After months of anticipation, the long-awaited release of Ants from Up There, the second LP by Black Country, New Road, is finally upon us. It is however tinged with a hint of despair, as the band hailing from Cambridge announced the departure of their enigmatic frontman, Isaac Wood, just a few days ago. Wood, whose hyper-self-aware lyricism has long been one of the defining characteristics of the band, has cited struggles with his mental wellbeing as the reason for his departure. Whilst the group have cancelled their upcoming tour, they will continue to operate under the BC, NR moniker as a six-piece.
In times like these, we can but wish well for the health of Isaac and cherish the new album as a parting gift from the iteration of the group that we loved so dearly. As Tennyson so poignantly remarked all those years ago, it is better to have loved and have lost, than to have ever loved at all; the current state of affairs is undeniably sombre, but the whimsical remarks of the group in the following questions offer something to lift the spirits.
Anyone familiar with your music will have heard countless attempts from critics and fans alike at defining your genre, citing your influences, and just generally putting the sound itself into words. If you dare, could you please explain briefly to our readers what Ants from Up There, your upcoming album, will actually sound like?
When we first sat down to think about what AFUT was going to sound like we decided to all get into a room and figure out what kind of sound would go down best with the readers of METAL. It was a pretty painstaking process (with a lot of failed attempts) but we eventually narrowed it down to the 10 tracks that would best appeal to your readership.
We definitely knew that the album was going to sound different to the first. It wasn’t going to be as angular or dissonant. It’s meant to be more uplifting, musically consistent and more emotionally interrogative rather than just 6 tracks of craziness.
One particular aspect of your music that caught the attention of various publications was your employment of the Jewish musical tradition of Klezmer. However, it seems that you’ve moved away from this particular influence based on what we’ve heard of the new album so far. Did anything prompt this stylistic shift?
There wasn’t really any conversation about moving away from the Klezmer influence. I think it just happened sort of naturally. We’d been using that style for quite a long time, even before BC, NR started, and I think we just wanted to see if we could do something new? There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of sense in re-treading ground so soon after the first album, it probably would’ve just felt kind of repetitive.
 Again, I think it also just came with the territory of trying to write music that wasn’t as aggressive. The Klezmer worked really well over the top of the darker sounding tracks. Because there isn’t really too much of that style harmony on this album it didn’t really have that much of a place.
One might find your label somewhat of a surprise. Whilst Ninja Tune do cover a diverse range of releases, with names like Bicep and Bonobo on the label, they are perhaps best known for electronic music. How did you end up signing for them rather than, say, Rough Trade?
Well, I guess for a start Rough Trade already had their end of the scene covered when they signed Black Midi, so I don’t think there would’ve been too much sense in them snapping both of us up.
To be honest we signed with Ninja Tune because they were super enthusiastic despite having very limited experience with our kind of music. We’re fans of the kind of music that they’re so well known for, and we were kind of confused that they even wanted to take a meeting with us. But they were incredibly enthusiastic about our sound. They also offered us complete creative control which was incredibly important. I’m not totally sure we would’ve had that if we’d signed to a label that was more conventionally suited to our genre. We may have been fighting for space on a roster, whereas at Ninja we were basically offered space to completely breath.  It also just seemed like a genuinely equal venture for both sides. They’d never signed a band before, and we’d never signed a record contract. There was a degree of risk on both sides and that felt like a fun opportunity.
I had the pleasure of bumping into your contemporary Geordie Greep when I was walking home a few months ago. He has hinted on various occasions that the eventual existence of a Black Midi, New Road album is a legitimate possibility. Could you update us at all on the potential of such a project?
Yeah, it’s all pretty tied up in legal stuff at the minute and I can’t really say much more than that - but at the moment we’re trying to organise a production of West Side Story. It may never get released as an album though we’re hoping to eventually take it to the stage across the country, maybe even to the Americas.
In various interviews you have made reference to an unnamed American gentleman who allegedly proclaimed his self as the man in charge of your image. This mythic entity of a man is supposedly behind your infamous stock photo aesthetic. The detective in me is rather sceptical of the existence of this man. Ants from Up There astonishingly does not feature stock images, with the artwork of Simon Monk adorning the cover, instead. Who decided to change up the image of the band? And what became of the mysterious American?
It’s sort of a mystery to all of us as well. Last we had heard ‘Bart’ had to leave the country in a hurry. His flat burned down on basically the same day we found out he was gone. Whether the two are connected is sort of TBC. Simon Monk’s artwork has been a wonderful substitute. We’d wanted to use his artwork for AFUT for quite a long time before most of the music was written so we’re really grateful that it all worked out.
Fans were awfully fond of your cover of MGMT’s Time to Pretend – you caught the essence of the original whilst still giving it your own unique spin. Are covers like these long thought-out premeditated affairs? Or do you just decide to take a stab on a whim? And can we expect any more in the future?
The covers tend to be done basically on a whim. If there’s ever the chance to do a cover it tends to be something easy to play and something that we all collectively love from our childhood. Time to Pretend really fits that bill. It was a song which we’d all basically grown up listening to. We first decided to do it for a live stream we did just before the album came out. We decided to do it like a couple of hours before and then it just came together pretty easily.
The only times when we’ve had to do anything differently was with the ABBA covers. Their music is just far too complicated to approach with a light heart. It really requires time and patience to do it any justice. To be honest I’m not sure we really came close.
As far as covers are concerned in the future I wouldn’t hold your breath – but who knows.
Having seven different people involved in your creative process must be quite the feat of coordination. We know that improvisation plays a big part in how you form your songs. Will different members be delegated more control for specific songs? Or do you just let the music take the lead?
It’s normally a pretty democratic process to honest. Normally what will happen is someone will come with a skeleton of a song, like the very basic framework and then we’ll all bring our own ideas to the table. It’s rarely led by improv though. Some bands really work with that idea. They’ll improvise for ages and then pick and choose parts from that that really work. For us we’ve found we work slightly better within the boundaries we’ve set ourselves before attempting to play through a section.
The important thing is that no one is in charge of anyone else. Your instrument is your own and you entirely govern the space that it situates within the track. Obviously that comes with the big caveat that you have to be mindful of what the other musicians are all doing. But that’s what’s so good about working with the band. Everyone is mindful of everyone else and we all sort of have a general idea about what the song is going to sound like. It’s almost entirely led by discussion and then listening back to ideas. We record basically everything and then listen to it in our own time. That’s when ideas really percolate. When you allow yourself a little bit of distance from something you have easy access to little sketches of a track. It makes it easy to grab onto to an idea and then make a note that you’ll bring to the group.
If someone doesn’t like something or wants to change something, then they’ll always be heard out. Everything is always on the cards, and nothing is permanent in the writing process.
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