After achieving a breakout success no one could have expected with their debut, experimental London mob Black Country, New Road are back with their second album.
Words: Jamie MacMillan. Photos: Rosie Foster.
Ed’s note: This interview was conducted and published before the announcement of the departure of vocalist Isaac Wood. You can read a statement from the band here.
Charlie Wayne has his head in his hands as the Black Country, New Road drummer pleads his case after a lengthy anecdote about bathrobes has derailed badly. “There was a time when I wasn’t allowed to do interviews, you know.” Leaning back, he suddenly punches the air triumphantly. “But now look at me. I’M BACK, BABY!” He’s on a roll. “It’s amazing, actually, because a lot of people have said that we are wonderful storytellers. We’ve got a reputation for it.”
“They say that about Isaac,” interrupts bassist Tyler Hyde. “They’ve never said that about you.”
Happy to have cleared that up, Dork continues to dive into the world of one of 2021’s breakout bands on the eve of a second triumphant record.
Chatting over Zoom in the week where London has become the capital city of Omicron, chaos reigns outside our collective windows. As we wait for Tyler to join us and chat to Charlie about which band member may have it at present, he begins to tell us about the time that saxophonist Lewis got ill just before his university dissertation. As Tyler joins us, he quickly stops and happily explains that he is in the middle of telling “an incredibly boring story.” “I’m on an insanely boring vibe today,” he says cheerfully as both of them break into giggles, “I’ve got loads of anecdotes, and none of them are going to be of any interest whatsoever.” He lives up to that fairly quickly with a blow-by-blow description of the time one of his family members realised they had Covid while in a car. Short version – they got it, he didn’t believe them, he was wrong. Ignoring the sense of impending doom, we carry on and ask Tyler how she’s doing. “Mmmmm,” she answers with a smile, concentrating fully on her chocolate bar. It’s all going well.
It’s all suitably chaotic for a band that have exploded out of cult live status throughout 2021 with the release of their Mercury-nommed debut, ‘For The First Time’. A riotous plunge across multiple genres, dipping between post-punk, jazz and even klezmer (often within the same song), it became one of the most discussed and divisive albums of the year on its way to smashing into the top five in the album charts. But the success didn’t seem to ever really sink in with Charlie. “There’s still a slight lack of tangibility about the whole thing for me,” he explains. “Obviously being nominated for the Mercury and it charting are very obvious markers for success. But we haven’t done all of the classic things that a lot of bands do. We haven’t toured the album extensively because we weren’t able to, and everything was done over Zoom.” We ignore the tragedy that here we are on Zoom one year later, talking about an album.
With limited time to tour due to a variety of reasons (the November dates were rescheduled due to illness), it has been, as with many artists in the last couple of years, a strange road through an album release year. “When the first album came out, we couldn’t even go to the pub for a pint to celebrate,” he says. “We went to London Fields and had a bottle of wine. And then we came back here and had a big fire in my garden. And I fell asleep.”
“There was a time when I wasn’t allowed to do interviews, you know”Charlie Wayne
Alcohol, bands and fires in residential areas, always a sure recipe for success. “It was so not rock and roll,” laughs Tyler. “And that isn’t just because of Covid. Any idea people may have of us, well, we’re just not rock and roll. We love hanging with our friends, having a nice time being nice. We’re not doing the cool shit that people think we might do.”
“We are a constant source of disappointment to our tour manager,” nods Charlie with a giggle. “I think he does like hanging out with us, but there’s a real gap between what he considers to be a good time and what we get up to.”
We dig a little deeper for the dirt. After all, with seven in the band, surely one of them is a trouble maker on the road? “Well, there was that one time May tried to smuggle a load of coke back into the country,” he says deadpan. “But that wasn’t really band-related. She’s an entrepreneur.”
Forced into thinking on the spot about any tour trouble they have really got into, he struggles to pick a moment. “Unless it’s trying to get access to a swimming pool or something,” he says thoughtfully. “And if we can’t, then it’s obviously a shame, but we’re not going to say anything about it.”
Half a minute later, inspiration strikes.
“There was one time when we were playing in Austria,” he says, “they put us up in a very nice hotel, clearly beyond our means.” Optimistic about what shenanigans will ensue, we lean in. “We were all wearing our dressing gowns to go to the breakfast buffet…” “You’re telling THIS story? It’s terrible!” says Tyler, heightening our anticipation as he continues building towards a surely unstoppable climax. “So, we were wearing a dressing gown to go to the pool after. And then they told us we couldn’t wear our dressing gowns. And so that was that.” Disappointment reigns, our hopes of a salacious story dashed even as we fall in love with their wholesomeness a little bit more.
Wild stories or not, the shows that they did play in 2021 were a resounding success – none more so than the huge set at Wide Awake Festival in September. Playing on a stage named after the legendary Windmill Brixton, a stage that Tyler points out was bigger than the entire venue it was named after, the band did start to see just what reaction they and their album was garnering as she remembers the feeling of a “mass of people watching”.
“Wide Awake was 100% a moment where I was like ‘oh fucking hell’,” says Charlie. “Because at a festival, you never really know what people think when you’re not a well-known band and they’re just milling around for the day. But here, people had come along to see us and our music, and they actually knew it as well. Strange but awesome is how I would describe it.”
Seeing bands like Shame, PVA and black midi taking that stage and owning it, it was a real statement in how the scene that had coalesced around the Windmill had become something significant in its own right. “I think it was a real testament to the group of bands who came through the Windmill,” agrees Charlie. “All having their moment in the sun, and all together. It felt really special; actually, it was a really, really great day.”
Days like this punctuated a breathless year for Black Country, New Road. And now, at year’s end, a swift follow-up, ‘Ants From Up There’ is on the horizon. Early singles ‘Concorde’, ‘Bread Song’ and ‘Chaos Space Marine’ are indicative of a less frantic, more thoughtfully precise approach to songs this time round – the thrilling abrasiveness of the debut replaced by an indie-folk feel that pulls gently and irresistibly at heartstrings throughout. Frontman and lyricist Isaac Wood sings rather than speak-shouts, making for a softer album all ’round.
“I think it wasn’t so conscious to make it gentler and more that it’s just that that’s what the songs were really,” explains Charlie when we ask him if it was a deliberate move. “Except for ‘Track X’, those songs on the first album were written with the intention of being performed live,” he explains. “And when you want to make an impression on a live scene, the easiest way of doing that is making quite abrasive music.”
“We’re not punks or raging, angry kids,” points out Tyler. “So the first album is us just figuring out what we’re doing, using influences of what we used to listen to but not really knowing how to use them.”
Describing the process as like “mannequins being thrown together”, she says now that the first record doesn’t represent how they felt as people now or even at the time that it was recorded. “We’re actually just quite nice, soft people,” she adds, unnecessarily, to be honest. “So with this second album, it’s who we are, and we know why and what we’re doing.”
“When the first album came out, we couldn’t even go to the pub for a pint to celebrate”Charlie Wayne
With the record largely written in isolation, it became more of a cathartic process and less about the future live performance. “There was literally no one to perform to whether we wanted to or not,” says Charlie. “So when you’re not playing to an audience, you’re playing to the people in the room, and it becomes much more about the interplay between those people.”
That thought process becomes clear on tracks like the lengthy and beautiful ‘Snow Globes’, and the even lengthier long-term fan favourite ‘Basketball Shoes’, both of which begin with extended instrumental intros that last for longer than many singles do in total. There’s a delicate yet epic atmosphere around these tracks that brings to mind one of alternative’s biggest of hitters of the last couple of decades. Just make sure you compare them to the right era. “It depends what era of Arcade Fire they’re talking about,” grins Tyler when asked if they’re flattered by the comparisons. “It has to be the early version, yeah.” “We did invite that,” says Charlie honestly. “We knew we wanted to do something which was not dissimilar to Arcade Fire, but most people just thought we were joking. Having a touchpoint is important, and I think people registering that is a compliment for us.”
With Isaac not present for the interview – it’s later announced shortly before the release of the album he’s leaving the group – the air of mystery around the lyrics remains – there is a fragility and beauty threading through ‘Ants From Up There’, with references to Concorde dotted throughout. Not that the band themselves know all the details of what he is singing about. “We’re his friends, and we’re in very close proximity to him,” says Charlie, “So we’re able to kind of gauge what’s going on without necessarily having to have a creative conversation about it. And sometimes these things are just better when you’re able to receive them and make your own judgments rather than having it spelt out for you.” As the pair talk about the trust and faith that resides between the entire group, it’s easy to see that the years making music together have created a bond that is pretty unbreakable.
It’s clear that that bond and spirit is something that will carry them into 2022 and beyond, with full tours planned for the spring, including a huge London Roundhouse show in February. But with two very different records tonally, how are they planning on merging it all for the live show? “We’ve already kind of practised it on the last tour,” states Tyler. “And we were incredibly pleasantly surprised at how nice and willing audiences were to listen to music that they hadn’t heard before.”
She puts a lot of it down to how much improvement many in the band have made in their playing over the intervening years. “I’m not talking about May, Georgia or Lewis; they’ve always been great. But I definitely feel that for the rest of us, our playing has gotten better.” “Can I just say for the record,” interjects Charlie sternly. “I’ve always thought I’ve been brilliant?” “We do get bored,” carries on Tyler regardlessly. “So we’ve always changed up how we play the old material. And I’m sure there are going to be people that are upset by that. But I think as long as we believe in it, I think they’ll believe in us.”
With another huge year coming up, things may well continue to change in their world as they march onwards and upwards – hell, Charlie may even get some better stories under his belt. Just remember to lock away your hotel bathrobes when Black Country, New Road bring the most wholesome show to a town near you soon.
Taken from the February 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Black Country, New Road’s album ‘Ants From Up There’ is out now.