Everything Everything's Jonathan Higgs: 'I don't want the band to be taken over by politics'

David Smyth
Mercury rising: from left to right, Michael Spearman, Jeremy Pritchard, Alex Robertshaw and Jonathan Higgs: Andrew Whitton

When I meet Everything Everything on the eve of their appearance at last night’s Mercury Prize ceremony, the band are unanimous on one thing: they’re not going to win.

“I’m going with the bookies and saying it’s going to be Nadine [Shah],” says singer Jonathan Higgs, shortly after arriving in London from his Manchester home for the event’s rehearsal. His quartet are less fussed about the occasion this time, now they’ve joined a prestigious club of double nominees that includes Adele, Blur and Paul Weller. In 2011 their odd, hyperactive debut, Man Alive, lost out to PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake — a verdict they don’t dispute. This time they were included on the 12-strong shortlist for their confident, louder, less jittery fourth album, A Fever Dream. While it was nice to be acknowledged, they don’t think it has made a huge difference to a career that has also seen them receiving five nominations at the Ivor Novello Awards, sending their last three albums into the Top 10 and playing to 10,000 fans at Alexandra Palace in March this year. A charity show at The Garage in Highbury next week will be a rare chance to see them up close.

“I certainly feel a hell of a lot more relaxed than I did the first time around,” says Higgs, 34. “It would have made a bigger difference when we were starting out,” adds guitarist Alex Robertshaw, 32. “We’ve always grown slowly and I don’t think anything’s going to jump-start our career now. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We’re in the lucky position of being able to approach each record saying, ‘What do we want to try to do this time?’ Nothing else really matters. Our fanbase is very loyal. They’re interested in what we’re going to do next.”

Everything Everything may not yet have reached the global success levels of their idols, Radiohead (the band name comes from the first thing Thom Yorke sings on the Kid A album), but since two of the UK’s most valuable younger bands, Wild Beasts and The Maccabees, split in 2017, they’re worth clinging on to more than ever. The shorthand for their sound is “art rock”, but what that means in reality is music that pirouettes from R&B to funk to synthpop to angry indie — sometimes in a single song.

Higgs’s jumpy falsetto isn’t for everyone, but his knotty, impressionistic lyrics often throw up memorable images, from Ivory Tower’s invitation to “Come and crush me in the Waitrose aisle” to the reassurance of No Reptiles that “It’s all right to feel like a fat child in a pushchair”. He can be found all over the lyrics annotation website, Genius, explaining the dense imaginings of his work.

“I know I shouldn’t but occasionally I’ll see people arguing on there and have to step in and say what I meant,” he tells me. “Or if I think I’ve done something really clever somewhere I might go, ‘Guys, did you notice…?’ I have hidden things, particularly on the last record, and I’ve had to nudge people to find them sometimes.”

A Fever Dream and Shah’s Holiday Destination were the most political albums on this year’s Mercury shortlist. While Shah tackled the refugee crisis and her own experiences as the daughter of immigrants with no small amount of anger, Everything Everything mostly employ sarcastic humour when they consider Brexit and the behaviour of Donald Trump.

“Someone’s gonna burst your blood-blubber head… Someone’s gonna pull your big trousers down,” Higgs sings to the leader of the free world on Big Game. He embodies the expert-hating Brexiteer on Run the Numbers: “Hear that professor? Less of your lip/Give me what I asked for, I don’t like the cut of your jib.”

“I’ve just had this growing disbelief and bemusement. Everything’s so insane and I’m a really cynical person anyway,” says the singer. He says he suggested that the band “dress as Nazis” on stage while touring the album, for satirical purposes. “I wanted us to shave our hair. I thought that was the way things are going, so let’s beat them to it.” Probably wisely, he was talked out of it.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, as they toured their third album, Get to Heaven, he had already been wearing a cape at gigs and pretending to be a ridiculous dictator. He was less surprised than many at Trump’s election, having spent too much time online arguing in the darker corners of web forums such as 4chan and Reddit. “I saw all the alt-Right stuff kicking off, growing week by week and ended up putting money on Trump to win because I could see there was something weird going on,” he tells me. “I cut all that out maybe a year ago. I spend my time on the internet in much safer places now.”

Thirteen months since its release, Higgs stresses that the political element isn’t all there is to A Fever Dream. “I don’t want the band to be taken over by this stuff. It’s taken over everything else. We’re not really writing about the events themselves so much as how it feels to be around while this stuff is raging and the uncertainty about where everything is going.

“With Brexit it’s not the ins and outs of it. It’s that I don’t really feel very hopeful about the future any more. I don’t really know who to vote for and I don’t really feel part of anything any more. I feel disconnected, like a lot of people.”

A separate EP, A Deeper Sea, followed the album in February and looked instead at male depression and suicide on the lead song, The Mariana. A faster, catchier track, Breadwinner, plus a beautiful cover of Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down, accompany it, but the band made The Mariana the official single to ensure more people noticed it. Its reference to the deepest place in the ocean is a metaphor for Higgs’s spells of depression, though he says he’s doing well these days.

“I see a therapist sometimes, I’ve done courses of drugs. I’m not a depressed person, really, I think I just have a strangely stressful life,” he says. “But I’m close to a few people who have problems in that department, so it affects me quite a lot. People are talking about it more now, which is good, but it is a difficult thing to deal with and there still isn’t a very good infrastructure to deal with it.”

I hope he enjoyed the red-carpet glitz last night, even though Wolf Alice went home with the big cheque. When we spoke he seemed certain that no one would know who his band was, everyone would assume that “better looking, taller, louder” bassist Jeremy Pritchard was the frontman (drummer Michael Spearman completes the foursome), and that people would still be asking where the weird band name comes from. But that second Mercury nod ought to be a clear sign that his band are here for the long haul, with plenty more prize-givings to come.

Everything Everything play The Garage, N5 1RD, on September 26 as part of Get Loud for Nordoff Robbins (getloud.org.uk)