In 2015, the ground started to fall from under Rou Reynolds’ feet. He’d been having occasional panic attacks for years, but hadn’t put a name to the problem until that brutal summer. Frayed by touring and heavy professional expectations, he started self-medicating, which backfired massively. “The anxiety I get for those things is ridiculous,” Rou says over water and toast in a central London café, cutting an unexpectedly quiet figure. “So then I combat that with various substances that I’m useless at. My metabolism isn’t built for non-stop partying, so I think it was a perfect storm of anxiety – being exhausted, drugs – and then my body went, ‘Nope! Enough!’”
First came three months of insomnia. “The landscape in your head completely changes,” says Rou. “It’s so hard to stay in control of thoughts and stay present. It makes you feel like you’re losing your grip – like you want to escape.” His last two grandparents had recently passed away. Then his seven-year relationship disintegrated. “And before that I was in another six-year relationship,” Rou laughs, “so I’ve spent my whole life in quite secure relationships, which when they end translates as this crippling fear of being alone.” It was the perfect storm. “I had that classic thing of feeling like you had some sort of structure that all started to crumble.”
The world was also spinning on its axis. Brexit. Trump. Terrorism. The steady dismantling of the NHS. The biting effects of austerity. The kind of social issues that have been Enter Shikari’s lifeblood for almost a decade now – sending their last three albums Top 10, and garnering over 85 million Spotify plays – yet Rou was initially at a loss for how to handle this onslaught in lyrics. “It’s been shock after shock the last few years, which I’ve found really difficult to get to grips with and compute in terms of how I’m going to turn that into art,” he says in a self-deprecating fashion.
It goes without saying that Enter Shikari pulled it off. In fifth album The Spark, Rou, Chris Batten (bass), Rob Rolfe (drums) and Rory Clewlow (guitar) have written a soundtrack to our tumultuous world; a record for everyone who’s filled with frustration, but hasn’t lost the capacity for hope. “The spark is a new connection, a new beginning,” says Rou. “It can be short and insignificant, but it can create something so significant. The spark is that light at the end of the tunnel – when everything seems to be falling apart, but you’re able to see some sort of path out of the dark.” Produced by David Kosten (Everything Everything, Bat For Lashes), it’s Shikari’s most melodic album, invigorated by the energy they felt as a band after a sold-out 2016 arena tour, and one that will see them break beyond punk to be recognised as a great British band in a lineage spanning The Beatles via Pink Floyd and Joy Division to Blur. “We’re here to disgrace that list or be embraced into that list, I haven’t decided which yet,” Rou grins.
As Shikari stared down the barrel of album five, Rou had no idea what to write about, but for the first time going into a record, he knew what the music called for. Shikari made their name on four hyper-ambitious, frenzied albums, ricocheting between genres – hardcore punk, drum’n’bass, garage, dubstep, grime – in a single song. This approach won them a clutch of Kerrang!, AIM and NME awards – but this time, Rou decided to switch the script. “I get so easily over-enthusiastic that I wake up one morning and I wanna write a symphony, then some obscure electronica; a choral piece, hardcore punk,” he says. “I find it hard to focus on one sound.” With The Spark, his intentions were clear: simplicity, melody, songcraft. “Not dampening the variety, but trying to write the best songs instead of trying to be the heaviest, the most technical, the most emotional.” Shikari found their ideal producer in David Kosten. “I co-produced it with him,” says Rou. “I wanted someone that would help push us out of our comfort zone, understand the direction and give us confidence, and he encompassed all those things so well. Plus he had all the vintage 80s synths I was drooling over. He had so many ideas, it was perfect.
“I wanna prove myself as a songwriter,” Rou continues. He’d always thought maximum volume equaled maximum passion, but an odd revelation last year taught him otherwise. “I’d always been a Bowie fan, but his death made me put time into his back catalogue. I did a Bowie-oke party, bought this cheap software and got a free trial for a week, and I found myself using it home alone. I learnt so much.” Bowie gave Rou the confidence to start singing in a lower register, as did further karaoke experimentations with Sinatra and Johnny Cash. Joy Divison and Depeche Mode also lead him to identify as a singer for the first time in Shikari’s 18-year history, and he toned down the screaming to make his message clearer. “I was always the guitarist that fell into being the frontman,” says Rou. “And there’s all sorts of anxieties to being a frontman. I’d never had any training as a singer, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve got this new confidence, so I wanted to increase my range – a lot more falsetto, a lot more baritone.”
This newfound emotional and musical clarity set the stage for an unprecedented Enter Shikari album, rounded off by Rou’s stunningly lucid lyrics. “When I realized that a lot of stuff in my personal life was seemingly echoing the turmoil going on the world, socially and politically, a general theme started to emerge of adversity and hope.” A quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It served as a guiding light: Sweet are the uses of adversity. Rou continues: “Learning, growing, coming through things. It’s such a basic thing for art to talk about – seeing the light at the end of the tunnel – but finding that meaning really helped.”
As a teenager, Rou recoiled at the mopey emoting around him in the St. Albans scene, and decided to dedicate himself to deeper topics, whether politics or, as on last year’s “Redshift”, 19th century cosmology. “I’ve been fairly lucky in life, too,” he says. “One of the reasons I’ve not written about personal things is that I’ve been fairly comfortable. I’d been in that relationship for seven years, I felt at ease with the world.” Enter Shikari’s fans have always come to them for emotional sustenance, but it wasn’t until Rou started talking with them about anxiety that he realised the connection works both ways. “People are often quick to say how admirable it is to talk about mental health if you’re in some heightened position, but it also helped me loads.”
