Photo: Everything Everything

Interview: Everything Everything

On the day I speak with their drummer Mike Spearman, two bits of Everything Everything-related news have been released into the world; namely, they’ve announced a tour for next year, and they’ve put their forthcoming fifth album RE-ANIMATOR back three weeks from its original mid-August date. Taking the rough with the smooth? That’s nothing new – the year the Manchester quartet have been having thus far, even with the damaging blows struck to music as a whole by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been hectic in the extreme. RE-ANIMATOR finally lands this Friday. Just as the band had finalised plans for its release, all hell broke loose and those plans went up in flames -–along with their studio lock-up.

“We had this mad week – it was the week of lockdown [on March 23rd]” Spearman starts, chatting to me from his home in Manchester, “and the label were like, ‘We don’t really know what’s happening, so we’re gonna send you all a green screen – could you record yourselves – like, properly, not on your phones – playing the singles against the green screen? We’re gonna need some stuff, and you’re probably not gonna be able to get together.’ So we were working out how to use the green screen, and I was working out how to record drums in my shed, while my wife had suspected Coronavirus – we still don’t know if that was what it was – and then I got the call about the studio fire. There was, like, loads of equipment… it was from some electrical fault.”

The band did, however, manage to salvage some equipment, utilising what hadn’t been completely destroyed in the music video for “Violent Sun”, their new record’s closing track. Spearman’s quite aware of how much of an outlier the charging, forceful song is in the band’s catalogue. “[Lead singer] Jon [Higgs] wanted to write a song where it felt like the end of the night. There’s no time left, and the DJ’s about to play the last song – that’s on a micro level, but there’s also a bigger thing about the end of the world. A high-energy, almost Bruce Springsteen kind of feel to it; that’s new for us, and it had to be the last track on the album. I have no idea if people are going to like it, and that’s kind of exciting.”

For Spearman, that feeling isn’t new. “I had it with [2015’s] Get to Heaven; it was quite a difficult record to make. We finished it and we were all emotionally exhausted, like, ‘How can we even know what we’ve got here?’ It was a reaction to our second album [2013’s Arc], which was all slower tempos – Jon was obsessed by Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and stuff like that – so we finished with that album cycle and were like, ‘Let’s try something different.’ You tend to go the other way every time. [2017’s] A Fever Dream was quite dark in tone, and we wanted to get away from that. “Lost Powers”, the first song on the new album, it’s got pretty dark lyrics but it’s very major key. It’s weird for us, since normally we have something quite downbeat [as an album opener], maybe not downbeat musically, but the message of the song is. So we consciously tried to break our own mould.”

This also meant a change in approach to recording the album; for RE-ANIMATOR, the band worked with producer John Congleton. “That was another way of forcing ourselves out of our comfort zone. He works really fast – we spent a year writing the record and then two weeks recording it. He asked us, ‘Can we do it in two weeks?’ He only had two weeks. We’ve never done that, and we surprised ourselves.”

Would they do that again? When it comes to how he operates as a drummer, Spearman is a creature of habit. “I don’t think I would, personally – I feel like if the band wanted to, I would, and I’d enjoy it, but it was refreshing for me not to get bogged down with all that stuff, and our experience with John was great. I really enjoyed working with James Ford on A Fever Dream. He is a drummer, he gets drums and I liked that. We did our first two records with David Kosten, and he was very into synths. That progressed our side of things and helped us with synths and stuff, as we were very behind with that. We’ve definitely taken a lot from working with John – we take some stuff from every producer we’ve worked with.” They’ve worked with different producers since Man Alive and Arc, and constantly changing environments can have an impact on the band dynamic, though that’s par for the course.

“The thing about being in a band is that there’s always an element of, ‘This is what I would like to do!’; ‘Well, this is what I would like to do!’, and ‘How can we satisfy four sets of preferences as best as possible?’ We don’t go around wondering how we compromise. It’s more like, ‘How can we tick as many of those boxes that we all have?’ It’s a collaborative process, and we’re all different people – quite different as people, too, and we have to communicate and try to nail down our priorities. We’ve never had a bad recording experience – well, we’ve tried producers for a day or two where it hasn’t worked out – but not once we’ve decided on a producer.” With that in mind, previous experiences could have gone entirely differently, with Get to Heaven referenced by Spearman again.

