Enter Shikari faced a creative block during the pandemic, questioning their purpose as live music was put on hold. Rather than step back, they’ve tackled those feelings head on with their new record, ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’, which captures the energy of their shows and embraces the joy of human connection.
Words: Dillon Eastoe. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
What is the point in music if it cannot be shared? What is the point in writing music if it’s not to be experienced with others?” That was the central question facing Enter Shikari as they contemplated writing their new record, ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’. Long established as one of the most creative and restless acts on the UK circuit, the St Albans outfit take pride in bringing “steppers, movers, shakers, skankers, punks, metalheads, all under one roof”. With six Top 20 albums already under their belt and countless triumphs in the live arena, they’ve got the proof.
But as live music ground to a halt a few years ago, so did the band’s inspiration run aground. Never before had they been at such a loss for meaning for their unique brand of genre-bending experiments, having made their name blending hardcore, rave, electronica (and anything in between). Finding a way through writer’s block and navigating life without gigs, ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’ finally sees Shikari looking inwards and then roaring back at full throttle, re-energised and ready to take on the world again.
To get there, we need to rewind three trips around the sun. Mere weeks before the release of their last album ‘Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible’ in 2020, live music stopped. Promo shows at intimate venues across the UK were pulled, and from gearing up for a year of worldwide touring and festivals, the four friends returned home; for how long, they had no idea. For a group whose very purpose derives from the sense of connection and community they create at their shows, the members of Enter Shikari were left questioning exactly who they were, if not the rabble-rousers who’ve spent their entire adult lives commanding mosh pits, human pyramids and mass singalongs from the toilet circuit all the way to the main stage.
While some artists used the lack of touring to hunker down and keep themselves busy rush-recording albums, without being able to process ‘Nothing is True’ in the live arena, frontman Rou Reynolds lacked the inspiration to create.
“Writer’s block to me [up until then] was just like, a couple of weeks of not really having a good idea or something,” Rou says, joining us alongside bassist Chris Batten from the band’s HQ as they take a break from a frantic day signing thousands of copies of the new record before jetting out to Japan to perform at Slipknot’s Knotfest. “But a year and a half without writing any music is something altogether different, especially for someone who’s written music since… whenever we started writing tunes, when we were like ten years old or something.”
“There were parts of that year and a half where I thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe I can’t write music anymore'”Rou Reynolds
Having formed Enter Shikari while still in secondary school (via a few lineup and name changes), Rou, Chris, guitarist Rory Clelow and drummer Rob Rolfe have been writing and releasing music continuously; even years without an album release have seen standalone singles and collaborations with acts as diverse as Big Narstie and more recently Wargasm. 2021 was the first time they’d gone a year without releasing original music since their inception.
“It was an incredibly disorientating, disconcerting thing,” Rou recalls. “Songwriting has been, to some extent, one of the ways I organised my thoughts. It’s catharsis; it’s a way of exercising demons. It’s so many things. So to suddenly take that away, at a time when we weren’t playing shows either, it was a very strange, quite scary experience.”
In June 2021, Shikari were selected to headline the Download Pilot at the iconic Donington Park, a testament to their status as a big-draw festival act and one of the premier live bands in the UK. One of a series of, with the gift of hindsight, curious events trialling ‘Covid-safe’ festivals (premised on intensive testing of attendees), and thankfully made redundant by the advent of vaccines, the show proved transformative for Shikari.
“It was amazing,” grins Chris. “The main thing I remember was everyone there was just in the best mood. There was no hassle, no aggro at all on the sides. And I just remember getting out there, having the best time and…” Chris pauses. “And then feeling really depressed almost immediately after because it was like, ‘Well, now what?’ This was just a ‘test [event]’; you don’t know when this is going to be happening again. When do we get this big part of what we do back?”
Emerging from the bunker and finally able to unleash ‘Nothing Is True’ on their fans over a year after it dropped, the band were able to release the handbrake and start barreling towards the future. Having reconnected with their audience and rediscovered their purpose, the band had the jolt they needed to get back on the horse and start plotting their next move.
“It wasn’t like a tsunami of positive ideas and creativity after that [Download performance], it was still a slow process, but that was certainly the turning point,” says Rou. “I think the first song that actually got finished was [lead single, and banger] ‘(pls) set me on fire’, but there were a lot of ideas that were sort of slowly forming.”
‘(pls) set me on fire’ opens with a looping synth arpeggio before lurching into chugging guitars and unfurling a scream-along chorus that’s already a fan favourite. It’s an instructive peek at the rest of the album, a call for connection channelled through some of Shikari’s most immediate songwriting in years.
