"When we go through this transition of becoming a slightly different band, you take it one of two ways. You can be scared that people aren’t going to like you, or you can be excited about this new thing. I think the latter is how we feel about it."
A band with no time for creative stagnation, Black Country, New Road present a new and evolved form with their brilliant sophomore Ants From Up There on Ninja Tune. A considered overhaul of what came before but with the same beguiling charm, Ants From Up There is a fully realised project, one which the band are proud to claim as the first full album they have ever done:
"The music has got its own sound world and production-wise, has its own sound world too. It feels like the first album we have done. A grown-up album."
Black Country, New Road - Ants From Up There
Marbled vinyl with negative effect artwork gatefold sleeve. Includes a 20 page lyric book and sticker.
We've followed their progression intently in the lead up to and since the release of captivating debut For The First Time (a Rough Trade Albums Of The Year 2021 Top 10 title), so we took great pleasure catching up with the band ahead of the new record to delve deeper into the makings of the project. After sharing the news that Issac Wood will depart Black Country, New Road following the release of Ants, Tyler, Charlie and Lewis opened up to us about the group's ongoing evolution, their way forward as they reconfigure and the wide variety of styles and influences explored on album 2.
Your music has frequently been described as not relying on any one singular sound. This seems to be the case with your forthcoming album, melding classical minimalism, indie-folk, pop and alt-rock. Did new musical styles come into play as you began writing and recording the album or did you have a distinct idea of what influences you wanted to incorporate in the beginning stages of Ants From Up There?
Lewis: I think the only thing we discussed was the fact we wanted to make a more accessible record. We wanted it to be enjoyed on multiple levels. We didn’t really go ‘ah let’s give this one a bit of a Steve Reich vibe’ or ‘this one is a little bit indie-folk rock’. It was more organic. Not the former isn’t an organic way to write music, it just didn’t really happen like that. There are definitely styles you can pin down…I wouldn’t say it’s completely playing outside of the musical norms that exist full stop, but I guess we are trying out different things and the instrumentation broadens our horizons to be able to do that.
Tyler: I guess the first genre you think of is pop…which you could argue is the most accessible form of music. Implementing some of the conventions of pop music in the writing of our songs failed in most cases, but there was definitely some inspiration structurally from pop music.
Charlie: When you listen to this album, pop would not be your first port of call, but it was definitely in our minds when we set out to record. It’s pop sensibilities, definitely with the writing. Not overdoing it, leaving space for things, everything in there feeling like the right thing to be there. Maybe more conceptually pop than sounding like pop.
Although your debut album For The First Time is less than a year old, your musical evolution as a band already seems to have undergone various exciting twists and turns. Lyrically Ants From Up There seems to delve deeper into human emotion with relatable stories of relationships, social interactions and personal anecdotes. Would you say there is more of a vulnerability to this album than before?
Tyler: We’ve definitely given more of ourselves in this album than the first one, quite literally. Take something like the backing vocals, we have been willing to expose ourselves more.
Charlie: I think when speaking situationally to how the music has been written, the lyrics came from the same sort of space. We were writing as a group in the really bleak lockdown during the winter of last year when there wasn’t so much going on. Playing music with one another was respite and a comfort to all of us. I think when you’re in that space you don’t want to be making something closed or abrasive. I think it’s more comfortable when you are writing music with your friends to make something more caring or thought through… or just gentle I guess. That’s where the difference is from the first album, which was meant to be performed to the public. It’s meant to be a sort of established distance between the band and the audience. That wasn’t really where we were when we were writing this last album.
It was also mentioned last year that you didn't see For The First Time as a debut album, more a debut statement, a 'collection of songs which represents a time when you were younger.' Would you say Ants From Up There is a fully realised project and a true representation of the sound you have matured to?
Lewis: This is the first full album that we’ve done. The first one was a collection of the songs we had been playing. This is something where we have worked on every song to fit with the other songs. It’s all meant to be one body of work. Obviously, it felt great to be releasing the first album but this one really feels like one artistic statement. We feel really proud of this, that it’s all become one thing. The first album relied on production to feel like it was all glued together, the songs are really different. That doesn’t mean when songs are different it’s not an album, but they’re all from such completely different times for us that it didn’t feel like a complete thing. That said, it sounded complete because it was all produced in the studio by the same guy but this [new album], the whole thing has its own kind of world. The music has got its own sound world and production-wise, has its own sound world too. It feels like the first album we have done. A grown-up album.
Tyler: The track Basketball Shoes did exist a long time before the other songs were made, and Snow Globes, but other than that most of them were written at the same time and they were all essentially birthed by Basketball Shoes. They are from the same world even if they weren’t created at the same time.
With the songs being tied tightly together, is this more conceptual than the previous album and does it relate to the name?
Charlie: The name of the album was the thing that came last. When we finished all of the mixing.
Lewis: We had literally a day, the last day. We had to come up with an album name. Our manager said ‘you have got to come up with it today’ and we were like ‘fuck’!
Charlie: But it’s definitely the best fit, we wouldn’t have chosen it if it didn’t abide by the general concept of the album that we laid out and we went into this thinking we wanted to produce something that was conceptually a whole. We are still figuring out what those concepts are. I think if you asked each one of us we would all give a different answer.
