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…
Enter Shikari frontman Rou Reynolds takes us deep into Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible; the album that will define them for years to come
Four years ago, Rou Reynolds was a very different person to the one stood before Kerrang! today. In licking his wounds following the breakup of a long-term relationship, he began penning the words and music that would soon comprise The Spark – Enter Shikari’s fifth album, a deeply personal experience that tackled love and loss, amidst the singer’s own battles with anxiety. It was, as he explains, a record he had to write, as if his creative hand was being forced in one direction.
“I couldn’t write about anything else, it wasn’t even possible,” Rou reflects today, sitting in his north London flat. “Whereas this new album was written at a time where my life was infinitely better – or, at least, more comfortable and stable – and that allowed me to choose not only what to write about, but also what music to write. It gave me the time and the confidence to experiment more than ever.”
Experimentation is the name of the game for the ‘new album’ of which Rou speaks. Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible, released this week, is a breathtaking exploration through genre, encompassing waltzes, operas, orchestras and even, whisper it, pop music. It exists as almost the antithesis of that which came before, buoyed by creative freedom. For the first time in Enter Shikari’s career – which now, somewhat unbelievably, has existed in some form for something approaching two decades – Rou took on not only songwriting duties, but production ones, too. He was, after all, the only person on the planet prepared to dedicate the time and attention to the maddening work that an album of such scope warranted. When he tells you that the music took over his life for an entire year, then, to the extent that he’d miss social engagements while holed up in the studio in search of perfection through endless tweaking, you don’t doubt him.
“You’re on this solitary expedition and you miss a lot,” says Rou. “It has to be like that in order to be able to execute an album with this amount of detail; it has to be all encompassing. It has to become you.
“I’m not one for self-aggrandisement, but in terms of musical agility I don’t think there’s anyone else out there that’s going for this sort of breadth, or to be able to achieve it in a way that feels congruent, feels like it flows, feels understandable.
“People go to a band because they’re going to make them feel a certain way,” he continues. “Most people don’t go to a band because it’s going to make them feel a million ways within 40 minutes – and that’s what we do. I enjoy that the palette is very big for us so we can try and convey lots of different emotions. That’s what excites me.”
And Nothing Is True… is certainly brimming with emotion – from the sombre to the comedic. Not just for freedom’s sake, but to act as a mirror for Rou himself, who acknowledges that he wants his art to be a true representation of his life. He jokes that he could never make a straight hardcore album because he’s not always angry, a doom album because he’s isn’t always gloomy or a pop album because “hope for hope’s sake” doesn’t interest him.
It was while compiling his career-spanning lyric book a few years ago that Rou – normally a figure of eternal forward motion – was forced to reflect on his output, and what he was going through at certain points in his life. So revelatory was this experience that it inspired the vocalist to create an album that “represents and delves into each one of those eras.” Not just from a stylistic viewpoint, but cheeky little nuggets and Easter eggs from Shikari’s back catalogue are woven into the fabric of Nothing Is True…, including a tip of the hat to the eponymous opener for 2007’s debut album Take To The Skies, in the words, ‘And still we will be here, standing like statues’.
“It’s funny because when I was writing the first album, it was just another lyric,” Rou smiles. “I had no idea it would become the perennial chant that we hear at every Enter Shikari show. It’s a wonderful expression of perseverance, which – in a world that is so difficult and rigid and cemented in its structures and systems – is the main thing we need as progressives and people who want to see a better world. It’s without doubt the main fuel that keeps us going.”
It’s this artistic perseverance that has led the St Albans crew – Rou, guitarist Rory Clewlow, bassist Chris Batten and drummer Rob Rolfe – to this point. Finding their footing and exercising their creative muscles over five albums previous, Nothing Is True… is the quintet landing at the end-level-boss of Enter Shikari.
“It definitely feels like that signpost album,” posits Rou. “If a fan is introducing us to their friend, this is where I think people should start. It’s still got things that our band have never done before, but I think it’s more rounded than any other album.”
German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche, the works of whom Rou Reynolds is an avid reader, once said, ‘A thought, even a possibility, can shatter and transform us.’ And the moustachioed thinker (Nietzsche, not Rou) wasn’t wrong. Letting our imaginations run wild with what’s possible can conjure up an infinite number of outcomes, setting our lives on a path we never even considered before.
But possibility isn’t always a positive. While it could mean getting the chance to take up watercolouring or finishing that book you started, it could equally be the invention of nuclear warheads or unlikely political figures coming to power.
“If The Spark was an exploration into human vulnerability then this is an exploration into human possibility,” Rou offers, detailing the album’s overarching message.
“The past five years of everything that’s happened – the political shocks, the real assault on normality that we’ve gone through – has made us realise that possibility is something that can be quite terrifying,” he professes. “That’s why I chose ‘Everything’ is possible rather than ‘Anything’, because ‘any of the things’ implies a certain aspect of choice, whereas ‘every of the things’ implies that whatever you want to make possible, everything else is – and someone may do it.”
