Dense, beautiful and bursting with maturity, atonality and harmony, For the First Time, is Black Country, New Road's debut release into the world. It's been a long time coming for the septet, but three years, two planned release dates and one global pandemic later, the record has finally been set free into the ether.
Across Zoom, Charlie Wayne (drums), May Kershaw (keyboards) and Lewis Evans (sax) mull over the album's introduction into the world. Alongside vocalist and guitarist Isaac Wood, bassist Tyler Hyde, violinist Georgia Ellery and guitarist Luke Mark, the band's sound commands a sophistication and wisdom beyond their years.
Grooves that effortlessly carry the record are clear markers of their musical comprehension. For the First Time is riddled with jazz-inspired frenetic breakdowns, wavering vocals and twittering discordant sax, as well as sweeping violins and groove-laden keys, all punctuated with rolling drums and bass lines. It's a record that clearly celebrates an exploration of harmony and atonality, exercising tension and release with a strong sense of maturity. "Science Fair" is perhaps the best demonstration of this at play. Creaking strings and sax from the outset swell and gradually peak to a horror-movie-like climax, all drizzled with humour that offsets the intensity. "Sunglasses" tailors more to a post-rock portrait, with a hauntingly beautiful intro that is slowly plucked away by a distorted guitar line and ascends with soaring violins.
With such a dynamic sound, we discuss how essential their understanding of harmony and dissonance is to their songwriting process, and if this is an integral part of the band’s DNA. Evans muses this and confirms what makes the band tick: “That's the ultimate tension and release, really," he tells me. "It's what makes music wicked, what makes harmony great, what makes rhythm great, and what makes melody great. A good combination of atonality and tonality is the best when it's well-done. I like to think we do it well, if not maybe too often, but for me it just works and it’s like science. Tension and release is just everything.”
Despite a penchant for maximalism, the mysterious collective command a refreshing refinement and creative direction which trickles through from their academic backgrounds. Drummer Wayne mulls over the hardest parts of the creative process for the record: “I think it’s always easier for seven people to make music that sounds purposeful and loud than soft and considered, and the hardest part of the album was probably making ‘Track X’ – the quietest song on the album,” he tells me. “In some of the tracks, like ‘Sunglasses’ and ‘Athens, France’ - the hardest parts are those newer sections which are much quieter too. That’s one of the challenges we're definitely trying to breach with the second album; we want to make music that is defined and interesting, and that utilises all of our instruments and ideas in a softer way.”
Faced with numerous challenges driven by the pandemic, the three admit that their first album’s release has been turbulent. Originally planned for October 2020, early February marked their second scheduled release date, but nonetheless, the group share their excitement at the end of a lengthy wait. "These songs are old for us. By the time the album's out some of the tracks - the first and last - will be three years old,” Wayne admits. “I mean we're so glad to have it finally out, but it does obviously feel weird to be releasing it into the ether; into nothing, really. But I guess it's our first time around so we don't really know what a normal album release is like."
Wayne tells me that the internal workings of the band run pretty smoothly, and the cohesive nature of their composition process helped them to remain relatively unruffled. "Coronavirus really has been the biggest challenge for us. But the songs were already pre-packed by virtue of being the first tracks which we wrote and accumulated. To an extent, it just felt like we were making a document of where we were as a band...We were really lucky that we'd played extensively in the weeks which preceded the actual recording, because it meant that everything was really tight and energetic."
At only six tracks long, For the First Time has no propensity for fillers. Each song feels textured and purposeful, adding a deeper dimension to the record as well as a greater display of the septet’s capabilities. Modern recording methods mean that often albums experience intense editing phases, and over the course of three years spent writing, this is surely a considerable factor towards such a refined record. "The intention is preceded by the fact that we've been making music together for such a long time, so it becomes relatively intuitive that everything has a purpose and has a place," Wayne says. "We definitely make sure that we're ready before we play the songs; they have to feel right. I guess maybe now that we've had some time off of those tracks, we've felt more prepared to depart from their original structures on the record. In that sense we are constantly editing, but it just feels like we're progressing the songs in the interest of playing something slightly different, that's still exciting to all of us.”
“We all care about each other and respect each other a lot, so it never really gets heated," Evans adds on the ease of the creative process. “With Isaac and I, it’s probably the most heated it ever really gets, but we go out afterwards and sip on a Coca-Cola and hug it out. It's some weird little combo that works and we know where each member fits into it. Before we're even writing the song together we know what our role is. I'm just transitioning to tenor saxophone though so I'm about to fuck up the whole band," he jests, plucking a saxophone from off-screen: “This tenor was made in 1928 – it sounds insane. I need to get it fixed because the top register is about a semitone sharper than the bottom, but it's gonna be epic.”
