Interview

How the seven minds of Black Country, New Road combined their extraordinary abilities to find a collective spirit

“Suck my prick, fuck mother!” screams an irate man as he climbs out of his car window to hurl abuse at a passing vehicle. It’s what Black Country, New Road are greeted by the second they step out of their tour van at a service station just outside of Wales. Gravel spits and tyres squawk as one car screeches off in pursuit of the other. It’s not the only incident of road rage we’ll encounter. Later on the poor guitarist from The Claque and Girl Band has a man going apoplectic – bordering on violent – at him because their tour van is blocking his exit; then, an hour or so later, two cars lock into a fury of raging horns and shouting as they weave in and out of one another mindlessly on a main road. “There must be a dog milk shortage,” says the band’s singer and guitarist Isaac Wood.

Road rage and dog milk may seem an odd opening, as incongruous and irrelevant, but in the company of Black Country, New Road these little moments are jumped on and immediately worked into their lexicon. Talk of dog milk stems from a conversation earlier in the morning that got increasingly twisted, surreal and sketch-like, based on the fact that Wood is wearing, ironically, a ‘post-milk generation’ t-shirt. This soon set the band off down a rabbit hole of other dairy alternatives and potential slogans before they arrived on the idea of dog milk being a new craze. Soon enough “fuck mother” and “suck my prick” appear in the band’s vocabulary as frequently as dog milk does, sitting alongside the endless quotes from stuff like Limmy’s Show, Athletico Mince and Nathan For You. Being in the company of these seven young people (aged between 20-21) for two days is a bit like being inside an ever-evolving sketch itself. There’s a constant barrage of humour, references, skits, bits, impressions and in-jokes; albeit interspersed with performances that make them one of the most exciting new bands in the UK.

Along with Wood, the band is made up of Tyler Hyde (bass), Lewis Evans (sax), Georgia Ellery (violin), May Kershaw (keys), Charlie Wayne (drums) and Luke Mark (guitar). While they have only released two singles so far (‘Athen’s, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’), these combined with blistering live shows have resulted in the band feeling like both a success story of 2019 and a key new group for 2020. Also, along with the rising resurgence of genuinely excellent post-punk music, BCNR have found themselves lumped in as part of a scene that includes Black Midi, Squid and other bands usually found to be playing at the Windmill in Brixton in their early days. “It’s a great compliment to be put together with bands like Black Midi and Squid,” says Wood, as the band sit in a beer garden with pints on a Sunday afternoon in Birmingham. “They are incredible people and they are inspirations to us.”  Evans echoes this too. “They push us to be better. Not better than them but to be better musicians and to write better songs.” Wood then adds: “You look at them and go, ‘ah, fuck, I need to go and practise.’”

To paint Black Country, New Road as simple post-punk revisionists would be to do them a huge disservice, though. They unquestionably possess the spirit, dynamism and sense of experimental momentum that the best and most out-there bands from the late 1970s possessed, but they also traverse through pop music, free jazz, post-rock and klezmer to arrive at something that feels distinctly modern, that eschews simple categorisation. Even if Slint have come up a few times as a comparison. “Slint are an incredibly good band,” says Wood. “So I’m ok if people think we sound anything like them.”

The band’s debut single ‘Athen’s France’ was released on Speedy Wunderground and produced by Dan Carey, who immediately felt like he’d tapped into something special with them. “It was so refreshing to see a band who take everything so seriously and aren’t allowing themselves to be dragged in any direction by an external force,” he says. “They have this very strong idea and they seem intent on pushing it as far as they possibly can. The intensity with which they approach the music, combined with its unusual nature, is what makes them so great.”

