Black Country, New Road on love, aliens, and the perfect pop of Ants From Up There
On the verge of a career-changing moment, the London band broke down their new album, Ants From Up There, track by track.
By Raphael Helfand
February 04, 2022
Photo by Rosie Foster
Before they released their first album, Black Country, New Road had already been dubbed “the best band in the world” by John Doran of The Quietus. Most of the songs on For The First Time had been released — or at least played live and uploaded to Youtube — by the time of its February 5, 2021 release. Their tour behind that record was restricted by COVID, but they stayed true to form, using regional gigs to perfect the songs on their brand new album, Ants From Up There, out now, a day before the one-year anniversary of their debut.
“We asked people not to film the songs this time, because last time that happened, everyone liked those versions more than the ones we actually released,” guitarist Luke Mark says. But it’s tough to imagine the tracks on Ants being any more actualized than they are here. Part of FTFT’s charm was the way its songs rambled, singer Isaac Woods’ spoken-word lyrics seemingly improvised on the spot. While nearly all of Ants’ cuts are longer than the traditional pop song, half of them running well-past the six-minute mark, they’re remarkably tight. Even the most particular of listeners would be hard pressed to poke a hole in the band’s brilliant arrangements, and even the most cynical would have a tough time belittling the group for their ages (21–22) when encountering a line as good as “And no one had WiFi inside your apartment / So we knelt at your altar.”
When four of BCNR’s seven members — drummer Charlie Wayne, bassist Tyler Hyde, and keyboardist May Kershaw, along with Luke — sat down with The FADER on Thursday, January 28 to discuss their remarkable new record, the mood was light. Violinist Georgia Ellory and saxophonist Lewis Evans couldn’t make it, but it was Isaac’s absence that left the biggest gaps in the conversation. Four days later, the band announced that Isaac had quit. His parting words were brief, respectful, and heartbreaking.
“I have bad news which is that I have been feeling sad and afraid too,” he wrote. “And I have been trying to make this not true but it is the kind of sad and afraid feeling that makes it difficult to play guitar and sing at the same time. Together we have been writing songs and then performing them, which at times has been an incredible doing, but more now everything happens that I am feeling not so great and it means from now I won’t be a member of the group anymore. To be clear: this is completely in spite of six of the greatest people I know, who were and are wonderful in a sparkling way.”
Isaac’s quote was posted to the group’s socials as part of a longer statement from the band, a promise to continue making music together, despite the fact that all their live performances — including a spring/summer European tour followed by their first trip to North America — will be cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of one of the final interviews the band gave before Isaac’s departure, a track-by-track breakdown of Ants From Up There delivered by a group of intensely optimistic young Brits as they teetered on the brink of a career-altering blow.
The FADER: Like For the first time, Ants From Up There has an instrumental intro, albeit a much shorter one. Do you think of your albums as interconnected suites and their intros as mini-overtures?
Luke Mark: Uhh, no. But, this one, kind of. We went back and forth on it. It was a lot longer, but we realized it didn’t deserve to be that long. There’s a nice symmetry to having an instrumental opener on both albums. But the [FTFT intro] was a song that already existed and just made sense there. Maybe we’ll write a really awesome intro for the next one, the best thing on there. The rest of the album, rubbish.
Ants’ intro introduces one of its running themes, which is Georgia and Lewis playing in unison. Especially with violin and saxophone, that’s a technique I associate more with jazz manouche or klezmer — something a lot of folks noted on FTFT — than rock ‘n’ roll. Was it hard for those of you with rock backgrounds to incorporate that into your playing?
May Kershaw: It wasn’t a conscious thing. Both Lewis and Georgia had played klezmer before, so it was in their fingers. As with other genres of music we listen to and play, we’re not like, “Let’s have a klezmer-y bit.” It’s just in the ears.
Tyler Hyde: The first album was more improv based, and naturally, you improvise with what you’ve been taught. Georgia and Lewis had been through that experience in klezmer groups.
LM: Lewis says the first time he ever improvised was playing [klezmer]. That specific harmony is embedded in how he plays, so it comes out sometimes when he’s writing. As for the two harmonizing lead instruments, that’s just how the band is set up.
TH: Georgia still plays in a klezmer band. They played a bat mitzvah on Saturday, and they came to my house and practiced in the living room. It was awesome.