“Recording it was such a messy process. We initially self-produced most of it, and that was… it was a learning curve, and we got quite a lot out of it. We were at that stage with the album, and Alex [Robertshaw, guitar/keyboards] had a good idea of what he wanted from it – he definitely could produce an Everything Everything album – and we did do most of it ourselves, but then we had this really weird situation where the head of the label at the time [Sony RCA] said we should work with Stuart Price of the Pet Shop Boys. We really like the Pet Shop Boys, but it wasn’t… our sort of area. We entertained the idea, and it was me and Alex who spoke to Stuart. He lives in Beverly Hills, you know? We were in Manchester in a crappy rehearsal room just being like, ‘Hi Stuart,’ and then he comes along and he’s this force of nature. It wasn’t like we were doubting the songs, but writing it had been a difficult process – and then he says, ‘No, it’s really good and I want to help you finish it.’”

He sees parallels between those sessions and the intense workload that birthed RE-ANIMATOR. “There might be a lot of problems, but that’s the way records are made these days. It’s quite chaotic, but you have to put your trust in the process and the person you’re making the record with. We felt more free than ever this time – ‘we’ve already made four records, let’s do something different.’ I mean, it’s definitely an Everything Everything album so it’s not totally breaking the mould, but we’ve got a track record now. On your first album, you’re kind of terrified – 12 songs and that could be it, your only legacy. We’ve had a hundred or so, and we looked at them like, ‘they exist.’ We’re fairly established and aren’t going to just disappear if we make a bad record and everyone hates it. There’s an element of feeling more secure.” This time, it wasn’t so much a hard reset for the band after A Fever Dream, but they wanted to try a different approach.

“Recording in a faster way and not stewing over things was one thing, but the main thing was, I think, lyrically. A Fever Dream was obviously political – so was Get to Heaven, they’re sort of companion pieces to each other – but it was more the emotional fallout of Brexit and Trump, confusion in a way. We took a bit more time on this one – the lyrics were definitely a reset. We wanted to go a bit deeper and get away from politics a bit, into more universal things. Jon’s really interested in consciousness – the theory of the bicameral mind, that sort of stuff – and he saw ways he could apply that to modern life. Are we awake, as people? Is the world awake, to problems such as climate change? That pops up a few times on the record. That’s a political issue in some way, but this time we wanted to be more universal.”

There are some love songs on the album, too. “Many bands and artists have covered that, and we have too, in our own oblique way,” Spearman says knowingly, “but this time we were more direct, like on “Planets” – ‘Can you love me more than the planets?’ – you wouldn’t have had that lyric [from Jon] before. He’s kind of grown up. We were saying the other day that it’s the opposite of what most people do. They cover love, and then they go, ‘what can we do next?’ We came at the first two albums thinking, ‘how can I look at things in a different way?’ – avoid clichés and expectation, things like that, and now we’re far more comfortable getting stuck in covering topics that have been covered a million times, with our own kind of take on them.”

Outside of his duties in Everything Everything, Spearman has also worked with the likes of Denai Moore – he contributed to her most recent album Modern Dread, released in July, with Robertshaw producing, and EE’s Jeremy Pritchard contributing bass and keyboards. “I played on maybe half of it – there are a lot of programmed drums on it. It was great, and quite fun to see Alex in a different light – I’ve seen him at the controls, so I know he’s good at what he does, but the dynamic in a band is different. It was interesting to see him being the out-and-out producer with a solo artist. In our band, we’re all opinionated: if any of us says, ‘Oh, I think we should do that,’ then you have three other voices going, ‘Ooh, I have a problem with that.’ [With Alex], it was fun, and I’ve enjoyed it in other ways when I’ve played drums for other people, as well.”

