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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What do animals really think of us?

Animals are our fellow travellers on this earth. It's time we heard what they have to say.

The debate about what divides our species from the rest of the natural world is not a new one. In 180AD, the Greco-Roman poet Oppian of Cilicia declared that hunting “the kingly dolphin” was immoral, on the grounds that dolphins were once ­human beings but had exchanged the land for the sea, yet “even now the righteous spirit of men in them preserves human thoughts and human deeds”. The ancient Greeks deemed the killing of a dolphin equal to murder, and punishable by death. In the latter part of the 18th century Jeremy Bentham wrote:

It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate . . . The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Charles Darwin observed that the ­mental difference between human beings and other animals is one of degree rather than kind. In November 1870 Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, lectured the Metaphysical Society in Oxford under the title: “Has a Frog a Soul? and if so, of what Nature is that Soul?” And, a generation later, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”

In our hierarchical world, there are levels of awareness yet to be resolved. As we move through the post-imperial age of the Anthropocene, through what has become known as the Great Acceleration – the relentless sixth mass extinction that scientists and conservationists date to approximately the middle of the 20th century – the questions seem to be ever more urgent. We are faced, in other species, with the mirror of our own depredations.

The other day, almost by accident, I went to the zoo. Turning a corner, I saw what all the fuss was about. A crowd of people was gathered at the window, peering intently, holding up smartphones. Looking over their heads, I couldn’t see anything at first. Then, with a shock, I saw it. Sitting on a ledge, with its back to the wall, at one side of the glass pane: a gorilla.

It was so big I could barely believe it. I couldn’t compute it as a living creature; it looked more animatronic than animate. The largest person could easily sit inside it, and still be overwhelmed by its physical presence. It might even have been a person in a fancy-dress suit. It made me feel breathless. Against what I presumptuously consider to be my better nature, I kept looking at the primate, the prime ape. It was moving gently, and seemed to be muttering to itself. As I peered through the slightly misty, smeary glass, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Actually, I couldn’t look at it at all, for fear that it might look at me, that its gaze might meet mine and that, in its eyes, I might see my own reflection.

Our relationship with animals has been made even more urgent, and yet more remote, by the way they have become part of the 24/7 media cycle. A killer whale named Tilikum languishes in captivity and, in an apparently paranoid state, kills his trainer. A documentary turns the story around; as a result, the whale’s captors find their takings and stock value plummeting. Cecil the lion is shot in Zimbabwe by an American dentist and the outcry rings around the world. A small boy climbs into a Cincinnati gorilla enclosure and Harambe, a 17-year-old silver­back, gets shot. The very fact that these animals have names speaks to the notion that we know almost nothing about them. What they want, what they feel, what they say.

These narratives – the identities we impose on animals – say more about us than they do about the creatures. People speak for primates and cetaceans. Opinion is outraged. Action is demanded. Yet we have never been further from the natural world. Most of us experience it only vicariously, through such news stories, or in lovingly crafted documentaries that leave us stunned by the beauty of other species but utterly helpless, apparently, to save them from a destruction that we have set in train. There was never a better time to ask: what do animals really think of us?

To the Belgian philosopher, photographer and artist Chris Herzfeld, it is clear. In her book Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris, she draws on one ape’s story to stand up, shakily, balancing on the back of its bipedal legs, for all the others. In wonderfully concise and restrained prose (translated from the original French by Oliver Y and Robert D Martin), Herzfeld lays out the evidence for primate culture. Her particular area of study is that of apes in human captivity, a shared history of species which has a three-centuries-old history in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Here, and in hundreds of other zoos around the world, the boundaries between Homo sapiens and their nearest genetic neighbours are blurred.

Imprisoned non-human primates are “denatured”, she says: “false apes as opposed to natural apes”. Assimilated into our society, they have become unclassifiable and therefore problematic (hence the furore about the boy in the gorilla enclosure). From entertaining old French nobility – who would often be wearing their own fancy dress – to tracing their leathery, agile fingers over the touchscreen of an i-Pad, they “show a considerable good will in collaborating with humans”. Yet in adopting our characteristics (not least in popular culture, from the PG Tips chimps to Planet of the Apes), primates only underline the “fundamental trait of hominoids: ­plasticity”, an almost pathetic adaptability.

Wattana and her conspecifics can tie knots, using dexterous digits and even their mouths, in an almost abstract expression of art and craft. They decorate their captive spaces in simulacra of their wild nests; Herzfeld notes that in their native forests primates spend up to half their lives in such cosy shelters. She makes a telling point in noting how we give an anthropocentric account of their stories, observing that our natural history of apes focuses on their ability, or not, to use tools, disregarding their craft of such nests. This is an implicitly gendered bias, she hints. Biologists and other scientists, often men, rely on the “omnipresence of the tool”, a hard function, as opposed to the soft function of (home)making, of weaving, of fabrics. (Elaine Morgan, who revived the alternative evolutionary theory of the “aquatic ape”, faced a hostile reception to her ideas in the 1980s.)

Anthropomorphy may be a besetting sin for science; yet it also downgrades the experience and knowledge of the human keepers of captive animals. Their attachment to their charges is the “love that correctly reveals the kinship”, as Herzfeld puts it. If apes produce artefacts, then surely the most astounding notion in her book is that of an intrinsic aesthetic sensibility among primates. Chimpanzees are adept at creating art, painting and drawing if given the materials. They will compose and make marks, and consider their artwork with a degree of concentration that seems to indicate artistic expression.