“A lot of it was almost like getting confidence back because… there were parts of that year and a half where I thought, ‘Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe I can’t write music anymore. And there were obviously times, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, when we all thought maybe life wasn’t gonna get back to normal at all. You know, it’s a very strange experience,” Rou admits. “’(pls) set me on fire’ was literally about that whole time [after playing Download] and wanting to have my soul set alight with the thrill of songwriting, with the excitement of playing live with human connection and creativity. All the best things about life, really.”
“The studio was completely off-grid; we couldn’t boil a kettle and record a guitar at the same time”Rou Reynolds
Decamping to an old farmhouse in Chichester last year, the band set about converting it to a makeshift studio to lay down the tracks for ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’. “Basically, it was completely off-grid, and so it ran on solar power, which meant we couldn’t boil a kettle and record a guitar at the same time we had to schedule the day out,” Rou chuckles. “But that’s exactly what we wanted. There’s no central heating. It’s in this picturesque, beautiful area, and it is an incredible old place, but it needs a lot of work doing. But that was perfect for us. We had to persuade [the owner] on the phone, like ‘No, no, no. We don’t care about being cold. We want to be two miles away from everything!’ We were in this old farmland with little pockets of woods. There were deer across the horizon every day. It was a lovely experience.”
If any band is going to record an album “powered entirely by the sun”, it’s going to be this one. Across its twelve tracks, ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’ is a breakneck speed headrush that bottles the energy and vitality of a Shikari show, with mosh-pit ready breakdowns, earworm choruses and tripped-out interludes stitching the songs together for an experience that doesn’t let up.
“It felt like the music was coming out very genuinely excitable. So it was a very instinctual thing,” Rou remembers. “There was, for me, such a sense of relief and the gratitude of ‘Ok, I can still write music; this is still working. Everything was quite energised and up-tempo, and positive sounding. We started joking that maybe this album will just be the album of bangers, and to really rein in any sort of self-indulgence, and to just have the songs really getting to the point quickly and letting melodies shine through.”
In the past, Enter Shikari have included melancholy tunes that unfurl into hardcore riffs (‘Gap in the Fence’), blissed-out acoustic love songs erupting into arena rock (subject of a thousand tattoos ‘Adieu’) and enlisting an orchestra for their very own symphony with ‘Elegy for Extinction’. On ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’, the band are laser-focused, eschewing any excess for their most concise collection yet.
“We’ve always thrown everything at our albums,” Rou acknowledges. “For example, ‘The Mindsweep’ [Shikari’s fourth album, considered their opus by many fans], which is probably the main contender for this, instead of just letting a melody sit and take the forefront, there are layers and layers of all these different ideas, and the songs will go on big journeys, and they’ll be like five or six minutes long.”
“Whereas this album is just having the confidence to go, ‘No, this is a sick melody. This is the song’. It’s just this short, sharp, hard-hitting thing. And so it ended up that the album was full of bangers.”
“We started joking that maybe this album will just be the album of bangers…”Rou Reynolds
The title-track sets things in motion with a layered brass fanfare giving way to dirty guitar riffs; you can almost picture Rou conducting the first circle pit of the evening as he barks “Go! Go! Go! Go!” before the rhythm section crashes into view. Having warned against “optimism for optimism’s sake” on ‘Nothing is True’, have the band had a change of heart?
“Ohh no, I don’t think any of those tracks are optimistic for optimism’s sake,” Rou counters. “I think there’s a lot of positivity there, but, for instance, ‘A Kiss For The Whole World x’, the first track, it’s all about joy in 2023. It’s our ‘Ode to Joy’. It has the melody from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in it, which was actually the first piece that I ever learned on the trumpet as a kid.”
“I thought it’d be interesting to write a song about how our experience of joy has changed since Beethoven’s time,” Rou explains. “And I thought the main difference is that in 2023 joy is very fragile, very fleeting. It’s quite hard to hold on to. I think we feel a sense of joy, but then we’re so quickly reminded at every turn in life just how bad things are getting and just how many crises there are. The direction that we’re going in, it can be quite terrifying if you look close enough.
“I thought it was just interesting that joy, therefore, isn’t being felt very much. It has a quick half-life, and I thought that was quite sad, really, because joy is such a motivating, energising, unifying feeling. I suppose that song is not particularly optimistic or pessimistic; it’s just trying to look realistically at the times we live in.”
Having become known for using their platform to charge headlong into important topics, trashing the UK government for its involvement in the Iraq war early in their career and exhaustively exploring the link between consumption and climate change, there is perhaps expectation from some quarters that with each release, Enter Shikari should examine in song the crisis du jour. They largely swerved singing about Brexit and Trumpism, perhaps feeling there wasn’t much to add that hadn’t already been said a hundred times. Rou jokes that he probably won’t be invited back onto BBC’s Match of the Day after using a half-time interview at a St Albans FC game (‘Enter Shikari’ adorns the team’s shirts as their main sponsor) to take aim at the government’s pathetic gestures towards dealing with climate breakdown.
