If one thing has ever been predictable about Enter Shikari, it’s been that they will never do what you expect. From their seemingly out-of-the-blue announcement of their fifth full-length The Spark to the content of the album itself, a focused and cohesive record that dwells on hooks and potent melodies rather than frantic genre-hopping and that deals with a world going to the dogs not with anger, but with introspection. A fair guess that fans and critics are going to have something to say about this shift, so we decided to jump the line and chat with bassist Chris Batten to discuss this next phase for Enter Shikari.
The Spark is just about out, the “Rabble Rouser” video dropped – how are things on your end?
Things are great. It’s always exciting when you get to release new music; so much goes into it from our end, you’ve awaited people hearing it and now you get to the point where it’s coming out, so you get to hear what people think. It’s brilliant.
How long was this in the works? It felt to me like it really snuck up on people.
That was the idea, I think. Realistically, we went into the studio in early January so we started writing in the last 3 months of 2016. We went into the studio 2 weeks in January, 2 weeks in February, and finished it off in April as we were in the States in March. It’s been in the pipeline for quite a long time, but we realised that in the past the way that we’ve done it, and lots of acts release music, is you see studio diaries and little bits of information here and there, so by the time the release comes around you stop seeing any excitement because it’s taken so long. This time we wanted to keep as quiet as possible and to come back, announce and put the new single up, and get the excitement from that aspect.
It feels like a different album to previous works in a lot of ways. Lyrically, it’s more personal, but musically there seems to be more focus there. Why the decision to take this album in these two directions?
With all the previous albums, when it came to writing them we never really had a clear idea of what we were trying to achieve with the albums. This was the first album where we actually went into the studio with a real idea of the direction we wanted to take and I think that came from feeling more confident in ourselves and our songwriting, where previously we felt like we needed to tick all the boxes. We needed to be the heaviest band at one minute, and have the craziest time signatures, and then at the other end of the spectrum we needed to be the most melodic and passionate, and to write the heaviest, most emotional part of the song. This time, we just felt more focused and so we sat down beforehand and said that we wanted this record to be simplified. We wanted melody to be the driving force of this record, and we want the structures of the songs to be simple – we want them to be less erratic than our normal style of writing. On the lyrics front, I think that’s come from this being the first time that Rou has really felt confident enough to put such personal lyrics out. He has always had personal lyrics before, but they’ve been a lot more metaphorical and this record is a lot more direct.
You were touring the anniversary of Take To The Skies recently, which is almost the antithesis of this record. Did rehearsing the material for that tour cement the direction that you had planned to take with The Spark?
I’ll be honest with you, we wanted to do something for the Take To The Skies 10 year anniversary tour, but when it did come round, it was right in the middle of when we were trying to think forward, to write and record the new record, so at the time it felt like it was a distraction we’d regret; we’d come out of the studio thinking forward and then all of a sudden had to focus backward 10 years, so it was a bit disorientating. But, it actually turned out to be a real blessing in disguise because none of us were really expecting to have that reaction to it and feel the nostalgia that we did, so doing the shows was an amazing experience and we went back into the studio after it feeling completely refreshed, not with a new outlook but… it’s always good to detach yourself a little bit. We came back into the studio feeling more focused and it with a stronger idea of what we wanted the album to sound like.
Continuing on that same thread, you said that in the past you’ve always felt the urge to tick all the boxes. Did that mean you had to exercise more self-restraint with this material? Was there ever the temptation to go back into those old habits?
I don’t think we felt frustration or anything like that, but we certainly felt some urges. What we would do with Enter Shikari is we’d have too many ideas, almost, and they’d end up clouding the original idea, so really it was refreshing to let the riff or the emotion that we were getting from this verse or chorus be it. Really, it just gave us more freedom to use other idea in different ways, like in other songs.
Are there any songs on the album that particularly speak to you, as an individual? Anything you have a stronger connection to?
I think the final song on the record, “Jigsaw Pieces,” is potentially one of the most emotional songs we’ve ever written and it’s one that everything seems to come together with. At the demoing stages, we knew the music was very passionate but when the lyrics started to come through… I think it’s something that everyone can relate to. Essentially, it’s about loss and it’s such a wide topic that so many people can relate to, it just felt like something that we could all… I’m trying not to say “relate to” again but it’s really the best phrase. That’s going to be the case for a lot of people.
One thing I like with The Spark is that it will surprise a lot of people. You’ve always taken a certain direction with regards to current events, and given that things couldn’t be much worse at the moment, how did you feel holding back from commenting on what’s happening as you would have done in the past?
Obviously, there’s so much going on and I know that, at first, Rou in particular felt almost overwhelmed on what to focus on and what not to. I think that’s another reason it’s more personal – the only way you can deal with that is to focus on your personal feelings. It’s always been important to us, because we were very inspired by the likes of Depeche Mode in particular, and stuff like The Human League, because they wrote music that was very upbeat and positive sounding, but the lyrics had a darker, more real vibe to them, and that was the first time that had really been done. We were very inspired by that because with so much going on in the world it’s hard to take positivity from it. We’ve never been a band to want to focus on the negatives, we’ve always tried to look for the positives, and I think that’s the real inspiration for this record.
“…with so much going on in the world it’s hard to take positivity from it. We’ve never been a band to want to focus on the negatives, we’ve always tried to look for the positives, and I think that’s the real inspiration for this record.”
