Slam Dunk Festival 2023: The Big Review
Running down the best of the best from Leeds and Hatfield as Slam Dunk 2023 kicks off the most jam-packed UK festival season ever…
Left broken and void of their creative instincts, the events of the past two years sucked the life from Enter Shikari. But now that live music is once again in full swing, the touchpaper has been lit, and Rou Reynolds and co. are set to rise from the ashes with more determination, resolve and righteous indignation than ever before…
It’s June 19, 2021, and Enter Shikari are standing backstage at Download Pilot, about to headline the main stage at Donington for the first time, and play their first show in front of an audience for 18 months. Nerves abound as the band’s intro tape – a reworking of the song Live Outside – stirs into life. As their rousing opener rings from the PA, the voices of 10,000 fans singing like their lives depend on it fill the night sky. The band aren’t even onstage yet. It’s proof that while Enter Shikari have been gone for some time, they’ve definitely not been forgotten. Drummer Rob Rolfe is moved to tears as the band emerge and blast straight into a live debut of THE GREAT UNKNOWN, the opening track from an album they released well over a year ago. Glorious pandemonium ensues.
“I’m getting a lump in my throat just thinking about it,” Rob begins as he recalls Shikari’s Download heroics. “We’d been gone for so long that it felt like we really needed that validation from the audience. There was a weird feeling that we didn't know where we stood with our fans – we were wondering if we were still such a big part of their lives. But then we came out, we played, and the audience were just going wild and absolutely loving it. In that moment, we'd felt never felt stronger, and the connection with our fans also felt stronger than ever before.”
An experience guitarist Rory Clewlow describes as “pure ecstasy”, headlining Download Pilot signalled the rebirth of Enter Shikari; the band completed by vocalist Rou Reynolds and bassist Chris Batten. The pandemic had crushed their spirits, stifled their creativity and stunted the momentum behind their sensational sixth album Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible. Playing at Donington, though, reaffirmed the joy of being in Enter Shikari. Even the shittiest parts of touring life felt like a blessing.
“I woke up on the bus to the sound of subs being tested,” Chris remembers, a smile plastered across his face. “That’s something that, ordinarily, would’ve annoyed me, but I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it.”
“All those gruelling early morning trips to the airport, all those times you’re trying to get to sleep on the bus while people are farting and snoring around you, those are things you don’t think you’ll miss, but when they’re taken away, you desperately want them back,” Rob adds. “Download felt like going from nothing and the prospect that this could be the end of the band, to suddenly being back on top, bigger and better than we’d ever been.”
Largely, it’s all smiles as the members of Enter Shikari reflect on Download Pilot, but frontman Rou is a little more philosophical as he recounts the band’s live return. The deep thinker and visionary among Shikari’s ranks, he’s not as quick or eager as the others to regale Kerrang! with his memories of that June weekend, and swiftly moves on to the more solemn aspects of the experience.
“It was great,” he says. “But it was such a little morsel. It was like, ‘Remember this? Well, now you can’t have it for another six months.’ That period essentially became an extension of 2020 – there was a lot of weirdness, a lot of thumb-twiddling, and a lot of questioning who we are, what we’re doing and what our purpose is.”
Rou’s words are accompanied by a nervous laugh that speaks to the emotional wringer that the band have been put through across the last two years’ worth of lockdowns. When we caught up with him at the end of 2020, he spoke of how the pandemic had led to Enter Shikari “essentially experiencing the death of the band”, his words echoing the impact of coronavirus on artists around the world. Countless stories have been told in recent months of the distress – both financial and mental – that the pandemic caused for musicians, with many naturally turning to songwriting as an outlet for their despair. Already, COVID-influenced songs and albums by the likes of Bring Me The Horizon and Wage War have emerged, but for Enter Shikari and Rou in particular, global catastrophe had the opposite effect. Twelve months ago, he spoke of how he’d “not written a single thing” throughout 2020.
“The more I keep saying it, the more it frightens me,” he admitted.
