Interview with Enter Shikari vocalist Rou Reynolds | By Nicholas Senior
British group Enter Shikari have always been big, brash, and bold. Their electronic hardcore sound has morphed and matured over the years, yet vocalist Rou Reynolds’ politically sharp lyrics have remained the band’s trademark. Musically and lyrically, their idea that all people and subgenres should come together in unity for a better world has translated to some of the best, most insightful punk of the past decade. However, sometimes one needs to look inward and realize the worlds around him and inside him both need fixing.
Such is the case for the band’s astounding post-punk opus, The Spark, released on Sept. 22 via [PIAS] Recordings. That classic Shikari swagger and love of the odd is still there in spades, but it’s tempered by honest to goodness emotion and powerful songwriting. Aggressive metallic club bangers like “Rabble Rouser” are the exception, not the norm this time around.
This change occurred as Reynolds’ life seemingly crumbled. He realized he needed to stop the panic attacks and self-destructive behavior and focus on a little self-discovery. The result is Enter Shikari’s best work yet, the type of soul-bearing release that feels like a modern classic. A musical voyage this personal is uncommon for the band, and it took some effort to make happen. “Everything that I went through in these past few years—which is probably the roughest period in my life—I think it emboldened me in terms of lyrics,” Reynolds explains. “I’ve always written lyrics that are very wider, bigger perspective, trying to be philosophical and provide relevant social commentary. That’s something that I love doing, and I’m very passionate about. The main thing about Shikari’s content is that it needs to be passionate; that’s the only rule we really have. So, there’s also a part of me that was a bit timid to speak too much about the personal, so it was almost like an excuse to write about the world.”
“I think I didn’t want to open myself too much, or I didn’t think I had much to give,” he continues. “I’ve had a fairly comfortable life, so it wasn’t until the events of the past few years that I felt the need to connect more and to open up about the mental health issues I’ve been through. I think that’s the best way to create a conversation and to make people see parallels with their lives and to try to break down that pedestal that someone in the limelight has to be this strong, unmovable figure who’s emotionless—not that I’m particularly famous,” he laughs.
Reynolds was hesitant to open himself up for fear of not being useful enough. Turns out that was the wrong attitude, and Reynolds is glad he didn’t listen to himself. “I’m not really sure how I felt about opening up, because I never felt like I had a massive amount to offer, but it felt like something that I had to do,” he says. “I think, whether it’s mental health, anxiety, depression, or loss, when you’re in those situations, you want to connect more to people; you have a sort of drive to feel at ease knowing other people are going through similar things. I think it’s a human drive for community, really. Over the past few years, when I open up on Twitter, it’ll make me feel better, because 10 or 20 or more people will share their similar stories, and immediately, I feel less alone.”
So, does he feel better? “Oh yeah, 100 percent,” he attests. “I learned so much over those years, and I put together a toolbox, I suppose, of things that can help me and ways I can improve my life and ensure I don’t go through a rut like that again. One of the biggest things is just understanding. For a lot of my years at school and in my early 20s, I just thought that I was a bit weird. I felt strange in different situations and thought I just had to deal with it and avoid situations that trigger the anxiety. I didn’t even know it was called anxiety at that time,” he sighs, “so it’s just a massive learning experience. With fear, it can just be not understanding something. Purely building up my knowledge takes away a lot of the sting or the shock of it.”
How did that translate to the musical aspect of The Spark? Reynolds expands, “The music that I was writing, even though the album was addressing dark and serious subjects, is quite upbeat and melodic—quite happy, really. That was me subconsciously thinking that in a year’s time, the songs will be made and we’ll be playing these songs live. I had an underlying hope that I would be in a happier place, that I would be singing these upbeat songs and have gone through everything and would actually be able to enjoy the positive sound of the music. That’s definitely what’s happened.”
An emboldened sense of self is the perfect pairing for Enter Shikari’s most musically assured effort yet. “For us, [the record] feels like the second coming of post-punk,” Reynolds shares. “Those early ‘80s bands—everything from Joy Division, The Sound, Depeche Mode—all that kind of stuff was a huge influence on this album, because I feel like with all we’re going through, perhaps this is my post-punk era. I’m very fed up with heavy music. I think it’s become very lackluster and banal, and it’s not going anywhere. There’s still some incredibly exciting bands, but in general, I find myself not being very inspired by punk rock or metal now.”
“Also, pair that with the fact that I’ve built up a lot more confidence over the last few albums and years of touring, not only as a singer but as a songwriter,” he continues. “I wanted to prove myself on this record and say, ‘Look, there’s a lineage of bands that have influenced us.’ I feel like when I put my mind to it and stop trying to be the most extreme—[laughs], you know, writing songs that are basically five songs in one—when I actually put my mind to it, I can write music that is in the same league as those influences that we have, hopefully.”
Reynolds ponders this further, then adds, “I think that’s when you get a lot of great eras of music, when you get people who have grown up with a punk mindset making music that is more immediate. It brings a much more exciting realm to popular music, much more than the sort of very mechanical, profit-laden pop you get now. We really wanted to make sure that we kept the diversity. There was a conscious effort to make music that concentrated on simplicity or lucidity, but at the same time, making music that took into account all of the influences that we grew up with.”
The ease of the new musical direction was surprising for Reynolds, but he found it quite challenging to put words to the songs. “The music came very easily on this album,” he expounds. “There was a real vision and focus I’ve never had before, but the lyrics were really difficult. It wasn’t until I paired up the personal with the social, global, [and] political that I sort of started to see a route of putting it all together. The Spark isn’t just the sort of flicker of hope for a new direction. It’s also on the political circuit; we’ve seen that here so much with [Leader of the Labour Party] Jeremy Corbyn. He’s awoken a whole swath of people who were completely apathetic to politics. Things are sort of hopeful, but it’s hard to cling on to that youthful energy when we’ve got this whole Brexit thing going on. That married the personal and the political: the idea of coming out of an era of such apathy and division and spiteful tribalism.”
“That’s what ‘Take My Country Back’ is all about,” he mentions. “It’s not about Trump or Brexit, but on a wider scale, this sort of echo chamber, the way social media and modern life have made it so we completely switch off to everything we don’t like. We live in this world where it’s always, ‘If you like this, then you’ll love this.’ Everything is customized to give you more of the same. Politically, that sort of closes one’s mind, and you go away with that group mindset. That’s a really dangerous thing, with the rise of the far right and a violent mindset coming to the fray. It’s quite worrisome. It’s [about] trying to make people keep rationality and an open mind at the forefront of what they do.”
The thematic hallmark of Enter Shikari’s career is still at the center of The Spark: that music can be a wonderful source of unity. “I think, really, today, it’s the only thing left that brings people together on a wide scale,” Reynolds says. “The important thing is that it brings people together indiscriminately.”
Photo by Arne Cardinals