Miriam Balanescu sits down with Everything Everything, fresh from their gig at The Junction as part of National Lottery’s Revive Live Tour
Despite their catchy pop hooks and buoyant beats, Everything Everything, a band first founded in 2007 and so named with ‘poptimism’ in mind, are ironically no stranger to darker themes. Their six albums to date have often hinged on despair, sadness and loneliness – though this year’s release, Raw Data Feel, has taken a defiant turn away from doom and gloom.
The band’s members Jonathan Higgs, Jeremy Pritchard, Alex Robertshaw and Michael Spearman had a revelation. After years of reflecting upon the world’s worst events in their music – Ebola, UKIP, high male suicide rates and more – the recent pandemic and personal trauma pushed lead Jon to switch off the news and focus on the brighter side of life.
Raw Data Feel is woven through with AI-generated lyrics, spat out after Jon’s AI lyric-creator was fed four sources of words: 4Chan, LinkedIn’s Ts&Cs, Beowulf and Confucius. Through this collaboration with AI, the album questions how humans process emotion, desensitisation and the meaning of creativity. We caught up with frontman Jon, following his Cambridge Junction performance, to find out more.
(Content warning: mention of suicide)
What was the starting point for your latest album Raw Data Feel? Was there a particular moment when you decided to go for the AI theme?
No, that appeared organically. I was experimenting with doing that stuff on the side while we made the album because I’ve read some poetry written by AI and I thought, ‘oh, that’s kind of cool, I wonder if it could write lyrics’. Some of the poetry the AI wrote was quite good, but mostly you could tell was a bit weird. I thought, ‘okay, can I make some lyrics that are indistinguishable, and from what I’d normally write’. I was just experimenting and then it came out really well, so I decided to integrate it into some of the songs. The real starting point was, I had the idea – just a single phrase – ‘Kevin’s car’. I wanted to make the whole record about this phrase. I couldn’t explain this to the rest of the band – they said, ‘what are you talking about? Who’s Kevin and why his car’? The AI thing appeared about two thirds of the way through. I started feeding it into some of the songs. But it wasn’t how it started and wasn’t meant to be the main focus of it. It was a nice little addition.
Did ‘Kevin’s car’ come from the AI?
That was just something that was in my head. I did put the phrase ‘Kevin’s car’ into the AI to see what it would say back to me. Some of that was quite interesting.
How did you come up with the bits of narrative about Kevin that you have in the songs? And is having a character something you’ve done on previous albums?
I’ve put names in other albums, but never talked about the same character across multiple songs. I really wanted a break from myself in a way. We made another record and then it got put out in the pandemic. We couldn’t tour it, so we had to make this one relatively quickly. I didn’t feel like going deep and baring my soul again quite so quickly. I thought, there are things I want to talk about, but I want a layer of protection, so I invented a few characters to stand in for me and play parts. It’s Kevin who’s accountable. Kevin is in a car crash, I can write a song about that and no one’s going to ask whether I was in a car crash because it’s not me. There are some things that happen in the songs that have happened to me and it’s a good way of getting out of being asked about personal things I don’t actually want to talk about, but I still want to sing about. There’s stuff you can do when you’ve got characters in songs that you can’t do in any other way, especially when you’re harking back to previous ideas and other albums. You can interact with your previous self and say, ‘well, this is what Kevin would do if he met somebody from this other song’. It also means I can easily reference Kevin in the future and people will suddenly have 14 ideas of what I’m talking about.
You’ve mentioned that the album is processing a kind of collective trauma as well as the personal, with the pandemic and all the world events of that time. Do you think that deferral to a proxy or another character is also something that’s more relatable now in wider society?
Yeah, definitely. The character of Jennifer is the other major part of the record. And I think that’s very relatable for a lot of people. We’ve had notes passed to us anonymously when we’ve been doing signings saying, ‘that song about Jennifer and suicide has resonated with me ridiculously. I can’t talk to you directly, but you should know that that helped me’. Having that proxy for people is powerful. I think that’s a direct way of getting into people that can’t happen when you’re talking about yourself.
People relate more to an almost anonymous character.
People are very used to relating to characters in film and TV. You’re probably not going to relate to Kim Kardashian very often, but you probably will relate to a character in a TV show. Not that I’m anywhere near Kim Kardashian.
Going back to the AI lyric generator – what was your thought process in having 4chan, the LinkedIn Ts&Cs, Beowulf and Confucius?