The follow-up was ‘Sunglasses’ a sprawling 9-minute juggernaut of a track that builds and growls before it swoops and glides and then crashes and rises again. It’s as stirring a piece of music as any released in 2019 and, similar to Carey, producer Andy Savours felt he was witnessing something unique unfold. “I was pretty blown away by the ambition and the power of the sound they were making,” he tells me. “Often bands with multiple members and unusual line-ups can be sonically messy and confused, particularly early on, but they sounded so focused and compact – like one raging beast. Even though ‘Sunglasses’ is a nine-minute epic there is no waste or excess. Working with people who’ve put that much thought and creativity into their music before coming in to the studio is such a pleasure. They can also really, really fucking play.”

Whilst the band have had a year that has been nothing but an upward trajectory (including the ‘Sunglasses’ 7” selling out three pressings and even bigger shows on the horizon), their birthing period was born out of difficulty. The majority of the band (minus Kershaw and Mark) were all in the hotly-tipped band Nervous Conditions when they were all teenagers. In January 2018 the band’s singer, Connor Browne, was accused of sexual assault. Days later, they announced they would no longer continue, stating via a Facebook announcement: “Nervous Conditions is something which we all care very strongly about, having put a huge amount of time and care into creating something genuine, new and exciting. However, given everything that has been brought to light in the past few days we no longer feel able to move forward with the group.”

It was decided early on that they would continue without Browne and try to do something new. It’s a period the band aren’t keen to go into in any detail but credit outside support as being key in helping them at the time. “Karl called all of us every day for about three weeks,” says Wood. Karl being Karl Hyde of Underworld – Tyler’s dad. “He just cares a lot,” she says. “He’s a massive fan and really supportive. He’d been to every single one of our gigs and couldn’t let it slide. None of us wanted to either but when you’re in the heat of that moment you get hit with panic. Regardless of that I think we still would have kept going.”

The band decided to get together again and two tracks came out of that initial session. “We made a nice weekend of it and stayed in a house together,” says Hyde. “We cooked dinner, played games and wrote.”

“Coming back together was cathartic,” says Wayne. “There was no pressure on us to even come up with anything. It was just the idea that we wanted to see each other outside of the context of what had happened.”

To have to go through such a thing is of course difficult for anyone but even more so when it’s public and you’re still so young. Yet the band are very keen to bat away questions on how it impacted them personally. “We’re not the victims of this story,” Wood states firmly. “It’s a hard thing to have happened but it is what it is.” So there were no worries about returning as a new band having been attached to Nervous Conditions? “There was no worry of guilt by association,” Wood says. “It’s a tough thing to happen but the world is generally pretty rational and I don’t think we were shit scared that people were going to blame us.”

I mention I’d heard about them working with Brian Eno before they had to end things suddenly, but this is met with universal laughter. “The only thing Brian Eno actually said about our music was: ‘wow, I can’t believe 40 years after I invented this genre people are still trying to do it,’” says Wood. “But that’s the same man whose advice to young musicians was to never get a job.”

As the band reach the other end of that transitional period they feel like they’ve come out more united. “The whole thing has made our friendship stronger,” says Hyde. “That’s the biggest thing.”

The weekend when we are spending time together happens to be a key one in the Brexit debacle, as Boris Johnson sends an unsigned letter to Donald Tusk requesting a withdrawal extension. The EU referendum is an issue that some of the band weren’t even old enough to vote on, and it’s not a conversation starter that seems to go down well off the back of the Nervous Conditions stuff. Wood’s head sinks and he says he didn’t vote even though he could, although Evans claims he went with him to do so. “Did I? I might have spoiled my ballot then.” It seems like there’s a desire to skirt the subject and Wood then ends the topic of how future touring in Europe will impact them by saying, “worse hurdles have met us,” which to be fair is likely true.

