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Releasing their previous album into the void of the pandemic, Enter Shikari were lost at sea. But, after a lengthy period of “soul-searching” they have returned with their most uplifting album yet, A Kiss For The Whole World, and a new vision for the future. On the eve of its release, Rou Reynolds reveals all…
The jetlag you earn when you go to Japan is a bastard. Travelling that far around the world against the sun, your body clock becomes a tangled mess of springs and numbers that stubbornly refuse to fit back together the way they should. It takes days to sort out. If you’re there for only a short stay, you haven’t a snowball’s chance of synchronising watches with the place your body is but your brain is yet to catch up to.
In for a truly flying visit a couple of weeks ago to play Knotfest Japan, Enter Shikari didn’t even bother trying to get their heads around being nine hours ahead of St Albans, having just come off a flight that sees you leaving at teatime and arriving at elevenses the following day. Instead, they slept when they were sleepy, whenever that was.
So it was that Rou Reynolds, having napped in the day, found himself unable to sleep at night, instead wandering the streets of Tokyo in the small hours all alone. For such a busy, massive and sensorially stimulating city (even in the middle of the night), this can be a surprisingly calming and peaceful thing. As he walked, Rou played himself Enter Shikari’s new album, A Kiss For The Whole World, the first time he’d listened to it in two months. When he got to the song Jailbreak, he says, what they’d made hit him.
“It almost brought me to tears,” he recalls today. “It’s such an emotional track, about not feeling limited by who you are, and knowing that you can change yourself. That's probably one of the most empowering tracks on the record for me.”
A Kiss For The Whole World is an album that unambiguously and unashamedly sets out to empower, to unite, to find that basic sense of joy that’s so often the trickiest thing to pin down. In the Enter Shikari way, its priority is one of connection, and the uplift of the human spirit. Its artwork – an AI image of the burnt-out remains of the luminescent triangle that graced the cover of 2011’s A Flash Flood Of Colour – speaks to this in the new, tiny flowers blossoming where it seems like all else has been destroyed and the earth around it salted.
It’s this sense of renewal that’s writ large through the middle of Shikari’s seventh record. When Rou says Jailbreak deals with not being limited by who you are, it’s because it’s a question he found himself confronted with over the past three years. That is, when COVID hit, just in time to somewhat deflate the release of 2020’s Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible, the jig seemed up. Without Enter Shikari taking up his time and field of vision, the band’s frontman, mouth, face and main brain couldn’t really explain who else he might be. Almost 20 years into the game, it looked very much like, actually, not a lot more would be possible.
“That became a period of immense soul-searching,” he recalls. “For the first time in my adult life, suddenly, I wasn't ‘Rou from Enter Shikari’ anymore; I was just Rou.
“The band ceased to exist,” he continues. “We weren't playing shows, I wasn't writing music – that was it, it was dead. For the first six months [of the pandemic], it really felt like, ‘Well, I don't know if we're gonna ever be able to do this again. Maybe we're not.’ And so I had to come to terms with working out who I was.”
Talking about this today, at times Rou speaks as if he is genuinely curious about the whole thing. It’s no stretch of the truth that Rou is one of rock music’s most singular creatives, an artist with a wild, lawless imagination for music, and the learned, technical ability to actually bring them to life. This is to say nothing of knowing exactly the energy and dynamics his bandmates will bring to a song to make Shikari still one of the finest bands in Britain, and even less about how constant and prolific his work-rate is. A man hooked on “all the little details”, one of his happy places is plugged into the laptop, fiddling with ideas. And yet here he was, dry, barren, and a usually fecund creative streak giving him absolutely zip. So he gave up trying.
“Every time I sat down to write, nothing came. It's hard to elucidate just how scary that was,” he says. “I've written music since I was nine years old. This is something that I do constantly. It's not just catharsis, it's also the way I organise my own thoughts. It's the way I process the world – my world and the world. It's where I get my sense of purpose.
“It's also how I communicate and connect with the world,” he continues. “I'm certainly not an extrovert. I find it hard in a lot of social situations. So music was always a way to connect with people, for me. You strip all of that away, and to suddenly not be able to write was incredibly disconcerting. Disorientating. Extremely odd.”
