“When we started making records when we were 15, 16, we would just be fucking around trying to play a guitar through a toaster or whatever,” Blaenavon frontman Ben Gregory reminisces with a laugh. Work on their 2017 debut album ‘That’s Your Lot‘, written steadily over five years and recorded in 2016 with Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele), was more professional but still fuelled by “a billion curries and a billion beers.” Now 22 and on their second full-length, the trio are in full-on serious mode.
Ben reckon he’s always had a knack for writing beautiful, poetic lyrics – even as a teenager – but ahead of recording these new songs, he says he forced himself to get even better at songwriting. He did that by “listening to way too much Elliott Smith” and making himself adhere to a 9-to-5 workday. “That might seem like it takes all the fun out of it cos the first record was all ‘the songs wrote themselves, man,'” he says. “On this record, I was like, ‘No, I need to write the songs and rewrite them until I’m happy.'”
Blaenavon’s debut dealt in a lot of gloom and sadness – the main hook of single ‘Lets Pray’ found their frontman chanting “Let’s pray for death“, while he pegged himself as “an apathetic pipsqueak” on the title track. This album, the title of which Ben is keeping under wraps for now, doesn’t divert from that path. Although he says he doesn’t want to get into the record’s subject matter too much yet, he does divulge it tells “a story about struggling with my mental health and depression.” “I had a very difficult six months – the usual stuff,” he explains. “It’s a lot more personal for me than the first record. This one’s a bit more of a concise reflection on being 21 and being like, ‘What the fuck?'”
Writing has long been a part of Ben’s way of expressing himself – “I’ve been pretty bad at telling people how I’m feeling” – and he says he’s nervous for people to get an insight into his recent life via the record’s lyrics. “Especially my parents – that’s always the weird one. ‘Yeah, I’ve been away for ages and I’ve written all these songs that are really sad, I’m really sorry.'” He pauses, before adding hurriedly: “There are some happy moments on it as well!”
The band – completed by bassist Frank Wright and drummer Harris McMillan – decamped to Manchester to work on the album, taking up residence at Eve Studios with producer Catherine Marks (Wolf Alice, The Big Moon). Ben credits her with being “really, really sick at getting massive, fat guitar sounds” and being “really delicate and considerate” with his lyrics. Not everything was so harmonious though.
“I’m very set on my song structures and I’m like, ‘Stay away!’ [when people try to change them],” he explains. “Catherine insisted [on restructuring some of them] and we had a bit of a fight.” Eventually, Ben realised she was right. “She made some of the songs a lot more sensible and peak in better places, and not be so drawn out.”
Though you’ll have to wait a while to hear the final thing (there’s no release date confirmed as yet, but Ben promises there will be new music this year), expect it to be a lot bigger than ‘That’s Your Lot’. “I think it’s bolder with more highs and lows, and more divisive maybe,” he says, adding he’s especially excited for fans to hear one song called ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’. “It’s a big ballad. It’s the best piece of songwriting I’ve ever composed – the lyrics were all written really, really quickly, but they’re still my favourite ever.”
The band will be giving a sneak preview of at least some of the record when they head back out on tour in October, visiting the UK’s small venues and some towns they’ve never been to before. They might even have an expanded line-up on stage too, as they figure out how to recreate their studio experiments on stage. “I don’t want to do the songs a disservice as just the three of us,” Ben says. “There’s a lot more piano and synthesisers so we kind of need another person we can sing as well.”
Once that’s worked out and the album’s out in the world, the frontman says the group don’t have too many lofty ambitions. “It would be nice to keep playing big shows but I just want people to love it and pay attention to the lyrics and the story I’m trying to tell,” he says. “I just want people to enjoy it.”