Perhaps it was a poor choice to open the interview – the band’s first ever interview – talking about Brexit and the difficult collapse of their previous band, as Wood grows visibly despondent and irritable by the way the interview is unfolding. “I don’t know what people really gain from hearing about you so early on,” he says of the band’s avoidance of doing interviews to date. “If you have a song or two out and you play a live show people quite like, I’m not sure what you could have to give people talking about politics and influences and stuff like that. It seems totally pointless to me to be honest. I’d be surprised if this came out as something that was interesting to a large group of people. But the longer you leave it without speaking about things on your terms, you end up with these weird made up narratives.” Initially there’s a slight brusqueness to Wood when we’re going down a path he’s not interested in but there’s also a passion and eloquence that appears when we go down one he does. He loosens and lightens as time goes on and we move further away from subjects that are uncomfortable.

The band’s musical background is mixed. Several members have been – and continue to be – in several other bands, and three of the members (Evans, Ellery and Kershaw) all have classically trained backgrounds and continue to finish degrees in both jazz and classical music. There’s clearly a lot of skill on hand, but with BCNR it’s never deliberately virtuosic or ostentatious. “I don’t think our abilities need to be part of the music,” says Evans. “I think there’s some certain music that has really exceptional playing that is played just for the sake of being really exceptional. Some of that I really dislike and I’m against. Mainly I think it just enables us to do things quicker – to get to where we want to go faster.”

The range of music studied is crucial to the band’s style, though, which often flits between heritages and traditions. “I was improvising with klezmer musicians at the age of 12,” recalls Evans of the Jewish music from Eastern Europe. “Often the way you begin improvising can impact on the way you write, so Jewish scales were always in my language and this comes out a lot. By the time I was 18 I’d played with Jewish folk musicians, Cubans, Nigerians, classical contemporary people. It was an amazing thing and it plunged me into the deep end when it comes to influence.” Ellery grew up playing in orchestras. “I was forced to play and it was bleak until I finally started doing it for myself,” she says, “which was around 15. I started when I was 4 so it was a good 10 years of hating it.” Kershaw too had a similar experience but is now in a position to look back more understandably. “It wasn’t always easy and there was some tense relations as a result but my parents came at it from a good place. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

The rest of the band comes from a more self-taught and bedroom practising background, and it’s this clashing of approaches that gives such a sparky rub off. “It’s totally integral and fundamental to the sound of the group,” says Wood. “I know that with Lewis – who I’ve been playing with the entire time I’ve been playing music in any capacity – that I can describe something to him in ridiculous laymen’s terms and he can understand. These guys are a wealth of knowledge and we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are or in the same sound world without them.”

So how did Wood, previously the guitarist, end up becoming the singer? (Front person really isn’t an applicable term here because he stands side of stage with violin and sax up front as a visual display of the band avoiding structural convention.) It was his foray into songwriting via his solo project The Guest that propelled him to this role. “I’d never written a song before ‘Theme From Failure, Pt 1’ and I thought, ‘ok, I actually like doing this.’” The track in question is more electronic-leaning but shares the same lyrical tone and approach that Wood has adopted in BCNR; delivered via spoken word and sounding as detached as it can highly emotional. The opening line (“This is the story of one Cambridge boy who despite all his privileges felt betrayed by the world”) kicks off a story that is both an external and internal exploration of vanity, self-reflection, self-deprecation and modern life. Wood’s natural gift for lyric writing is undeniable, but becoming a singer and being on stage is something he’s still getting to grips with. “It was a massively uncomfortable transition,” he says. “I mumbled all the way through the first gig and then because I was so disappointed with that I howled and yodelled through the second gig. It took until maybe just a few months ago to find a balance that I was even remotely happy with.”

The band’s approach, along with Woods’ lyrics, feels like the formation of a new language; a distinctly Generation Z approach to musical overlap and hyper-awareness of the world around them as a result of a life lived in a forever switched-on digital age. The band are something of a hodgepodge ensemble who don’t fit the conventions of a traditional band – aesthetically they resemble more school trip outing than they do polished unit.

There’s a sort of wide-open, anything goes approach to both music making and listening today, where genres and dividing lines are no longer seen as key contributors in the building of scenes and tribes as there were for generations before – now they’re unnecessary hurdles in the way of experimentation and wider-exposure.

And yet, when I ask if BCNR feel like they are making music that feels inherently and distinctly of their generation, they disagree and cite Gen X-er Father John Misty as a huge influence. “I haven’t written a song since I first started listening to him,” Wood says. “I only started a month or two ago. I was like, ‘oh no’. He’s fucking awesome. I’d be delighted to be half as funny and emotionally resonant as he manages to be.”

Whilst some think FJM’s raging narcissism and superiority complex prevent him from striking this balance Wood speaks of, it’s clear they share some of the same approaches when it comes to creating characters that test and prod people.

“I’m not saying that I myself am not arrogant as a character,” Wood says, “but I am putting on a slightly more arrogant persona.”

Occasionally Wood’s response to questions about his own lyrics and character creations can be as enjoyable as the initial words themselves. When asked about the role of sex in his lyrics (“Fuck me like you mean it this time, Isaac”; “She tries to fuck me, I pretend that I’m asleep instead”) and how they explore a seeming anxiety and discomfort around sex that’s belied by his ability to publicly sing about it, he responds: “Songs about sex are never about sex. Just like songs about cars are never about cars – they are about sex. Like muscle cars and sex, things of great weight and fuel consumption tend to move us at speeds we cannot really control.”

There’s always a great sense of humour running through everything with the band, both as a group and in Wood’s lyrics and in responses to being asked about them. This amalgamation of humour and seriousness, along with blurred lines between sincerity and irony, feels intrinsic to the band not only in terms of interpersonal relationships but their musical and lyrical approach too. One of Wood’s impressions he likes to slip into is the writer David Foster Wallace, but he also mentions a fondness for some of his writings exploring irony and sincerity. This dichotomy is something that feels prominent in the lyrics; the kind of words that possess a biting, caustic, cynical edge to them but also project a tenderness, vulnerability and complexity that squashes one-dimensional readings. “In some of the authors’ or lyricists’ songs that I really like, they are not necessarily giving a direct evaluation of the things going on around them but simply describing them,” says Wood. “If you describe being on your phone or your laptop, you can interpret that as me saying how stupid and vacuous and empty that is, but that’s not really what I’m saying, it’s just describing the world that exists around you.”

It’s a balancing act that is not only exciting to hear but also feels like it couldn’t come from anyone else other than a young person because the balance of perspective would be skewered too far – Wood strikes a thoughtful equilibrium between sneering, self-laceration and quiet hope. “It’s tricky,” he says. “Quite often writing from a character that is representing the slightly worst, pessimistic side of myself can come across as being rude and brash. It sometimes ends up with quite regrettably one-dimensional female characters or it comes out as slightly arrogant or crass in a lot of weird and different ways when I’m switching characters, standpoint, voice and person all the time. Some of the weird chant-a-long lyrics are written from the perspective of another person. I’ve always found it interesting when things aren’t necessarily directly obvious all the time, and what I might be making a joke out of and at whose expense.” He then concludes: “It’s normally mine.” Although when pressed if he enjoys the potential confusion or misreadings his lyrics might result in, he says that’s not his aim. “I don’t revel in any feeling of superiority if I believe someone has misunderstood something I’ve said. I see that as a fault in my communication.”

On stage Black Country, New Road further explore dualities, dichotomies and push-pull dynamics, both sonically and in the way they present themselves. Kershaw often uses her keyboard like a bored office worker would a desk, with her elbows propped on top looking around with seeming insouciance; Evans stands front and centre and has a child-like quality as his eyes often wander around the room as though chasing a butterfly; Ellery might have a sit down at some point if she feels like it, while Wood internalises his performance, his eyes roll manically and his face twitches and convulses as his body usually locks stiff and tight. There’s an essence of a young David Byrne about him at times; an awkwardness that is further emphasised in the way that clothes don’t really seem to fit him as much as they hang off him. But the music feels endlessly fluid and thoughtful, and contains room for all the band’s personalities to shine through.