It didn’t help that when lockdowns hit, half of Rou’s mates seemed to have been sent into the studio to take advantage of the unscheduled gap (time is money, even during a pandemic). While they were posting updates on social media, all Rou could think was, “I've got nothing. I feel empty.” And that’s where the Big Questions started asking themselves louder.
“I was like, ‘Well, is this it? Have I got to my mid-30s and all my creative years are behind me?’” That was a terrifying thought. I was like, ‘I'm fucked.’ Because what am I gonna do now?”
For one thing, he finished his second book, A Treatise On Possibility, where he could write “more scathingly” and in more detail than he might in his lyrics about “the areas and the people and the structures that need to have the finger pointed at them”. He also got into gardening, tending the small plot behind his house. Basically, “I tried to convince myself that being Rou from Enter Shikari isn't everything, and that I can get my sense of worth elsewhere.”
Obviously – obviously – since we’re talking to Rou about all this today from the lounge of a palatial tour bus parked outside Glasgow’s St Luke’s venue where this evening Enter Shikari will play for the third and final time as part of their triple-lap of the UK, things worked out okay. This Friday, three years and 72 hours since Nothing Is True… came out, A Kiss For The Whole World will be released. In five weeks, the band will headline Slam Dunk.
What went right was Download Pilot. On the Friday night, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes’ headlining gig at the scaled-down, science experiment version of the festival was a much-needed roar of bloody-knuckled, red-eyed catharsis. But it was Enter Shikari who, during their set at the top of the bill on the Saturday, guided 10,000 people through an outpouring of all the more complex and confusing pent-up emotions of 15 months spent with life’s sound turned down and human interaction all but verboten. If Frank was a reminder of what it was to scream again, then Shikari, a band with an already big heart, were a confirmation of just how important a connection with others, love, hope, and ugly-crying, arms-round-your-friends joy can be.
“It was just complete euphoria,” remembers Rou. “We really concentrated on creating that sense of unity and that sense of human connection. That’s a foundational concept of why our band exists and what we do. We just grasped the sense of unity, and released the cocktail of emotions that we were all feeling. It was unbelievable.”
It was this – the connection, the euphoria, the energy, the sense that what they were doing actually mattered to people and touched them in a very real and profound way – that they were helping unknot an interesting time, that plugged Rou’s head back into the game. “It wasn’t like I went home and wrote the album the next day,” he laughs, adding that the process was very slow before he was anywhere near having anything worthwhile. But still, the spark was back. Eventually, in tribute to all this, he had a song done, the aptly-titled (pls) set me on fire.
“That title very clearly says I wanted my soul to be set alight again by creativity, by the thrill of creating something, by the beauty of the connection of live music. All these things that had been missing from my life,” he says. “I was just in complete desperation by that point, and so that song really celebrates that desire to create and feel that rush when you make music.”
This rush is all over the album; it positively explodes from it. There are none of the more aggressive, hard-slapping moments Enter Shikari have previously served up in songs like Anaesthetist, Sssnakepit or Arguing With Thermometers. This is intentional. Rou says as much as the material leaned that way anyway, there was a concerted effort “to just do an album of bangers”, big, major-key, chorus-heavy tunes that play into his band’s more celebratory tendencies.
Leap Into The Lightning deals with “boldness”, written, it’s author says, “as kind of a self-help thing for my own benefit”. Elsewhere, on Giant Pacific Octopus, the theme of identity and asking who you actually are comes up again, concluding that it’s fine if you don’t actually know.
“I'm a person who can act very differently in very different situations,” Rou explains. “I always thought that that was me not being authentic, and I always tried to work on that. But then I realised, no, that's completely normal. We all act differently in different situations, because there's a million different versions of us. One of the worst fucking bits of advice people can give is: just be yourself. Who the fuck am I? I don't know who myself is. There's a million different mes inside of me, some I want to work on, some I don't, some I want to get rid of, and they'll pop up at different times.”
On the title-track, meanwhile, it is, with all puns intended, an ode to joy, and its timeless relationship to music.
“It even uses the melody from Beethoven's Ode To Joy, which is actually the first melody I learned on the trumpet as a kid,” beams Rou. “That song is all about how important joy is. How energising and motivating and revitalising is. The main difference between Beethoven's time and our time is that it's quite hard to hold on to joy now because of the state of the world. There's a sense of almost shame or embarrassment when you have joy, because you're so quickly reminded [of what] other people are going through, and it’s all about to get worse and worse as we tumbled downwards in a spiral.