Reeling off a shopping list of global atrocities – from resource depletion to antibiotic resistance – Rou explains that Enter Shikari desired to make an album that wasn’t alarmist, but was based in reality. And you just have to look outside your window to a world you’re currently not welcome to explore to see how bleak our current reality actually is.
“I never wanted to be a band that offers hope for hope’s sake; I want to be real, I want to hold a mirror up to the world,” Rou stresses. “Certain elements of our music are about escapism, but I don’t want that to be the central theme or optimistic without any reason to be.”
To the casual listener, Nothing Is True… might not seem so bleak. While lyrically Rou might be evoking his own David Lynch movie, musically, for the most part, it’s jovial, providing a sonic juxtaposition between bubblegum rhythms and the often catastrophic subject matter.
Throughout the record, we hear a selection of dry British witticisms, as Rou explores his poetic tendencies, injecting humour into songs about the end of the world: from Waltzing Off The Face Of The Earth tricking the listener with fake news to standout track Modern Living bursting with the infectious chorus, ‘We’re apocaholics, drinking gin and tonics.’
“Just like music and art, humour is a defence mechanism, it’s a way to know that we’re still alive, a way that our hearts are still beating,” asserts Rou. “Humour is a knee-jerk reaction and an instinctual thing – you’re gonna be affected by music whether you like it or not, you’re gonna laugh at some things whether you choose to or not.”
The term ‘apocaholic’ would hint at an addiction and obsession to pessimism. Flicking through the lyrics of the record, would Rou consider himself a sufferer?
“I definitely have my moments, and that’s what we’re taking the piss out of,” he smiles. “Every setback becomes, ‘Oh my god, it’s the end of the world, we’re all fucked.’ It’s easy to get into that nihilistic way of thinking. With social media, alarmism sells. With the press, where sensationalism sells, the big crazy headlines are the same as social media. If you want to get likes, if you want to get followers, you exaggerate. And we’re seeing the real dangers of that in the fact we can’t really communicate any more, because everyone is exaggerating according to their own ideological beliefs.”
Sensationalism and the distraction techniques of modern media also play a role in Nothing Is True…’s Technicolor artwork, and alt-key-bothering titles full of curly brackets and accents. Depicting an ancient Greek statue to symbolise the civilization’s wisdom – “the birth of philosophy, of critical thought, of logic and rationality” – the rainbow bar across its mouth represents our society’s censorship and willingness to ignore those pillars.
“We wanted the juxtaposition of the ‘classics’ aesthetics of the bust with the colourful, bright attention-seeking, multi-font, artwork. Every day we’re bombarded with marketing and advertising; everything is vying for our attention. All the different fonts and characters are trying to take your attention away, just like everything else is in life.”
While the lyrical and visual process may have been one that shines a light on the worst facets of human existence, the year-plus creative journey that only ended in January was, in fact, full of positivity. Album centrepiece Elegy For Extinction allowed Rou to record with the City Of Prague orchestra – an army of 70 classically-trained musicians playing a piece of music that he’d written, “and be given evils by the second violins who have some of the hardest parts,” he laughs.
Such an experience was possible thanks to the involvement of George Fenton, the acclaimed composer who worked on Planet Earth and Blue Planet. First meeting George at an exclusive, intimate Shikari show in London to celebrate the Kerrang! Awards in 2018, they developed a friendship that led to one of the most resplendent songs Enter Shikari have ever put their name to.
The experiment’s success was little more than a bonus to a man who values the process as much as he does its result. Reciting a Thomas Beckett quote for the jubilant Crossing The Rubicon chorus, the vocalist sings, ‘Try again, fail again, fail better’ – a mantra he lives by, and not just artistically.
“It really does feel like – as someone who wants a sane, compassionate, progressive, logical world – we’re further from that than we’ve been in my lifetime,” he muses. “It’s so easy to drift into complete pessimism or nihilism, and that Beckett phrase becomes pivotal. The leaders we have now are much closer to autocratic than we’ve ever been before, they’re closer to people who’re likely to press a nuclear button than ever before. As characters and human beings, they’re so far from compassion.”
But surely, there’s still a reason to be cheerful. Right?
“Cheerful may be a stretch,” he laughs, casting his thoughts to the current coronavirus pandemic, and questioning whether it will be the wake-up call we all need to see the planet as one people.
“I don’t like to use broad historical terms, but hopefully we’ll see a lean toward socialism and socialist policies because this virus is reminding us that we’re one globe. This virus doesn’t accept national boundaries just as climate change doesn’t, just as antibiotic resistance doesn’t. All the big problems we’re faced with are completely global. We need that local/global outlook, and we need compassion more than we’ve ever needed it.”
Ruminating on what optimistic outcomes coronavirus could provide, Rou cites the opening line to the new album, ‘Is this a new beginning or are we close to the end?’. “It really feels like this could be a new beginning if we actually learn from history for once. We have to restructure things, which could be just in time.
