BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD
Thrilling, pan-generic jams from the 14-legged groove machine going somewhere fast. But what do Richard Hell, Ariana Grande and Fleetwood Mac have to do with it? Victoria Segal investigates.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER HE HAD PICKED THE NAME FROM WIKIPEDIA – “IT sounds very post-rock, let’s go for it” – that Isaac Wood realised Black Country, New Road might have a deeper symbolism. “It’s really funny, because when I found it, I didn’t really realise what it quite obviously meant,” says the 22-year-old singer and guitarist. “Hilariously, it was exactly what we wanted to say. Over time, someone pointed out to me that it obviously means a dark place, and then moving on from that. And that’s definitely what it was.”
On the surface, the band’s route to their debut album, For The First Time, which is released early next month, doesn’t seem too treacherous. “There’s not that many examples of people who are like you when you’re a seven-piece with two acoustic instruments that aren’t guitars,” acknowledges saxophonist Lewis Evans, but even so, they have followed a steady curve. There was their growing live reputation as a band formidably mixing post-rock and post-punk, jazz and klezmer; an affiliation with the scene (they prefer “community”) around The Windmill in Brixton, spiritual home of Fat White Family and Black Midi; plus two exhilarating singles, Athen’s, France and Sunglasses, on producer Dan Carey’s buzzy Speedy Wunderground label.
Yet if they have become a band to mention, nobody drops their name with quite the
“I WAS AGGRESSIVE IN MY DESIRE TO MOVE ON. IT WAS IMPORTANT THAT WE CARVED OUT A NEW FUTURE FOR OURSELVES.”
same passion as Wood. “It’s black country out there!” he howls repeatedly on their third single, Science Fair, as if he’s warning of quicksand, or poisoned ground, or a sudden sheer drop.
THE BAND’S ROOTS LIE IN THE LESS threatening flat spaces of Cambridge, where most of the members met at school and sixth-form college. They now live in London: Wood and guitarist Luke Mark, friends since they were five, share a flat close to Evans. The rest – violinist Georgia Ellery, bassist Tyler Hyde, keyboardist May Kershaw and drummer Charlie Wayne – are scattered across the city, yet even boxed off on Zoom their closeness is clear. Wood remembers the night of February 4, 2020, when Black Country, New Road played to their largest audience so far, at London’s Village Underground. “It was one of the best moments of my life, performing that concert,” he says, dreamily. “The best shows are when the audience ceases to exist and we feel this sense of togetherness as people, we lock into each other, understand each other, and the outside world ceases to exist in that moment. We feel pride, love for each other, and understanding in a singular unit. That’s a remarkable feeling.”
They are all aged between 21 and 23, but Ellery reckons their fans are generally older than them: “I don’t know why…” Wood can guess: “Most of the stuff that sounds most similar to our music was made between 1990 and 1995.”
When did they realise the similarities? “After we started making it,” laughs Wood. “We already sounded like it but we just never quite realised. Like Slint and June Of ’44 – I’d heard the Slint record but that was it. The other stuff was like, ‘You know you sound like this?’ and I would listen to it and I was like, ‘Oh shit, yeah.’”
When Wood’s mother tells him about her adolescence in Essex, she explains the factions of her youth – “You could be a Mod or a skinhead, speaking like that, dressing like that, acting like that, hanging out with those people.” For Wood’s generation, though, “everyone just liked everything because we had access to all of it. You have the freedom of choice and the access to all the information once you’re old enough to use a computer.”
If Wood wants to quote Phoebe Bridgers and Bruce Springsteen
in songs, he will. There are tracks that refer to Slint and Black Midi, Richard Hell and Scott Walker, but also Charli XCX and Kendall Jenner. On Science Fair, he suddenly declares “References! References! References!” like Patti Smith hitting information overload (“I was just taking the piss out of myself ”). At times, Wood sounds like Grinderman-era Nick Cave (“I’m more than adequate/Leave Kanye out of this/Leave your Sertraline in the cabinet!”); at others, Jarvis Cocker (“Still living with my mother/As I move from one microinfluencer to another”). He hasn’t heard The Birthday Party, but his mum played Pulp in the car.