”Chaos Space Marine”
In its title alone, this track deals with outer space and the sea, settings still largely unconquered by humans. There’s a very American obsession with the frontier and the outlaws who dare to go there. How does that translate on your side of the pond?
Charlie Wayne: We’re an adventurous people by nature. And the final frontier, ultimately, is the human heart. [Laughs] No, no, no. That was off the record.
Sorry, you need to say that beforehand.
LM: No, that’s awesome, Charlie. There’s definitely a theme of striking new ground or running away from something throughout the record. Musically, there’s this joyous feeling of “Let’s fucking do this!”
Are there any specific sci-fi stories you looked to while making this album, especially ones with the idea of Earth as a frontier planet for aliens?
TH: That only came in afterwards, when we were thinking about aesthetics.
CW: The fish in Luca, though.
TH: The merman creature who wants to blend into the human world and be accepted, so he hides who he really is. That film had quite a profound effect on me. I was so skeptical of the new Pixar films: how glossy the animation is now, and the narratives — have they gone really off-piste? But no, it’s all about the same things: love and family and friends and good morals, whatever they may be.
CW: And there was 2012.
LM: We were watching a lot of disaster movies. I can’t say that had any effect on the album, but the “Concorde” video was directed by Max Kelly, who took inspiration initially from The Creature From The Black Lagoon and Dunkirk. And then we suggested some stuff.
TH: Like making [the protagonist] an ant man.
LM: I hadn’t thought about the title in that way until then, literally ants from up there, alien ants.
Charlie, you said, On-The-Record, that the final frontier is the human heart. At its core, “Concorde” is a love song, as are many of Ants’ tracks. Much of the talk surrounding FTFT pigeonholed it as ironic. This one feels generally more earnest. You told the Quietus you wanted to make perfect pop songs. Does that mean unironic pop songs?
CW: Not necessarily. Earnestness and sincerity are hallmarks of the music we try to make, and the music we love, in general. The tracks on [Arcade Fire’s] Funeral are super sincere, but they’re not necessarily iconic pop songs.
Does a pop song need to be iconic to be perfect?
TH: Not iconic, but three-and-a-half minutes, for a starter, and something about the melody that’s universally accessible, that instantly sounds familiar or classic or relatable, that isn’t exclusive and isn’t disruptive and sits in your life comfortably.
LM: A perfect pop song needs to have more emotional depth than is suggested. Without being obvious, it encapsulates more than it should, being a pop song.
Your songs tend to go over the three-and-a-half minute mark.
LM: Yeah, we fucked that up royally.
Do you have an example of a perfect pop song?
MK: “Backseat” by Charli XCX?
TH: The new Ethan P. Flynn song that just came out, “Father of Nine,” I’d say that’s perfect.
CW: I think “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish is the perfect pop song.
TH: I think “Happier Than Ever” is more perfect.
CW: But that’s like five minutes long.
TH: “Nobody” by Mitski — I like the feeling that you’ve heard it before [on first listen].
LM: “Bread Song” is perfect. [Laughs]
“Concorde” and “Bread Song” seem to be dedicated to the same unattainable, mercurial love interest. Do you think some level of worship is necessary in a relationship?
LM: Not that I know exactly what Isaac was going for — or that he even knew — but I’d say it’s not an unattainable person, just thoughts someone might have within a relationship, in a moment of self-doubt. Anyway, I don’t think [it’s necessary], and it might even be quite unhealthy, but it does happen.
Most of your songs have big, cathartic climaxes, but this one is understated all the way through — especially Charlie’s drumming, which usually kicks off the climax on other tracks. It’s quite an achievement for a song of this length to stay dynamically interesting without any loud moments. Any tips on long-form songwriting you can share with the readers?
CW: Get seven of the most narcissistic people you’ve ever met in a room. You’ll have so many ideas you want to be on the track that it’ll end up having to be insanely long.
This song seems to really balance out all that ego, though. It’s subtle and quiet, but there’s never a dull moment.
TH: We really explored how we could create tension through ways that weren’t just playing really loud and throwing all of our ideas out at the same time. We exercised a lot of individual restraint. That was one of the most important things we did on the album: hold back and allow other people’s parts to breathe.
“Good Will Hunting”
The main riff has an almost old-time country string band feel, especially when it changes meter from six to four. Did that come from a jam, or did someone bring the idea to the rest of the band?
TH: There was no jamming on the album [laughs].
LM: That riff… I remember Isaac had two versions of it, one in six and one in four. And he was playing it at a sound check and thought it was cool but a bit shit — catchy but not actually good. And Georgia was like, “No, it’s fucking awesome, mate. We should definitely make that into a song.” And Isaac was like, “Well, I don’t know which one to go with, so let’s do both — first in six and then in four.” That’s the moment that made the song.
TH: It was a bitch to learn for me and Charlie. One version of the song had existed for a bit. And when you’ve got an idea of how something goes and you’re suddenly told to think about it differently, even if it’s a very simple time signature change, your memory is stubborn and doesn’t let you sit in the new world the song’s been taken to.
Your music always feels auteurish, but I understand your process is quite collaborative. With seven narcissists in a room, how do you work toward a singular vision?
CW: “Haldern” is actually the only song on the album that came entirely, organically from all of us in a room improvising. Isaac had some lyrics that were for another song, but they fit really well in this one. So it’s funny that this is the song you picked out as being driven by an auteur, because it’s the opposite.
TH: We’d done a few improvs before that had gone really badly; improv is so often really wack. You have to exercise even more restraint in those moments. [“Haldern”] is pretty sparse, and there’s a lot of gaps and a lot of people playing in unison, hooking onto good things and trying not to overcomplicate anything — which makes it sound way more structured, but it’s actually just us being way more nervous and conscious.
This is the album’s obvious outlier. Almost half of it is a solo jazz sax performance, and the second half feels like a film score. And then there’s that little Tony Clifton bit at the end.
MK: Lewis wanted a gap to breathe in, a bit of a pause.
LM: He wrote it for his uncle, who passed away from COVID. He was a huge supporter of the band, really great to all of us. Lewis got a new tenor sax, and he was playing it the day after his uncle passed and ended up writing that piece. We arranged it very sparsely, as a tribute. The little bit at the end — the Tony Clifton thing — that’s a voice note the real Mark sent to Lewis.
TH: Lewis said [Mark] wouldn’t have liked the song because it would be too emotional and sad, so we threw that end bit in there to lighten it.
“The Place Where He Inserted the Blade”
This one ends with a hum-along — not the first song you’ve ended that way. You could imagine hearing it at a sports game in a parallel universe. Do you think these moments of collective catharsis are important?
CW: Massively. When you watch an Arcade Fire show, the group vocal is a huge part of their energy. It’s something we want to tap into. Our songs, fundamentally, are about us being together, in a room, making music. And the best example of that is when we’re using our voices together and singing in unison.
TH: Luke and I lived with Isaac in the first lockdown, and one of our most-watched videos was Arcade Fire at Rock en Seine 2005. It’s one of the most passionate performances I’ve seen. Everyone, even if they don’t have a mic, is screaming; they love the music so much. And we love this album so much. We’ve given a lot of ourselves over to it, and what better way to display that than through our own voices?
I saw you perform this one live at the 2020 Christmas show you did with black midi, when it was just a chorus. I’ve watched some other videos of you playing it on tour, gradually expanding it into the ten-minute epic it is now. Do you see your songs as perpetual works in progress? I know you all love Kanye. Were you inspired by him fixing “Wolves?”
LM: No, but that’s awesome. I’ll tweet “Ima fix ‘Basketball Shoes’” when the album comes out and everyone starts complaining about it. [Laughs] But yeah, we’ve always changed songs when playing them live. It’s usually because they stop feeling as exciting to us as we want them to feel for the audience. Sometimes we have a new idea — or maybe there’s an old idea from an early version, and we bring that back and see how it works in a rehearsal. If we like it, we do that version that night. Fair play to Kanye for continuing to change all his songs. That version of “Runaway” where he’s like [singing] “I need you to run right back to me” is awesome.
LM & CW: More specifically, Kimberly.
On For The First Time, the references were very explicit, almost compulsively so: Scott Walker, Kanye, and Richard Hell on “Sunglasses“; Slint on “Science Fair“; black midi on “Track X.” Here, they’re more abstract. There’s Concorde, and the clamp, and someone named Henry. Did you sequence the album with the intent of gathering them all on “Basketball Shoes?”
CW: All the references that you picked up are clues. We buried some treasure on the Isle of Wight. It would be too simple to tell you how to look for it, but I will say that the clues are in order. Also, I won’t go into any more specific detail, but the lyrics are an acrostic poem [