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Enter Shikari: The Spark

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Amid bouts of insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks, plus the release of new single, Live Outside, dramatically announcing a new sonic turn for the band, Enter Shikari are standing their ground. It’s approaching 20 years since Rou Reynolds, Chris Batten, and Rob Rolfe started making music together, known then as Hybrid. They became Enter Shikari when guitarist, Rory Clewlow, joined the group. Each of their four albums has undergone a noticeable shift, but their upcoming record, The Spark, will be their biggest curveball yet.

I am sat with Rou, Rob, and Rory, a dream of alliteration, in Rob’s back garden in St Albans. He lives in the city’s conservation area, full of quaint Tudor houses and ancient pubs. With the exception of London-based Rou, the band have chosen to remain in their hometown. Presumably, St Albans offers some nice respite after the madness of touring. Rob’s adorable new Fenlander puppy, Teebie, is desperately trying to bite anything and everything, including my backpack.

We start with the obvious: the band’s Black Mirror-inspired video for lead single, Live Outside, which is somehow equal parts Orwellian nightmare and hilarious satire.

“Bob Gallagher, who directed the video, is such a lovely, soft spoken guy,” Rou tells me, looking sharp in a white shirt, Lennon-style glasses, and his overflowing, undercut hairstyle. “But he has such a dark sense of humour! In that last shot, which is so grim, I just remember him giggling behind the camera [laughs].”

I mention that I found the video felt political, whereas the lyrics of the song feel much more personal.

“That’s right,” Rob confirms. “We do like to sometimes do a video which doesn’t necessarily match up with the lyrics entirely.”

“These lyrics are open to different interpretations,” adds Rou. “It definitely works politically, but the initial idea behind them was mental health stuff. But the two play hand in hand so much; the video is reflecting the monotony of capitalism and the entertainment industry. Obviously mental health is intertwined and affected by those things, as well.”

Despite Live Outside’s black-hearted video, and touching on Rou’s recent personal troubles, it’s possibly the most uplifting track from the Shikari oeuvre yet — delightful yet ponderous pop that blends clean guitars, ‘80s synths, and a catchy chorus that will stay with you for weeks on end. The bone crunching riffs and Rou’s deathly bellows are gone, at least on The Spark’s first single.

So while every Enter Shikari album until now has possessed a new sound, it would still be a variation on a theme, with the theme primarily being alternative metal.

The music heard in Live Outside is a new theme entirely. I wonder what brought this about; a new set of influences? Growing older and maturing as people? Or the desire for artistic growth, perhaps?

“It’s not even a desire, it’s a need,” Rou insists. “The need to keep doing new things, and pushing myself. I’m quite fidgety as a musician, I get bored too easily. That’s played a part on all of our albums. But for this one, it really feels like our post-punk moment. I’ve become disillusioned with punk and metal. There really isn’t much progression there — there are so many tours we’ve done with bands who sound exactly the same, and it’s so uninspiring! Intensity isn’t just achieved by shouting; there’s so much intensity in different types of singing and music. That’s what we’ve been exploring on this record.”

And thankfully for the morale of the good ship Shikari, it’s a shared sentiment.

“We are sick and tired of it,” says Rory, known to friends and fans as Rory C. “After playing Warped Tour quite a few times, watching some of the bands really is like watching the same band, but with different people in it. The chuggy guitar tone, the sing-y chorus, and the screamy verse. We just want to get as far away from that scene as possible. Changing up our sound is for our own sanity! And when Rou presented us with Live Outside in particular, I told him, ‘you’ve nailed it!’”

A SOUND DECISION

Shikari’s fresh new approach is quite the departure from the electronicore machine fans will have become accustomed to.

“I’ve built up a lot of confidence over the last few years, in terms of being a singer and a songwriter,” Rou explains. “So I really wanted to push out of our niche, out of the ghetto of rock! And to write music that’s up there with the lineage of influences that we have.”

I ask who in particular that was for this album.

“It’ll be no surprise that the ‘80s British synth-pop scene has been a big influence,” Rob explains. “Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, The Human League. But also modern bands like Everything, Everything.”