A year on, those fears remain very much present in his mind.
“I had the complete halting of creativity,” he explains. “That was something I didn’t expect. Things were bad enough, but to then suddenly realise that, ‘Oh, I don’t seem to be able to write music anymore,' which is something that’s always been there for me, it felt like a double-hit on top of cancelling the shows. That outlet of human creativity was everything to me, and then it was just taken away.”
It cannot be underestimated the extent to which the loss of creative instinct can affect an artist, particularly when, as is the case with Rou, that artist has been creating for as long as they can remember. The absence of the ability to write music left a gaping hole for the Enter Shikari leader, and one that couldn’t be filled by the other thing he’d been doing all his life: playing shows. The outlook was gloomy, but there was one thing Rou and the rest of the band could still rely on – albeit not in the way they were used to.
“When everything went to shit, all we could count on was our audience and our supporters,” Rou says. “Those people – the kind of people that read and support platforms like Kerrang! and bands like ours – made sure that Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible could still happen, and in the months after it came out, it was the digital connection we were still able to maintain with them that stopped us from falling headfirst into a pit of despair.”
Kerrang!’s interview with Enter Shikari is conducted in two parts. First, rhythm section Rob and Chris sit down with us, before giving way to Rou and Rory, the idea being that splitting the group into pairs will allow each member an opportunity to share their thoughts on the past two years. Both conversations begin with a simple enough ice-breaker: ‘Now that the year is drawing to a close, what comes to mind when you reflect on the past 12 months?’
Instantly, Rob and Chris offer their thoughts on the “dramatic changes” of the music industry in recent times, followed by some more positive musings on the slow but encouraging return to live music we’re currently witnessing. For Rou and Rory, though, answers don’t come so soon. After the frontman makes brief mention of Download Pilot, an awkward silence lingers as both struggle to find the words to appropriately describe 2021.
“This year…” Rou sighs, desperately searching his mind for a notable memory.
“Has this year felt stagnant?” Kerrang! asks in response to the duo’s hesitancy.
This implication of a recent history that feels static to the point of absence sparks something in Rou’s mind.
“Oh, absolutely,” he concurs. “Only now does it feel like the Shikari machine is back up and running again. We postponed our UK tour twice this year, and there’s just been these constant teases of some kind of normality, which only served to make things worse. We’ve never gone more than two months without playing a show since we were 17…”
“After the album came out and everything got cancelled, things got a little panicky,” Rory adds. “It was a case of us thinking, ‘What now? What are we going to do?’”
For Rory, the ‘what’ ended up being time spent at home with his family, a period he credits as one that led to him becoming “a more well-rounded person, thanks to a lot of personal growth”.
“It’s a bit cliché,” he continues, “but when life kicks you in the balls, it’s often the case that something good and unexpected can come from that. For me, that was sorting out a lot of my issues outside of the band, and also becoming more appreciative of how special what we’ve built with Enter Shikari is.”
Rou’s experiences of this time, as he’s already hinted, don’t sound quite as wholesome. While one might expect a songwriter with a world view as progressive and passionate as his to instantly throw everything at a sonic response to global shutdown, Rou says he ultimately felt “a real sense of impotence and despair” at seeing the pandemic being so horrendously mismanaged by world leaders. After writing and singing about the failures of those who govern us for so long, watching their catastrophic failures come to light in such a tragic way did nothing to inspire him to pen new Shikari material.
Rou puts it best, albeit in a rather bleak manner.
“There is absolutely no joy in being proved right about this stuff,” he says. “I didn’t expect lockdown and my inability to write to be so intrinsically linked, but I think, ultimately, the fact that Enter Shikari have been warning about these structural defects for so long was the reason I couldn’t write when faced with all of it. I just felt a bit sick, like this cocktail of emotions and righteous indignation had got the best of me. I was just sat there thinking, ‘Look, look! Can’t you see?!’”
