Black Country, New Road know it’s best to separate politics from their music
“I’ve been so bored I’ve started rewatching The Sopranos,” Lewis Evans says via Zoom call. “How’s it going in L.A. now? [Is] everyone getting vaccinated?” It’s rare that casual small talk is interesting, but in this case, it is. Lewis is one of seven members of the highly acclaimed, genre-bending Black Country, New Road. He plays the sax, and shortly after, Tyler Hyde (bass) joins the call.
In post-Brexit Britain, music is at the forefront, with artists such as black midi, Squid, Dry Cleaning and Black Country, New Road paving the way for new techniques to be implemented into the British guitar scene. Although not typically seen in guitar bands, saxophone and the violin are integral to the music for Black Country, New Road. To round out the band, there’s Isaac Wood (vocals/guitar), Georgia Ellery (violin), May Kershaw (keys), Charlie Wayne (drums), Luke Mark (guitar), along with Evans and Hyde. On paper, a seven-piece band with different musical backgrounds may lead to frustration and various inputs duking it out. However, Evans and Hyde make it clear that Black Country, New Road are all about the music and less about the people. This concept can be seen in their use of stock images for their critically acclaimed debut LP, For the first time, out on Ninja Tune, and the footage used for their music videos.
With only one album to perform, the band are already altering songs, adding tweaks to live performances whenever they do get to play. Evans and Hyde speak about how they stay strong not only as musicians but as friends and colleagues as well as being self-aware of the impact their music and personalities can have on listeners. They also bring up the idea of getting to perform live sometime soon, with the promise and glee of getting to come to America.
The imagery for the album is basic stock photos along with stock footage used for the videos. What was the idea behind that?
TYLER HYDE: Before we knew what the image [for the album] would be, we didn’t want it to be us because we wanted to emphasize that Black Country were about the music, not about the people and personalities that came with the band. Stock imagery fits that perfectly, but the imagery chosen was picked by Bart Price, who’s this mysterious guy that no one really knows much about. He just took control, and we don’t really know anything else. You’d have to ask him about it.
Can you touch upon the importance of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama for the band?
LEWIS EVANS: Me and Georgia [Ellery] went there, finished last year and studied jazz. May [Kershaw] is in her last year there and does classical piano, and Isaac [Wood] does electronic music there, and he’s in his first year. Four out of the seven have gone to Guildhall. It’s a great university with great teachers. We didn’t meet there necessarily, though. We all went to college together apart from Georgia before.
Was it perfect timing for the release of the album For the first time during quarantine due to school being held virtually? In-person class with promoting and playing shows might not have been a great combination, right?
HYDE: Lewis and I have graduated, so we wouldn’t have that problem, but a few members are still going, so we would have been fucked.
How does everyone connect well within the band with each member having a different background in several genres of music and having ideas to share and which ones to run with?
EVANS: I think we all really trust each other’s opinions a lot. That is really important, not only for the music you make, but to get along as a seven-piece band with people who have quite strong ideas. So if you’ve got an idea and you think something should be different, and no one else in the band agrees with you, then it’s probably not the best idea, so you just have to trust everyone. And don’t let those things be personal. They’re just artistic decisions, and it makes us make better music and makes us be better friends, I think.
With the first band that many of you were a part of, Nervous Conditions, dissolving, what was it like to just disregard everything that came before and dive into something completely from scratch, which has led to much critical acclaim right after the debut?
HYDE: In the beginning, it didn’t feel like we had much of a choice when it came to playing with each other; we just had to carry on. We were a group of friends and musicians, and that’s a rare thing to have, so we couldn’t just let that go. It was important to move away from the old music because that was created from a different band, and we wanted to make it clear that we were a different band. It was the beginning of something new, and we just went from there, really. There were no initial concepts as to what it would be. And we never knew that we’d be here. It was quite unexpected.
In today’s climate, many bands are starting to or have been politically charged, with messages in their music inspired by the chaos experienced all over the world. Is it difficult for Black Country, New Road to keep it solely about the music when I’m sure each member has an idea that they feel strongly about?
EVANS: We all are opinionated politically, and we care a lot about current issues. But, I think, who wants to listen to a bunch of middle-class white kids saying these things? Especially a male-fronted band. Too many people do that already, and us saying that with our music isn’t going to change anything. Us saying things in interviews, that’s a different story.
HYDE: There’s a way of using our position if we wanted to. Like Lewis said, we could do interviews. We could talk about it, but we set out to make music, so we are going to stick to that. That’s what we’re here to do.
It’s really cool that you are self-aware of this because many bands seem to still push their political views into their music, and some may even be doing it for the wrong reasons.
EVANS: It’s very important to be self-aware of these things. It’s when you start to pretend to care for your own gain that it becomes problematic. It can seem that way with some bands. Maybe I’m just cynical. [Laughs.] Some bands write songs, and I think, “You really believe that?”
The way many of your songs progress is similar to the idea of stress building up only to be relieved toward the end. Is that something you are aware of when making a song? I’m assuming it’s very difficult to do this for seven- to eight-minute tracks with several instruments coming into play that you don’t typically see in bands.
HYDE: Honestly, it’s easier to make eight-minute songs for us than it is to make three-minute ones. We are not very good at making things concise and figuring out what we want to say in a short amount of time. Maybe it’s because we’re in a bigger band. The instruments don’t feel unconventional because Lewis just plays sax and Georgia the violin. It doesn’t feel like this radical thing to be involved with. The thing with tension and release came about through being really bored of playing post-punk live shows with the way you create chaos by just whacking your instruments really hard. There were different techniques that were way more interesting, and why do what everyone else is doing? We just had to be more patient and thoughtful with our songwriting. When you hold back and then finally release, that creates something much more powerful than just giving all the time.
What’s the importance of The Windmill and Tim Perry to the band and the idea that they embody?
EVANS: [The Windmill] is an inclusive performance space where anything goes. You’ll get a platform no matter how prepared you are to get the platform or what your background is or what music you make, and that’s a pretty rare thing these days. It is like a bastion of proper art that you only really got in the ’70s, not that I would know. No matter what you want to play, you can play a gig as long as you send him a demo recording. There’s incredible music getting played there that wouldn’t necessarily get the chance of doing so if that venue didn’t exist. People are more fans of The Windmill than they are of bands, which is such a rare thing to happen. People discover music there just because it’s the venue. They don’t go to see a band—they go knowing they’ll probably see a band they will end up liking by the end of the evening because it’s The Windmill. It’s a gem in a quite noninclusive city. I love London, but it’s not an easy place to be a musician in, especially when you’re starting up.
HYDE: It’s so competitive across the whole axis of art in London. Most venues care about how many people you’ll get to the place and how many tickets will sell, but The Windmill is a place that doesn’t care about that.
EVANS: Also, the people you meet there, they’re like “Windmill-heads.” You think you’ve seen someone before, and you’ll probably think that it was at The Windmill. If you were by yourself in London for the evening and you wanted to meet some nice people, it would be a very good place to go with good people.
Did that idea of inclusivity also play a factor in the band signing to the Ninja Tune label? Many were intrigued due to the label housing many electronic acts as opposed to bands.
HYDE: They were just really lovely people that showed more than any other label how much they wanted to work with us. That’s what we needed, really. They’ve lived up to everything they said they’d do for us. They’re great at what they do, so why the hell not?
Does the band indulge at all in the high praise the debut record is receiving?
EVANS: I read all of the articles and reviews and stuff. That was really exciting, but the personal chitchat and comments, I try to stay away from them really because they can be a bit weird. For every person that says they really liked it, there’s someone saying something a bit odd and personal, so I’ve stayed away from that so far. My dad and mom read everything. Someone tweeted something about us looking like the biggest bunch of labor student clubs or something, and my dad called me and told me he nearly called that guy a bot. [Laughs.]
The last performance I streamed of yours was at the Southbank Centre in London. You played a new song called “Mark’s Theme” to begin the show, and it was a tribute to someone. What was the story behind that track?
EVANS: Yeah, it was [for] my uncle who passed away from COVID about two months ago now. I had my sax at the workshop for ages, and I got it back the day I found out he passed away, so I just thought we’d write him something. He was a massive fan of the band, at all the gigs in the front moshing away. He was an absolute nutter. He was crazy and annoying and awesome, so we thought we’d write him a song, and we’re going to put it on the second album.
I’m aware that the band are working on the next album, and it’s being done in a different approach.
HYDE: It’s basically done. We’re recording it this summer, and it is a different approach. We are applying different methods we’ve learned to express intensity, and we’re playing around with that more. It’s more beautiful, I’d say. It’s more thought out because previously, we relied on live performance to alter and progress the music, and without having an audience in front of us, we’ve had to use ourselves more through conversation and trusting each other. We can’t rely on the audience’s reaction to validate our choices, so we have probably become better songwriters for the second album, and for that reason, it’s probably a better album.
EVANS: Sad epic is the vibe. Sad, sad epic.
And is that being approached with the same recording process as the first record? I know the plan was to record the debut all back to back so that the album felt like a live recording.
EVANS: Yeah, it’s going to be more live this time. The last session was vocal overdubs, so I think we’re going to try and go for everything in the room, no overdubs whatsoever. That’s the plan.
At SXSW, the band played a rendition of “Sunglasses,” but I assumed it was due to the time constraint. Is that so?
EVANS: We were bored of playing it the way it is, and we are going to keep doing it. As long as we are playing the same songs, we are going to change it up. People don’t like it, but we would rather enjoy what we’re doing than be bored.