Black Country, New Road talk new album
The English experimental rock band talk Iron Man, naming things at the last minute, the illusion of time, creative process, Ninja Tune, the importance of track orders and already working on new music...
Black Country, New Road are having the sort of musical career most bands can only dream of - making a name for themselves early on from their live shows and 7”s, signing to the legendary Ninja Tune label and dropping their debut album For the first time to critical acclaim in 2021 (finding its way on, and at the top of, many album of the year lists).
With their work ethic seemingly matching the energy (i.e. intense and frenetic) of their unique and experimental blend of art/indie-rock, post-punk, jazz and more sprinkled throughout their epic, emotional compositions, the band surprised us all by announcing their sophomore record just one year on from their first.
All of this, then, made the news that emerged just four days before the release of their second album, Ants From Up There, that frontman Isaac Wood had announced his amicable departure from the band all the more shocking (at least to us fans).
The morning after Isaac’s departure was announced, band member’s Tyler Hyde (bass), Lewis Evans (saxophone) and Charlie Wayne (drums) were kind enough to jump on Zoom to give us the lowdown on the new record, and the camaraderie, chemistry and friendship between the three is evident immediately, as was their sense of humour and self awareness. We kicked off by addressing the news that has just emerged.
“To be honest it’s a relief to have the news out because it’s something that we’ve known for a little bit, it’s good now that we’re able to talk about it in a way that’s candid and for people to focus and frame the record in the way that we’re able to frame the record.” explains Charlie, going on to say “the statement covers it pretty nicely - the time we’ve had with Isaac, we’re all completely immeasurably grateful for. The important thing is we started performing music as friends, and that’s always been the most important thing, and literally nothing about that has changed. We’re super excited to have the album come out and we’re so pleased with it, and we’ll always have it.”
Pleased they should be, with Ants From Up There more than shaking difficult second album syndrome, striking the balance of being just different enough while retaining the band's organised chaos of sound, and just as importantly, feeling. With repeated themes and intertwined ideas scattered all throughout the record, it feels only right that the album’s title and artwork are also linked, with the cover art’s toy plane painting seemingly being a nod to the album’s title.
Lewis elaborates "the artist is a guy named Simon Monk, who is Isaac’s mum’s ex-boyfriend from when they were younger. He does a whole series of photorealistic paintings of little toys in bags, there was this one that was like ‘yeah, that’s gonna be the album cover’, which was Iron Man… not that we’re particularly fans of the Marvel cinematic universe, or have seen many of those films…”
“Ummm, I am…”, Tyler intejects. Lewis rebuts “I’m actually quite strongly not, I actually think they’re quite bad - they think they’re so damn funny… they’re not”. When asked what Tyler likes about Marvel films she clarifies “The 2008 Iron Man era of Marvel is great, before they worried so much about crossing over universes and making it all one - there’s a lot of silly connections that don’t need to exist. Robert Downey Jr. is great.”
Lewis takes us back to the artwork, “so we originally had that album cover with Iron Man in it and I think the legal department decided that it wasn’t the best idea to do that, which is fair enough and I don’t blame them for saying that at all, so we picked this one with a plane on it, a kinda non-descript plane, and the title and the album are pretty plane themed with all the Concorde references.
The album name came very late - I think we had between 6 and 12 hours to decide the album name, or basically the album wasn’t going to be able to get mastered, and we would’ve cost everyone a lot of money, so it was literally last minute. We had so many different names that were being pushed around, and we’re shit at coming up with album names - we’re really good at writing songs quickly together, but we are terrible at coming up with names. It took us like four months to come up with a band name, and we already had like a whole set that was ready to play but we couldn’t play any gigs cos we didn’t have a name.
We went from Ants from Up There, which was originally Ants from Up Here, but we thought that might sound a bit cocky, like “ooh yeah everyone looks like ants from up here”, which I didn’t notice at the start, but May (Kershaw, keys & percussion) obviously noticed that. So we changed it to Ants from Up There, which I guess is about perspective and the size that people look like when you’re on the plane.”
Released on February 4, 2022, Ants From Up There comes almost exactly one year after their first full-length which dropped on February 5, 2021, so I can’t help but wonder how they managed to release such a dope second album so quickly?
“It’s all just an illusion really”, quips Tyler, “a lot of it existed a long time before - even before the first album had come out, Basketball shoes had been played several times at gigs, and Basketball Shoes is pretty much the foundation for the entire album.
That was in existence from like late 2018 I think was the earliest voice memo, we’d played it a billion times by the time - it nearly existed on the first album, and we decided to write the second album pretty much based on that song, using literal motifs, using themes, stylistically.
Something like Snow Globes existed for a longtime before as well, I remember we tried that out in the last Black Midi gig we did, the Christmas gigs we do. Goodwill Hunting existed for a longtime before - a lot of this was building for a longtime, so from the outside world it might look way cooler than it actually is - we’re good but not that good.”
While thinking about how much Tyler is selling herself and the band short, I can’t help but wonder the impact building an entire album around one composition would have on a record, and whether this was different to the creative process behind their first album?
