Manchester’s art rockers used an AI called Kevin to co-write lyrics for their sixth album. However, beneath the gimmick, Raw Data Feel is the antidote to Covid-19 blues, as guitarist Alex Robertshaw reveals.
Read any of the interviews or news stories surrounding Everything Everything’s sixth album and you’ll be bombarded with the same singular fact over and over again. The Mancunian four-piece used artificial intelligence to help come up with its lyrics. It’s a stellar party piece – one that’s led the band to making headlines in The Guardian and Rolling Stone in the last couple weeks alone.
However, if you distil Raw Data Feel down into “that album that the computer helped make” and leave it at that, you’re selling it short. It’s a shimmering, if sometimes silly, synthpop triumph. If you can put “I Want a Love Like This”, “Pizza Boy”, “My Computer” or any of the anthems that skip through falsetto vocals and bubbling keys on without cracking a smile, you might be dead. Furthermore, only five percent of its lyrics and a handful of its song titles were mechanically generated.
“A lot of the record is more personal than that,” Everything Everything’s lead guitarist, Alex Robertshaw, says of the AI-centric press his band’s been getting lately. “I think, a lot of the time, using these ‘characters’ is a way for Jon [Higgs, Everything Everything’s singer/guitarist] to express his own feelings in a way he’s comfortable with, rather than just putting his name on everything.”
Here’s what you already know. Jon heard about AI being used to pen poems, and the idea fascinated the frontman. Using social media, he met somebody called Mark Hanslip: a boffin at the Contemporary Music Research Centre at the University of York. Jon fed into Mark’s lyric-generating machine LinkedIn’s terms and conditions, the ancient poem Beowulf, 400,000 comments from the imageboard website 4Chan and quotes from Confucius.
“He started with the T&Cs of LinkedIn,” Alex remembers, “because he thought to himself, ‘Right, if I can give this AI the most boring bit of writing that exists and it gives me back something that inspires me, then I’ll be really impressed.’ Then he wanted to add really old English [Beowulf], then the most modern uses of written English, which is probably 4Chan. There was a thought process – it just sounds completely insane.”
The end result was, unsurprisingly, a string of nonsense, although that didn’t stop fragments of it getting onto Raw Data Feel. Alex doesn’t want to specify which lyrics are computer-generated: “We don’t want you to know what’s Jon and what’s the robot. We want it to be one thing: something that leads people to get their own feeling from it.” That said, he admits that the song titles “Kevin’s Car” and “Software Greatman” were salvaged from the bullshit. In fact, the former inspired what the band now call their autonomous “fifth member”: Kevin.
It’s tempting to view Raw Data Feel’s mechanical edge as some political or satirical statement. After all, mainstream pop music has never been more polished or pristine than it is now. Songs have more and more external songwriters, autotune’s becoming more and more prevalent, and so many stars are photoshopped to fuck, with every blemish eradicated to seem perfect. According to Alex though, the gimmick isn’t a satirical attack on the music industry.
“That wasn’t the case,” he says. “Jon honestly just read about this guy giving this AI loads of stuff and coming back with sentences and ‘feelings’. He just wanted to experiment; I don’t think there was any kind of deeper satire going on.”
So, how is – picking up on what Alex mentioned earlier – Raw Data Feel actually a “personal” album for the guitarist and his bandmates? To answer that, we must hop into our time machine and dial it back to early 2020: an era where everything sucked. The 26th March was horrible for everyone, as the UK officially entered lockdown to temper the spread of Covid-19. It was worse for the band though; on top of everything else, it was on that very day that their rehearsal studio burned down.
“It was this huge converted mill,” Alex recalls. “The bottom of it was our lock-up, and it just caught fire. We don’t know how. The first guitar I ever bought was in there. I had a fretless guitar that I used on ‘Planets’ [from 2020’s Re-Animator album] and it got destroyed. It just doesn’t exist anymore.”
Staying true to that stellar start, Alex’s pandemic was shit. Live music was immediately taken off the table, which left him stuck at home all the time. Furthermore, his wife worked in comms for the NHS, so was constantly stressed, working insane hours. He became a de facto stay-at-home father to his toddlers as a result. The Robertshaws lived with Alex’s in-laws at the time too – then, in 2021, the guitarist’s mother-in-law passed away.
It was all rather bleak, but escapes did present themselves. Initially, Alex busied himself in his downtime by rebuilding his first guitar after it got ruined in the fire. Beyond that, there was promoting and filming videos for Re-Animator, which dropped in September 2020, as well as writing music for what would become Raw Data Feel. So, with life being so crap at the time, how on earth did Everything Everything create tunes that are so joyous?
“I feel like Re-Animator was our pandemic album,” Alex answers, “and this was written with the mindset of ‘The world’s gonna come back’. We wrote it during the pandemic, sure, but we were placing it in the future.
“I think we’re going to find a lot of acts are writing music that’s more upbeat,” he continues. “I think people have reached the bottom and they just want to come up now. That’s how I felt.”
The pep of Raw Data Feel is near-unstoppable, with only one song switching to a more pensive space: that being the album’s centrepiece, “Leviathan”. “It’s about what was going on with my mother-in-law,” Alex explains, giving new power to lyrics like “There you go / I know it has to be / Away you go”. “I wrote that song during that time, but a lot of the other stuff slowly came out of that. The poppier, more upbeat songs came as we were exiting lockdown and things started to look easier to navigate.”
Ultimately, Alex calls Raw Data Feel “therapy”. “The record is hopeful and joyful,” he elaborates, “and that’s what I needed to hear. If I’m in a bad mood, I don’t want to just sit and listen to Thom Yorke forever. We only had one rule, which is the same rule as we had on [2015 album] Get to Heaven: there can only be one track that’s a downer.”
Thankfully, with an ebullient new album out and Covid seemingly in the rear-view mirror, Everything Everything have a lot to be hopeful and joyful about. The band have just wrapped up an intimate record store tour, and the British festival summer looms on the horizon, before an American run in the fall. Raw Data Feel declares “I feel alive!” and – whether that was from the mind of a man or a machine – life looks like it’s about to be very vibrant for this lot.