But it essentially goes back to the idea of feeling like a small part of a whole and then feeling like we are all having a collective experience that is broadly similar, rooted in the friendships we have had for a super long time.
We were able to properly reflect on that when it was just all of us in a room making music together. Which we kind of always had but when you’re making it for one another rather than for an audience, you get a proper perspective of that and it’s really nice.
You're very happy with the outcome of this record, with Tyler [Black Country New Road, Bassist] sharing: “It was such a pleasure to make. I've kind of accepted that this might be the best thing that I'm ever part of for the rest of my life. And that's fine.” Is there a band whose recording and artistic career you particularly admire, and one in which as a band yourselves, you aspire to share a similar career trajectory?
Tyler: (laughing) With regards to what we do from here, me saying it’s the best thing I am ever going to make is ridiculous! But it makes sense because none of us can really conceive of the next thing we are going to make. So right now that statement feels true. That’s always been the thing about Black Country New Road, or whatever the seven of us have done together. Every time we work on a new project or a new thing it’s something we never could have conceived of, so at the time it feels like the best thing and you can’t really imagine what might happen next. But when it does it’s always better than what’s come before. So it’s really exciting delving into the unknown. It’s very hard to think about who we are going to be like. The best way to make anything as an artist is to let go of any idea of what may come because you can’t get there if you have an idea of what that end goal is or what that sound is going to be. References to other artists crop up, but normally when we are in that writing process we realise things we need to pull in, to help us continue writing. At this point, it’s so open-ended and exciting.
Lewis: I agree with you on that thing where, when you are working on something new, everything before just doesn’t feel as good. Throughout the whole of the press campaign for the last album we had just finished making the earliest demos of this album and I was having to bite my tongue so much to not just shit on the first album! Like ‘Ah man, it’s not as good as this new one!’ You always think that. We have started a couple of songs for the next album and it’s sounding so good! It’s in the early stages but it could be even better, it’s not out of the realms of possibility. I back us to make another sick record.
So you are already working on new material. Have you so far in your career always found a significant momentum to keep creating, off the back of finishing a project?
Charlie: You always want to feel like you’re moving forward no matter what you’re doing. We have never really had the opportunity to tour either of the records that we have put out. I think the way in which you handle that is by just making new music. That’s a nice way to feel like you’re progressing. I think it’s lucky to some extent that we haven’t had to tour the first album or this album, it makes you feel that what you are doing, you are always in control of it, and you are never having to sit with the music you have made and feel like it’s the best thing you have ever done. If you are playing in front of audiences that really really love what you are doing and tell you they love what you're doing, it makes you really worried about putting anything new out. It sucks that we won’t be touring as people coming in and watching you play your music is a massive part of the process and a whole part of being a musician. But it’s also that we have gone through a lot of transitions and it’s nice to sort of be in control of it to some extent. That we are not being governed by what’s happening externally to the members of the band, in a room together.
When you spoke to us for our Rough Trade Edit podcast back in January 2021 you looked back on the pressures of your early solo shows (Village Underground, 2020) and the apprehension of how your new music would be received. Do you feel differently about performing live when the time comes?
Lewis: I think we will try and ease into it and start off with a support tour, so the pressure is off. I don’t care at all when it is a support gig. I thought ‘oh shit, I don’t get nervous’ but no one there has paid to see me play. But as soon as it’s your own gig, it’s scary. There are just so many people and you think ‘whoa what are you all doing here? (laughing) Go home.’
Charlie: We will definitely be nervous for sure but we will ease ourselves into it. Before coronavirus started we had been playing support gigs and then suddenly went to these hypey headline shows. It’s not right that you’re just this person and then there’s suddenly all these people in a room who know who you are. Hopefully, we do that a bit slower next time. There will still be a trajectory and we will keep momentum up, but hopefully it will be less of a hyped thing.
Tyler: When we go through this transition of becoming a slightly different band, you take it one of two ways. You can be scared that people aren’t going to like you, or you can be excited about this new thing. I think the latter is how we feel about it. No one knows how it’s going to be and the world doesn’t, there’s no pressure to be anything. Seeing how much we have changed from album one to album two, but that people are generally quite onboard with the changes we have made… that’s a reassuring thing. I think it’s all going to be good.
Can you tell us anything about the future of Black Country New Road’s sound as the make-up of the band is changing going forward?
Charlie: Isaac leaving is a big thing. As we said in our statement it’s really hard to quantify all of the influences he had on the group, it was massive. But if Black Country New Road had rested solely on the merits of one person then we would have ended the band with Isaac leaving. But because it’s doesn't, we haven’t. In very tangible ways the band sounds pretty similar. The songs are definitely different and we are exploring spaces we have never been to before, but we are the same musicians playing our instruments. It’s just the songs will be new and that’s exciting.
Tyler: Before any of this happened we had for a long time discussed an evolution. New voices coming in and roles and responsibilities changing. It’s taught us that it’s really important to relieve people of responsibility in order to keep everyone in check and to actually live up to this thing that we have been saying about everyone holding the same responsibilities. It’s daunting to be ‘the voice’ of a band. Even if we do make the music 100% collaboratively, there’s an added pressure that the vocalist gets and we have learned that we really need to share that.
Lewis: Tyler’s got the best voice so she will be singing the bangers. I will be singing the flop.
Charlie: (laughing) Me, Luke, May and Georgia will be doing all the vocal skits in between all the songs.