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

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution