Introducing… Black Country, New Road, the experimental act turning British rock inside out

Black Country, New Road guitarist Luke Mark on the band’s pivot to pop, their creative democracy, and their bold new album Ants From Up There.

Luke Mark settles onto the sofa and pulls out the booklet from Black Country, New Road’s second LP. He flicks through a series of black-and-white photographs taken during its recording, holding them up to fill our Zoom window. Witness Isaac Wood strumming an acoustic outside, his bandmates scattered around him, and scenes of bucolic fun on the Isle of Wight. “They look like old family photos from a holiday,” says the guitarist.

Mark thinks these shots help explain why Ants From Up There sounds the way it does. Arriving only a year after their Mercury-nominated debut For The First Time, the record represents a striking refinement of their sound. It’s gentler, sunnier. It’s more deliberate in its melodic movements, from Wood’s shelving of his sprechgesang vocal style to celebratory bursts of string-fuelled colour.

It is frequently beautiful and oddly reassuring. It sounds like the summer the band spent recording it at Chale Abbey Studios was a lovely, escapist time. “​​It’s hard for us to say, because we totally had that experience recording it,” Mark says. “It was very pastoral and very family-style. We were sort of holed up together and it was very sweet. It’s hard to divorce the experience we had making it from how it actually sounds – we have those memories come back.”

New roads

Black Country, New Road’s short history to date has cast them as the hype band that could, with For The First Time forging a top-five spot from an almost free-form approach to genre that takes in shards of post-rock, klezmer, indie and the anything-goes maximalism of the Brixton Windmill scene. Live, the band delight in hairpin turns and brutish distortion cutting back against Lewis Evans’ saxophone, Georgia Ellery’s violin and May Kershaw’s keys.

Ants From Up There is an intriguing next chapter. Its arrival has the feeling of an ending with news that Wood has departed the band to focus on his mental health. With fresh material already being workshopped, his playing and personality will take some untangling from the Black Country, New Road blueprint as the band moves forward. But Wood’s final statement with the group is bold, ambitious and forward-thinking. It speaks of possibilities.

It is less concerned with knots of noise and cranked volume, preferring to hide its twists and subversions within frameworks that are more outwardly pop. Good Will Hunting’s guitar hooks and loping time signature, and the explosive, majestic denouement of the almost-ballad Snow Globes, are addictive contributions to the decades-old, oft-neglected idea that accessible music can also be complex and involved.

“That’s the easiest way to make something really satisfying, or to seem really clever, or really emotional, whatever it is,” Mark says of the band’s appetite for dissonant changes in tone. “There are a lot of drops on Basketball Shoes, changes of time on Chaos Space Marine. That sort of stuff is very satisfying but this record definitely is more pop. At the same time, we wanted to get the stranger elements that were initially there, the abrupt stuff, and disguise them a bit. Even if you’re not paying attention, this stuff goes on and it ends up keeping you interested in a way that it might not otherwise.”

With seven members – completing the group are bassist Tyler Hyde and drummer Charlie Wayne – operating in a Sonic Youth-style creative democracy, changes such as these aren’t knee-jerk, even if they have appeared in a condensed time frame. From the outside, it might seem like a nightmare to navigate seven sets of ideas, counter-ideas and influences at such speed.

Black Country, New Road – Ants From Up There

“That’s always how we’ve done it,” Mark says. “I totally get that it seems like it shouldn’t work, especially with seven people. There are so many ideas going around and you have to have an opinion on every single one.

“You don’t want to offend anyone, so it helps that we’re genuinely all friends and are fine with knowing that if someone doesn’t like something, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not going to ruin your relationship. Along with the difficulties come the big benefits. Anything you put forward goes through not just two or three people, it’s six other people before it gets put down as the ‘official idea’, you know? The process means that most of them end up being better than they might be otherwise. You get them through a finer filter.”

