KCSB’S External Music Director Finnegan Smith sat down with emerging English experimental rock band Black Country, New Road. Read and/or watch on to hear about Black Country, New Road’s artistic journey thus far and where they’re headed from here on out.
Finnegan: Most members of Black Country, New Road attended prestigious music schools such as Guildhall or have formal musical experience, how do you think coming from these backgrounds has guided your approach to making music?
Tyler: It’s been fundamental in producing this music that you hear. This music is a product of 50% of the band going to music school and 50% being home-taught, and the music is like the middle ground of those two different camps and it really helps even those who went to music school. We who didn’t go, we force them to speak about music in a different way, reshape the language of it. It’s not like there’s any hierarchy because they’re music school students at all, we all just teach each other very different things.
Charlie: Yeah, I think that’s definitely the most important part, not the importance of them going to music school, or receiving a musical education, what’s definitely always been more important is the social aspect of how both parties come together. There’s no hierarchical establishment where the people who’ve gone to music school take the lead because of it, it’s just a conversation that we can have with our two respective equities.
Finnegan: Black Country, New Road also broke onto the scene through your 2019 debut single “Athen’s, France” on Speedy Wunderground. How did you guys end up meeting Dan Carey and what led you guys to release your debut single through the label?
Tyler: We met him at the Windmill probably, I think. Is that correct Charlie? He just came to see us quite a lot of times.
Charlie: I think so. I mean, Speedy Wunderground are quite well-known within our little circle anyway. The first time I came into contact with him was when black midi released “bmbmbm” on Speedy Wunderground.
Tyler: I didn’t really know much about them at that point, and I didn’t really know who Dan Carey was at all until I met him lurking in the shadows of the Windmill. But that was the cool thing about him that I liked initially, was that he really was a dedicated listener and didn’t just take us because it was a cool thing to do, he took us because he’d really taken the time to listen and understand our music. So the point where we recorded that single with him, it was quite a bizarre experience, he would tell us to stop playing a few seconds in because the feeling wasn’t right, and you have to have gone to loads of gigs to know the vibe wasn’t right. Also at the time there wasn’t any other option. [laughing] We had no interest from anyone for a really long time. So the fact that they reached out to us and said that they wanted to do these day projects, because it really is speedy, you’re only in there for a few hours, and the fact that they wanted to do that with us was a big honor, so we just took it!
Charlie: Yeah I totally agree with that, it’s just such a valuable ethos. I think that what they do at Speedy Wunderground in sort of picking up bands that seem to have no pretext to them, and establishing them through a single has been totally invaluable to us, it’s a really fantastic thing to do, and Dan, Pierre, and Alexis have been real trailblazers in that, I think we’re slightly indebted to them.
Tyler: It was a good first experience as well, because we had zero experience in recording at that point, so to have our first time be with someone who had dedicated time to understand our music made that process a bit easier, and called us out for things that we hadn’t taught ourselves to call ourselves out on if that makes sense.
Charlie: Yeah that’s true.
Tyler: In the end it wasn’t something that suited the album, but it was an invaluable experience.
Finnegan: You guys were talking about black midi, how do you think coming up with other Speedy Wunderground acts like black midi and Squid influence Black Country, New Road’s sound? I know you guys did a collab show with black midi before, how do you think they influenced you over the years?
Charlie: I wouldn’t say they’re direct musical influences, I think they’re influences in so much as they are friends, contemporary bands that are around in a direct geographical vicinity to us. We all have played at the Windmill before. We played with black midi before Black Country, New Road even existed really, I remember being so blown away when I first saw them.
Tyler: They were just these little kids.
Charlie: [laughing] Yeah, yeah, I mean..
Tyler: And I was like… fuck off! [laughing]
Charlie: We were quite combative… I think we went through a period where we thought we were the best musicians at every place.
Tyler: [laughing] We were so cocky and arrogant!
Charlie: So I suppose to that extent, seeing bands like Squid and black midi who are so good, was just fantastic, to see people like them, and them also being really friendly. We have the same booking agent as black midi as well, so just through happenstance we’ve ended up playing a lot of shows with them, in particular the summer of 2019 we were both doing a circuit of smaller festivals, we ended up spending a bit of time with them, which is super nice, and we all live in London as well, so we hang out with them.