The static indifference that the group project on stage has led to observations on YouTube like: “The violinist looks like she would stab someone for menthol cigarettes,” and, “they’re dope but the bass and piano players look like they’re being held at gunpoint.” One accurately describes Wood’s performance as sounding like he’s “standing on a windowsill yelling at a police negotiator”.

Part of the band’s approach, and appeal, is that they are not pretending to be something they are not – which is far rarer than it sounds. They are not a message band, a political band, an issues band or one who wish to be seen as such in order to be relevant or on point. They are a group of middle class kids primarily from Cambridge and they are very aware of that. “Why pretend otherwise?” says Wood. “It’s who we are and it’s obvious.”

When asked what ties all seven of them together, he replies: “There’s not a single thing, I would say.” There’s some incredulous groaning and countering from the rest of the band and later on it’s decided that pop music and Kanye West are the universal connectors. “We are a pop band,” Mark says without hesitation. Kanye appears lyrically in a few songs too – most notably in the screeching proclamations of ‘Sunglasses’: “I’m more than adequate/ Leave Kanye out of this/ Leave your Sertraline in the cabinet.” “He’s an incredible recording artist,” says Wood simply of why he keeps appearing. “He’s got a good sense of humour, he’s obviously insane in a quite sad and unfortunate way for him at the moment. He’s said and done a lot of stupid stuff but I look at him almost like…”

“A father you never had,” chips in Wayne.

“It’s like you’re constantly batting for him but then he will always say something bad,” says Evans before extending his comment into a cricket metaphor that I don’t follow.

The overlap between sincerity, irony, humour and seriousness continues in the music they listen to. When in the van from Wales (where they played Swn festival in Cardiff) to Birmingham (where they play Future Days) the tour bus stereo is an eclectic and ever-changing mix: Wiley, Weyes Blood, Fontaines D.C., Arcade Fire, Cass McCombs, ABBA, Elvis and Madonna. During a rousing singalong to They Might Be Giants, Evans proclaims: “We basically want to be They Might Be Giants but with sax and violin.” It’s not the first time over the weekend I have to ask if they are serious. They are. “There’s some comical elements to their appearance and delivery,” says Wood, “but I think they are a fundamental symbol of what some people miss in music. I feel, maybe pointlessly and stupidly, rather proud that it’s something I don’t miss with them.” Every line to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland’ is sung along to with the same precision and passion as tracks by Charli XCX, Travis Scott and Elton John. Even the rotten Disturbed cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’ seems to be enjoyed on equal footing despite a knowing wink to its comical growling crescendo. There seems to be a complete eradication of compartmentalising music to them that also throws the idea of a guilty pleasure in the bin too – if something brings joy, whether sincerely or ironically, it’s the joy that is focused on, not the source of it. This openness is crucial to BCNR because they are a band that are not only open to the idea of going anywhere musically but they are capable of going there in their abilities too.

After the gig in Wales, the evening was spent drinking tequila and sodas in the band’s hostel bar. After Birmingham we retreat to the dressing room as people pick at the rider and our time together comes to an end. Wood tries to balance out some of his initial reticence and disinterest in the interview and seems more relaxed in talking, explaining his slightly defensive stance earlier. “I just don’t want to push a narrative like this is some horrible thing we all went through and we’re the real victims of it,” he explains. “I think that would be offensive.”

Whether this piece remains as dull and pointless as he presumed it would be remains to be seen but we all depart on pleasant and friendly goodbyes and I leave them all having drilled Limmy’s ‘Wrong Way, Down A One Way Street’ song into my head for days on end. I travel on a train northbound and they in a van southbound. Arriving home however, there’s one last blast of road rage that I’m treated to as arguments and tempers flare between two people at a taxi rank. I guess word has spread of the dog milk shortage.

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