Mystery men, stage fright and Jewish party music: an interview with Black Country, New Road
The south London seven piece speak to THE FACE ahead of their anxiously excellent debut album.
When you look at the social media accounts of Black Country, New Road, you’ll be surprised to find no pictures of the band, only rights-free stock photos. A silhouette of a couple against a sunset. Anonymous people drinking anonymous beers. A labrador.
“It’s very strange,” concedes Isaac Wood, 22-year-old singer and guitarist of the south London seven-piece. “It’s this weird American guy who basically insisted he take control of our Instagram accounts. He’ll give me a location and a time just a few hours in advance, often somewhere very weird in the West End. We’ll meet, he’ll stuff some documents in my hands and say OK – here’s the idea, this is going to be huge.” Their debut album – For The First Time, released next month via Ninja Tune – was no exception, its sleeve showing three people ascending a hill. “He was like, there’s no discussion, this is it.”
But why would a band described by leftfield music site The Quietus as “the best in the entire world now” defer to the vision of a stranger? “I don’t think we had a choice at that point,” Wood claims, “he’d sort of infiltrated our lives.”
If it all sounds a bit strange, then that’s just the half of it. Along with Black Country, New Road’s odd cocktail of genres, Isaac is renowned for his anxiety-ridden lyrical collages which reel off zeitgeisty references: NutriBullets, black midi, Kendall Jenner, the antidepressant Sertraline, thank u, next.
Black Country, New Road are part of an increasingly interesting crop of guitar acts centred around Brixton’s Windmill – an old-fashioned pub venue whose commitment to live music has seen it become crucial in the development of bands like Squid, black midi, PVA and Goat Girl. While guitar music may be less prominent than ever in contemporary culture, that’s not stopped record labels scramble to sign all of the above.
Every member of Black Country, New Road was previously in a band called Nervous Conditions, who split in 2018 due to allegations of sexual assault against the singer. Speaking individually via Zoom calls from their various London bedrooms, the group describe the immediate aftermath of that split as a dark time, and it was uncertain whether they would ever play again until a friend offered their house for a rehearsal. “At first I think it was just to have fun and keep spirits high, really,” explains violinist Georgia Ellery, who also moonlights as one half of Warp signed experimental duo Jockstrap.
From these free-spirited sessions Black Country, New Road became a band that fluctuates between free jazz, post-punk, krautrock, often all within the same song. And while taking cues from post-rock noise groups like Slint and Shellac, that really is only one part of the story – all of the group have formal music education backgrounds, mostly around London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama. “We don’t strive to be part of any particular genre, we just want to make music that’s playful and creative to make,” is how bassist Tyler Hyde puts it, “the music just floats between one genre and another.” (Admittedly, I’m yet to interview an artist who insists their music sticks rigidly to one genre.)
It’s their adoption of Jewish klezmer music that breaks most excitingly with other post-punk bands, trying on old Fall riffs one more time. “It’s party music,” explains saxophonist Lewis Evans. “It’s played in Jewish culture at occasions where people get together. Even the sad music is pretty happy.”
As Ellery points out, violin and sax aren’t traditional rock music instruments – “we had to find a way in,” and their klezmer background proved an open gate. “It’s also the feeling of it,” she explains. “It’s all quite sad because it’s in minor keys, but it is celebratory music – wedding music, birthday music.” Or, as Wood puts it, “it’s like crying in the club.”
When Wood began writing lyrics, however, things really changed. “I remember thinking ‘Oh my God,’” remembers Hyde, still sounding slightly taken aback. “I was amazed, and quite inspired.”
As a lyricist, Wood uses a Swiss Army knife of writing techniques – unreliable narration, shifts in character, all those modern pop cultural references. The latter, he suggests, are a little bit of a red herring. “It’s a cheap trick for getting people to engage with a story,” he says. “You don’t have to use beautiful language and literary flair to help a listener imagine a landscape, you’re giving them something they already know, if you give them a Coca Cola can or the apartment from Friends as a setting, these places exist in our mind very vividly.” (This is correct, because I’m now picturing the apartment from Friends, and so are you.) “Then you just fill the rest with any crap you want.”
Though he’s cagey about his literary influences (claiming, perhaps not entirely truthfully, to read about half an article a day) he’s an admirer of the beardy American singer-songwriter Father John Misty – an artist who divides opinion on whether he’s a wanker, simply writing from the character of a wanker, or indeed a wanker writing from the character of a wanker.
“I find myself simultaneously cringing and lusting after him, thinking he’s kind of sexy and a complete moron.” explains Wood. “He’s not the best lyricist in the world, but what he is is entirely, entirely honest – you can tell it’s exactly what this guy is actually thinking. If we’re going to get anything out of someone rambling about their boring life, at least you can get an insight into how people actually think, rather than just a version of what people would like to think, or is interesting to think.”
Watching early Black Country, New Road shows across 2019, there was a ferocity to Wood’s performance that quickly stopped seeming like an affectation. Dressed in a schoolboy jumper and stood at gunpoint stiffness, he would yelp words with a terrifying intensity, as though urgently disclosing state secrets whilst being bundled away by the SAS. Just what was going on? “Really early on I was just shit scared, and kind of angry and confused and simultaneously felt like I really had some point to prove. I was very anxious and impatient and all… hot. This was a genuine by-product of being scared, and talking about stupid things while you’re singing, and feeling a bit emotionally intense basically.”
Wood was due to return to the stage back in November for Black Country, New Road’s string of socially-distanced gigs, which were – sadly, but not unsurprisingly – pushed back, while another tour has been optimistically scheduled for February and March this year. The group are at pains to point out that it isn’t south London guitar bands that warrant sympathy during the pandemic. Infact, they were lucky to sign their record deal at the start of 2020, recording their album in the weeks just before lockdown – six days in total, a track a day, no messing.
Black Country, New Road are already looking ahead, too, towards a second album – though you won’t be seeing any more of them on social media. “Avoiding that means people can listen to the music for the music, not for us as people,” says Evans. “If I was head of UNICEF, then fair enough, you could write a bit about how I’m the head of UNICEF.” A pause. “But I’m not the head of UNICEF.”