I wanted to see if very technical, unromantic, software-related language could be moving. That’s why I went for LinkedIn – there’s a huge amount of it and it’s all extremely dry. I thought, ‘I’m really going to test out this AI to see if it can give me emotions’. Then I gave it Beowulf because I wanted something ancient to be jammed up against this modern language. Then I used 4chan because I wanted the ugliest, most rancid form of English language I could find. I wanted trolls and the best place to get that is 4chan. I wanted to challenge the AI in a way to see if some of the most awful stuff we have at our fingertips works for songwriting. Then Confucius was put there to give it some gravitas and philosophy – so it would sound like all this bollocks was important. Once it learns everything, I would give it prompts, two- or three-word phrases, then it would reply or continue those sentences. It was like a collaboration.
If you’re not interacting with the internet in your art, if you’re pretending it’s not happening, then you’re not very close to reality
The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships sprang to mind as another computer album. Do you think that what were other albums out there that were influential?
If you’re not interacting with the internet in your art, if you’re pretending it’s not happening, then you’re not very close to reality, because that’s what basically rules our lives now. That’s what everything relies on. It’s where everything that happens, happens – it’s on our phones, in our hands. So, I think you should be seeing that reflected in art because that’s real. We managed to get our record out just before the viral image creation software was released, because we used slightly older versions of the software. We’re going to see more and more public use, so I’m glad that we have talked about it and got it out the way. We know it’s coming, everyone will have to think of something else.
What are your feelings about AI?
It’s just a tool like everything else. It’s like being pro-the moving picture – it depends on what it’s used for. Us being us, it’s going to be used for awful things and it’s probably going to be used for some amazing things. But I’m certainly not afraid of it. I’m excited by it, although I do think it’s a little bit sad that when we do finally make an AI that is intelligent, it makes me feel a bit more alone. All we’ve got to talk to is just this thing we’ve made. So, there’s a bit of sadness, I think, with this running towards artificial intelligence.
It’s interesting you say that, considering that you’re using AI in the album as a kind of emotional vent.
It’s literally about sadness and loneliness, the search for artificial intelligence. It’s a symbol of feeling alone and that we need more than each other.
How has advancing software and AI impacted your sound?
Without thinking about it, I use things like reverbs, which are modelled on real buildings, St Paul’s Cathedral reverb or something like that, and it’s basically been created by AI. There’s a hell of a lot of very intelligent stuff happening in phonics, but Alex, who produced the record, used quite a lot of analogue synths that he made himself, so that was very organic, in terms of the sonics. Theres a mixture of real drums and drum machines. It’s not like: ‘here is our computer album’ or anything like that. That’s been done a long time ago by the likes of Kraftwerk – and that was before we were born.
You have said in previous interviews that this album is a kind of change or departure from what you’ve done before and has marked the end of the period in a way.
It was a chance to experiment. Because we were making the record so fast, we had an attitude of, ‘did you like this? Do I like this? Okay, then let’s do it’. That was new for us, because in the past, we would slave over songs and overcomplicate them, or convince each other that they weren’t good, or they need to be more complicated. This was a very free and easy way of doing things. We all felt really good about it, and we still do. In that sense, that may have changed for us going forward and we’ll try to approach the next thing in the same way, going with our gut. Now it’s like, let’s have a good time and make the type of music that makes us feel good.
How’s that changed the end result, do you think?
It’s definitely more pop centred, and there’s far fewer sad moments or despair – a lot of the things that we’re known for. This is definitely a positive record, despite there being a few songs about death and grief. It’s not quite in the same vein that we would have approached it in the past. We’ve got an awful lot of songs in our back catalogue, which we don’t really like to play anymore, because they’re just wretched and sad.
When you were first founded as a group, you were supposedly all about poptimism. What has been your trajectory emotionally?
Everything Everything was started with a lot of anger, bitterness and resentment about the state of music. We started the band at the height of landfill indie and the sort of Babyshambles era of people not playing their instruments very well and it all being about image – no creativity, just about recreating the past. That’s why we came out saying we’re about ideas, you’re not going to even understand what I’m saying because we’re all about ideas, ideas, ideas. We’ve chilled out a bit over the years. But that’s what 20-year-old people are like. We still have a hunger for creativity. We don’t feel like we have to prove anything, because we’ve made six records now.
You’ve used current affairs so much in your past music, but I find it interesting that you’re now having this turn towards positivity and you’re saying that might be an age-related thing. Have you decided to depart from the news in your current music?
I just got sick of it. There comes a point where you decide how much of my life am I going to give to these people, to these movements, that I hate so much. Things have been crap for my generation since the Tories got in – and a bit before that. I screamed about it on Get to Heaven, I was surly about it on Fever Dream. Then I thought, ‘I’m just out. Done’. I’m going to talk about the things in life that are good while I have some of my youth left. I’m going to try and find love and happiness elsewhere – because I’m done.
See the rest of the National Lottery’s Revive Live Tour with THE GOA EXPRESS at Tall Trees on 31 August and The Xcerts at The Portland Arms on 19 September.