Black Honey are an illusion. Since emerging in 2014 with just a mystery phone number to their name, everything coming from the Brighton-based four-piece has been so flawless and next level that it seemed like there must be a major label pot of gold funding it all. Their videos are cinematic beauties – like the Saturday Night Fever-meets-Pulp Fiction drama of ‘Midnight’, which runs for nearly three minutes through a disco-based revenge plot before the track comes in – while their merch extends further than your average band t-shirt offerings.
Last year, they gave out fountain soda cups with the band name stylised like the logo of a certain world-famous drinks company. You would never think Black Honey are still technically unsigned (they do everything through their own label, FoxFive) or that its members still hold down day jobs.
“We are just at the point where we’ve managed to give ourselves our first ever paycheque,” frontwoman Izzy B Phillips says excitedly down the phone. “Of £250! That feels like a massive achievement for us.” Don’t be fooled into thinking that’s all she, drummer Tom Dewhurst, guitarist Chris Ostler and bassist Tommy Taylor have ever earned together. They’ve just been more astute and restrained than most people might be in their position, and have invested most of their cash into things like their ambitious videos so they can create the Black Honey universe, where everything feels like you’ve walked onto a movie set where they are the house band.
Taking £250 from four years of work might not sound like much to be pleased about but Izzy is more than happy with it. In fact, she doesn’t seem that keen on the idea of raking in a ton of cash from the group’s music. “Sometimes I’m scared if we earn loads of money that might ruin it,” she says. If that sounds like an odd stance to take – think how many bands dream of making a living off of music alone – there is some logic behind it.
“Sometimes I’m scared if we earn loads of money that might ruin it,” – Izzy B Phillips
“We all do it because we fucking love it and there’s so much passion and so much love, and so much nurturing and years of graft,” Izzy reasons. “We are not the best writers in the world or the best musicians, but we love what we do and we work hard. That’s what I feel is special about what we’ve created. If you get money for it, it feels like a job. Being in a band feels like a lifestyle or a culture that you live through. A job is what we should be doing, like stacking shelves.”
It’s hard to imagine Izzy – a woman who just showed up to London Fashion Week wearing an outfit inspired by Ronald McDonald (minus the red afro but complete with Black Honey Happy Meal box) – stacking shelves down her local Tesco. She’s far more predisposed to living the life of some lost-in-their-own-head artist who exists more in their own world than the real one.
“After the Royal Blood tour [last year], I was like an alien,” she says animatedly. “I went past a solicitor’s office on the bus and I was doing the Hitchcock window perspective at someone at a desk. You know when they shuffle papers in cartoons? Someone was doing that and I was like, ‘Holy fuck, people literally do this all day every day.’ I don’t understand it anymore.”
Luckily, she doesn’t really have to. After years of putting in the work and refining their vision, Black Honey are on their way to being a big deal (whether they take the increased money that comes with that home or not). Their frontwoman doesn’t actually believe that, though. Remind her of shows way back in 2013 when the band were still called Kill Moon and she’ll tell you she still feels the same rush of surprise that anyone bothers to watch them. “In my head, I’m still in the position where I’m like, ‘Fuck, no one’s gonna come,'” she says. “And then every time we do a gig I’m like, ‘What? People care? This is awesome!'”
Even now the band are moving up to venues like the 1,500-cap Electric Ballroom, which they’ll play as their biggest headline show so far next month, she still can’t shake that feeling. “That – I’ll believe it when I see it,” she says wryly. The gig will come a month after the release of their self-titled debut album – another thing she used to apply that disbelieving sentiment to. “We could have done albums a thousand times over,” she says, but instead they waited, for no conscious reason other than it didn’t feel right.
If they’d have rushed in, trying to capitalise on the buzz they received early on, they might not have achieved as much as they have on this record. It’s a bold, brave, electric shock of an album that takes any preconceptions you might have about Black Honey the indie band and turns them completely on their head. “I wanted to make a first piece of work that felt remarkable or shocking, or like nothing I’d heard in indie world,” says Izzy now. “It’s so far away from what I would have expected us to make first time round.”
To be able to surprise everyone, including themselves, they had to challenge themselves and push their boundaries. “We knew we could write a cool indie-rock song or a retro Beatles-y song, but what would actually happen if we tried to do a pop song?” Izzy says. She stuck on a Spotify playlist of current pop music and found her inspiration in the strength of her reaction to it. “I just fucking hate it,” she explains in bile-flecked tones. “It feels so contrived and insincere and just fake. I don’t understand what people are getting out if it but I have a fascination with that at the same time – trying to understand something in it.”