With a lot of members and ideas, reaching such a detailed and layered sound must seem like a kaleidoscopic jigsaw. “Isaac or Lewis usually come up with the base structures, then everyone else fills out their part, and we just work from there," Kershaw explains.
“With tunes like 'Science Fair', I pretty much came to the rehearsal with most of it written," adds Evans, "But ‘Opus’ was much more of a collective idea and that was definitely the most blurred creative process we’ve had. We've never been that good at jamming stuff. We're better at seeing to ourselves rather than to everyone else. I couldn't write guitar parts as well as Isaac and I wouldn't attempt to write one of May’s key parts. For the only one I've attempted to, she literally does the same thing on repeat. We try not to overlap each other's processes, so I guess that's another reason why no one ever really gets too annoyed at each other. We know that because we like each other’s playing, we’re confident in the knowledge that they'll create something we’re all happy with."
For the First Time beautifully captures that familiar yet distant feeling of longing for a time in the past that never was; a kind of bittersweet melancholy of being trapped between two phases. This floating thought is often quickly disrupted by feverish breakdowns akin to overworking and warping machinery. The use of atonality is nightmarish and beautiful at once: lush, surrealist visions are snapped back to reality when instrumentation is stripped down to a simple guitar or bass line and drum beat. Despite its lighthearted lyrics, the album is a sensory trip; impressively capturing senses of the world gone by. It's the sonic equivalent of lonely carousels in empty funfairs, the indescribable sphere of being alone and yearning for company, or observing the rolling tide at dusk. At parts it even feels like being whirled around in a bad trip.
"Opus" is a time machine, and as Evans leads me through the song's inspiration, I am reminded once again of Black Country, New Road's academic and varied pasts. “'Opus' and 'Instrumental' are both heavily influenced by klezmer music," he says. "It's quite interesting that both Georgia and I have backgrounds in klezmer music, though mine is a little more fleeting than hers. When I was around 12, at the time that I got into free improv, I was also at a training (CAT) scheme in Suffolk. My first improvisation or writing experience was with a London-based klezmer band. As soon as Georgia joined Guildhall she joined a klezmer band, called the Happy Beigel klezmer Orkester, with a Hungarian guy called Greg. The line up would usually include a clarinet and fiddle, but alto sax kind of works. Traditionally it would be a little bit sacrilege but it sounds fine to the western ear like ours. You can really hear the klezmer sound in our two tracks, with those kind of falling, richly emotional lines that are classic of klezmer music.”
While there aren’t many overlapping influences in the band, some parallels can still be drawn between their tastes – pop music such as Phoebe Bridgers, Caroline Polachek, Mitski, Coldplay and Kanye West. The band’s YouTube comments are littered with comparisons to Slint, and the group are surprised with being so often labelled as a post-punk outfit. “We like Slint, but we'd be on more common ground with post-rock I think," says Evans. "Everyone [in the band] appreciates American Football, a bit of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, all the classics you know? I don't know much about them but I love the way they sound.” Wayne smiles: “It's really flattering, Slint are a very good band, but I don't know whether it's necessarily true! They should at least wait until the album comes out before drawing that comparison because it might disappoint you if you think [the record’s] going to sound as good as Slint!”
The three muse what genre they would classify themselves as: “Spotify has put us in alternative music and I think that's probably the best genre” Wayne admits, while Evans jokes: “I'd say we're definitely post Second World War – post-war pop, probably.”
Most of the outfit may be educated musicians – with only a handful of self-taught artists amongst them – but Kershaw, Evans and Wayne exude modesty. To get to the bottom of their diverse sound, the three fill me in on their education, what they grew up with and how they got involved with music. Kershaw is familiar with the classical music route, currently studying classical piano and growing up listening to, in her words, a lot of “classic dad music.” The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel were instrumental in her past, as well as Ellie Goulding, Rizzle Kicks, and Tom Odell which, with a laugh, she asks me to omit. Wayne discovered the drums at ten, with familial musical influences such as The Fall, Hawkwind and Motorhead. Similarly, Evans began learning the flute at around the age of seven. He expresses gratitude for his past opportunities and tells me: “I was at one of these wicked music funded schools, so there were a lot of young people learning music all the time. Because of that, there’s been a lot of new talent coming from the area.” Picking up free improv lessons in Hither Green, he credits his understanding of free improv concepts from “guru” Yann Henrick, and ponders: “That's what I wanted to be for a long time – a cool free improv guy that played Egyptian flutes into a laptop and made techno beats out of them. But then you soon realise that there’s shit all money in that kind of music, not that I would ever have been good enough!”