Once the ‘official idea’ has been noted, though, each member must then find a lane into the song. It’s a balancing act that has led Mark and Wood to view their guitars as textural elements, a dynamic only heightened by the number of instruments on hand capable of handling both rhythm and lead lines. “With instrumentation, we’ll write only when we’re together, really,” Mark says.

“You’ll find something little you can add to make it better from your end. Also, you’ll go in and someone else has had a completely different idea and they will not work together. Or theirs is better, which is often the case. That can be tricky. It’s not that everyone is trying to be heard individually, they mesh in. People often talk about cutting through, and being heard. I can’t remember who it was but someone said that instead of being like a knife, it should be more like a spatula. It’s a lot more useful for your meal.”

Black Country, New Road
Image: Rosie Foster

It’s black country out there

Baked into this outlook is a degree of patience. Ants From Up There is packed with memorable guitar moments but they’re executed without toes being trodden on elsewhere.

Mark particularly enjoys the contrast between repetitive, looping patterns and more characterful moments, pointing to Bread Song’s wallflower verses and jaunty chorus phrasing, and the way the 12-minute closer Basketball Shoes kicks the door in two thirds of the way through with slabs of distortion and a riff that nods to the moments in their live set that skirt Black Sabbath territory.

Mark says, on that occasion, they’re “just playing rock shit, which is fun as well”. He adds: “We have to do both [textural and lead playing] because other people fill the roles that the guitar might have to fill otherwise.”

This adaptability extends to Mark and Wood’s gear, which is so heavily modded and cobbled together that in some instances it might as well be homemade. Last spring, Mark told Guitar World about returning home to find their flat covered in sawdust – Wood, a few drinks deep, had decided to cut the top horn off his Telecaster.

On Ants From Up There, Mark played a Strat with Mojo Gold Foils in the middle position and Firebird pickups in the bridge and neck. “It’s just that through an AC30 with a couple of pedals,” he says. “I used a Memory Man as a boost quite a lot and for a little bit of slapback, and the Maxon Distortion Master for all the distorted sounds. Sometimes there’s a little orange boost that Isaac made. There’s a Z.Vex Double Rock, the J Mascis thing, on Concorde, and some of the less distorted sounds.”

Mark stops short of describing their cannibalising of instruments as part of their music – maybe it’s glib to tie this search for unusual tones to the different quests Black Country, New Road’s songs take them on – but it’s hard to entirely discount that thought.

“It comes from an attitude towards what you want to do,” Mark concedes. “I don’t know if it necessarily helps you to play anything more interesting. [Even after] a lot of the stuff we’ve done with taking guitars apart, putting different pickups in, or fucking with them, you can still end up going into a guitar shop, picking up a Mexican Strat and it feels a lot better, sounds a lot better.

“For the most part with that kind of stuff, and building pedals as well, it’s quite hard to make them good. That’s Isaac’s ballpark. That stuff doesn’t necessarily inform the way you end up playing, it’s the attitude that spawned you wanting to do that. It’s wanting it to sound different from how it usually sounds on an album.

“When we were doing the first UK tour, we were playing the thickest strings we could possibly find, and we were playing in drop D for the most part. There are a fair few open strings now, and the twang you get from an open G string when it’s in the riff sticks out so much more than one of the lower strings fretted in the middle of the neck. It’s making it sound like an instrument, rather than just like a guitar, if that makes sense.”

Black Country, New Road

Up and away

A lot of things about Black Country, New Road don’t make sense – but that does. It’s about moving on without losing sight of what it is you’re trying to do.

Ants From Up There is home to a lot of weird stuff, a lot of turns into the unknown. But it hangs together beautifully as a single piece. It’s an album for the sequencing nerds, made by a committee that set out to design a horse and actually ended up with a horse.

Snow Globes was put on the Apple New Music playlist or something,” Mark says, with a laugh. “If I was listening to a playlist – not that I really ever listen to playlists – I’d be like, ‘What the fuck is this? Is something broken?’ Thanks to them but…”

Black Country, New Road’s latest album Ants From Up There is out on 4 February 2022.