Black Country, New Road are going their own way
“We came round here to watch Bad Boys II the other night,” offers Luke Mark, guitarist for Black Country, New Road. The Zoom call is beaming in from brass player Lewis Evans’ flat in north London, where four of the seven members have congregated to work on new material. “It was… really bad.”
This must be one of the few opinions on pop culture on which Black Country, New Road agree. While Mark claims that they are all watching “the latest binge-watchable show”, he can’t actually specify any – the only programme he can comfortably name check is MasterChef. He and the band’s singer, Isaac Wood, watch it most evenings at their shared flat.
“Why don’t people just pick up a fucking book?” Wood irritably interjects. “I just finished The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, which is fucking excellent,” he says, showing more enthusiasm than at any other point in our chat. Mark is more of a poetry buff, citing English writers Sam Riviere and Emily Berry as his recent favourites.
© Rosie Alice
“I’ve started stimulating my mind by reading Sapiens,” Evans calls from the background with an air of knowing pomposity, for which he is roundly laughed at.
In spite of these individual differences – or perhaps because of them – Black Country, New Road are an undeniable and idiosyncratic new presence in British guitar music. Together, they have carved out a niche with expansive compositions that take the mood of post-punk and rough it up with grinding guitars, cinematic flourishes, klezmer breakdowns and a kind of sweeping, desperate romanticism. Central to their sound is Isaac’s biting and verbose lyricism, delivered in a baritone bark. His references to “working on the glow up” and “[moving] from one micro-influencer to another” studding multi-part epics about artistic integrity and societal expectations for a generation.
The foundations of Black Country, New Road were laid early. Wood and Evans started making music with bassist Tyler Hyde, drummer Charlie Wayne and violinist Georgia Ellery as teens growing up in Cambridge. Keyboard player May Kershaw – who joined their school for sixth form – was recruited to join their band, called Nervous Conditions. It didn’t take long for the band to start making a name for themselves in London, with performances at Windmill Brixton and Moth Club stoking interest. Then, allegations of sexual assault were levelled against Nervous Conditions’ singer Connor Browne in January 2018, and the band dissolved shortly after. In a statement, Browne apologised to the two women in question, and his bandmates, clarifying that they were “wholly unaware of any allegations that might have been made”. It’s still a sensitive topic, and when I raise it, they are eager to move the conversation on.
That could have been the end. Instead, at the urging from a number of supporters (chief among them Underworld’s Karl Hyde, father of Tyler), the remaining members regrouped for a casual weekend of improvising at a friend’s south London home, a no-pressure attempt to see if there was any desire to keep going. “It definitely didn’t feel like anything at the beginning,” Wood recalls. “It was just, like, ‘OK, we’re playing together again.’” Lacking a lead vocalist, they found their improvisations leaning more on members’ musical backgrounds. Evans had been tutored by Cuban, Afrobeat, free improv and klezmer players as part of a CAT scheme called Aldeburgh Young Musicians, while Ellery had spent time in youth orchestras. Both found their formal musical experience combined magnetically with Black Country, New Road’s tendency towards snarling art rock. They came away from these initial sessions with early versions of the riotous Instrumental and Opus – two songs that would eventually bookend their debut album. But if they were going from strength to strength musically, they still needed a singer to tie it all together. Isaac stepped up, and while his early attempts saw him lean into simple lyrics – “just, sort of reading them out over the music” – he soon settled into his role as a charismatic leader and a compelling modern poet.
Recently, it seems that any conversations about interesting UK guitar music are traceable to one label, Speedy Wunderground. The label, run by producer Dan Carey, has provided a home for the likes of Squid and black midi. Falling into a similar niche, BC, NR were on Carey’s radar from early on. It was a natural fit to work with him when it came to recording their debut single, the spare, Fall-esque Athen’s, France. They built out their sound by recruiting Mark as second guitarist and released their follow-up that summer, the nine-minute encapsulation of modern numbness, Sunglasses. The track became their unlikely breakthrough, selling out three runs of 7” pressings and earning them a playlisting on daytime BBC radio. Not bad for a record which includes the lyrics,“Leave Kanye out of this/ Leave your sertraline in the cabinet”.
Across the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, they sharpened their seven-pronged attack at festivals across the UK and Europe, adding muscularity and bolder dynamics to their ambitious songs. They attracted a devoted following. Some of their fans even started a Black Country, New Road subreddit where they keep track of all the songs they played in their live sets. One of their last gigs before the pandemic struck was a sold-out show at London’s Village Underground in February 2020. “That was scary,” Mark recalls of their biggest headline gig to date. “We loved it, but before we went on we were all shitting it.” Now, after being grounded for a year, they’re raring to reconnect with their fans and recapture some of that excitement.
© Rosie Alice
Their anticipated debut album, For the First Time, due 5 February, represents an opportunity to do just that. Recorded in the spring of 2020, the record bottles the thrumming nervous energy and low-key anguish that they capture so remarkably. Indeed, in order to preserve the spark of their live shows, they all played together “in a room that didn’t really fit seven people.” Charlie Wayne, their drummer, was even entombed in sheets and packing materials to prevent too much bleed between microphones. At six tracks, the record is unusually concise by modern standards, with just three new tracks in addition to re-recordings of the three already released. “It could be considered cheeky,” Mark admits. “But I think it’s just what the first album should be: a representation of those first set of songs and how they’d be played live.” They’ve also included some lyric switches, with Isaac replacing some of the most often-cited lines like “She tries to fuck me, I pretend that I’m asleep instead” in favour of more cerebral imagery. “I didn’t think they did the job they were supposed to do in the old versions,” he states, demurely.
“I think it’s what the first album should be: a representation of those first set of songs and how they’d be played live”
– Luke Mark
It’s easy, though, to imagine that they felt a certain amount of pressure in the studio. They were, after all, pursued by a number of labels off the back of their success on Speedy Wunderground. Ellery counters that the pressure didn’t come from external sources, but from themselves: “We have high expectations for the music we make. We want to play the best we can possibly play,” she says, simply. She assures me that their creative process, far from being borderline chaotic with seven egos at play, is actually a democratic process. “When you’re in a band with as many members as BC, NR, you realise very quickly that you have to be OK with having your ideas turned down,” she says. “It’s no bad thing.”
© Rosie Alice
“When you’re in a band with as many members as us, you realise very quickly that you have to be OK with having your ideas turned down”
– Georgia Ellery
In case you were wondering, it was the Ninja Tune, the primarily electronic-focused label that is home to the likes of Bicep, Floating Points and Jayda G, that the band ended up signing with. It’s a typically leftfield choice from a set of musicians who are proving impossible to predict. When asked why they chose that label over others, the band are coy, with Evans piping up about the “brownies in the meeting”. With their live return scheduled, tentatively, for the end of January, they’re clearly itching to get off the call and back to work. It falls to Ellery to give the more compelling answer – and unintentionally get to the heart of Black Country, New Road. “As a rock band,” she says, over email. “We thought it would be exciting to take the road less trodden.”
Photography: Rosie Alice
For the First Time is released on 5 February via Ninja Tune