We discuss the lack of funding for the arts in the education system, and the potential impact this will have on future generations. The three acknowledge that without these lessons, developing a strong sense of individuality and momentum to persist with learning would be a monumental challenge. Evans shakes his head, expressing his disdain for the support that schools now fail to provide: “It's devastating. I’m really pessimistic about this kind of thing because I realise how important funding is. We won't see half of the amount of kids that could be amazing musicians anymore with no funding. Nowadays in order to be a musician you've got to have money behind you. If you don't, you've got no chance. That's proper depressing; some of the best musicians of all time have come from low income backgrounds. I don't know if you could name one of the best musicians from the last 100 years who's from a high income background. These are the people who work really hard to play music, and the fact that they’re probably going to lose out on that chance is really sad.”
“We're all really lucky that we’re from families that were able to support us to do all these things, to be able to drive us around, and pay for these music lessons when the council didn't cover them. They’ve driven us to gigs where we played to two people – you just don't get the opportunities if you've not got the support. The lack of funding will decrease the quality of music in the UK 100%. There people in power who could do something about it, that are not. Hearing the news that the government denied this musician’s right to tour in the EU, because they didn't want musicians to have the same privileges in the UK; it’s just absolutely appalling. In the short term it doesn't make sense, but they're not numerically or emotionally intelligent enough to understand that you need to think long-term with these kinds of things. All they can think about is Boris Johnson's term as prime minister. They're not considering how it's going to affect the world in fifteen years.”
“It is just completely insane,” Wayne reiterates. “The arts are a huge export, and I'm hesitant to approach it from an economic perspective but I think it's really shameful. It’s just such an act of negligence to the arts, and it’s not just from Boris Johnson's term. I think the UK has always been pretty negligent in terms of funding the arts, in comparison to most mainland EU countries. It's just one of those really depressing things and it is going to really affect us and our touring. If we're having to pay cumulative visas of up to one hundred plus pounds per member, that's like eight hundred quid for us and our TM.” In response, Evans considers what life might be like for smaller artists without the support of a record label. Securing a label deal six months prior, he acknowledges that others may struggle behind them in their trajectory. He muses: “That’s a lot but for us, but there are people who won't be able to afford that at all. We’ll scrape through it, but it’s that six month advantage that means some bands won't be able to tour in the EU and we will, and that’s so shit.”
The future of the music industry at current, looks incredibly bleak, with the rejection of the Brexit touring bill and this year’s festivals and gigs likely cancelled as a result of the pandemic. Kershaw smiles sadly, and gives her thoughts on the likelihood of returning to live events in 2021. “I think most festivals won't be able to happen, just because it costs millions of pounds to set one up. I think so few people would be willing to risk potentially losing so much, especially with another strain. I’m such a pessimist,” she adds.
“I totally agree with May now,” Wayne chuckles and expands: “I pretty much take your word as gospel! I can't see too much of the stuff in the summer happening, and I think that a lot of the government rhetoric around the vaccine is also fairly dubious given the speed that the new strains are developing. I also think it's tied in with the government attitude towards the arts and arts funding, which is negligent. If anyone’s hoping for the government to really pull their finger out to get some of the festivals going, I wouldn't hold your breath. But it does also have to be safe, so there's also the very strong argument that we aren't necessarily the people who are going to be suffering in ICUs with Covid.”
Along with everything, this year is set to pose even greater obstacles for small venues, and Wayne shares his thoughts on the government’s rejection of, and failure to support the arts in this gruelling period. “The government should and could have done more, and can still do more to fund venues,” he stresses. “Taking the example of arts funding to things like Boiler Room, which is just a company, not a small venue, while Printworks got nothing. It’s bizarre, given how important Printworks is as a part of Boiler Room. For small venues it is obviously quite bleak. I do think the community has been fantastic in supporting those venues, but I think what you'll probably find is that as venues close down, even smaller ones will pop up, and it might become more clandestine, more underground. But it’s not as though the demand for music has gone, people want to go out and see live bands. Even before BCNR, we did such a long run on the small venue circuit that was completely invaluable for us in growing the sound that we have now. But sadly some of those have already closed down, like the Montague Arms.” Evans interjects, half-joking: “The Windmill might have to turn into a T-shirt shop like CBGBs in New York, how fucking depressing!”
