson was. I think it’s something people want to put on us because they think we’re trying to over-think things, and because lot’s of us did study music they think we’ve got a very calculated way of writing, and it just feels a little bit untrue to me. We should be judged on the basis of what we’re actually producing and what it makes you feel like, rather than how clever it is. We want people to feel things, primarily. There’s no point making clever music if no one cares.

I’ve heard Labour’s Alan Johnson is a big fan of the band. Is that true?

He is. He’s mentioned it a couple of times now and we were actually really pleased with that. I thought it was pretty cool. He said it on a programme with Portillo quite some time ago now - a year or so ago - and they were talking about how there’s no political music now and he said ‘actually, there is,’ and he mentioned one of our songs. He also said something else a bit later and we all leapt on it and were like ‘yes, check this out guys’.

How does the songwriting process work for you? Can you take me through how you move from a germ of an idea to a fully formed song?

It usually starts with me on a laptop and I primarily write like that now just because of the freedom it gives you. You don’t have to rely on what you can play with your hands, or what an instrument can do, or how many instruments you’ve got; you’ve just got complete freedom with a music program to make anything you want. Then I bring it to the guys and say ‘this is what I imagine,’ and they say ‘well, we can’t possibly do this or this, but what about this?’ Then we play a version of things. We try and make some things a reality and some things we just take elements of, like the tune, and the rhythm, and the harmony and sort of go from there. So it tends to start in a really free way, where it doesn’t matter that I can’t really play the guitar particularly well, or anything like that, I can just put it in with the mouse.

I love the song Kemosabe from the new album. That chorus riff is really, really infectious; I just cannot stop going back and listening to it. Tell me about how that song came about.

It’s by far the oldest thing on the new record - in terms of when we started playing it - and it’s still really good, and really pleasurable, which is unusual. It seems to have captured us. There’s a certain kind of joy in its chorus that keeps you coming back. It’s still one of my favourites to play and listen to even though we’ve been playing it a really, really long time, and I’m really glad about that.

Which bands have influenced you the most, Jon?

I guess Radiohead, primarily. They’re the biggest influence on me. And then I guess The Beatles are close behind or roughly equal. Those bands changed themselves so much that they’re just the ultimate example of not simply changing in order to please people, but continuing to change and still being good in different ways, which is just amazing.

Has forming in Manchester shaped the sound of the band?

I’m not sure it’s shaped the sound per se, but it’s definitely shaped the fact that we are a band. I think it’s a great place to be a band in; it’s got an amazing history, with a great gig-going community. It’s got a level of respect for bands that some other cities don’t have. You know, it’s a pretty crazy thing to say you’re gonna try and be in a band, but people in Manchester really accept it and say ‘OK go for it!’ There’s so many venues and such a great community so it makes it very easy to be in a band and I think anywhere else we would have found it harder. I think here is the best place for it.

What’s your take on the whole ‘Manchester music’ thing? Music that hails from Manchester tends to have very strong associations which you don’t necessarily fit in with, yet you often get lumped in with that scene.

I think if you were to actually put a timeline on the wall and wrote down every Manchester band, and the years they appeared, and the years they peaked and all the rest of it, you’d see that there was a trend in the 90s with Oasis and before that Madchester, and that was really big. It was a national thing, if not an International thing, but there’s still been a constant flow of good bands and they don’t sound very similar to each other. I mean, Elbow - where do they fit into that? Where do the Ting Tings fit into that? Not everyone’s favourite band but they were a success and they were from here. Where do the Bee Gees fit into that? I think what was important about the Madchester scene was that those bands were trying to do something new, and everyone in the country loved it and it became a massive thing. I think we’re just doing the same thing: trying to do something new. There’s a strange expectation that music from this city has to sound a particular way because there was a certain type of music that was popular quite a while ago now. It’s a bit strange because you don’t really get that elsewhere. You get it in Liverpool a bit, where The Beatles overshadow everything that comes out of that city which must be terrible for new bands. We’re lucky that our history isn’t that long ago. You know, I would never put us on a par with those bands, but we’re another example of a Manchester band trying to do what they think is good, really. I don’t think it’s anything crazy or different.

Who were the key people in Manchester who really helped get Everything Everything going?

There’s Richard Cheetham at Night & Day. He’s not there anymore but he used to run that place and he gave us our first ever gig. It was only about six weeks after our first ever rehearsal, he took a punt on us and said ‘yeah, OK you can play’. That was a great boost and he put us on a lot of times. Dave Haslam supported us very early on in any way he could. Marc Riley at BBC 6 played our songs very early on and kept getting us on the radio to talk and play sessions. And I guess, between the venues and the DJs, we’ve felt a lot of support since the start. We felt wanted, which is really nice. I think a lot of new bands are really unsure as to whether what they’re doing is good. When you get support early on it gives you a lot of confidence to keep going and keep believing in yourself at that early stage, which is great.

There’s also a great promotions company in Manchester called Now Wave isn’t there? They’ve put on the likes of Deerhunter and Alt-J really early on in their careers. Did you play for them?

Oh yeah, but that came a little bit later. They’ve been absolutely amazing. They’ve put us on some amazing things. We did this concert with lots of orchestra players at the Royal Northern College of Music and that was Now Wave and it was amazing. We love those guys.