Tyler: And more specifically for me, Cam, who’s the bassist for black midi, is the person I look up to the most as a bassist. His style is just utterly ridiculous, and it’s not… I know I will never be him, I don’t wanna be him, but he is the person who inspires me the most to be better at what I do, and I think Morgan’s probably the same for Charlie.
Tyler: There’s no point in trying to reach their level, because they are just the gods at what they do, but it inspires you to get better at your version of it, you know?
Charlie: I one hundred percent echo that, it’s completely true. They are… [laughing] so impressive. I mean, the first time I saw Morgan playing the drums was just completely off the chain.
Tyler: That was crazy fucked up.
Charlie: Have you ever seen them live? Or sort of seen videos of them?
Finnegan: Never! I’ve seen videos, but never in person. One day I definitely want to see you guys and black midi live.
Charlie: It’s just so unbelievable, just the fluidity that he plays with is just so incomparable.
Tyler: He’s seemingly playing on just random beats but they’re all hitting at exactly the same time, and then having so much space in between each note, and it’s just silence and then there’s bloop bloop bloop and it’s like… they are just machines. They’re crazy dudes.
Tyler: One thing is to not compare yourself to people like this, to understand that you’re from very different backgrounds in education, and just to know that you’re different, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Charlie: We have completely different musical goals as well, like I think if we were making music that was similar to black midi’s or similar to Squid’s… or trying to emulate the style of black midi or Squid then I think we would get slightly more caught up in our inadequacies, but that’s not our goal to make music for anything close to what those bands are trying to make music for… as long as I’m the best drummer in Black Country, New Road, then that’s fine by me.
Tyler: [laughing] And I’m the best bassist. But who’s the best guitarist?
Charlie: That’s not a question for us to answer.
Charlie: It’s probably you, Tyler, you’re probably the most skilled guitarist.
Tyler: No, no, no, no, no.
Charlie: I think so! [laughing]
Tyler: I’m not shreddin!
Finnegan: You guys were just talking about the Windmill, you became known for your live performances early in your career there. How did you guys get from the formation of Black Country, New Road to performing at this legendary underground music venue?
Charlie: Well, the Windmill preceded Black Country, New Road. We were performing at the Windmill before Black Country, New Road came about. It was always, for me at least, that sort of legendary venue even before we would play there, I remember in the band that preceded Black Country, New Road, the first time we had the opportunity to play at the Windmill, I think there must have been like, five or six people in the audience, something like that. I remember it just feeling like a really, really important moment, just because so many people have come through the Windmill, and it’s got such a great reputation, and that’s completely justified. It’s one of the, if not the most valuable place for music, certainly for us, but I’m sure for a lot of other musicians who are kind of currently in, you know, in the spotlight at the moment. The atmosphere there is just unbelievable, and Tim Perry, the guy that books most of the shows, he is so open, the way in which he curates everything in a way which you might think is maybe slightly flippant is sort of thought through. Not everyone has the opportunity to play at the Windmill but everyone that does play at the Windmill, no matter how many people turn up to see the show, you’ll definitely be watching something that’s interesting and eclectic and worthwhile.
Tyler: But also, that then, in turn, has created this environment, which is incredibly encouraging. Because any kind of sound can pass through that it’s not a judgmental space at all. And which means that, for a band like us at the beginning, it gave us the space to play around with our sound, gain confidence. And that’s the main thing, it’s a place to gain confidence. And it’s, for that reason, been so fundamental in many bands and musicians’ careers.
Finnegan: What has it been like to blow up in the underground music scene at such a young age? I’m personally 21. I couldn’t imagine coming up in the way you guys have.
Tyler: I feel like I’m old now! [laughing] I actually think about this with, you know, Billie Eilish, or someone like that, or people that are younger than us that are doing even bigger things. So there’s always someone younger doing something bigger. I guess if I do think about it, I think, oh my God, I’ve got to keep this up for a really long time and I don’t know how I’m going to do that. But I know that in my heart, I have to be in this band until the day I die. But it’s not going to be easy. So already, I’m thinking quite negatively about it, but I shouldn’t be doing that. It’s great, it’s great. It’s all great. It’s amazing.
Charlie: Yeah, I mean, it’s a great thing to have had the attention that we’ve been lucky enough to get so early in our career. It’s a bit weird, though. It’s fun, it’s exciting. For most bands, there are tangible markers of success, or recognition, in ways in which you judge your music. How much people are enjoying it or how much you’re getting from it. And normally, for us, it’s always been playing live shows. And so having not been able to perform… I suppose you could say that, we’ve gotten a little bit more attention than we had when everything closed down. It’s been weird to judge how things have changed because we haven’t played a live show basically since March of last year. So it’s been awesome, but it’s also been slightly weird.
