Enter Shikari Interviewed: On Circle Pits, Question Time And The General Election

Enter Shikari’s heavily political fourth album, ‘The Mindsweep’, tackles climate change, feminist issues and capitalist corruption. Barry Nicolson joins them on the campaign trail in the UK as they spread their message to the circle pits. “This is not entertainment,” says frontman Rou Reynolds unconvincingly…

“DOES ANYBODY REMEMBER M PEOPLE?”

It’s 1:49am on February 21, and Enter Shikari’s DJ set at Manchester’s Club Academy is coming to an end, but not before frontman Rou Reynolds drops ‘Moving On Up’ on an unsuspecting audience. From Mancunian pop-house he segues neatly into Will Smith’s ‘Miami’ before ending with his usual set-closer, Katrina & The Waves’ ‘Walking On Sunshine’, while bassist Chris Batten and drummer Rob Rolfe dance wildly at the front of the stage. The crowd, who presumably weren’t expecting their night out to end on a school-disco vibe, lap it up anyway. In their fans’ eyes, Enter Shikari are unimpeachable, even when their impulses in the DJ booth are anything but.

When they first emerged in the mid-2000s, Enter Shikari – like every band unfortunate enough to be bundled under the new-rave umbrella – were the sort of thing it was assumed ‘the youth’ would grow out of. Their music was an unlikely meeting of post-hardcore and hyperactive rave that made a kind of quasi-sense in the context of them being a ‘MySpace phenomenon’ – they sounded like your HTML-overloaded profile looked. Over the course of the next nine years, however, people have grown with them: all but one of their four independently released LPs have cracked the Top 10, and their latest, ‘The Mindsweep’ (which got to Number Six), is their most musically and thematically ambitious offering to date. They’ve retained the juvenile irreverence of old – “Laughing in the face of horrific situations is a good way to stay sane,” Rou says later – but they’ve also developed a powerful sense of social justice: the new album tackles subjects as diverse as renewable energy, global warming, the corrupting influence of capitalism and the need to eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation, which Rou has previously blogged about. In essence, they’re the sort of band who’ll write a song like ‘Anaesthetist’, an impassioned attack on the Tory privatisation of the NHS, and open it with the line, “You fucking spanner!

Earlier that day, I met the band backstage at Manchester Academy, where they were approaching the halfway point of their UK tour and looking battle-hardened from the experience – they’ve been DJing after every gig. Yet while their afternoons are spent sprawled on sofas rubbing the sleep from their eyes, come showtime, Enter Shikari become a force of pure energy and positivity, orchestrating (and subsequently disappearing into the vortex of) circle pits in the centre of the room, singing ‘Radiate’ from atop the bar counter and gleefully smashing candy-glass vases over each other’s heads. “This is not entertainment,” Rou tells the crowd towards the end of their 90-minute set, “this is a passionate exchange of energy, from us to you and you to us.” Which obviously doesn’t stop it being riotously entertaining anyway.

DJ set over, I hitch a ride to Glasgow on the band’s tourbus, where there’s a bottle of Irish whiskey and a fridge full of beer to get through. The rest of the band give it their best shot, but Rou is in a more contemplative mood, talking about his recent decision to turn down an invite onto the BBC’s Question Time programme because he worried about “freezing up and doing more damage than good to the causes I’d want to speak about. Someone like Russell Brand, whose brain works at double speed, has the arsenal you need for Question Time, but I don’t. I’m much better a writing a song, or a blog – something I can sit down and think about.” Anyway, he laughs, “Question Time is probably more of a seventh-album thing.”

Still, you can see why they offered it to him. Rou defines mindsweeping, the concept behind the latest album, as “the withholding, discrediting or disparaging of new ideas, philosophies or alternative ways of structuring society by people in power who see these things as destructive to their own interests”. He notes that, in one way or another, everything he writes about on the band’s new album – from climate-change denial to the British class system to the suppression of new technologies – boils down to money. “It’s hard to find a problem that isn’t linked to it,” he sighs. “I don’t think people meet in darkened rooms and hatch a plan to control the world; the direction that profit and wealth and greed leads people in, there’s no need for secret societies.”

Nevertheless, like Enter Shikari’s music, there’s a determinedly optimistic streak to Rou himself, a self-described “citizen scientist” who constantly tries to “stay aware of the technological capacity of humankind, which is racing forward at a ridiculous rate. If you read about the latest discoveries science is making, it will fill you with pride at being a member of the human race. Until you open the newspaper, anyway.”

These days the newspapers are full of career politicians trying to outdo each other when it comes to being ‘tough’ on immigrants, the poor and the unemployed. Party politics isn’t one of Rou’s favourite subjects, but as the general election approaches, it’s one he’s been thinking about more and more. “The no-voting idea is tempting, and I’ve done it before out of a similar stance,” he says. “But my feeling is that it only plays into the hands of the right wing. I’m going to write a blog about this soon, because we’re getting so many fans asking us, ‘Who should I vote for? What should I do?'”

Enter Shikari’s relationship with their fans is something they take very seriously. In Glasgow, as at every gig they play, they invite the fans who’ve been queuing outside all afternoon to watch them soundcheck; afterwards, Rou and Rob do a meet-and-greet, posing for photos, signing CDs and just generally hanging out. One of those people is Thomas Easton, who later tells me that “as a teenager growing up in Great Britain, I feel like what Enter Shikari sing about relates to me. Everything is changing at the moment – the education system is changing, here in Scotland we’ve just had a referendum – and as I’ve become more engaged with those issues, I feel more aligned to their political views. Their music speaks to me and my life.”

It’s these interactions, Rou tells me, that are the most rewarding thing about being in Enter Shikari. “Our fans act on the things we sing about in real, tangible ways,” he says proudly. “I remember meeting one girl in America who decided to go and join the Peace Corps because of us! Others have started working for NGOs, or their choice of university degree has been influenced by our music… as clichéd as it sounds, when you’re speaking to someone who’s saying ‘your band helped me through this’ or ‘your music made me think about this issue’, that’s equally as mindblowing as walking out on the main stage at Reading.”

Back when their local council were sending plainclothes police officers into their gigs and trying to have the venues they played in St Albans shut down (a campaign that sparked the band’s interest in activism in the first place), few would have believed that, a decade later, Enter Shikari would become an awareness-raising force for good, one of the few British bands unafraid of nailing their political colours to the mast. “I never want to be the guy who’s like, ‘Where are all the political bands, then?’ because that just makes you sound like an old fucking fart,” grins Rou. “There’s a lot of underground hip-hop which does talk about that sort of stuff, but in the big pop and rock worlds, there’s no modern-day equivalent to the Lennons, the Dylans, the Marleys. I find that strange, because it feels like it’s so easy to get angry about this environment we live in, to talk about these issues and blend it with art.”

Be thankful, then, that at least one band still are.