Indie music seemed to be artistically dead during the mid-noughties but it seems there has been a renaissance in recent years. Do you agree it had become spent in terms of its artistic and cultural relevance?

Well, it’s a strange one because it was more relevant than ever. Well, it was more prevalent than ever. Everyone was in an indie band and indie bands were everywhere. It was utter saturation. In terms of a renaissance, I don’t know, every other person I talk to says guitar music is dead, and everyone else says guitar music is coming back. I don’t really see any difference, to be honest. I mean, yeah, it’s not very fashionable to be in a jingly-jangly guitar band right now but I’ve become quite disconnected from what people say is happening because I don’t really believe any of it. I could name you ten bands who sound exactly like The Libertines and ten bands who, back then, sounded like us. It’s up to the media really, and what they want to promote at the time. I don’t think it really relates to people at all. I think they get what they’re given and have to act like this is a new thing when really none of it’s new, it just depends how people want to present it.

I wanted to talk politics with you as well. What’s your assessment of the coalition’s policies and the impact they’re having on the most vulnerable people in our society?

There’s definitely a generation, or several generations, that just don’t feature on the political map at all. The non-working people, and anyone at the lower end of society, just don’t feature. They don’t really have a voice, and they don’t vote because no politicians give a shit about them. The coalition’s general, sort of, faffing around just seems to be horrible compromises that don’t really help anybody. When you’ve got Lib Dems and Tories coming together, I mean, what is that? Middle ground between those two just can’t exist, and so you just end up messing everything up in general.

What about the riots then. Obviously, the riots themselves subsided relatively quickly but the anger and disenchantment hasn’t really gone away. What do you think of the response from politicians?

It hasn’t gone away and beforehand there was no indication that it was coming. I think it surprised a lot of people - it certainly surprised the government - nobody knew what the hell to think about it. It confused everybody, and everybody wanted some quick fire response to it to explain it away but it’s not been explained away. I don’t fully understand it but I think it was just a huge wave of disenfranchised youth who decided to get together one day, essentially, and go and take all those things they’ve been told they need to have to live a happy life and they can’t have because they haven’t got any money. It was kind of inevitable, really, and it seems inevitable again. Things are only getting worse with the recession in terms of unemployment. It’s not like things are better than they were that summer. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing I’d probably be out rioting myself [laughs]. There’s no plan for anybody in place, and there’s no hope. There doesn’t seem to be anybody with a solution to anything, it’s just a steady, steady decline across Europe, and across the world, of opportunity, and if you’ve already grown up to, say, 16 with absolutely no opportunities, and all you can see ahead of you for the next 10 years is less opportunity then, yeah, you haven’t got much to lose. It’s inevitably going to happen again, or worse.

I agree that it was a sense of hopelessness and a lack of voice in the political system that caused the riots, even if the young people involved didn’t brilliantly articulate their reasons.

I’m sure if you’d asked them on the day they’d have said ‘fuck the police,’ and they would have said ‘I want some Nikes,’ but the root of that is essentially there’s no other way to think because there isn’t anything else apart from your Nikes and Fuck the Police because no one has said ‘you could achieve this’. There isn’t the opportunity because there’s no facility for it to happen. There’s no plan in place.

What are the odds of Labour returning to power with Ed Miliband at the helm?

I don’t know, 50-50 to be honest. I don’t think anybody particularly likes the Tory government. I think they’re just having their turn, and I think they’re not doing any better than Labour would. Miliband’s not the most charismatic of leaders, but David Cameron’s a twat, so take your pick. I don’t think it’s a shoe-in for the Tories by any means. With a different leader Labour would have more of a chance but in terms of general public and what they think of the Tories, it’s hardly amazing. I think most people are pissed off with all three parties, to be honest, and voter apathy is off the scale and no one knows what to do. It’s kinda like: ‘give them all a shot, see if we can make it slightly better, because no one particularly likes what we’ve got’.

Voter turnout definitely reflects what you’ve said. I think the last three elections have seen the lowest turnout figures in 30 years. It seems no one wants to vote.

No, why the hell would they? It’s all the same and no politician has a trump card and unfortunately all the possible solutions are very slow, painful responses to what’s going on because we’re in a shit situation and you can’t just jump out of it, unfortunately.

What about religion. Are any members of Everything Everything religious?

No, we are all atheists. It’s not even something we consider now, really. The vast majority of people I know have always been atheists and we don’t even really bother talking about it anymore. It’s kind of a done deal. We’re all scientists, really.

Do you think religion is maybe being squeezed out of our culture?

Yeah, it is. It’s not being forced on anybody anymore, which is nice. Yeah, I think it is being squeezed out and I don’t think it’s particularly a bad thing. I feel like religion has had its turn, it’s had thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years, so for it to have not had a massive influence over the last hundred is fine by me, to be honest.

What are the plans for 2013?

We’ve got a lot of touring, we’ll be making some videos, and lots of....... touring! Just basically back in the swing of being a band. Essentially, we’re just promoting the record, I mean, it’s very early days. We’ve just got a lot of people to play it to now. Get out round the world and do that until we get bored of it and start writing another one.

Photograph: Getty Images

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.