Blast Or Bless? The Ongoing Enigma Of Black Country, New Road

Richard Foster invokes the 'hot or not' spirit of Wyndham Lewis, continental poultry and outsider cat art when he speaks to BC,NR, about their ongoing evolution. Band portrait by Rosie Foster

"Snow globes don’t shake on their own"

The recent past is littered with relics that signal loss, absence or smashed hopes. One such curio, positioned at the whimsical end of this spectrum of signifiers is a postcard showing a pair of black hens in a garden. Its title is ‘Black Poultry, No Road’ and was made by the Haldern Pop Festival organisers in Germany to celebrate a gig for Black Country, New Road that never happened, due to sickness. Sadly that unavoidable no-show foresaw a wider pattern of events: later in the autumn, the band had to postpone their European tour after a handful of dates, due to Covid-19.

The hen postcard reminds us of how much of the current touring set-up’s core energy is driven by armies of underpaid and overworked people full of hope, good will and precedent. And how fragile and unsustainable it all seems now. To those of us on the European mainland, conditioned to a continual stream of British and American acts turning up in the Benelux, Scandinavia and Germany, it’s still something of a shock that there’s nothing to see here anymore. And when there is it’s fleeting, uncertain, displaced from what we thought it once was. A scenario akin to the late 1960s, when punters would be lucky to catch a glimpse of Robert Wyatt’s velvet loons in a muggy basement in Amsterdam.

But would Black Country, New Road have ever really fitted that overheated, “next-big-thing” touring world? Probably not. What will happen when they do come? Probably something else we can’t foresee. Outside of being the sharp and fun-loving gang they always are, the band’s gregarious reed player Lewis Evans is at pains to point out that they will “not be representing Britain” however “wicked” they all find touring Europe. Though Evans posits “we are the least mysterious people ever I think, potentially of all time,” there is still an audience relationship to be forged outside of the UK; vibes are not aligned, which probably has something to do with marketing as gnomic as the aforementioned hen postcard. Guitarist Luke Mark: “There is definitely a ‘distance thing’, because the album covers and Instagram posts we do have been so impersonal, we do feel we are finally revealing ourselves to crowds in Europe when we play. And then we come offstage and we are just this group of mates… We have been slightly mysterious up until now.”

Question: This image was made for you, in expectation of something that didn’t happen. All we have now are a picture of two hens in a garden. What does it say to you?

BC,NR: This is like someone has made you an intricate dinner and you’ve let it get cold. There’s always a microwave.

“I really think people aren’t expecting a band like us to make music like this.” – Tyler Hyde

And matters are about to get more muddied for those exploring the world of Black Country, New Road for the first time. Especially with the launch of the band’s new long player, Ants From Up There, which adds another narrative into the mix. On one hand we have what we think we know of them; a band initially acclaimed for its fresh, coruscating world view, one that was widescreen yet full of pin-sharp vituperation, with unseen angles and wit; something that could vanish and reform like playing cards in a magic trick.

At the time of writing there is another iteration of Black Country, New Road taking shape. Their new record is a marked shift away from what went before; it is softer, more pastoral, an intimate love letter at times and melancholic in its quieter passages. It’s a record born of a different place: one that deliberately tuned into different ley lines, part-reflecting (doubtless unwittingly) other alternative bands of yore who decamped to the English countryside and “got it together”. Urbane it is not. The Fall it is not.

All band members interviewed stated they were looking to make “perfect pop songs”, the sort listened to by their peers. As such it is much less of a singular and confrontational record than its predecessor. Ants From Up There also, maybe, betrays another kind of sensitivity, a band making music to openly genuflect and relax to, a band looking to show a softer side. Bassist Tyler Hyde admitted to weeping with Luke Mark whilst watching the Pixar movie, Luca, during the album sessions. Who knows how long this phase will last; indeed, should we care? In many ways we are back at a new beginning point in the perpetual evolution of Black Country, New Road; for now, let’s pretend For The First Time doesn’t exist.

Question: Have you ever recorded sitting down on a carpet?

BC,NR: Yes! There was a large carpet in the studio we recorded the second album in. I sat there and recorded kazoo on basketball shoes. Charlie also recorded under it.

And for those delicate souls who don’t like to get their high heels dirty in the glamping-tastic faerieland of the English countryside, look away now. The album was recorded at the relatively new Chale Abbey Studios on the Isle of Wight. According to Evans, Mark and Hyde, the studio was “amazing” and “incredibly nice” with lots of posh perks to enjoy. The engineer was young, handsome and with beautiful flowing hair and boasted “the best bodily posture” of anyone the band has thus far encountered. Lots of football was played and band and recording crew spent time being a “wholesome family unit”. At the time, Black Country, New Road craved the isolation Chale Abbey offered, and revelled in the knowledge that not much social stuff was going on. After a while the place began to inform mindsets. This is a record that has a horizon, and maybe does subliminally ebb and swell like the sea. Tyler Hyde: “I really think moving across a body of water and going to the Isle of Wight had a huge impact on the album, both for focus and being immersed in writing the album, and then how it sounded.”

Question: Are you a bunch of hippies and have you made another Tubular Bells?

BC,NR: We are not hippies. We in fact hate hippies. Hippies and punks. Hippies and punks and jocks. Hippies and punks and jocks and Mike Oldfield.

Some things remain the same: for one that slightly contradictory feeling that, despite an inherent collectivism about what they do, there are myriad ways to engage with the members of Black Country, New Road. I told them that the way they operate reminds me of B S Johnson’s idea for his novel, The Unfortunates: a single creative entity which came loose leafed in a box and could be reordered to suit the whim of the reader, a form of literary shuffle-play. For a start there is the sheer number of band members; they reshape to adapt, like atoms forming new musical molecules. As Lewis Evans says, “everyone’s got a bloody idea” and the most difficult part of the writing process for them “is not having so many people there or keeping it democratic it’s actually like remembering all the different ideas everyone said.”

Groupthink is vital to them in order to protect against the risk of too many cooks spoiling the creative broth: maybe more so than ever, now expectations are raised and they are no longer everyone’s favourite secret band. Talking to Evans, Hyde and Mark, I am struck by their strong adherence to a collectivist stance; those not present on the chat were represented and quoted throughout. Luke Mark: “We have our own focus groups because there are so many of us, really, we do! If we are working on a song and something needs to happen or if I suggest the next thing that should happen, I have got six people answering back telling me ‘nah, this doesn’t make sense in my head.’ So you just shout out ideas like that, until one makes sense as a whole.” Lewis Evans quickly chips in, maybe looking to show the decision of the Black Country, Soviet is always final. “We always try it no matter what, however shit, and it’s hard remembering which ones we like the most. We normally go with the last one that we just did…”

Question: Bastardising the words of Brian Barritt, we want to find the psy-fi in BC,NR’s hi-fi. Where should we begin to look?

BC,NR: Don’t ever look for something like that. You will just be disappointed and upset. Favourite starting points would be Interstellar and John Carpenter’s The Thing.

“Every single part of the record was 100% purposeful.” – Tyler Hyde

The storytelling element is still central to the band, but rather than pivoting around Isaac Wood’s terse declamations, the structure of the music on Ants From Up There carries the narrative, with Wood’s heartfelt singing adding the counterpoint. Luke Mark: “There are motifs that run through the album and we thought of giving moments of relief throughout. Maybe that’s why you think it can work in any order when you mentioned BS Johnson before, because these motifs tie things together. Making an album is like a story, the first thing you say sets up people’s expectations for the next thing.” Wood’s softer side came as a surprise both to this writer and maybe initially to the band. The lyrical intimacy one associates with Black Country, New Road records is no longer soliloquised or declaimed, rather, the sung lyrics are pitched towards eliciting a more intimate response. Are the songs lullabies or one-on-ones and is this new release, in fact, a lovers’ record? The band agrees on the latter and wholeheartedly backs Wood’s new approach. Lewis Evans: “I think it’s a really nice direction. And his confidence to go from a spoken word to fully singing with no spoken word after not ever singing before, and after being ‘the spoken word guy’ he was, we all think it’s amazing. It’s strong because it’s got fragility.”

Question: What does BC,NR prefer? Ley Lines? British Leyland? Or Leylandii? Your answer can be mixed media. But must be truthful.

BC,NR: British Leyland for sure. You can’t drive to a multi-million pound business meeting in straight land alignments or an evergreen tree.

This is not to suggest that Black Country, New Road are turning into Fleet Foxes. Or not yet. Now and again Ants From Up There bursts into another dimension and looks to shake the listener up, such as the three tremendous epics that bookend the record; ‘Snow Globes’, ‘Basketball Shoes’ and ‘Chaos Space Marine’. Reading between the lines these tracks, sometimes employ “a cabaret thing, with a few little solos then everyone playing the same thing together”, to put peoples’ “heads in the right space”, are deliberate set pieces; worked on over and over to get the maximum effect. Luke Mark: “There’s a bit at the end of ‘Chaos Space Marine’ where it goes in half time suddenly. And there is a drum fill into that Charlie [Wayne] does. And we were trying to decide whether to use that drum fill or add a really short drum solo in. We were trying to work out which we like the most, and you have to play a bit of the verse beforehand to get the context. So by the time you come round to the next bit you’ve kind of forgotten how it felt to do it the first time, certainly after the tenth time!” Ten times can never be enough…

And whilst the record was worked to the nth degree in terms of its sound and style with “a certain grandness” being the desired outcome, the onus is on the listener to actively engage. This time around the band is less inclined to offer socio-cultural props to help out. Luke Mark: “You can’t hear Isaac saying something about a Macbook and know what he’s talking about. You have to, like, listen to it!” Tyler Hyde: “That technique that Isaac used before, using cultural references to ground people in the now, to capture the ear and give things out for people to relate to, I think the music does that instead. I don’t think it’s difficult to engage with this music at all, but it has to be listened to; so no more looking at phones…”

Question: Your chosen promotional images are always silent. Packaged images mounted like a trophy or on display as if in a gift shop. Toys, mute objects, silent. Why?

BC,NR: You can’t put gifts in a magazine, and if you could, the world would be a darker place.

To paraphrase Johan Cruyff’s dictum “in every disadvantage there is an advantage”, and given the many cruelties of 2020 and 2021, Black Country, New Road keep on trucking, wool-gathering and connecting with each other through making music. Looking in from here, they continue to be both a law unto themselves and perfectly normal people, seen but not seen, a band of great gifts that can, and probably will, continue to make music to confound their own myth. Luke Mark: “For better or for worse, people can have their ten pence on what we’re doing.”

Question: To misquote Wyndham-Lewis, what would you blast and what would you bless?

BC,NR Blast:

*Shoes with the toe compartments

*The tabooisation of burger sauce

*The discontinuation of Cafe Patron


*The Co-op on Archway Road (so bad)

*The bouncer at The Boogaloo

*Footballers under the age of 30 tucking in their shirts.

*James Corden (post 2010)

*Saying your album is gonna be like Pet Sounds

*Socialising at the gym

BC,NR Bless:


*LaMelo Ball

*Living room cat painting (attached)

*The Turning Wheel


*Christopher Guest

*Christopher Nolan

*Kevin Nolan



*Socialising at the gym

Ants From Up There is out on February 4 via Ninja Tune. BC,NR tour the UK in March

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