“Human ingenuity should never be underestimated,” he continues. “When there’s a necessity it’s amazing what we’ve come up with throughout history. I’m not one of these people who thinks humanity is a disease, it’s the system that we’re in that dictates our behaviour. In [latest single] T.I.N.A we say, ‘It’s the essence of humanity to build an infinite reality,’ and hopefully they’re the aspects of humanity that will come through – the perseverance, creativity and imagination.”
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard an Enter Shikari record, read their lyrics, listened to their frontman speak or simply read this far into this interview, that Rou Reynolds is a deep-thinker, often swerving down philosophical rabbit holes mid-speech or sharing his blueprint for a better tomorrow. It’s perhaps this vocal stance toward societal and political progression that led to him becoming the de facto liberal mouthpiece in the British rock community.
Just over a decade ago, when Enter Shikari released their 2009 album Common Dreads, the quartet’s political stance become crystal clear, as they aimed their synthesised crosshairs at climate change, unjust wars and capitalism. Since then, they’ve stayed on course with rallying warcries Arguing With Thermometers, Anaesthetist and Take My Country Back, to name but a few.
Despite this, Rou is quick to assert that, “I don’t think I have any massive insight. At the end of the day, all that we’ve done with our music is try to get across the importance of unity – reminding people that we’re one people, one planet, that we all require the same things to live. Every time we tour a place we’ve never been in the world that is corroborated.
“All I’m trying to do is present what I’ve spent my time doing – be it thinking, be it exploring, both the world and philosophies – and present it to people in a somewhat digestible format; if they’ve got the time and effort to absorb it themselves.”
While not 100 per cent at home with the idea of being this progressive figurehead in rock, Rou is noticeably more comfortable in his own skin these days. Speaking to Kerrang! today, he explains that the past five years have been incredibly formative, allowing him to consider so many aspects of himself and his own nature.
“And not just understand them, but accept them as well,” he reiterates. “Understanding things can be very interesting and compelling, but accepting things is very difficult. That creates a person of a slight increase in confidence, and I think that is reflected in the music – especially with this album. Life is just one big learning experience if you’re willing to look at it that way.”
Reflecting on his musical journey toward their ‘definitive album’, Rou admits that the Enter Shikari of yesteryear simply couldn’t have made Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible. Not just through the musicianship learned over the years, but the increased courage in their own convictions. Taking the orchestral pairing of Marionettes 1 and 2 as an example – “Which is essentially a massive journey” says its creator. "Structurally it’s like an opera” – he humbly notes that he simply wouldn’t have known where to start on that a decade ago.
“Our whole career has been one big learning process and we’ve just picked up things as we’ve gone,” he says. “I’m glad I’m not a cocky little bastard like, ‘Yeah I can do anything! We’re gonna be the best band in the world!’ then attempt to make an album like this and completely fall flat on my face. It’s lucky that our ambition is big, but at the same time we’re so unsure of ourselves, it means that we don’t put things out until we’re utterly convinced that they’re important and worthy.”
This worthiness and vitality are the two key beams supporting the house Rou and co. have built. Acknowledging that Enter Shikari are “a constantly evolving entity”, he’s accepted that their music exists as its own island amongst an ocean of one-dimensional fodder.
“I’m comfortable with knowing that we’ll never be some central and pivotal band in a very commercial sense. I understand that the music we make and the way I create, it has to be at the more pioneering end of music than music that’s easily and widely appreciated. We’re fully comfortable that our music is not going to be appreciated by everyone.
“Our music takes effort to understand and get into, and that’s wonderful because then we feel we’re so close to our audience. We understand that they’ve had to put in some effort to get this and feel excited by this music, which creates a deeper connection that I love.”
And that connection will be strengthened in November when Enter Shikari embark on a headline UK tour, including another landmark show at London’s Alexandra Palace. With no shows booked this summer except some (potentially cancelled) European festival slots, the electropunks could be staring at the longest period of time where they’ve never played live.
“Psychologically for us it’s going to be really interesting, but also when we do end up playing these shows, I can’t even begin to fathom the energy that will be in the room in terms of us finally being able to perform these songs and the audience finally getting to hear them,” Rou beams. “Hopefully the sense of community that we’ve always tried to implement at our shows will be bigger and more natural than ever.”
Forever looking forward, as our conversation reaches its natural conclusion, Rou casts his gaze post-new album, already tossing around ideas of its successor, or even its ‘partner’. He explains that because the band’s palette has been so broadened by the process, “it’ll be interesting to see whether we feel like there needs to be a part two of this album… because it was so ambitious it almost feels like it could have another similar sister album.”
Judging by the spectrum Enter Shikari are now working on, it’s impossible to rule anything out. A sister album, a smooth jazz album, a neo-psychedelic opera… It’s all within their grasp. Everything, truly, remains possible.
Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible is out April 17. Pre-order your copy now.
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The Cover Story
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…