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

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era