IN 2018, WOOD MADE A SOLO TRACK CALLED THEME From Failure Pt 1, under the name of Guest, a fierce, funny monologue that was part self-laceration, part self-improvement tract (“I Googled myself so many times/I started trending”). It mentions “being the hero of my dope childhood dreams”. Which were? “To be a rock star,” he says, tongue slightly in cheek. “My friend Theo, when I was about eight years old, just came to school and was like, ‘You have to come back to my house after school and watch this video I found on YouTube.’ And it was the music video for Smells Like Teen Spirit. That just blew my mind in two. I grew my hair out and bought flannel shirts and got my brother’s guitar and stuff. And pretty much consistently since then, that’s all I ever wanted.” He smiles. “I know it sounds funny but it just is really awesome to just stand around and play loud guitars.”
At sixth-form college, they formed a band, Nervous Conditions, with another singer, playing their first gig at the city’s venerable Portland Arms. They were so young they were barred from the dressing room; when Evans left his saxophone backstage after an illicit foray, he had to send Tyler’s dad – Karl Hyde of Underworld – to fetch it. London, however, was the goal. Hyde studied art in Manchester, but soon Evans, Kershaw and new friend Ellery were studying at Guildhall School Of Music And Drama; Wood followed.
Wood is now studying electronic music at Guildhall (a “very specific technical side of music production” that is “incredibly
separate” from the band). Yet at this point, he wasn’t having quite such a good time as his friends. “I got kicked out of my sixth form college, so I didn’t have any A levels,” he says. “I couldn’t really study, so I just worked for a long time in pubs and stuff, delivering food, just while we were doing that other band and while everyone else was at university. Me and the singer weren’t doing much other than working and playing music, and that was the long-term plan. That whole period of my life was quite difficult.”
Throughout 2017, Wood’s friend Joscelin Dent-Pooley – AKA musician Jerskin Fendrix – kept telling people that 2018 was going to be the “Year Of Fear”. “It was this weird joke he had,” explains Wood. By the end of Januar y 2018, though, it rang with a grim truth. The original singer of Nervous Conditions was accused on social media of sexual assault; the other members dissolved the band. “So 2018 was definitely the year of fear,” says Wood, “but it was also the year where we had to build ourselves something new.”
When they regrouped as Black Countr y, New Road, there were necessary changes. Wood stepped up as frontman. They shed their improvisational slant for tighter structures and wrote the songs that Wood sees as “lifelines”. “I didn’t feel anger towards things,” he says about the urgency in this music, “but I was aggressive in my desire to move on and carve out something new for us as people and friends. We supported each other and it was important that we carved out a new future for ourselves.”
FCHARTS that first leap forward. Largely recorded just before March’s lockdown, producer Andy Savours (My Bloody Valentine, Ray Davies) aimed to catch their live energy. “Often bands with unusual lineups and multiple members can be sonically confused and messy in a live context,” says Savours. “But they sounded so focused and compact – like one raging beast!”
To the band, it already feels like a marker of the past; they’re now writing their second LP. “There’s less of a sense of urgency in the new music,” says Wood. “It’s able to be more meditative, we’re able to relax into writing something that doesn’t have to be so fast and aggressive.” Evans refers to live favourite Basketball Shoes as a future direction: a dream about meeting Charli XCX (“She knows who I am/She’s studied my prose”). “The music is allowed to be a little different,” says Wood, “more than something we needed to do to design ourselves a new future and identity.”
Even in Zoom boxes, Wood, Ellery and Hyde contemplate their connection. “I can’t really speak for everyone but there was never an option for me in my mind not to play with these people,” says Hyde. “There wasn’t a plan B. Not that I couldn’t have gone on and done something else, but these guys are in my heart. In my blood.”
Ellery agrees. “I think we’ve overcome a lot as a band, so with everything we overcome we get a lot closer and the music gets a lot better. It’s like Fleetwood Mac, basically.” There’s a pause. “It’s not.”
“We just love each other basically,” says Wood, “and that’s about it.”