Another of Spearman’s collaborators is Steven Wilson – he plays drums on the songwriter’s new album The Future Bites, which was originally due in June but has been shunted back to late January 2021. “I was checking, like, wondering how it hadn’t come out yet, but he had the O2 Arena [in London] booked for next year. [That tour has since been cancelled.] You can’t mess around with that – he was originally going to do the O2 without the album being out, and I was just like, ‘Not really.’ The whole music industry is in a bit of a mess at the moment, but we’re trying our best.”

Adaptation to rapidly-changing circumstances and working under pressure seem to be recurring topics in our interview, not to mention the band dynamic and how they push each other. You’re never too old to try new things, and Spearman knows that. “I’ve been learning how to use a drum machine,” he reveals. “Well, I’ve had it for a while, and use it on the new record, but there’s some stuff I’d forgotten that I’m now relearning. So that’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t have bought it myself, but Alex said, ‘Get this drum machine. It’s quite a hard one to learn, but you should do it.’ Without that, I wouldn’t have done it. We all push each other – and equally, we push Alex. I think he’s a better producer for being in the band. Being in one is like a gang: you have your own little world, your own sense of humour… I was speaking to Hayden [Thorpe] from Wild Beasts the other day – he’s a solo artist now – and I asked him, ‘Do you ever miss that…?’ I don’t know what the word is, that particular ecosystem. He said, ‘Yeah!’ I mean, they went to school together. It’s so different in how you talk to one another, and it’s the same in our band. Over the years, it’s become [this thing where] I know what anyone’s going to think about pretty much anything. Most of the time.”

From there, the conversation shifts to the topic of Spearman himself. I ask him how he got his start in drumming, and he’s very forthcoming and suitably animated in response. He speaks in paragraphs, going off on tangents at the drop of a hat – a chatty interviewee, no doubt. “I just went to a normal school where we were encouraged to play an instrument. I tried the violin and didn’t really get it, it was hard to learn. So I told my parents I wanted to give it up, and they were like, ‘well, what do you want to play instead?’ I said ‘drums’, and they were quite suspicious! I just liked the physicality of it. I was 10, and I liked how they were ‘different’ – no need to worry about melody or harmony, but then there are obviously things you do need to worry about, like keeping the music together, making the band feel good about it, and so on. Obviously, when I was 10, I didn’t know about any of that sort of stuff; I just thought, ‘I’ll give it a go!’”

Giving it a go led to a chance connection with a future bandmate. “My drum teacher at school was really encouraging and took it seriously. I liked that vibe, there was no messing around with him. He was really into Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and American psychedelic music. I moved to my next school and I had two music teachers and the same drum teacher during this sort of formative time, and I met Jon there. He was just hanging around the music room. I took the piss out of him quite a lot! I think he saw me as a music nerd – which I was – and I saw him as, like… a bit of a weirdo, to be honest, with the way he dressed. He made his own trousers, I think! He had these big, pink, corduroy trousers, and he was always around the music room. I was quite a serious person and just wanted to learn how to play the drums, but he was playing guitar and bass and a bit of piano – he just wanted to do that so he could write songs.

“I remember him playing me stuff and I was like, ‘this is good, yeah – sounds a bit like Radiohead.’ He didn’t like me saying that!” The pair’s musical partnership continued: “We were in a couple of bands together; not for years or anything like that, we just did a few gigs, a few rehearsals. This all happened in parallel with getting better at the drums, and then I went to music college. I quite enjoyed school, but I didn’t think I was particularly suited to all of that stuff. I could have just done history and I would have enjoyed it, but I thought, ‘Well, I don’t think I’d be that great, I don’t think I’ve got that much to offer in terms of studying history or English, but maybe I could be a drummer. I didn’t think I’d necessarily be a professional musician… Being in bands seemed too much like a lifestyle, one which I wasn’t particularly drawn to – living through the 90s, with Britpop and stuff like that, you’d read the NME and the magazine would be about the shenanigans of bands, things like that. I just thought, ‘yeah, I don’t know if that’s for me, really.’” How times change.