“Yeah, big time”, confirms Charlie, “the first record, we just kind of scrambled together to get the songs written, and they changed a lot over time but they were kind of really honed through live settings and stuff like that, whereas this album we really sat down and built stuff around Basketball Shoes and went from there”.
Talking about the difference in approach to creating the two albums sets my mind racing about what it must be like to create music as Black Country, New Road as a general process. Surely this group of extremely talented musicians lock themselves in the studio and improvise their next masterpiece?
“It’s not really jamming at all” Lewis is quick to clarify, explaining “Haldern is the only one that was jammed, that was played at a live improv gig at Haldern Pop Festival in Germany, but all of the other ones are preconceived ideas. We’ll demo out and do it at multiple stages so we’ve always got recordings to listen back to and work on during the week and hone in and write out parts - yeah it doesn’t really come from jamming to be honest.”
“Sorry, we’re really boring, we’re robots” apologises Tyler with a grin, as Lewis chimes in“we’re just industry plants”, and Charlie wrapping up the bit with “we basically just get a big 50 page dossier from the label, and they let us know this would be ideal if you could do X, Y and Z, and we’re like yeah, OK… interesting!”
Amidst the jokes and laughter, a serious question does spring to mind. As a diehard fan of the Ninja Tune label, I clearly remember when Black Country, New Road were signed, as while Ninja Tune are known for their open-minded approach to signees, the band aren’t the most typical artist for their roster, so I had to ask how they ended up their in the first place?
“We had a number of meetings with labels that we’re interested in offering us a deal, but Ninja Tune we’re the ones that didn’t really seem to fit the mold, they were just incredibly enthusiastic about what we wanted to do”, Charlie tells, going on to explain “they didn’t have a band on their roster, they didn’t have anything like and us they weren’t comparing us to anything they had, so they gave us complete free reign to do whatever we wanted with both of these albums, and for the most part they really kept that promise.
I think that most labels would discourage a band putting 2 albums out in a year, I think they would discourage most of the creative decisions that we’ve taken if they wanted us to have the success which most labels would probably expect. There was an element of risk, but what’s important to us is there was an element of risk on both sides - we’d never signed a record deal before - we knew what we were doing was interesting and good for us, the fact that they thought that too was cool. We were both taking a bit of a risk but it worked out pretty nicely I think, they’ve been wicked.”
Getting back to the album, Ants From Up There retains the same power of their debut record, while this time scattering a number of quieter moments that not only offer moments of reflection, but cause the full weight of the band's compositions kicking back in full force to have an even greater impact… this is surely intentional?
“I think there’s moments throughout the to reflect on what you’ve had before, cos it starts off pretty intense, then you’ve kinda got the indie bangers, and then we really go down to a bit more of a reflective place to then slowly build up to the end of the record” Lewis opines, “it’s definitely shaped like that on purpose, it seemed like the most logical way to shape the record and I think it makes the experience of listening to it the best. You definitely have that time to reflect in that silence at the start of Mark’s Theme, and at the ending of Snow Globes and the opening of Basketball Shoes, you really get moments to just look back and remember what’s happened on the listening journey - the voyage.”
Tyler jumps in to further clarify “I think that’s really important on this album, because it’s such an emotionally meaty album, there’s very few if not just one way of tracklisting it, because if you don’t do it in the way we’ve done it, you can’t take on that much information, you need to pause to be able to really enjoy the next songs to come. Someone the other day brought up the crazy idea of could this album potentially start with Basketball Shoes and go the other way round…? Just... no…”
Laughter ensues from all of us, as Charlie chimes in “we laughed him out the room”, Lewis jests “that guy’s never working in this town again” and Tyler rounding out with “you fool”, before elaborating “it would just be too unfair on the other songs - not because it’s better, just because of the overload“. This simple, quick exchange sums up my time with the three members of the band - showing not just their incredible chemistry and sense of humour, but just how seriously they take their art and the emotional impact it can convey.
Nearing the end of our time, I brought up the auto-suggestions that pop up when you search “black country new road from the ants up there…”, which none of the three had seen before but were quite amused by, to get their thoughts.
“Yeah the signed thing, we have a reputation for kind of not really signing but just doing silly things, which surprisingly people really like” tells Lewis before explaining “I remember I told my mum, when we did a signing for the first album - cos it a really long and weird thing to do, so impersonal, yet the thing you receive feels so personal, but really when you’re in the room you’re just going sign, sign, sign, sign like that over and over again, just scrawling, it literally means nothing, just you’re squiggle on a piece of cardboard, so we’ve done loads of drawings and stuff, signed as people we like…”
“And people we don’t like”, jokes Tyler. “Our enemies from school…” joins in Lewis before offering some final banter “I like the Ants From Up There ‘genius’ one, that is fitting”.
Wrapping up, I ask the terrific trio for any final thoughts or anything else they’d like to share. Confirming not just their work ethic but the fact they are a creative juggernaut to be reckoned with, Tyler takes us out with the exciting news that “we’re already writing - it’s kind of unexpected, we thought we’d want to chill - we just can’t help ourselves…”.
With their second album now out to the world coinciding with a shakeup in the band’s lineup, I can’t help but think the future of the band reflects their music - emotional, exacting, exciting and ever evolving and unpreditable. And really bloody good.