I saw that you have an acoustic in-store coming up. You’ve done a few little acoustic sets before, but how are you feeling about this one?
At the moment, we’re in the rehearsal room and we have a lot to focus on. We have an actual release show in Kingston and then the stripped-back acoustic versions that we need to be doing, and that’s what we’re doing right now. Rou and Rory have been over in Poland the past couple of days doing a two-piece acoustic radio set. There’s a lot to be planning and to be ready for, but it’s getting to the point where it’s starting to feel like it’s all coming together. At first, it feels like there’s too much on our plates, but eventually we pull through. I think that by the time the album release show comes through, we should have the set polished and on the same day have that acoustic set in HMV.
Rou said to us before about how much work it took to get things set up for the live show last time around. Did you make a point of simplifying things in terms of reproducibility for this record?
Erm, not really! Half the battle is figuring out how we’re going to do it live because when we go into the studio, we don’t want to be focused on that, we want to be focused on being creative and writing the best songs possible. After we’ve done it, it is a case of going into the rehearsal room and starting programming. We’ve learned so much over the past few years and album. In the early days, the setup was simpler and it kind of got taken out of our hands a little bit because we’d have technical-minded people who’d come in and give us tips, so we kind of lost control on the live aspect of things, but over the last two records, we’ve started getting a lot more heavily involved in that process. From that we’ve learned a lot, especially when it comes to preparing for live as we can do it all ourselves, really. That goes as well with the last production tour we did – we took on a lot more of it ourselves, and doing it that way, the final product is always going to be a lot better because we can be creative with it. We’re not restricted by the setup they let us do, so it’s a fun time and something we really enjoy is figuring out what we can do, how we can do it and the samples we can play; what aspects of it can be assigned to which synthesisers and that kind of thing.
You’ve always been great for switching things up. What, in your eyes, makes for a great opener and closer for an Enter Shikari album?
The first three records, we’ve always felt a need and an urge to write an opening song that bursts out of the speakers and that’s something we’ve always done. It’s always seemed a great way to start a record. I think we felt less pressure with that this time because we were more focused on writing the songs so we didn’t feel we needed to tick that box, really, but we also wanted to enclose the album, almost bookend it. Rou had written this nice soundscape-y piece which ended up being “The Embers” and “The Spark”. It was a really useful way to start and end, and to round everything off – to enclose it as a piece of art.
You had a collaboration earlier this year with Big Narstie. How did that end up coming about?
For quite a while now we’d been quite inspired by what’s going on in the grime world, so we had this track that we’d been demoing and we didn’t really know what to do with it or where to take it. It’s the track that’s probably taken the longest to write and to get finished; we’d been working on it for essentially over a year. A lot of it was waiting for the right person to come along and we knew we wanted to get someone in on it, and Big Narstie came around just through friends and people we know in different circles. He came in and absolutely smashed it in one take and the rest is history.
It’s telling that you can blend your sound so well with grime, and you’ve always had that ability. It actually feels like fusion acts are a lot more common nowadays – do you think that there’s been a dissolution of genres in recent years? Have things become less clear-cut?
Definitely. I remember when we first got started, we were a lot heavier but even before Take To The Skies, we were writing these songs that had dance elements, that had electronica and we’d be playing shows on bills with actual hardcore bands, and the reaction was either completely love or completely hate. There were times when people actually got very angry because it was like, “What are you doing to this genre that I love? You’re not sticking to the rules here!” That was something we used to get a lot but don’t at all now, so I think there’s a definite indication that there’s more cross-pollination.
If you listen to “Rabble Rouser”, though, the message almost seems to be the opposite. Do you think that’s been a reaction to this – that there’s more cookie-cutter bands, not just within pop but also in rock and metal?
I think we’ve noticed, especially within the rock scene, that things have started to get a bit stagnant. There’s not a lot of interesting stuff happening in guitar-based music at the moment and I guess that’s what “Rabble Rouser” is about, lyrically. I guess there’s just more interesting stuff happening in other genres, like grime has taken off and even in pop music there’s some quite interesting stuff going on. I think that’s what Rou was getting at.
A few years ago, you played Russia when there was a lot of talk about boycotts due to anti-gay laws and the actions of the Russian government. Now you’re seeing criticism of bands like Radiohead choosing to play Israel. What are your thoughts on this and where do you stand on the whole notion of ‘cultural boycotts’?
We’ve never wanted to shy away from playing anywhere has always been our ethos. We will gladly play anywhere there’s a demand for us to play and I think that it’s all too easy to be scared off by what you hear in the media – that’s the main issue. There’s a lot of propaganda flying around and you don’t really know what a real news source is, or what you can trust. When we did get over there, it was absolutely fine. There were no issues and people were glad we came, so I think there’s a lot of scare tactics. It’s division, that’s what it is. Keeping people separated and segregated.
Laibach said something similar when they played North Korea a few years ago. Would you be up for playing there if the opportunity arose?
Obviously, North Korea feels like a completely different world right now, but I don’t know. We haven’t had any offers so I think we’ll have to play that one by ear. I guess we’d have to look at that the same as we would with anywhere else – we don’t want there to be any separation, and certainly music and art is the only real place where there is no segregation. I don’t know, to be honest. We’d have to have a think about that one.