A common criticism of pop music today is that it is too dominated by technology. Vocals are smoothed into perfect pitch and drums or synths come from presets, the end result being that too many songs sound almost the same. They are lacking humanity, those critics say – literally brainless.
For Raw Data Feel, their superb new album, Everything Everything have gone further still, “abandoning the human brain”, says singer Jonathan Higgs, in favour of artificial intelligence. “Not until we were about halfway through,” he elaborates over a cuppa in a Manchester bar. “But, yeah, that’s exactly what we did.”
The singer was fascinated to read about how AI was being used to create poetry. “That’s one step away from what I do,” he thought. Curious, he used social media to ask people working in machine learning to get in touch. The most intriguing reply came from Mark Hanslip, a musician and researcher at the University of York’s Contemporary Music Research Centre. Higgs asked: “If I send you the data, can you feed it into your machine?”
Because Higgs’ lyrics tend to mix what he describes as “cold technology, modern toxicity, ancient myths and an element of prophecy”, he gave Hanslip an array of such raw data, drawn from extremes of human existence. “I wanted something really corporate, so I gave him LinkedIn’s terms and conditions,” he says. “Then I wanted something completely opposite, which was Beowulf, one of the oldest English poems.” The “dangerous, toxic, modern stuff” came courtesy of 400,000 comments from the internet forum 4chan, downloaded as a block. “Then I threw Confucius in as well, for a philosophical veneer.”
The process took an age, during which time Higgs sent Hanslip various prompts to give the gizmo. “And after all this it spat out reams and reams of nonsense,” Higgs chuckles. Songwriters (or any of us) can rest easy: human creativity isn’t about to be totally replaced by machines. In the end, Higgs estimates that AI provided only about 5% of the finished lyrics, but it did contribute a song title, (Software Greatman), plus imagery for artwork and videos, and did enough to get a songwriting credit. “Confusingly, we named it after one of the protagonists in the songs,” grins bassist/keyboardist Jeremy Pritchard. “So it’s called Kevin.”
This engaging mix of intellectual curiosity and playfulness has made the Manchester-based foursome one of the UK’s premier art-rock bands, with five Top 40 albums (three of them Top 5) and a fanbase big enough to fill the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace. In person, they are not cold androids with their heads stuck in VR, though. Our hour-long conversation is peppered with laughter and self-mockery. Pritchard says that he and drummer Mike Spearman are “particularly luddite” and admits: “I haven’t turned my laptop on for a year, and it’s from 2012.”
Higgs reveals that tour bus activities tend to revolve around hanging out watching films of clothed chimpanzees rather than exploring new technology. He thinks the metaverse – a parallel space for online living, much trumpeted by Mark Zuckerberg – is “not particularly good” and as for cryptocurrency or NFTs, they are “mainly awful”. Granted, they do pepper conversation with phrases such as “cultural theory” or “maximalism”. Otherwise it’s hard to reconcile the two amiable chaps (Spearman and guitar/keyboardist Alex Robertshaw are elsewhere) with their regular depiction in the press as “geeks” or “nerd-rockers”.
“Would you call David Bowie a geek?” Higgs asks, reasonably. “Or Brian Eno?”
“Eno gets called a boffin,” sniggers Pritchard, prompting Higgs to further consider. “The bands that get given that label are Devo, Buggles and Kraftwerk,” he grins. “All of whom we love! And we do wear boiler suits and listen to Kraftwerk. So, er, yes.”
Pritchard prefers to think of Everything Everything in terms of something Graham Coxon once said about Blur. “He said there’s ‘high street Blur’ – Parklife – and ‘backstreet Blur’, the druggy, scuzzy side, and the two sides are far apart. I see our band like that. On the face of it we’re a gurning party band in brightly coloured clothes, and then there’s this more considered underbelly.”