“The world feels like we're just bouncing from one crisis to another,” he continues. “And all of that looms below The Big Crisis, which is climate change. The world is a scary place at the moment. But even within that landscape, nature always finds a way, there's always some form of life happening. There's always some form of hope ready to be grasped, there's always a possibility of something better.”
As has always been the case with Enter Shikari, this is an admirable and refreshing point of view. Even at their most biting, blunt or sarcastic, Rou’s lyrics have never settled into hopeless nihilism, or bitter cynicism. His words have been known to be fighty, critical, angry or taking the piss out of the ridiculousness of people who hold power against those who don’t, but the whole point of the battle is a better life – to live and to be happy. When this is mentioned, as well as the fact that being an older man than he was means he should be getting ready to enter his crank-era at some point, he’s as set on it as ever he was.
“As far as not falling into cynicism goes, it’s interesting, and it's something that I do keep an eye on, but I usually find myself thinking that this is the most exciting time to be alive at any point in human history,” he says, somewhat surprisingly. “We're on the crux of so many utterly terrifying things, and things that offer astonishing promise. The progress of technology, and of philosophy, it could create something near to a utopia, and it could be within reach. But at the same time, we have the possibility of our complete destruction. Civilisational collapse is not something that’s talked about now as an interesting idea for a film, it's a very real concept.
“Doom and gloom, or nihilism, are usually the things that we all opt for in those moments when we feel completely exhausted by the state of the world, and we just start caring for ourselves,” he continues. “But of course, that's what those in power want you to do. They want you to feel powerless and go, ‘Oh, I just have to take care of myself and become self-interested.’ Because then the status quo remains the status quo, and they keep their power. That’s cynical.”
And then he comes back to the J-word again, and why, in the face of all of the above, it’s important. In some way, it’s one of the most valuable pieces of kit any revolt against it might have.
“Joy dissipates so quickly, but it's something we should hold on to, because it's a unifying force,” he says. “It's something that connects us and motivates us. And it's a very powerful tool.”
For Rou Reynolds, the answer to what he’d be doing today without Enter Shikari, if he had, indeed, written his last song and his creative force was spent and impotent is an unknown one. Certainly, he says, he wouldn’t be forcing it, because “then I’d be an actor instead of a musician”. And, actually, not only is the question academic anyway, he thinks it’s perfectly okay not to know the answer. It’s part of what the album’s about.
He muses thoughtfully when asked if, actually, after so long, the break and the moment of blankness was necessary to defrag, to spring clean his relationship with the band and who he is as a musician, in order to refuel it. Sixteen years since their first Kerrang! cover, and seven albums deep, Enter Shikari aren’t exactly in danger of suddenly losing ground (ground, it should be noted, they’ve always seemed to have earned through a magnetic brilliance and artistic credibility than any properly mapped-out strategy). It’s telling that what Rou was worried about losing was the connection with music, creativity and people than ticket sales and money.
“We've never been the type of band that you see on the cover, going, ‘We're gonna fucking take over the world,’ and then they've disappeared six months later,” he says. “There seems to be this really pervasive idea that every album has to be bigger and better, and you must get into bigger rooms and you must keep doing another rung on the ladder. We've got to the stage where it's almost common knowledge now that doing things like that won't bring you happiness, this external validation thing. That doesn't really help your inner peace with the world and with yourself.”
And who are you, Rou?
“I don’t know,” he says, with an easy smile, as if that’s the punchline. “The last track on the album, I don't know you anymore, it's all about that question. We're actually fluid beings, we're constantly evolving, we can have an idea about what we want to change about ourselves, or make better, and what we want to lose, and everything else. But no, I don't think anybody really knows who they are once they start thinking deeply about it all.
“It’s me coming to terms and coming to peace with the fact that I don't know who I am,” he smiles again, genuinely content. “And that's actually okay.”
A Kiss For The Whole World is released April 21 via SO Recordings – pre-order your copy now. They headline Slam Dunk Festival on May 27 – 28.
Standing Like Statues: The authorised biography of Enter Shikari – is out now. Get your copy.
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