Tyler: Also to prevent a huge ego boost or to not be negatively affected by all of this, it’s best to just not think much and not listen to it and just live in the real life world, just here and just hang out with friends instead of getting caught up in it.
Charlie: Yeah that’s true. My mom will send me a tweet from time to time. And that’s about it.
Finnegan: It’s really interesting to me that Black Country, New Road decided to sign with Ninja Tune, a label that’s predominantly known for electronic and dance music, to release your debut album. What drew you to the label?
Tyler: They were really, really lovely people. That might sound like a silly response, but the amount of people we had meetings with that wouldn’t engage with us in a very human way at all, and didn’t really seem very present and didn’t seem personal. Ninja were incredibly personal and approachable people that we just got along with really well. They were willing to be the most flexible out of everyone else, because they were going into it with not a lot of experience of this side of music. And it felt like we were, both us and Ninja, coming into something fresh, and for that there was this feeling of excitement that we both shared together. Also logistically, because we don’t have to compete with anyone else on their roster, we have a lot of freedom when it comes to release dates.
Charlie: Yeah, Tyler is completely right. I completely agree with everything. I think that for me personally, I really, really enjoyed many artists on Ninja Tunes’ roster, like, I really loved Marie Davidson, and Floating Points, Jenna Barwick as well, so much of their music isn’t so prescriptive that you would define it as being just a dance label or a jazz label, and that’s what I really liked about it. I think also, it’s really good to be on a label with artists that you respect and enjoy. But I don’t think that being genre specific is necessarily the most important thing in a label anymore, because I think, an independent label maybe used to align itself as being sort of genre specific as part of its identity, but now I think that people listen to all sorts of music, and they’re not limited necessarily to what they can afford to buy on vinyl or CD. So the identity of independent labels have, I think, completely changed in the streaming age. What I liked about Ninja Tune being interested in us was that it was showing that diversity and that independent labels didn’t have to be genre specific, it can just reflect modern eclectic music tastes, and it can reflect anything that is interesting, it doesn’t have to be genre specific. And I think that was really awesome. I was really surprised that they were so interested in us.
Tyler: To add to that, they weren’t relying on their legacy to impress us. I feel like a few of the labels we were talking to around that time were heavily relying on that and for that reason weren’t really excited about our future. Or if they were they certainly didn’t express it like Ninja did. Ninja was so in the present and just trying really hard to impress us and tell us all these exciting things that they were gonna do for us and it really felt like they were with us.
Charlie: Which they also have done by the way, they’ve really followed through on all their promises. For a young band, signing to a label is a really big and very scary thing,because the oldest bedbug that I’m sure all young musicians get told to keep them up at night, is never to sign with a label because labels are something which is naturally exploitative or seems exploitative. But Ninja Tune offered us the fairest deal of any of the ones we were looking at, and all of the promises that they’ve made to us they’ve followed through on and it’s been a really positive experience.
Finnegan: Black Country, New Road’s sound has evolved and matured quite a bit since the release of your debut single, incorporating more lush instrumentation and sung vocals, in addition to toning down the profanity of your lyrical content. What have been the biggest factors in this evolution?
Tyler: We get really bored really quickly. One thing specifically, that becomes really boring, especially in the scene that we were playing within a lot is the way you express angst, or tension through just matching your guitar to your drum, it just becomes so repetitive and boring. And honestly, you hear it so many times that it loses its impact. It loses its impact because it’s a live thing, and over COVID and not being able to perform live, it’s not enjoyable for us to just thrash our guitars and instruments in the room. We can’t hear anything, it’s not enjoyable at all. It just hurts our ears and we complain. So we’ve tried to find a way to express the same feeling but through other tactics. And that made the songwriting so much more thought-through, interesting, and individual.
Charlie: Yeah, I totally agree.
Finnegan: You touched on it a little bit, but what do you think contributed to the shift in lyrical content?