Nor do they need the tools and media we supply. In Sri Lanka, elephants have been seen to draw in the sand with their trunks. For Herzfeld, this is an example of Funktionslust in other animals, “a pleasure in doing what they know they do well”. But is it art, too: a blackbird singing, long after the urge to reproduce has been satisfied; a raven exulting in its aerial acrobatics; a dog “excited by the tumult of the waves”; a bower bird painting its twig-and-leaf-litter constructions with sticks daubed in berry juice?

It is arrogance on our part to argue that these are mere mechanics. Darwin – who was disconcerted by the extravagance of peacocks – believed that birds have “a taste for the beautiful”. A scene in Wattana haunts with its potent poetry: that of Chantek the orang-utan, taught to communicate in sign language by the anthropologist Lyn Miles and taken out for an evening walk in the Tennessee hills. Chantek points up at the moon and asks, “What is that?”

Frans de Waal has been working with apes for forty years. As an ethologist, he too is keen to address animal cognition. In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he turns the ­argument neatly on its head. He not only disregards the doctrinaire scientific scepticism about anthropomorphy but positively celebrates it, describing the isolationist attitudes of ­animal behavourists and their studies of “non-humans” as “anthrodenial”. (De Waal is inordinately fond of arcane terms – my favourite being “theriomorphic”, indicating the state of transformation from human to animal.) He makes clear that what was once regarded as the crucial potential in our relationship with other species – that they may possess the ability to use language, 
like us – is really not the point. Unlike the hopes of 1960s renegade scientists such as John Cunningham Lilly, who believed we might one day speak to captive cetaceans in “dolphinese”, De Waal’s accent is on more important assets that we share: culture, empathy, morality, even politics.

He draws these conclusions from his first-hand experience with primates. “I regularly have this eerie impression that apes look right through me,” he writes, “perhaps because they are not distracted by language.” His recurrent trope is the notion that we are set apart from other species. He reasons that this denies the process of evolution which led to us, and is frustrated by the argument that “human evolution stopped at the head”: that our brains are so far in advance of the rest of the animal world that we represent a step change in development which can never be breached or rivalled.

Previous experiments in animal cognition have been tainted by this approach. Primates are said to do less well in tests than children; yet when the latter are in the laboratory, they are accompanied by parents or carers, who inevitably give their charges unconscious clues that allow them to respond to the task in hand. Chimpanzees – which respond equally well to emotion and social stimulation – are left alone, without reassurance, and consequently do less well. We dismiss their wondrous ability to imitate us as “aping”, a pejorative term that would be better seen for what it is: an acute awareness of our otherness, and, perhaps, their own attempt to bridge that gap. De Waal draws on his own experience and a vast array of scientific papers to support his ideas. His book is rich and digressive, if occasionally repetitious and circuitous. It is certainly a significant contribution to the debate.

Carl Safina is a more obviously empathetic guide. In Beyond Words, he takes us out of the laboratory and the zoo and into the wider, wilder world. We encounter elephants in Kenya which are able to sense the distress of fellow elephants that are being culled hundreds of miles away. Much of what they are “saying” to each other is below the frequencies we can hear. Their calls seem to be transmitted through the land, the very soil; pachyderms have a sense organ in their feet which allow them to “hear” others of their species. In this sense, they feel the Earth of which they are – or were – an integral part; as if their monumentality were an echo of their abiding but dwindling place on a vast continent. Safina stitches together 
human and natural history in a telling, salutary manner. He equates the slaughter of elephants with the terrible trade in human beings: the ships that bore slaves out of Africa were laden with ivory, too. The same trade is still going on, in the same place: elephants killed for their tusks, human beings exploited for their misery – refugees, all. “And,” as Safina argues, “because of human expansion, no refuge is safe long-term.”

He seeks to write around this world – a world of wolves intimately linked by family and association, and one of orca (killer) whales, whose social units are so tightly bound and expressed that for the duration of their lives males will never leave their mother. Safina ends up on the north-west Pacific coast, where he makes his most ­direct plea for interspecies understanding as he watches pods of orcas surf through the waters. Twenty-five million years ago, he notes, they were “in possession of our solar system’s brightest brain. In many ways it would be nice if they still were.” Only people create problems, he concludes. Orcas have never been observed to use any violence on their own species.

Elsewhere, scientists such as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell – whose groundbreaking book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins was published in 2015 – suggest that it is because these animals live in such large social groups that they have developed a high degree of emotional maturity: a kind of morality, in order to regulate and codify interactions. Others note that dolphins have highly developed amygdalae, the parts of the brain which process emotion. The American philosopher Thomas I White has even suggested that dolphins may be more emotionally mature than human beings. (Insert your own quip here.)

But it is easy to slip into post-human utopianism. I know many people who would prefer to share their lives with animals rather than with their own species. Some even try to become wild animals in their own right. The question remains: what keeps us apart, and will it end up being the death of us both? You won’t find an answer in any of these three books. But you will find some vital questions. Animals “are not brethren, they are not underlings”, as the naturalist Henry Beston wrote from his Cape Cod shack in the 1920s. He saw them as “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear . . . other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth”. Animals are our other, our fellow-travellers. For that reason, if for no other, we would do well to listen to them, even if we don’t want to hear what they say.

Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” is published by Fourth Estate

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel  by Carl Safina is published by Henry Holt & Co (461pp, $32)

Are We Smart Enough to Know  How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal is published by Granta Books (336pp, £14.99)

Wattana: an Orang-utan in Paris by Chris Herzfeld is published by University of Chicago Press (192pp, $26)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser