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A Quietus Interview

Frenz Experiments - Black Country, New Road Interviewed
Richard Foster , February 1st, 2021 08:57

After the Quietus ran a lengthy interview with BC,NR lyricist Isaac Wood last winter, now Richard Foster talks at length to Lewis Evans, Tyler Hyde, Georgia Ellery and Luke Mark about what really makes the band tick

Black Country, New Road by El Hardwick

Lewis Evans, saxophonist, points the laptop camera at a large pile of wooden planks he has collected at the end of what I presume to be the Black Country, garden. The pile was the neighbour’s old fence, ready to be replaced with a new one with concrete foundations and slats that will let the ivy creep through without much obstruction or spoiling. According to bassist Tyler Hyde, Lewis has become a “DIY God” in lockdown, having also sanded an oakwood floor with a hand sander, a messy job as anyone who has done similar will know. Luckily the boards weren’t painted. It’s the small mercies that matter. Which is how Black Country, New Road are viewing life at the moment.

For its part, life will probably continue to view Black Country, New Road as one of the most exciting and intriguing modern rock bands about. At least for a while. Their splendid debut album, For The First Time, is released this week on the Ninja Tune label. Listening to the record feels like coping with the weather, in that you are dealing with amorphous, often abstract elements, which can also become an acutely precise and personal experience. Repeated plays allow previously hidden nuances to reveal themselves. There is also a feeling that the listener can’t fully grasp what is going on, which is addictive. And the excitement and energy generated from this very modern monster movie is constant.

Back in the first rock & roll touring era (1950-2020) and looking in from Europe, Black Country, New Road were viewed as an intriguing minor mystery happening in London. One of the last British bands to be touted as the Next Big Thing and seen, however mistakenly, as a follow-up to Black Midi, whose scorched earth playing lit up some European festivals the previous summer. Deals were already in motion in the festivals of early 2020, dressed up as mid-morning seminars (replete with healthy buffets), where bookers came together to review the data on the bands they had seen.

Inevitably this idiosyncratic Gang Of Seven from Cambridge were heavily touted: a new product on the market where prime stock was evaluated and cultural value weighed up against a certain population’s need. The latest update on a new British rock trope, in fact, however pretentious, eccentric and Gen Z. There again British eccentricity, just like Oasis-style Brit laddishness, is tolerated and even loved in many places in Europe. And Black Country, New Road were the sort of band that could confirm a festival was on the money, aware of the heaving shifts and micro readjustments of wider underground culture.

But did Black Country, New Road really click on the mainland? Initially the hype around them felt rushed, unfinished. When seen live in European clubs, just before the crush of lockdown, the band stuck out as maybe too different. The quiet bafflement from some at festivals like MENT in Ljubljana and ESNS in Groningen was understandable. People brought up on sepia-tinged traditions and tropes of British pop invasions asked me, was this not a kind of joke? Wasn’t Black Country, New Road a haughty, austere band, in love with reading, and prickly when interviewed? I couldn’t say. Meeting them at a coronavirus-mitigated Haldern festival was an eye opener. In place of this fabled bunch of uptight swots, I met a gang of affable, witty, fun loving people whose intelligence and energy was channelled into their music and their group dynamic. Admittedly the Haldern 2020 experience was akin to a faerie glade in a heatwave, but as good a place as any to expunge any myths. And seeing them operate musically at close quarters quashed any doubts to their nascent brilliance.

And then, lockdown.

Still: the world is dealing with a here and now that feels very far away from the reality many had previously enjoyed. The world of popular music has collapsed in on itself; countries are viewed not from a tour bus but projected as a million back bedrooms on an LCD screen. Let us be thankful for the small mercies then. Ready to be interviewed about life, a debut album and whatever else came to mind and as affable and chatty as I remembered, Evans and Hyde and guitarist Luke Mark crashed down on a communal couch whilst violinist Georgia Ellery Zoomed in. The inevitable question was tabled, maybe as a way of getting the bad stuff out of the way. Without coronavirus creating global chaos, Black Country, New Road would doubtless be playing a set of club gigs after a European tour and revving up for more of the same, promoting an album released on the very streetwise Ninja Tune. How had the band coped personally and professionally with this sudden ripping up of the blueprint?

Rather than relate a tale of woe and lost chances, the four delivered another, more intriguing story, mainly based around personal and artistic reevaluation. A good deal of the tracks on For The First Time had already been laid down and signed off in the studio, meaning that, according to Tyler, “It didn't feel we were too affected by lockdown, musically.” Time was spent in various ways, including a number of journeys of self-discovery which seemed, if Lewis was to be believed (and the pile of wood in the garden to be taken as evidence), to be “kind of nice”. And the chance to reassess what Black Country, New Road ‘was’ at this juncture after “being forced to chill the fuck out”, was unexpected but useful after the “whirlwind” of 2019. Tyler Hyde: “I’m not saying the momentum wasn’t great, it was; it was exciting. We could have been carried away and been blinded by the good things that were going on.” Self healing and personal recalibrations of the artistic psyche, including chopping down garden fences, was the order of the day.

Despite Georgia Ellery confessing to finding the lack of gigs “particularly hard to deal with”, all insisted on pointing out publicly that personal and professional circumstances had meant they’d managed to keep working as Black Country, New Road; despite some members being temporarily laid low with the dreaded virus. Lewis Evans: “We are really lucky. We are a band that is, legally speaking, allowed to go and rehearse. Not everyone has that chance. There are people in bands who have been playing for just as long as we have who legally aren’t allowed to do that. And then we consider all those people working in hospitality. It sucks for them.”

Given that everyone had been soul searching to some extent, the idea of assessing the band’s future must have been high on the agenda. Even if unpicking and reassessing the industry buzz, the growing press myths and band plans in the middle of a pandemic could sound like no fun at all; especially for a band who don’t consider themselves “big ego types”. Thoughtful and deliberate in everything he shared, guitarist Luke Mark seemed to speak for all when he stated it was “better to remember that we are doing it to please each other and making music we are all into”, though Georgia found some of the “self management” aspects “really hard”. But on the whole it seems that others’ excitable projections and fantasies have passed by unread or barely noticed. The idea of Black Country, New Road as a ‘thing’ was kept to some extent at arm’s length, a deliberate separation of art and maker; something that Lewis presented as “an artistic decision” that was “good for us and for our mental health”. Still, Tyler viewed the previous six months or so as a “really important time” for the band; one that engendered “a new sense of identity and reality”. Outlooks had been sharpened, reviewing a collective identity that contained “loads of space for speculation and for people to project things on to”.

There is always a future, and lockdown will end. As well as commenting on their collective luck all miss the sort of normality that meant they could meet up with friends and family and - most importantly for them - play live gigs. Number one records and new musical directions are all very well and can be planned by this bright, confident bunch without the turn of a hair, but we can hereby state that Black Country, New Road are desperate to play; desperate “not to be chilled out”, desperate to “feel the tension” of the live stage, “gagging for it”, even. Even if the live circuit landscape could mean another role beginning for the band, outside being darlings of the alternative media, that is. Lewis Evans: “After this pandemic will the music sector be able to support the need for live music? People coming through right now might not ever get the chances we had or the places we got to. That is really worrying. Fingers crossed we can be what we can, to promote new stuff.”

Black Country, New Road by Maxwell Grainger

Of course, the main reason Black Country, New Road attracts so much projection and fantasy is the band’s spectacularly singular music, soon to be heard on the long awaited debut album. The perfect vehicle for showing the band’s mercurial spirit, one thing that continually hit home when listening to For The First Time were the filmic qualities it possessed. The idea that it was the score of a previously unseen Alfred Hitchcock film - especially those bits when someone’s murdering someone else in another room - began to form in my mind. After a while, the album began to ‘appear’ in my waking dreams as a film in its own right, replete with a plot and a narrative and moments of tension and dark humour, with loads of tiny details to be picked over. And, ‘appropriately’ enough, with singer Isaac Wood cast in the role of the self-flagellating, ever-questing Jimmy Stewart character. What were the Black Country, New Road gang thinking of when they made these songs such a singular manner?

The answer, it seems, is in part down to an ongoing reevaluation of what the band’s dynamics actually are. The idea of using dynamics in different ways became an ongoing discussion after being on tour with Deathcrash. Appreciating Deathcrash’s mastery of dynamics turned out to be a useful lesson, coming as it did in a period where the band had got in the habit of “playing hard and loud” but also one when everyone wanted to find other ways to make the songs more “impactful.” Tyler Hyde: “It seemed so obvious, but the simple technique of using extremely quiet parts alongside extremely loud sections helped to produce progressions and narrative-like structures within the tracks. We also learnt that playing very softly or quietly allowed for different instruments to cut through.” That the resulting music on the album was dramatic wasn’t up for question, with Georgia thinking the record’s “orchestral” arrangements also showed that “the violin and sax often make the sound also very expansive.” Black Country, New Road’s songs had become more like stories over time. Tyler Hyde: “I think that enforces some kind of narrative you could also attach to film. That's a direction that we hadn’t been going in before, one that also ties into a slightly more orchestral and filmic approach on the record. There are waves of music that you’re drawn to throughout the tracks.”

This is not to say that things have been overly calculated to achieve a specific effect. When I broached the idea that For The First Time sounded like a brilliantly rounded, calculated statement, I was met with more than a little scepticism. Most of the band were keen to stress the off-the-cuff nature of their music making; playing things with a hip and giving emphasis on allowing each individual the (musical) space when needed. The band’s puck-like wit is in evidence throughout For The First Time; not least with the daft keyboard riff in opener, ‘Instrumental’. It’s not the way you’d normally expect a debut record of a much-hyped band to introduce itself. Unless you’re someone like Can… Were things being played for laughs now and then? (There again, with a world being carried off in a handcart to hell, why not, why not just do what you feel?) Georgia saw it as just one of those things: “With the beginning of ‘Instrumental’, it was just the vibe we had at that precise time.” But Lewis was keen to press Ellery’s point further. “Just because something is funny doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. It’s funny that that synth line sticks out so much and becomes the centrepiece of the tune. I think that is awesome.”

But drawing parallels to imaginary films, or finding hidden mirth-making in the band’s music making, however enticing a take for the music critic, didn’t, in Black Country, New Road’s view, fully chime with the actualities of making music they make. At regular intervals during our interview, a different band member would digest the question, ponder its worth and then lean in to politely fillet away any pretentious nonsense with the skill of a surgeon. Sanguine as ever, Luke leaned in to offer a valedictory on whether the band played things for laughs. Luke Mark: “Although joking about does play into the thing we are comfortable with musically we don’t intentionally make things funny. A lot of the stuff we use also comes from conversations that are like, ‘Oh that sounds cool’, or ‘that’s an interesting dynamic shift’. Unlike film, you can get away with being funny by accident in music.”

Let’s just say it’s music that can be interpreted in a number of ways. One of the record’s chief charms is that - just like the weather - For The First Time does often feel like a very personal experience for the listener. Standing the idea of individualism on its head, Johan Cruyff-style, could the fact that it creates such personal connections be something to do with the actual number of people in the band? All four continually spoke of an unsparing attention to each other’s playing, a working convention born from the fact they were such a big bunch. Georgia saw their creation process as a collective, responsive one, where each member busied themselves with negotiating the direction of the music, often at the same time. “It's not like one person’s ever fully leading. I think we’re all alert and waiting for a direction, or waiting to respond to everyone. We’re not in a state of autopilot, ever.” This mindset often leads to a continuous movement of parts, where, according to Tyler “groups can split off and then another group can form, but it’s not ever really straightforward.”

Here, the simple practicalities of playing a certain instrument also play a key role. It’s worth repeating Black Country, New Road employs an awful lot of different instruments, and this shapes the music in ways that can’t really be aped by those using the classic guitar-drums-vocals set ups. Lewis, for example, leads on two tracks because he is “the only person who can take one hand off their instrument whilst playing the notes playing in the range of G sharp to C sharp”, which he plays with his left hand. Tyler, for her part, takes a lead from drummer Charlie Wayne, or Luke’s guitar. Then there is the work of the easygoing keyboardist May Kershaw, who will be given the lead with everyone following on. Everyone agreed that this approach led to moments where everyone knew what the other was about to do. A collective confidence that surely bleeds into the poise and surety of For The First Time. And an experience that the individual can certainly buy into. The irrepressible Lewis saw the band’s dynamic operating “like Pep Guardiola’s Man City, 2017-18”. High standards indeed.

A collective spirit needs space to breathe. And many will appreciate that Black Country, New Road takes up a lot of space. It’s just been mentioned, but the sheer plurality, maybe what you could see as the promethean nature of Black Country, New Road as a musical unit, sets an unfamiliar marker for many in the pop music world. These seven members enjoy being together as friends and like to show it, regardless of showbiz mores. They also like to play instruments that can’t be easily negotiated on a traditional stage. Watching the band closely, albeit at a COVID 19-mitigated distance at Haldern Pop Festival, it was instructive to see them adapt to different sized spaces; in this case a ferociously hot radio studio, in the chancel of a church and in a youth club. Each time involved a new collective negotiation with the space, even if it was just finding somewhere to stand or play an instrument.

Everyone having collectively agreed about one of their sensual touchstones (the power of listening), Luke steered the conversation to another key element of the band’s power, that of using sight. “It’s not just in terms of fitting us onto the stage, but it leads back to what we were saying before, when we have different people leading at different points, and that changes throughout the set. For us it’s mostly about lines of sight and the logistics around that.” Looking meant encouraging others to up the standard as well as keeping check on one’s own playing. According to Lewis, maintaining visual communication was vital. Lewis Evans: “When someone’s making mistakes or someone’s lagging behind, we use each other to push ourselves back up. I mean, you can’t always hear each other well on stage but if you can see Charlie’s playing a hi hat then you can stay in time. That is massive.”

Despite a commitment to keeping an eye on each other, playing in small spaces often leads to impaired vision and unwanted bumps. A long charge sheet includes Luke whacking Tyler, who has whacked others on the head with her bass. And Georgia has put Lewis’s sax “right up” his mouth causing near asphyxiation. This may sound - and look to an audience - like a laissez faire approach to putting on a show but Tyler was keen to keep matters prosaic: “We also don’t really care about how we look to the audience; the big connection for us is between ourselves. What I mean is, we don’t really care about being in the spotlight. The really important thing to note is, if I have my back to the audience, it’s so I can see Luke.”

Still from the filming of 'Science Fair' by Maxwell Grainger

Another, more sonic space is negotiated in the way the band makes room for the lyrics and music to work in tandem. The dynamic that Black Country, New Road creates between words and music is extraordinary; throughout For The First Time Isaac’s lyrics and the music often fit together like a key in a slot, opening up a vast imaginary hinterland that the listener can wander around in. There is also a fascinating use of call and answer that appears to be almost ingrained in the music, certainly in the way it unfurls. At times this effect has been premeditated; “a science that works” according to Lewis and further depending on “whether Isaac’s written lyrics first”. For a track like ‘Sunglasses’ Evans remembers that “Isaac wrote the lyrics before me and Georgia wrote our parts, so we were able to respond to his lyrics, as we knew where he would place himself rhythmically.”

Given the fact that the band members pride themselves on being good listeners, they find it easy to create warps in their sonic weft, as well as ensure nothing ends up as mere background music. Georgia sees the process as “natural to implement, conversational, what humans do”. But also something that comes from knowing their music very well. Georgia Ellery: “If Isaac does something different lyrically, then we’re ready to respond to it. If you’re not on autopilot and you’re there listening and engaged, then it just adds to the musical conversation.” This creative conversation is extended to each player’s personal relationships with their instruments, with Georgia notably seeing the violin as an “extension” of her arm. For her part, Tyler noted that creating the room for the others’ talents was a band trait; with a common conversation revolving around the individual and collective process of “holding back, giving space for everyone to talk to one another”. This allowed for intriguing instrumental combinations to form, with instruments that played lead, or heavy parts often making way for others that normally don’t hog the limelight; allowing, in Luke’s words, “the space for the right person to fit into the right slot”.

The switch to collective action comes when all join in to make a point, or emphasise a summary of what’s gone before. Decisions about changing certain sections to create more impact (such as the “doomy bit at the end of ‘Science Fair’”) come about, according to Tyler, “through conversations we have in the room, when we’re writing them, and how we’re feeling at that point in time”. Luke noted that was why “the bits where we play together are really noticeable, the really loud bits”. This allows for a (cinematic) sense of tension and release, which Lewis rather grandly saw as the “the second most important thing in music” and a trick they employ to create more space for their sometimes cumbersome instrumental set up. Lewis Evans: “We've got four lead instruments. In fact we’ve possibly got five; and that quite outweighs the rhythm section, really. You need to be really on it, what with two guitars, vocals, sax, violin and keys, we need to be really clear and have an attention to detail before we all bang it out on, say, ‘Sunglasses’. Without that attention to detail, that’s probably not as good to hear. We have to hold back. That’s why it works.”

Chairman Luke Mark judiciously wrapped up matters: “That tension thing (and you can relate it to Hitchcock) is interesting. I think this is his quote, I could be wrong. I think someone asked him, how long should you shoot a love scene in a film, and he said, ‘As long as you want, as long as there’s a bomb under the bed.’ That’s kind of how we operate.”

The first time a band records an album the process is supposed to be legendary, history in the making, the apogee of their existence up to that point. You’d guess that the title For The First Time hinted at that very thing. Despite Georgia’s opinion that the band members were at their peak when they went into the studio, my idea that this could have presaged some great statement of intent for Black Country, New Road was quickly dismissed by the brutally honest Tyler, who didn’t see the record as any kind of statement at all. “It’s a collection of things created a while ago, and it’s a really nice thing to release and get it over and done with!”

Having said that the recording process allowed a new relationship to form with the material they had written in “a completely different time”. By the time Black Country, New Road got to the studio, many tracks became “entirely different”. Lewis admitted that they’d taken the opportunity to change some of the songs’ structures in the studio, eschewing chops and moves created in 2018, when “we were going for less subtle things”. Sharp-eared listeners may hear structural adjustments and the odd rephrasing now and again. And Tyler conceded that the experience of getting it all down on tape had led to a new understanding of what they’d achieved. Tyler Hyde: “I must say, in the process of recording and finalising the record we all became a lot more proud of it. Initially with the coronavirus thing we were all anxious and like, ‘Oh God, we just want to get it out and get on with the next thing.’ But the process of relearning this music has led to realising what we've created together is quite special. And we’ve learned to love it.”

When pressing the band to spill the beans about other moments of the recording of For The First Time the talk only led one way, to a future whose echoes can be heard with ‘Track X’. This is a “random” track, one that, according to Tyler, is “a moment, made and formed in the studio”. Despite its role as harbinger, 'Track X’ nevertheless blends in masterfully with its older siblings and also acts as a clever reprise before the closing thunder of ‘Opus’. You’d never know it was new, though apparently it isn’t wholly, really, new; Lewis pointed out that some parts of the tune are “really old” and containing a “guitar riff and the parts of my riff and some of Georgia’s violin parts, which might have been worked on in 2018.” Minor quibbles around historical dating aside, all are currently thinking of what will happen next, looking to create “something that will be more like one piece” and happy that, in Georgia’s words, they are all “out of our angsty phase”.

Lewis Evans: “There was a lot of angst back in 2018, and now we’ve become mature, calm and therapeutic. I’ll send you updates of the fence, every Saturday morning at 10am.”

That fence project sounds tasty, for sure, but there are plenty of other things to look forward to with Black Country, New Road in 2021. Even though none of us can say what will happen then. Still, just thinking about what Black Country, New Road could do can be a fun exercise in itself. Maybe it’s because the band’s actions feel more in sync with the more diffuse, atomised times that are to come rather than another player of reheated music industry machinations. And, despite their formidable musical chops, and however lucky they feel, Black Country, New Road are less like a “band” than an ongoing and multidimensional musical collective that could turn its hand to anything. Which is what I am kind of expecting at some point. For now, we should wallow in the glory, and continue to be confounded by the achievement of For The First Time.

For The First Time is out on Friday via Ninja Tune