“Also, stuff like The Stone Roses, and Britpop,” Rou adds. “That’s the best pop music for me, when punk goes into that realm. I just don’t want us to be in this box of, ‘a noisy band’ or, ‘a crazy band’. Because actually, we write fucking good tunes! Hopefully the mainstream will stop ghettoising bands like us.”

Of course, there’s also the fact that Enter Shikari have always been a band with a message. So releasing more accessible, melodic music can only help that. There was, however, a tweet by Rou saying ‘narcissistic pop, we’re coming for you... our next album will bring our message to the masses.’ Which gave the impression he didn’t want to be writing poppier music, only he was willing to reach more people.

“No, I write the music I love and enjoy,” he reassures me. “I’m the biggest fan of this band! Even though we are living in a time with amazing, forward thinking pop music, it’s still being infiltrated by the Hollywood mindset.”

Which leads us onto Taylor Swift, who Rou has been pretty vocal about on his Twitter account.

“The most recent example of this is the Taylor Swift Ticketmaster thing,” he says, with disdain. “Where you have to buy merch, and the album, to go up in the queue to get a concert ticket.”

But isn’t that to knock out ticket touts?

“I just think it’s straight exploitation. She’s only replacing the touts — she isn’t literally hiking the ticket price, but she’s making people buy merch, and her CD, just for a chance for a ticket for her show. There’s a lot of ways pop music will happily increase the pedestal, and the divide between the audience and the artist. That’s something we’ve never been about, and I still think there’s a need for those with a punk mindset to come after the pop sound, which is what I meant by that tweet!”

FIT BODY, FIT MIND

If you’ve been following the band’s Instagram posts and tour videos, you may have noticed Rou has got pretty serious about yoga and meditation recently. Knowing that adopting a mindful lifestyle can have such a profound impact on every aspect of one’s life, I ask if he feels that it’s seeped into his creativity for album number five.

“I think so,” Rou says, after a pause. “I first used them as a tool to help deal with anxiety and insomnia. But the vast swathes of benefits, and the focus it gives you... I’m sure it helped. I find the whole process of making music is meditative; it’s that sensation they call the ‘flow state’, where five hours pass, and I don’t even eat, because I’ve just been writing music all day. That’s one of the most euphoric states to be in, when you’re in the moment, and not thinking about anything else! But it’s probably helped the most in calming down the anxious mind, when I’m writing a song and not constantly questioning myself. Now I think, ‘you’ve got this’ [laughs].”

Some positive news of late is a number of figures in the public eye opening up about mental health issues. Rou, admirably, is keen to do that also with this record.

“I think making people realise they’re not alone is so important,” he says. “I went through the majority of my schooling, and most of my early 20s, not knowing what anxiety was. Just thinking I was weird, and it was something I had to deal with by myself. It’s so dangerous; and it’s heartbreaking to think about how many people are in that position. It makes it sound like it’s this grand and noble thing to open up and speak about mental health. But I found going through the shit that I went through for two years influenced this album; when I did speak about it on Twitter, I’d get 20 or 30 people saying they had the same thing, and it made me feel so much better.”

The peak of this storm for Rou was 2015, which coincided with Enter Shikari’s triumphant slot on the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury that year. I remember being in the crowd myself and, though the band did give a 10 out of 10 performance, I did get the sense that Rou wasn’t quite himself, not bantering with the audience at all in between songs like he usually would.

“Before we played Download that year, we had the Kerrang! Awards,” Rou recalls. “Award ceremonies send my anxiety through the roof — all eyes are on you, and having to be an interesting and funny rock star. I hate it. I know it sounds silly, complaining about having to go to award ceremonies!

“The morning after that, I had a huge panic attack. I went to hospital, and for about four months after, I had insomnia - a generalised anxiety disorder, which turned into depression. I broke up with my long-term girlfriend, as well. So that was a grim few months! [laughs] We played Download three days after I went to hospital, and I hadn’t slept at all, and was just empty. Glastonbury was the same, I just had no energy. So the meditation, yoga, and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) thankfully got me out of that, for the most part.”

Rou has gradually discovered he has a combination of social and health anxiety.

He joins a long list of frontmen who are hugely extroverted on stage, and then much quieter in day to day situations, such as Prince, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury. It’s ended up being a shared experience between Rou and Rob, who also developed insomnia this year himself.