“We did start Everything Everything after university, so I had to get out of that mindset and get into the mindset of whatever our band is. It was quite a long road to that.” Spearman was once an aspiring drummer, so what sort of advice would he have for the aspiring drummers of today? “Try not to get bogged down in being technically the best musician in the world,” he offers, “and just follow your intuition in terms of the music you want to play. If you want to be a bebop jazz drummer, then be that; if you want to be a pop drummer, do that. In music, there’s a lot of overlap, but you should embrace it all and try to learn from it. Listen to as much of it as possible and learn as much as you can from it.” It’s something he admits he probably should have done himself.

“I had all this music education, but I was like, ‘I don’t know what I think of anything anymore.’ I’d been told how to do things so many times… but in this band, I have people who allow me to just focus on the fundamentals and how I want to do things, while I try to have my own voice on the drums.”

As for that voice, how did Spearman express it on RE-ANIMATOR? “Drums are usually the first thing that has to happen – mostly in terms of recording, but also in terms of writing. You need that basis, even if you change it later. That means that a lot of the time, I’m playing something that Alex, who can’t play the drums, at all, has written on a computer. I interpret that, and in doing so, it changes. There’s electronics and things you can add for more of a programmed sound” – there’s that drum machine again – “which is kinda cool. When I was learning, that definitely wasn’t on the radar. It didn’t exist, really: there were 1980s electronic kits but no hybrids.” There’s more of that on RE-ANIMATOR than a casual listener might think, too.

“On this album, that’s been a whole new thing I’ve had to do, try and make my playing sound like a computer sometimes,” Spearman reveals, “and I actually really like Jon and Alex writing drum parts for me, because they come at it in a completely different way than I would have as a schooled drummer. I like writing them myself, and sometimes it’s quite hard to learn [theirs], but I’m determined to learn them – they can be weird, and good, and unexpected, like the last song on Get to Heaven, “Warm Healer”, it’s got this really odd 6/4 thing that’s programmed, and it’s like [vocalises drum part]… it took me ages to get that.

“What I do normally is transcribe what they’ve done and then learn it. I’d rather embrace what they give to me – probably change it as we go, here and there – then be a bit snippy about it and go, ‘well, that’s not what I would play,’ because that’s the whole point. I don’t want to do that, I get enough of that in a normal playing situation. If I can embrace what they’re doing, it’ll probably fit the song better – I don’t want to be weird for the sake of being weird, and I’ll say if I don’t think it’s working, and then change it.” This manner of collaboration may not work for everyone, but it works for Spearman.

“In our band, one of the things that’s different is, things are predetermined. We don’t go into the studio and go, ‘Well, let’s just make it up on the spot’ – we’ve figured out our parts, and if we’re just noodling around then there are probably gonna be too many notes happening. When you go in [the studio], you can have whatever vibe you want; maybe it’s the vibe of a band who don’t all go in together and record live, but that’s just not what we’re after. They’re different things,” Spearman explains. “We’re fans of bands like Radiohead who spend ages with drum machines, putting them through loads of effects pedals – there’s spontaneity there in terms of turning the knobs, but it’s not meant to sound like it’s human. The whole point is it’s got this weird, uncanny valley thing where you’re not sure if it’s a machine or a person.” They’re quite keen on blurring those lines.

“We like that, and like incorporating it into our music in general. Drums are important to that feeling – the ‘programmed or live?’ thing, I have to strike a balance, and that’s a really fun challenge. Before we hit the studio, I’m like, ‘OK, so it’s gonna be a machine [to start] and then the man takes over from the machine.” Makes sense, since he was using that drum machine already, right? It turns out that it had a practical advantage. “Well, my daughter was really young and napping quite a lot, so I started working with it – with encouragement from Alex. The beat for “Big Climb” is basically that, but tweaked a little bit. That’s what I like about songwriting – not to give myself more credit than I should deserve, since it’s Jon and Alex who actually write the songs, but when you’re in a band, it’s not usually just, like, ‘Here’s the song, go play it.’