It might not have felt like it at the time, but there are – and have long been – plenty of people around the globe who are deeply connected to what Rou and the rest of Enter Shikari shout so fervently about, and who appreciate the platform and community they’ve built.
Rob points to the overwhelmingly positive response to Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible, as well as Rou’s recent book A Treatise On Possibility: Perspectives On Humanity Hereafter, as evidence of the “importance” of what the band write and the fact that it is something “people need to hear” – especially in light of recent events.
“What we write about is extremely valid,” he says of Shikari’s material and its relevance to the current world order. “The reaction we’ve continued to have over the past couple of years has given us the confidence to continue doing it all and to not be afraid to say how we feel, whatever the hurdles. We’ve been writing music with these themes for over a decade, and they’ve never been as important as they are now.”
Eventually, the sense of purpose with which Rob speaks began to stir in Rou once more, signalling the start of Enter Shikari’s next chapter. Witnessing what he describes as “a new generation of passion and determination” in people seeking to learn the lessons of the pandemic and forge a better path, the fire and determination of the frontman returned, with the band finally able to look to the future, emboldened and energised by a renewed faith in their cause and their community.
Having emerged from a tumultuous period with belief in their cause well and truly restored, The Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible tour that’s currently roaring around the UK is a celebration of all Enter Shikari have achieved, all they have overcome, but most importantly, the community Rou, Rory, Chris and Rob have built around their band. Naturally, the curse of 2021 had to throw a spanner in the works (following this interview, Chris was struck down with COVID, meaning he was forced to miss their triumphant show at London’s Alexandra Palace), but there’s still much for the band to be thankful for around this run.
Recently, Rou tweeted his pride at how the COVID-related drop-off in sales for Enter Shikari’s gigs has been far less than the industry standard, something he puts down to the strength of the band’s community that’s sustained throughout the pandemic, and the desire of their audience to, after so long, feel a part of something in a safe space. The shows have, of course, been a riot; Rob describes the “relief” at being back onstage.
“It is, simply, what we were born to be doing,” he smiles.
Enter Shikari’s reconciliation with the live arena has also strengthened the prospect that their attentions will soon turn to new music and other exciting plans. Rob reveals that while the four-piece haven’t sat down specifically to work on a new record, he is in “no doubt” that material of some kind will emerge in 2022, explaining that the band have been experimenting with ideas and that there’s some “exciting stuff bubbling in the pipework”, along with plans to be active on next summer’s festival circuit.
Rou, meanwhile, is hopeful that these shows will lead to a “spark” fuelled by their fans that they can pour into new music. He speaks of how he anticipates the next phase of Enter Shikari could well be characterised by an “unbearable anger” at what the band have witnessed in recent times, while he’s also trying to take the positives from a year that has felt creatively barren.
“I’m hoping that the time we’ve had away from writing will allow us to reflect, grow, and approach things in a different way, or at least from a different angle” he says. “It feels like we’re coming into the writing process with fresh eyes, and while I don’t know exactly how that will affect the music, I think the impact could be pretty big, because we’ve never gone two years like this without writing music before – I’ve been writing music non-stop since I was nine! So this really feels like a full stop, new paragraph situation for the band.”
So does that mean Enter Shikari’s creative fire is back?
The answer, it seems, is yes.
“We’ve been working hard to get everything in place for this tour, and I know it’s going to be fucking immense, but once that’s done, the focus will all be on writing,” Rou concludes. “The idea is that now, finally, we can think about writing a new album – that’s my sole focus. I’m currently working out what exactly it is that I need to do in order to exorcise the demons that will get me writing again, but even though we’re only early into this current run of shows, I’ve had moments when I’ve been walking offstage where I’ve felt that urge of, ‘Oh god – I need to write something right now!’ That’s a feeling I haven’t felt in so long.
“Finally, I’m looking forward to immersing myself in that urge, and delivering something new.”
Enter Shikari are on tour in the UK now until December 21. They will play Reading & Leeds in August 2022.
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