“If you think about all of the early gigs we played, they were all in small venues, and some of our early gigs were quite rough” Kershaw explains. She considers the pivotal role these experiences had in BCNR’s evolution: “We developed so much in that time, because these places were offering us gigs, and that was so important for getting used to playing live, and if so many of them shut down it's just such a shame. While it's good to be positive about other places opening, from an economic standpoint I don't know how many people would be able to afford to set something up right now. It might take years after Covid for people to be at a point where they have the financial security to do so. It’s amazing that communities are coming together to support these places but it shouldn't have to be that way.”
Based on that thought, Evans contemplates: “That’s all from a musicians point of view, but also for someone who's living in London, it's so nice just to be able to go somewhere that you know is going to have a good band on, you spend five quid and you've got a good night on your hands. That is almost even more important than the ability to play there. As bands we’ll always have the internet to share our music, so as much as it’s really important for musicians, the personal experience is potentially more important. There’s the whole community [aspect], people go to the Windmill because it's the Windmill. Even if they've not heard of the artists they'll still go. That’s something that helps inclusivity in London, because if you're not really minted and live here, you can have a hard time.”
Brixton’s Windmill has been imperative for Black Country, New Road. From meeting Black Midi, to frequenting the venue as punters and working musicians, and putting on a fundraiser to support it, the band expresses gratitude for its existence. “We just happen to know we're part of this wider group that exists that circulates broadly around the Windmill. without that venue we wouldn't know Black Midi," Wayne tells me. “We played our first show with Black Midi, before BCNR existed, in October 2017. The guy who was putting on the night told us even if you just watch their soundcheck they're worth seeing. We said hi that evening, but it just so happened that through the beginnings of BCNR we had the same booking agent and we happened to get to know them a bit."
The connection between the two bands is palpable; BCNR’s appreciation for Black Midi is clear, further conveying their humble approach to their success. “We're very lucky that we've existed at a similar time to Black Midi, because people who like them [often] ended up liking our music as well. If it wasn't for that connection we might not be where we are. We work hard, but there are so many [circumstances] that are also just pot-luck too; because of our situation at the time; because of people like Squid and Black Midi. We’ve shared fans and that means we're more likely to pay the rent every week,” Evans declares.
Discussing the development and transition of scenes, thanks to a shifting world with globalised sounds, Evans comments: “We do play at the Windmill a lot, but we’ve been lumped into a South London scene, even though no one in the band lives in South London. Squid are also in the South London scene, but I'm pretty sure most of them live in Bristol. Obviously people have access to so much more music now, so you're never really going to be put together in those scenes again really. You've now got the guys in 2020 who live in Canterbury with the guys in Arkansas in 2016, who sound kind of the same because they've heard that same random album from Chile in 1993. You don't really get that tight knit musical community anymore because we all listen to so much different music. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, it's really cool that you can be inspired by a million times more music now than you could have been in the 70s.
A second album is already on the cards, thanks to the delayed release date for For the First Time. They proclaim that this was inevitable seeing as they’ve been playing the same music for several years now. Wayne adds: “Two of the tracks we came up with on the first day that we played together as BCNR - so they’re relatively old. We’ve had new music before this first album was even finished, but those tracks felt like they needed to be [saved] for a different project. They were heading towards something that was definitively different from the first set of songs.”
As our conversation draws to a close, we fall into the subject of their divisive sound. “I just read quite a fun tweet about us,” Wayne chuckles. It reads: “There's a band called Black Country, New Road. Hoping it was going to be some decent young band, but it was the biggest load of student fucking shite I've ever heard.” The three collapse into laughter: “That was me!” Kershaw jests. “They've hit it on the head there, that's epic,” Evans jokes, and adds: “I did see something funny in a reply about us: ‘I am a huge music fan, I'll listen to anything really, and have over 13,000 songs in multiple categories on spotify, covering many many genres, and I'm telling you this is shit.’" We end on a serious note, with the three sharing their pride for the record. “It’s a really proud moment for all of us and a pretty epic thing to have done at our age, we’re all really happy to have our names on it. And, we're very lucky and grateful to be in a position where we've not had to sacrifice everything to pursue it.”