Charlie: Neither Tyler nor I would necessarily ever want to speak on Isaac’s behalf, just because the lyrics are always a separate constituent part of the band. And obviously, Isaac’s lyrical decisions are generally his own. I think that we have suggested things when we liked them, and we’ve suggested things when we think they would benefit from a change. Broadly speaking, though, they’ve been Isaac’s decisions. I think it would be tricky to say why he’s done one thing or another, because it’s not a decision that we’ve made. I will say, though, that we wanted to get played on Radio 1.
Tyler: [laughing] We’ve got to be kid friendly!
Charlie: Yeah, we did that one for the kids.
Finnegan: Another thing about your artistic development has been the incorporation of more keys, piano and synthesizer, which in my opinion, has added another really elegant layer of instrumentation to your music. In your early singles and live performances, the keys weren’t utilized very often, but that has since changed drastically. Was it a conscious decision for you guys to incorporate May Kershaw’s keys and synthesizers more as you progressed?
Tyler: All of these decisions are that individual’s choice of how they play. I think with May, she’s an incredibly talented classical pianist, but I think it was just time that it took her to understand playing on a synth and to get a feel for it and understand the sounds that she liked. It just took her time but now she’s really got a hold of it. But that’s all down to her. We never said don’t play so much or now do play so much. That’s totally her decision.
Charlie: I would say that the use of the piano, which we’ve kind of incorporated relatively recently, particularly in the livestream that we did, and definitely on pretty much all the music that we’re writing now, has been predominantly resource based. We have the capacity to practice with a good piano. When we played at the Southbank, it was an exceptional circumstance where we could perform with a really lovely piano, and May wanted to, and it seemed kind of apt. As Tyler said, May is an incredible pianist. I think the band’s sound is constantly changing, and it seemed like the right time to use some piano properly.
Finnegan: What do you hope to accomplish over the next five years?
Tyler: Well, realistically, to play outside of Europe, that’s the first thing to tick off the list. I really want to do another support tour. We haven’t done one since we were quite young, but that was no fun. And we haven’t done one as Black Country, New Road I don’t think. Have we?
Charlie: No, we haven’t.
Tyler: That would be amazing. Who would we want to support, Charlie?
Charlie: Who would I want to support? We were saying that The Killers would be the ideal band to support.
Tyler: Yeah, I was gonna say The Killers, but I was talking to a friend about this the other day, and they suggested that we don’t go on tour with The Killers, and they didn’t really say why.
Charlie: Alright, well then scratch that. I guess no, not The Killers then. We could go on tour with Coldplay. I think if the second album really picks up, then we could do a support tour with Coldplay.
Tyler: I think Coldplay fans will like album two.
Charlie: Yeah, I’m sure they will. I know that Coldplay aren’t going to be touring their album until there’s an environmentally viable way of doing so, but if we could go out to Jordan, and maybe go and play with them, that’d be amazing. I don’t know though. It’s difficult to say where you want to end up in five years. It’s that classic thing you ask in an interview, but the band I think has always benefited from not really thinking too far into the future because things are constantly in motion, and they constantly change.
Tyler: Although, I think in five years time, we will have released, I’m going to say… eight albums.
Charlie: Yeah? That’s a lot of albums. But sure, yeah. So I guess by that point, in five years time, I hope that we’d released our worst album that we’d ever make.
Tyler: Yeah, of course.
Charlie: Our worst album, out of the way. And then, I suppose, not to have made our best album yet.
Tyler: Well, we’ll probably be in our pirate phase then, perhaps.
Charlie: Yes, we’ll be doing shanties. We might be incorporating more loot, or we will have done the loot stuff, and now I guess we’ll be doing pirate stuff. It’s difficult to say. We regularly visit a soothsayer and from there… [laughing] they’re foretelling. It’s all looking like pirates and knights basically.
Tyler: But they can’t see beyond that’s the thing. We don’t know what’s gonna happen after that. We might have hit pirates by like… 3 years time. Who knows what will be in those second two. You know, we can’t even think about this. It’s totally out of our control. But you might not even recognize us by that point.
Charlie: Yeah… [laughing] Because we’ll look like pirates!
Finnegan: Looking forward to the Black Country, New Road pirate era.
Charlie: So are we!
Tyler: Isaac’s gonna cut his leg off.
Charlie: [laughing] Pegleg Wood!
Finnegan: [laughing] Thank you guys, can’t wait to see where you guys go next, whether it’s a pirate era or touring with Coldplay.
Charlie: Hopefully both!
Tyler: Hopefully The Clash!
Interview conducted by Finnegan Smith