I can still remember the first time I ever heard Enter Shikari. If you’re unfamiliar with the St Albans band’s oeuvre, put your feet up next time you have a spare four minutes and give an early song like, say, their 2006 single Sorry You’re Not a Winner a spin. Rave drums, computer bleeps, death metal growls, grinding guitars and lurching gear changes: it’s the musical equivalent of being inside Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz twister while boats, chickens and an old lady on a bicycle flash past and you get bashed on the head by a window. Not for nothing was another early single titled Anything Can Happen in the Next Half Hour. It’s not easily forgotten.
This parent-scaring cacophony wasn’t for everyone, of course, but those who follow the band in large numbers are deeply committed. “I wake up, get off the tour bus and there are people already there, camped out. They sit there all day,” says drummer Rob Rolfe, 31. In 2006, after just two singles, Enter Shikari became the second band (after The Darkness) to sell out the 2,000-capacity Astoria venue without being signed to a record deal. This November, they’ll embark on their second UK arena tour in less than two years. Their teetering Jenga tower of styles has successfully tapped into the genre-less way in which so many listen to music today, when all types and decades are equally available in a click and tribalism is no more.
From beneath his messy thatch of hair, multi-instrumentalist frontman Rou (rhymes with “cow”) Reynolds, 31, quietly explains to me why his quartet’s fans are so dedicated: “We’re not a technical metal band or anything. There are bands that are a lot more complex than us. But in terms of influences and structures, there is a lot going on and I think that requires quite a lot of effort from the listener,” he says. “We respect our audience and have a closer connection with them because we know they haven’t just heard a song a few times, whistled it down the street and then gone on to whistling the next big band. They’ve put the time in.”
However, things are changing as the band release their fifth album, The Spark, today. Perhaps their tour in May, at which they played their debut album, Take to the Skies, in full to mark its tenth anniversary, was a line drawn under past work. Still, Reynolds is the last person I expect to hear saying: “This time simplicity was really important.” It’s like Stephen Hawking telling you he just wants to focus on sudokus for the time being.
New song The Revolt of the Atoms sounds a bit like Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. The current single, Live Outside, is eminently whistleable and currently getting plenty of airplay on Radio 1. It’s a punchy synth-rock tune on which Reynolds tones down the screaming and ramps up the melody. Why? “In this post-hardcore scene that we come from, there’s this misconception that singing at the top of your range is the best way to get across angst and passion,” he says. “I’ve discovered my baritone on this album and fallen in love with how expressive it can be.”
That’s not to say that he’ll be duetting with Michael Ball any time soon. Another new one, Take My Country Back, has enough power and energy to light a football stadium. On Rabble Rouser they take on the skeletal electronic style of grime and Reynolds comes close to rapping – though he calls it “spoken word”. But there is a newfound clarity and focus here that suggests that The Spark could be the album to take them beyond their sizeable cult following and cement them as one of the UK’s biggest bands. If you wrote them off as a terrible racket before, now’s the time to have another go.
Reynolds, Rolfe and bassist Chris Batten began playing music together in their early teens in St Albans. They’ve been friends since primary school. Guitarist Rory Clewlow joined in 2003 when they named themselves Enter Shikari. All apart from Reynolds, who’s not far away in Finchley, still live in their home town. So they feel like they’ve been sailing steadily for long enough to sidestep cries of “Sellout!” as they begin to sound a bit more accessible to newcomers. “People know that if we were going to do anything for the quick buck, we would have done it by now,” says Rolfe. “If we release a new song and it maybe isn’t as aggressive as our previous work, isn’t immediately what they were expecting, they still trust us not to lose the integrity of our music.”
That integrity includes active engagement with the state of the world today. Airfield, a rare ballad, attempts to take some positives from adversity. Reynolds sings: “When the wind’s against you, remember this insight/That’s the optimal condition for birds to take flight.” Take My Country Back includes the key line: “Don’t want to take my country back/I want to take my country forwards.”
“We’ve always been presented as a political band,” he says, and although he says “political band” in a silly voice through gritted teeth, it is true. “Take My Country Back was inspired by Brexit, and obviously Trump as well, and the rise of that line of thinking. The song is also about echo chambers online: how dangerous it is to rational thought if you’re always surrounded by your own views and opinions being amplified.”
In this time of news overload, he didn’t find it easy to respond with music. “I found it too overwhelming, just big event after big event. When we started this album I felt this huge pressure: pressure to process everything that’s going on and give some sort of perspective that’s interesting and worthwhile. The classic line people say is: ‘Everything’s going to shit but at least there’s gonna be some great art coming out.’ Well I’d rather everything wasn’t going to shit!”
That pressure, as well as a long-term relationship breakup, combined to take a toll on his mental health. He suffered anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia while making the record. “I don’t know what helped in the end,” he says. “I tried different bits of medication, went to a psychologist, did some CBT. It’s a bit of a cliche but meditation and yoga are the two things that can change my emotions quite predictably. If I wake up feeling shit and do some yoga, it transforms my mental state.”
Now, as the band prepares to take the new songs out on the road, he sounds like he’s ready. “A lot of the songs on the record are about very sombre, dark subjects, but set to upbeat music. Maybe subconsciously there was a part of me thinking that in a year’s time, when the album comes out, I’d be in a much better place with a smile on my face and enjoying it. That’s kind of the case.”
He won’t be the only one smiling. Enter Shikari are ready to take things to the next level and deserve to be heard at top volume.
The Spark is released today on PIAS. Nov 25, Alexandra Palace, N22 (0870 444 5556, alexandrapalace.com)