If the love letter has not been entirely cast aside in the 21st Century, it is at least an art form that appears to be dying on the vine. For legendary electronic and experimental record label Ninja Tune (Young Fathers, Bonobo, Bicep), however, it seems the charms of a seven-piece band with two singles was enough to bring out the sweet nothings.
“It was super emotional,” Tyler Hyde recalls of the missive sent to Black Country, New Road, the bassist tells NME via Zoom from her parents’ house in Essex. “No one else who was offering us a deal was expressing feelings in this kind of way. They didn’t need to go out of their way to do that, and they did.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising, given that it’s hard to remember the last time a band generated this much excitement with so little engagement with press or fans. Their electrifying live shows with their seven-strong lineup – rounded out by May Kershaw (keys), Charlie Wayne (drums), Luke Mark (guitar), Isaac Wood (vocals/guitar), Georgia Ellery (violin), and Lewis Evans (saxophone) – have been more than sufficient, it seems, and one imagines formed the basis for the label’s rhapsodising.
Speaking from his home in London, Evans agrees that Ninja Tune were the right home for the band. “There was definitely a feeling of a bit more exclusivity with them, I think, given that they don’t have any other rock bands, pop bands or whatever on their roster,” he says.
The ‘whatever’ appears to be crucial here. Black Country, New Road craft songs that arch and flex between tense post-rock and klezmer freak-outs, influenced by Evans’ work with Jewish folk musicians. Early tracks ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’ – the latter a dizzying nine-minute ride that takes in NutriBullets, single malt whiskey, and an emphatic defence of Kanye West – invited comparisons to Slint and The Fall. Guitarist Luke Mark called them a pop group; Evans previously claimed the band “basically want to be They Might Be Giants but with sax and violin.” Are they serious?
Not particularly. “Pop is the easiest label to slap on it,” Evans suggests. Like a lot of musicians born at the turn of the millennium, Hyde seems entirely disinterested in framing the band’s music in such clinical categories. “Sometimes I think rock is easier, but then sometimes pop’s easier,” she says. “There’s so little time where it stays being one thing that it seems pointless calling it anything at all.”
Recorded live over a six-day period in March 2020 with producer Andy Savours (The Killers, The Horrors, Sigur Rós), ‘For The First Time’ is perhaps a more refined affair than some might have anticipated from the band’s six-track debut. Newer material and album highlights ‘Science Fair’ and ‘Track X’ – despite some floating around in earlier live forms – show a gentler side to the band. The aforementioned first two singles have even been re-recorded to include more singing and less swearing. “We have to remind ourselves that we’re proud of it,” Hyde says. “When you’ve waited so long to release something, you’re so hyped to get it out. You don’t really care when it is, as long as it gets out somehow.”
The band are already writing songs for the next album, and offer a few hints in the direction it could take. “Songs like ‘Track X’ are a little segue, almost, that gives a bit of an idea as to what the new stuff might be like,” Evans says. “It’s gonna be different though. It’s taking the weirdness that we have from this first album material, and making that more subtle, embedding weirdness within songwriting, rather than embedding weirdness with weird sounds or atonal stuff. It’s more about intricate irregularities.”
The fruits of the next Black Country, New Road album might even be traced back to some of their existing output, according to Hyde: “It’s not on the album, and there was debate over this before we put the album together, but songs like ‘Basketball Shoes’ that are out there on YouTube – that hints a lot towards the new sound. And it’s not about relying on crazy live performances to do unique things,” she says.
Formed from the ashes of Nervous Conditions, who split up after various allegations of sexual assault were directed at the band’s singer, Black Country, New Road sprang up around a string of new bands connected to The Windmill in Brixton, including Fat White Family, Goat Girl, and Squid. They’ve also collaborated with black midi, and worked with renowned producer Dan Carey. Evans is keen to stress the musical differences between the bands (“very, very cool to be lumped in with them though, so it works for us”), but the additional focus it brought to their stage performances – previously described as a “mesmerising din” shrouded in dry ice, no less – certainly didn’t hurt.
Those types of breakout live shows now face existential threats far beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal failed to secure visa-free travel for artists wishing to tour Europe, and it appears that the current UK government are unwilling to fight that battle. The opportunities for bands looking to tour Europe in support of a debut album – including at festival season – will likely dwindle.
“The thing that we talk about a lot amongst ourselves is firstly recognising the privileged position we are in, because we have support from things like the label, and we’ve been lucky enough to form relatively small fan bases outside of England in Europe,” she says. “But more frustrated by the fact that there are so many people who haven’t yet had that experience, and because of lack of financial backing, may not be able to have that experience soon, if ever,” she adds. “That’s where the frustration lies.”
The word ‘privilege’ comes up fairly often; singer Isaac Wood opened one of his early lyrics for ‘Theme From Failure Pt. 1’ with a self-deprecating nod: “This is the story of one Cambridge boy, who, despite all his privileges, felt betrayed by the world.” The band share an assortment of circumstances, not just from their Cambridge background, but many of them courtesy of London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama (former students include Daniel Craig, Ewan McGregor and Orlando Bloom; musical alumni range from “fifth Beatle” Sir George Martin to Mica Levi).
Tyler Hyde, the daughter of Underworld’s Karl Hyde, is certainly not oblivious to their head start in the music world. “Our band would not be what it is if me, Lewis, and Georgia hadn’t been to Guildhall, you know?” she says. “And if they hadn’t been pushed by parents, or had the money to have musical lessons, or I hadn’t been brought up in a house where there are instruments everywhere. What are the odds that you could be born into a family that can support that and encourage that? That is so lucky.”
Evans adds that there’s “nothing wrong with being from a privileged background,” though he acknowledges that not everyone has had the “lucky and privileged position” the band find themselves in. “What is wrong is not recognising that and not being productive with your privilege and doing things that a lot of people aren’t able to say,” he adds.
What they want to say from that position is less clear. Although the musical output of Black Country, New Road is a team effort, the ideas and narrative focus are apparently “100%” lead vocalist Woods. The band have shied away from presenting themselves as personalities: their socials and music videos are full of photographs of strangers. More than that, they seem baffled why anyone would want to know more about them.
“We’re not here to talk about us as individuals,” Hyde says. “We’re not here to talk to people. We’re here to just play music.” Evans is equally perplexed about the purpose of music interviews. “They wouldn’t care about who we were if we weren’t playing in a band, so why do they wanna know who we are as people?” he asks. “If you’re, like, a politician or something it makes more sense, because they literally say what they believe in all the time. But we don’t do that.”
There’s an argument to be made that, in the age of unfiltered access to artists and public figures, the self-styled mystery around the band offers something fresh, an antidote to round-the-clock social feeds. Then again, the masquerade is only sustainable as long as people believe there’s something thrilling behind it; ‘For The First Time’ proves that there certainly is.
There’s also a sense that Black Country, New Road are working things out as they go, as seven people in their early twenties could be forgiven for doing. Regardless, they’re excited for the future. “The next album is sounding different. Who knows what album three will be like?” Hyde says.
“If there’s a final answer of what you’re going to be, then what’s the point in carrying on? That’s why we’re creatives and artists – there’s just lots more things to discover.” That more love letters will flood their way seems inevitable now; how many they write back may be another matter entirely.
Black Country, New Road’s debut album ‘For The First Time’ is released February 5 via Ninja Tune