“It can happen like that sometimes, but most of the time it’s collaborative: you have a demo, and you go, ‘OK, let’s try this, try that’; you offer some ideas, or whatever. We had this demo for “Big Climb”, which I actually didn’t like at all…” Plenty of retooling required, I take it? “I listened to it and was like, ‘Maybe not,’ but then Jeremy – who was then away playing with Foals, [stepping in for their Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost tour last year after Walter Gervers’ 2018 departure] – said he thought there was something in it. I went to Alex’s house, and we were just going through demos and listened to that. ‘Jez likes it,’ I told him. He said he’d look at my beats and see if we could find one that worked with it – and then we were up and running. We were batting ideas around, trying to go for this big Tears For Fears, Depeche Mode thing – we had a song where we didn’t have a song before.

“Then Jon came in [to the writing process], and he’s great with melodies and choruses and stuff like that. It went from being a demo I wasn’t keen on to being one of my favourite songs on the record!” That’s how it works, isn’t it? “You just build it up bit by bit – it’s a problem sometimes, because you spend all this time building something up for a year, and then you go, ‘What about this?’… and then, ‘Oh yeah!’, and then, ‘hmm… it’s not that good’, and it doesn’t make the record.” Spearman speaks from experience, again referencing the difficult process of making Get to Heaven. “We wasted loads of time on songs that didn’t even make the bonus tracks. I don’t know how we even did that record in the end, there was just so much pulling our hair out and going, ‘Oh, we’ve got these songs, and they’re OK,’ then trying to polish them to the point where you’re just like, ‘No, they’re not good,’ and throwing them out.”

Sometimes you just need to learn when to let go. “It was quite disheartening,” Spearman admits. “You learn something from it, but it can be slightly painful. Letting go is part of it – we can tell each other in our band, we can all be a bit more objective and say, ‘OK, that song’s done with,’ or, ‘We’ve gone too far with it.’ Sometimes you go too far and have to pull it back; like, ‘That’s version 10, let’s go back to version 7’, and then you take version 7 and go from there. You need other people to say, ‘No, you’ve overcooked it there,’ or, ‘No, it’s not good enough yet.’ I do that a lot, and it pisses Jon and Alex off – because I just go, ‘It’s not quite there yet, it needs a better chorus,’ and so on – and I know it pisses them off, and I don’t like saying something like that, but they’re the same with me.” Spearman’s able to both take it and dish it out.

“They can be pissed off with me, and it’s fine. If I’m not writing and literally like, ‘I think we should use these chords,’ then I think one of the roles a drummer can have sometimes is to be slightly removed and say, ‘Yeah, the chorus isn’t that good.’ That’s not me saying, ‘Well, here’s my chorus, which I think is better,’ because I don’t do that, it’s me saying, ‘Well, how about taking this bit and doing that with it?’ There are little nudges here and there, and that’s the collaboration happening.” A healthy competitive mindset – certainly something you want in a band who will have existed for almost a decade and a half.

What’s next for them? With the album tour, which takes in the UK and Ireland, hopefully kicking off next March, in-person rehearsals haven’t started yet, but they have performed new songs and fan favourites in the run-up to RE-ANIMATOR’s release, with the aid of those green screens. “We’ve recorded videos and put them out here and there – it’s been cool. It’s been good that it’s been green-screened as well because there’s been a lot of this, ‘Here we are in our bedrooms!’ A lot of artists have done that, but it’s not for us. It’s fine, but it doesn’t really suit our band. We like to control things a little more and to think things through – to be slightly slick, if we can.

“It was a natural choice, because we used to make our own music videos, back before we were signed – and then we signed to Universal [via Polydor Records]! It was going from having, like, £100 to make a video to major-label budgets, but we do like making videos ourselves, so we’re back to that.” That previous experience certainly helped. Jon did the “In Birdsong” video at home with some software he was learning to use at the time, so he was like, ‘OK, I have to learn it, quick, we need a video!’ I think the song surprised some of our fans; they were kind of wrong-footed by it, but it felt like the right song at the right time. Stuff like that felt right; necessity is the mother of invention, and all that.” Adaptation, competition, re-animation: that’s the story of Everything Everything’s new album.

RE-ANIMATOR is out this Friday via Infinity Industries/AWAL.

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