It’s a pleasant relief then, but perhaps unsurprising, that ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’ dodges obvious ruminations on isolation or sideways glances at frothing anti-vaxxers; this band is too effervescent to derive any inspiration from the torpor of 2020, and it’s indicative of his restless urge for connection that Rou’s writing block didn’t come as a result of burnout from touring but in a period where time and opportunity to write were abundant, but a sense of purpose was totally absent. What the new record celebrates is the rush of communing at rock shows, while questioning the idea of identity when that purpose and routine are torn away. Rather than explicit references to big-picture problems, Rou’s playful metaphors often look inward, examining our own confidence in defining who we truly are.
“I’m a chameleon. No, that’s a bit pedestrian,” Rou sings on the album closer. “I’m more like a giant pacific octopus, coming in for the kill.” It’s a line that encapsulates what fans love about Shikari’s writing, using the natural world to probe our own experiences in a society that is increasingly dominated by the digital, and delivered with a wink towards the more cliched lyrical metaphors that their contemporaries might settle for. The uber-intelligent, shape-shifting, colour-changing eponymous cephalopod represents the ever-changing nature of our identities as we move through different social circles, adapting to changes in our environments.
“In that year and a half where I didn’t write anything, so much had happened,” Rou explains of the shift in his writing. “That’s a lot of emotion and experiences that are sitting dormant inside me, waiting to be written about. During that [time], there was a lot of introverted, inward-looking soul searching. The band was essentially dead. We weren’t playing shows, and I wasn’t writing music and Enter Shikari didn’t exist for a year and a half. So there was a [feeling of] ‘Who am I?’ Because I’ve always been Rou from Enter Shikari, that takes up like 90% of my life and my soul. There was this very strange emptiness suddenly, which was bewildering and sort of frightening. So [on the album], there is a lot of trying to work out who I am. Or coming to the realisation that perhaps nobody really knows who they are.”
“We know what we want to change about ourselves, what we wanna work towards, what we wanna get rid of and ourselves,” Rou continues. “But we’re just these fluid beings that are just floating through life, evolving all the time. I went on a journey in terms of looking inwards. ‘Giant Pacific Octopus’ is about not really knowing who you are because you change so much. It’s definitely more personal [than ‘Nothing is True’].”
“I thought it’d be interesting to write a song about how our experience of joy has changed since Beethoven’s time”Rou Reynolds
Album highlight (and one of Rou’s personal favourites) ‘Jailbreak’ expands on this theme, taking the walls constructed around your sense of self and then busting out in an explosion of sound. “It’s trying to convince myself and anyone else that perhaps needs to hear it, that you can change. Sometimes you can feel trapped in who you are. People often think about knowing who you are as a positive thing, about someone who’s comfortable and got themselves together and knows what they want from life. But sometimes I think it’s actually good to not feel too limited.”
If the approach to composing was purposely different this time, still Shikari are a band to leave Easter eggs for the hardcore fans. Second single ‘It Hurts’ borrows a vocal chant from ‘Search Party’, while the closing ‘Giant Pacific Octopus’ flips ‘Live Outside’s verse on its head. The title track sees them still “standing like a statue”, before wishing they were “back at the Dreamer’s Hotel” on ‘Jailbreak’.
Once they’ve done a short run through Europe, all that’s left before unleashing ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’ is wrapping up the final round of ‘residency’ shows back home in the UK, visiting some intimate venues for the third time in as many months. Repeat attendees will be treated to another new setlist, getting to hear some deep cuts before the new songs slot in to do the heavy lifting for the year ahead. Then the small matter of headlining Slam Dunk over the May bank holiday weekend, with Rou promising “a completely new set, with new production. I think it’s gonna be our most ambitious show ever.”
After a few years of wondering when they’d ever be able to get on back onstage, worrying that they might lose Enter Shikari entirely, Rou, Chris, Rory and Rob are taking nothing for granted any more.
“I think when we say ‘Shikari 2.0’, it’s almost like we’ve been given a new lease of life after fearing that we may never get to do it again, after worrying if the band is still relevant when we can’t be out playing shows,” explains Chris. “It was a long time, and all these gremlins start to get into your mind… when we get a chance to do it again, is it gonna be too late? Have we wasted too much time, or will people not care, and we’re not current anymore. So after writing this record and getting back on the road, it feels like this is our second innings, and it’s just about to take off.”■
Taken from the May 2023 edition of Upset. Enter Shikari’s album ‘A Kiss For The Whole World’ is out now.