For the first time, it made sense for Rou to write personally. “An Ode To Lost Jigsaw Puzzles” is Shikari’s most tender-hearted track, a lament for love and family that rises from cracked defeat to an almighty crescendo. “Live Outside” is a song made for heartbroken dancing and an account of how depression creeps in when it’s least expected. Meanwhile “The Sights” – an anthemic pop banger – distills the trepidation Rou felt after becoming single as he approached 30. The lyrics reference the Ancient Roman scholar Marcus Cicero, whose words Rou recently got tattooed on his body: Criticise by creation, he recites. It reflects his belief in music as the last bastion of unity. “I had a bit of a period of getting so angry and having such negativity towards the scene, and being among that music – bland metalcore – had really started to get to me,” says Rou. “Heavy music should be so passionate, but it’s full of platitudes. That’s why I got the tattoo, to remember to ignore it. Given the downfall of religion there’s not much that brings people together indiscriminately. I needed to concentrate on what we can do.”
With Shakespeare and Cicero at hand, Rou found the confidence to double down on Enter Shikari’s trademark political message, identifying social ills – and suggesting ways of defeating and surviving them. Shikari toured America in the run-up to the 2016 election and learned that many of their heartland fans hold libertarian and religious views. Rou didn’t agree with them, but the experience taught him about the importance of breaking his own bubble. The furious (and ironically named) battle track “Take My Country Back” tackles “the frustration of echo chambers and not thinking about things from any other perspectives,” he says. “It heightens emotion and shuts down logic.” Meanwhile, “Rabble Rouser” finds him annihilating feeble rock posers and setting out Shikari’s stall: “We are the epicentre/The bedrock of a new sound/And I say, we’re coming for you”, he roars over a grime-influenced instrumental. It’s his tribute to a community built on a genuine solidarity “that you do not get in rock, not on any level.” (He’s experienced it firsthand – earlier this year, Shikari collaborated with Big Narstie on “Supercharge” – and laments the alternative scene’s careerist ambitions. “It’s the death of art, really.”)
These social poisons only encouraged Enter Shikari’s fight for truth and hope. “Airfield” builds from twinkling embers to a raging fire as Rou points out that birds and planes thrive when they take flight into the wind, urging listeners to disown fear and find purpose in hard times. It was partially inspired by what Rou calls “the death of youth apathy” and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. In the past, Rou’s been wary of affiliating Enter Shikari with any political party, but says now, “the odds are too high. We’re literally talking about people’s lives, the NHS – it doesn’t get any more important. Given what’s happened in the past few years, the Tories’ lies are as plain as daylight. Now there’s such a clear choice and Corbyn believes in so many things that we’ve been singing about for years, it would be silly not to show our all-out support and do everything we can, especially when as we’ve seen, the media is completely biased against him. Their reporting isn’t fair, so I feel like music and art in general has to step in. I don’t feel pressured to do it, but I feel it’s another reason to.”
If the green-fingered Corbyn were to listen to The Spark, he might feel welcomed by the elegant, jittery atmospherics of “Shinrin-Yoku”, named for the Japanese art of forest therapy – the ‘medicine’ of simply being out in the wild. Rou isn’t a literal practitioner, but wrote it in tribute to the natural world. “Like Corbyn said about art and music in his Glastonbury speech, nature doesn’t seem to be respected in our neoliberalist culture, nor as a health-giving thing – it’s amazing for mental and physical health.”
Evidently, The Spark is one of 2017’s most ambitious albums – also inspired by Radiohead, the Manic Street Preachers, Dvorák, Elgar, Nils Frahm, The Human League and The Specials – which should reassess Enter Shikari’s place in the British rock firmament. Without betraying their alternative origins, their peers now are bands like Blur, The 1975 and Everything Everything. Rou says he no longer knows how to define pop in 2017, but sees this ambitious music’s mainstream moment as an analogue to the post-punk scene of the early 1980s breaking beyond the rigidity of punk. “I’ve felt limited by pigeonholing for so long,” he says, “so I’m finding this quite liberating. I feel like everything we’ve done up until now has been training for this. It really feels like being born again – fresh and exciting.”
Enter Shikari’s final confidence boost on The Spark came from revisiting their very first album, 2007’s Take To The Skies. Earlier this year, they toured the record in honour of its tenth anniversary, reliving material they said they’d never play again. “I actually found it really easy to get into that headspace,” Rou marvels. “I thought it would be harder and feel like I wasn’t honestly conveying the original intent and passion, but that didn’t happen. It was a really nostalgic, interesting experience. It didn’t musically influence this record, but in terms of an affirmation – it was like, wow, we did this 10 years ago. We’ve gone on this whole journey since then. We’re not just still here, but we’re still growing.”
In every sense of the word. This autumn, Enter Shikari will repeat a feat they mastered with 2015’s The Mindsweep and head out on a full tour of UK arenas. On The Spark, Rou’s lyrics find him at his most enlightened, honest and inspiring. And Shikari are still growing too, 18 years into a storied career. They’ve had the same line-up since they formed as schoolfriends in 1999 (under the name Hybryd), and have been working relentlessly ever since. “I don’t know if Enter Shikari would feel like Enter Shikari if one of us left or was replaced,” says Rou, overflowing with praise for his bandmates’ work on the record. “There’s just such a dynamic between the four of us.” It’s the dynamic of a great British band.