When Black Country, New Road frontman Isaac Wood unexpectedly departed the band on the brink of their second album’s release in February last year, it left the six remaining members of the group with something of a dilemma. The band had a run of festival shows booked, ostensibly in support of ‘Ants From Up There’, which NME called a “future cult classic” in a five-star review. But it felt disingenuous to perform the material they’d made with Wood. On the one hand, after three years of critical and commercial acclaim they were riding the kind of momentum most bands could only dream of. On the other, they were facing the kind of upheaval that could easily sink the whole enterprise.
Ultimately, cancelling gigs and taking a break just wasn’t an option, says the band’s bassist Tyler Hyde, who now shares vocal duties in the band with saxophonist Lewis Evans and keys player May Kershaw. “It would have felt like we were quitting music if we’d had stopped,” she tells NME on video chat. “You have to keep momentum.”
To many fans’ surprise, the band took the risky decision to plough ahead with their booked date, but also to leave all of the acclaimed material they’d written with Wood behind them and start completely afresh. To have taken a hiatus and then returned months, or years later, “would only have meant more pressure,” explains Kershaw.
“We’ve known each other for a long time. [Wood’s departure] was gutting at the time, but also it didn’t feel like anything we couldn’t handle as a group of mates.” says Evans. The band remain on good terms with their old frontman, whose departure was entirely amicable, they point out. “As soon as we got back in the writing room a couple of weeks after we released the second album, it was straight back to being normal again. Our friendships with each other, and with Isaac, have always transcended the band. It’s not as much of a big deal as I think it might have seemed from the outside.”
Black Country, New Road was always going to evolve, they explain. “Everything that’s happening with the band now are all things that were going to happen at some point, even when Isaac was in the band. It’s just been sped up since he left,” says Hyde. Pulling together an entire festival-ready setlist of new material in a matter of months was not an easy process, however. They drew on pieces the band’s respective members had written alone, each of which was at a different stage of development as they took it to the group to be fleshed out. “It was basically, ‘who’s got a song?’ It was a really mad, quick process of just trying to get enough together for a set,” says Evans.
Whoever wrote the song would generally take lead vocals, each in their own unique style – Evans’ a melancholy drawl, Kershaw’s equal parts dramatic and delicate, and Hyde’s expressive and raw. It all made for performances that, by the band’s own admission, were somewhat disparate. “The songs weren’t really written in relation to each other. We put it together so quickly that we weren’t thinking about how it’s going to sound, song to song,” Evans says. The festival shows became like work-in-progress gigs. “We were thinking about our momentum as a band, but balancing that out with trying everything out,” he continues. “If we try out a tune for a few gigs and it doesn’t work, we’ll just stop doing it.”
Over time, Black Country, New Road realised that the best way to work with this kind of material was to lean into its disparate nature. Among themselves they began to compare their gigs to a primary school talent show, a different member of the band taking centre stage one after the other to sing their own composition. “Like, ‘here’s Shaun who’s gonna play the James Bond theme on electric guitar! And after that, Tony’s gonna come up and sing ‘Away In A Manger’,” Evans jokes. It was an idea that they stuck with when they began to plot a special filmed performance with which they could immortalise this strange, emotionally complex yet creatively fruitful period.
A new film, ‘Live At Bush Hall’, premiered online on Monday, and is made up of footage filmed across three shows in west London at the end of last year. Each has its own unique theme, for which the band (under the collective pseudonym Hubert Dalcrosse) penned a brief synopsis for a different fictional theatrical performance. They are, respectively, ‘When The Whistle Thins’, about a council of Somerset farmers’ quarterly harvest summit, ‘I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts’, about a beloved pizza chef’s encounter with a poltergeist, and ‘The Taming Of The School’, a 1980s prom-themed caper. The film cuts from one performance to another between songs, the completely different visuals for each one reflecting a desire to undercut the way supposedly ‘live’ sessions are often the result of several takes stitched together to appear slicker. “I think it’s good to show that we didn’t want to just do this completely perfect thing,” Evans says.
In keeping with that interest in the aesthetic of school plays – “that kind of lovely randomness that you lose in live performances as you grow up, as Evans puts it – for the backdrops of each gig the band and their friends put together charmingly homemade sets – landscapes painted on cardboard, cotton wool clouds for ‘When The Whistle Thins’ and party balloons for ‘The Taming Of The School’. For ‘I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts’, the crowd were served pizzas as the band played. Each band member dressed in character each time. Friends Ginny Davies and India Hogan designed bespoke show programmes.
The film is made up of both professionally filmed visuals and amateur footage taken on camcorders and phones by some friends in the crowd – inspired by Beastie Boys’ 2005 live film Flick, made up entirely of fans’ cell phone footage. At the beginning of the film the synopses of the shows are read out by eager fans on the night, while an intermission sequence shows the group effort that went into designing the sets. It underlines an aspect of Black Country, New Road that the band don’t often put to the forefront – the community that has sprung up around them.
“We wanted to say thanks to everyone for just sticking through it with us, I guess,” Kershaw says. “Everyone’s reliant on other people to get them somewhere, and we’re very lucky to have the people we do around us.”
Adds Evans: “We usually just play a gig, barely talk, then waddle offstage again, so I guess it might be nice for fans of ours who have been putting up with us blanking them for three years. I mean, some of them probably won’t give a shit, but there will be some people where it’ll mean a lot to them to be included in this video of a band they really like.”
Hyde recalls a heart-warming moment before ‘The Taming Of The School’, looking out from the stage to see a host of family, friends and creative collaborators – their “amazing” director Greg Barnes and their label Ninja Tune’s project manager Mita De among them – frantically chipping in to get the balloons strung up in time. “It really did feel like getting ready for the end of school play, just before all the parents come in. It was very wholesome,” she recalls.
Having emerged from the turbulence of the last 12 months, with ‘Live at Bush Hall’ as the period’s time capsule, Hyde claims that “right now, we’re the most liberated we’ve ever been.” They won’t be drawn on whether their setlist in the film will ever be re-recorded for a studio LP, or whether they’ll just move on entirely. “We’re just gonna let things happen organically for a bit, which is something we’ve never been able to do before.”
Black Country, New Road’s ‘Live at Bush Hall’ is out now