“I just fucking hate it [current pop music]”
Instead of trying to fit into the same mould as today’s pop world, the group tried the opposite approach – writing pop songs that fit around the Black Honey DNA. That’s how they ended up with songs like the swooning, cinematic ‘Baby’ (originally a “Verve-y, Oasis-era song”), the brooding ‘Just Calling’, or the outrageous ‘Midnight’, which references everyone from Blondie to Daft Punk. The latter started out as “a joke”, with Izzy singing its chorus in shrill falsetto during a discussion about how the band could have their own ‘Heart Of Glass’ moment. Everyone declared it genius and, later, realised it showcased a side of the band that hasn’t really been documented in their music yet – the silly, cheeky side that makes them an excellent gang to hit the town with.
Pop wasn’t the only territory the band tried to infiltrate on the record. With producer Emre Ramazanoglu (Sneaker Pimps, Natty, Tricky) by their side, they explored hip-hop adjacent disciplines of collaging ideas together and making stuff deliberately sound like samples. More directly, they took influence from Beastie Boys for the drums on the monstrous ‘Whatever Happened To You’, while ‘Bad Friends’ went one step further into… trap territory?
“Trap was really loose,” Izzy admits now. “We were just really into the idea of the hi-hats and how they were used in contemporary music.” If you think Black Honey would just copy a trap beat and be done with it, you need to think again. “Instead of them being trap hi-hats, we actually sampled a rattlesnake – how cool is that?! – and made the rattle into beats,” their leader reveals.
To Izzy, the track represents today’s shuffle culture, the song’s shifting sounds designed to evoke the feeling of flicking through radio stations. “To me, that felt like a comment on how, in the ’60s, people used to switch TV channels but now people skip songs on Spotify, but through all genres. [‘Bad Friends’] feels like you’re flicking through all the different things that you’re listening to.”
Up until recently, Tommy, Chris, and Tom were the only people Izzy had ever written a song with. Then, after talking about it for a while, she finally sat down with good friend Mike Kerr, Royal Blood singer, to see what they would come up with. The first song they wrote was ‘Into The Nightmare’ (known to the band by its alternative title ‘Into The Mikemare’), a strutting, stomping cut that sounds like a victory march into the dark side.
“We wrote it after five bottles of wine at his grand piano in his little conservatory,” Izzy says. “We would stay up really late and drink loads of wine. Sometimes we’d go out into Brighton. I’m quite a studious writer – I like to get up early and sit at my desk for a couple of hours and do the studious thing, whereas Mike is the complete opposite. I can categorically say I learnt more from the few songs I’ve written with him than I’ve learnt probably from the last five years of writing.”
It’s a collaboration that might not end with that song. Though Izzy says the other songs they wrote probably won’t see the light of day, the pair will “probably write together [again] one day.”
Lyrically, the album is full of the frontwoman’s typically raw, honest lyrics, while avoiding any whiff of self-pity. Instead, the record feels more like a celebration of the range of human emotion – without the lows, you can’t feel the highs – and using the less positive experiences of her life as paving stones to future good moments. It’s a colourful representation of a life lived because, to Izzy, life isn’t black-and-white.
“Do you ever get it where you’re so happy and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m happy – something’s gonna go wrong?'” she asks, explaining her thinking on how much deeper emotion is than just purely one emotion at one time. “You’re literally texting your family every day and checking they’re not dead cos you’re not used to being happy. There’s a sadness and darkness to that. On the other hand, there’s when you’re so sad and depressed that you’re almost comfortable cos you know things can’t get worse.”
The content of the album marks a subtle change from some of Black Honey’s previous songs. Where Izzy might be sad in the stories she tells, she also feels strong enough to make the right decision and walk away from whatever situation she’s narrating. “It’s a bit of a coming-back-from-the-ashes phoenix thing where I feel like I’m on fire for most of it,” she says. “Before, when I was writing songs like ‘Sleep Forever’, I fucking meant it when I was like, ‘I’m gonna die of sadness cos I can’t imagine anything else.’ A big part of this album is like a trophy of coming from the darkest moments – you’re happy cos you fought through it, but happy in a confusing up-down way.”
Being able to write an album about fighting through the shit life throws at you is, in part, what’s got Izzy to the other side. “I would be dead if I didn’t have a band,” she says bluntly, returning to that idea she isn’t built for what most people would consider a normal life. “I couldn’t cope with the real world. I can barely work my phone. I’m late for everything. I’m notoriously dysfunctional. Most of the time, I feel like an inept human being in every way. Music is that space where I can really create the person that I really want to be. When I’m with my band I feel fucking invincible.”
Regardless of what the future holds, she notes, she’ll always have these songs, these memories, this album. “That’s an armour I carry with me now,” she says. We’re no psychics but, based on the strength and pure, fizzing brilliance of their debut, she won’t be needing it too soon.
Black Honey’s debut album is out this Friday (Sep 21)