When Everything Everything formed in 2006, shortly after Higgs and Pritchard met on a popular-music-and-recording course at Salford University, naming the band after a Radiohead lyric, they were – briefly – like any other group. They played guitars because they were into the Futureheads and it was the quickest way of getting gigs in pubs. Initially, they performed in jeans and T-shirts. “But we never really clicked as one of those bands visually,” Higgs says. So, as synths came in, they developed a “utilitarian aesthetic like Kraftwerk or Devo. When we’re in the dressing room putting the garb on, we can feel the transformation.”
Even then they thought outside the box. I remind them of an early manifesto by initial member Alex Niven (who left to become, of course, an academic): “To take contemporary R&B and pop music and fashion a vaguely Futurist project out of it, a détournement of sorts of an oversaturated media culture into something idealistic and expansive.” Higgs chuckles at the language – “That’s exactly why we got called geeks or nerds!” – but admits: “That’s sort of how it was. We were excited by areas of music that we weren’t really allowed to go [into]. Like, we loved Destiny’s Child, but we’re not Black American women, so there’s no way we could sound like that. But we tried and instead something else came out.”
If anything, 2010’s Mercury-nominated debut, Man Alive, contained too many ideas for its own good. “It gave us about 12 possible directions, none of which we really took,” Pritchard says. “But we were trying to avoid cliches and over the course of the albums we refined the sound and focus.” They hit form in 2015 with Get to Heaven and the Mercury-nominated A Fever Dream in 2017, a terrific dystopian double whammy that respectively anticipate and ponder a world of populism, Trump and Brexit.
“We’ve consistently been ahead of the times without meaning to be, really,” Higgs says, describing how Reddit message boards gave him a sense of a forthcoming political sea change, which fed into Get to Heaven. “I think we’re living through an era of revolution because of what the internet has done to us. After Brexit I knew Trump was coming but I was singing more about that type of thing, the fear that fuels it and the rise of the charlatan in general. I actually had in mind a more competent [Nigel] Farage.”
Higgs calls 2020’s pre-pandemic Re-Animator “an album about recovery, made before the bad thing happened” but says he’s now done with “documenting what the Tories are up to or that kind of bollocks. I knew it would be crap when they got in but I don’t want to listen to someone telling me that now.”
Instead, Raw Data Feel is, ironically, their most human and personal album, full of beautiful songs reminiscent of Talk Talk, A-ha or Peter Gabriel and rich in empathy and emotion. Some of this reflects changes in band members’ lives – new relationships or parenthood. Others are as dystopian as ever, but less explicitly. Higgs says that AI and the character of Kevin was in part “this idea of a runaway kid that was dreaming of a magical power that could take him out of his life, which is how I was feeling” and also a “proxy to talk about some areas I wasn’t that happy talking about”.
The first single, Bad Friday, about a victim of violence on a night out, is based on an amalgamation of real incidents. “I do know exactly what happened, but I don’t want to deal with it,” Higgs says. “It’s a recurring theme, sort of retracting that part of my memory.” Similarly, the sublime, New Order-like Jennifer seems to reference domestic violence and a suicide attempt. Higgs calls it “the most honest song I’ve ever written” and he explains that the gorgeous chorus (“the pain in the end is all in your memory”) is his way of “kinda trying to reassure someone else”.
Another standout, Metroland is Burning, is a rebellious fantasy about wanting to burn down the indoor theme park once housed in the Metrocentre in Gateshead – “Not the place there now, the one in my head from when I was a teenager” – but Leviathan is a tender goodbye from a mother to a child, and there are references to love and hope. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s that however bad things are, we can get through.
“I thought: why am I spending my energy and emotion on this external man [Trump], 5,000 miles away, when I can think about what’s good about life?” Higgs says. “And try to make my life not so shit when everything is falling apart. I think a lot of people will feel the same. It feels like a fresh start.”
• Raw Data Feel is released on 20 May on Infinity Industries/AWAL. Bad Friday is out now.