“We’ve spoken a lot about the things that worked for him,” Rob says. “So I’ve also been loving the yoga, and the CBT has really helped too. It’s good, being able to bond over things like that. It’s something different that connects us, rather than the music — I imagine Rory and Chris have that with their kids as a commonality.”

EVOLUTION

I mention that since Common Dreads, Shikari’s bitter, political record, the group’s impact has gradually become much more positive, with a message of unity. I ask if that trend will continue with The Spark.

“When we wrote Common Dreads, we were much younger, angrier people,” Rob says. “We’re not the same people that we were seven years ago. I was reading somewhere that every particle in your body is exchanged over seven years, so seven years from now, I’ll have a completely different body! So it would be impossible for us to stay thinking on the same wavelengths as we were back then.”

For Rory, one of the biggest changes on this new album was playing on a Fender Telecaster, the guitar much loved by the likes of Jeff Buckley, George Harrison, and Keith Richards.

“I’ve never used one prior to this,” Rory says. “It’s the American Standard. I got the pickups for it from Shed Pickups, which is literally a guy making pickups in his shed. I had an Evertune bridge put in, because I hate playing guitars without one! I have always liked the way Telecasters react; they’re so ‘bitey’. Nothing else sounds like a Telecaster.”

Enter Shikari have deservedly won multiple awards for their live show, not least after their landmark Alexandra Palace show last year. The Shikari live experience truly is one of the best in the world, and a huge friend to the band in this regard has been Audio-Technica, who service all of their microphone and wireless needs. Perhaps because no piece of equipment is ever safe during an Enter Shikari concert, and Audio-Technica have been the most understanding.

“We break a lot of things,” Rou admits, with a laugh. “We generally try to fix them ourselves; the soldering iron will be out for the show! But the amount of mics, wireless systems, and leads they’ve given us - they’ve been great. They’ve just customised my mic for The Spark tour, and it looks sick. They’re good friends now, and we’ve been through so many other brands, and these survive being thrown across stage the most!

“Also, they just sound so great. Not only is it a customised mic, but it’s a broadcast mic — a dynamic mic that also looks like one off of Top of the Pops in the ‘80s! They used their BP4001 microphone as the base for customising it.”

Rory is also a huge fan:

“Audio-Technica just seem to do everything we need; their kit sounds really good, and is built really sturdily,” he says. “For demoing, we use the AT4033a mic, which is brilliant for general vocal recording, and miking guitar amps. I’ve also been using their wireless guitar system for a while, the System 10. The reason we use it is because it runs on 2.4 GHz, the same frequency as WiFi. So when we turn up at festivals, we don’t have to pay for the bandwidth, like you would do with a traditional wireless system. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they don’t trust it, because it’s new technology. But I’ve been touring with it all over the world for years now, and it’s never caused me any problems. I was using the Sennheiser G3 before, which meant having to have different systems in different countries, and paying for the bandwidth.”

Shikari also previously used Sennheiser for all of the microphones, before switching to Audio-Technica two years ago.

“Our front of house engineer is the most picky guy in the world with sound, and he’s so happy with the way the mics sound at the moment,” Rory explains.

It’s almost miraculous that Enter Shikari formed when each of the four guys was so young, and they still haven’t had a spectacular falling out, as so many other bands have in similar circumstances.

“They’re just isn’t an arsehole in the band,” Rory concludes. “In my experience of other bands that break up, it’s usually because there’s just one arsehole that ruins everything.”

With the foundations as strong as ever, and another huge UK and European tour upcoming, which includes their second Alexandra Palace show, it’s difficult to imagine what can stop the Shikari train. They’re also going after a real concerted effort to finally break America.

“I’m so grateful for our support out there,” Rou says. “But I don’t feel like they always get us, as people do here. But I think this is the record that could change that.”

And where will Shikari be in five years’ time?

“We’re playing arenas now,” Rory states. “So I’d love for us to be playing stadiums!”

Enter Shikari are one of the most unlikely success stories in music history, to the point where anything is possible. Including this ambition of Rory’s. Headliner will back the ‘Shikari for Wembley’ campaign, all day long.