“We knew that people weren’t going to like it,” says Black Country, New Road‘s Lewis Evans. “And [now] I know that people won’t like it.”
It doesn’t read like a ringing endorsement of Ants From Up There, the recently issued second album from the British sextet. But the saxophonist correctly insists it’s the “best thing [they’ve] ever done” — a more mature song cycle that broadens the emotional range of 2021’s For the First Time.
Where that acclaimed debut relied heavily on deadpan speak-sing snark and brooding post-punk riffs, Ants is often bright and opened-armed, landing somewhere between ornate art-rock and Arcade Fire-sized chamber-pop. They’ve always had style to spare — now they have heart.
“One of the main aims of the second album was to explore, first of all, more emotions,” bassist Tyler Hyde tells SPIN over Zoom, clutching a handful of oranges and a turmeric shot. (“Getting my Vitamin C up,” she adds.) “The first album, I think, goes down a very narrow route. And the way it created these emotions was just through shock, the immediate tools that you would use in music to make people go “wow!” or “boo!” [Laughs.] But with this album, we were like, ‘How can we create tension without just like thrashing our guitars or whacking on a distortion pedal?’”
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To answer that question, the band holed up in January 2021 — one month before First Time came out — to whittle away at new material, even drawing on some ambitious ideas (including the 12-minute epic “Basketball Shoes”) that dated back at least two years. That summer, they traveled to the Isle Of Wight and recorded at Chale Abbey Studios, home to what drummer Charlie Wayne calls “15 medieval monk ghosts.” (“There was a lot of chanting,” he says.)
The critical buzz for First Time was still swirling, but they felt no pressure to top it — after all, it’s easy to avoid a sophomore slump when the follow-up sounds like a different band altogether.
“We definitely thought about, ‘Why was this good?’” adds Evans. “But we really didn’t go into recording or writing this album thinking, ‘How can we make it have the merits of the last album?’ We were all so sure of this one, that this was the best thing we’ve ever done. We didn’t really care. I know that there’s gonna be people who really liked the first album who aren’t gonna like this at all. And that’s fine because it’s a completely different thing.”
SPIN spoke with Evans, Hyde and Wayne about their musical growth and side-stepping those expectations. (A week later, Evans, Lewis and guitarist Luke Mark hopped on a follow-up Zoom to address the elephant in the room: the departure of the band’s lead vocalist Isaac Wood, days before the album’s release. The following is a condensed version of those two conversations.)
SPIN: Had you sensed for a while that Isaac wanted to leave the band?
Wayne: When we had the first chat with you, we did know that Isaac was no longer going to be part of the group. We were waiting for him to prepare what he wanted to say. I think it was only fair that it came from his words, rather than from an interview or something that he didn’t have any control over. Although we’ve known for a little while — and it’s obviously been quite an intense week, especially with the run-up to the album — we’ve had some time to come to terms with it and feel a huge amount of support in each other. We’ve been spending quite a lot of time with each other, which, although it’s been sad, has been quite nice at the same time.
In the statement you released, you mentioned you’ve already been working on new material. What can you tell me about that?
Mark: I don’t think it’ll be that revelatory or interesting to discuss the material, but it’s stuff we intended to work on anyway with Isaac. It just made sense to start doing it now amongst the six of us. It’s totally new material. We’ve been doing some of Tyler’s songs that she does solo — adapting them and seeing how they work in the band setup, figuring out the dynamic of the six of us, seeing if it’s the same as it was before. We’re trying to get a bunch of music together. It felt important for us to keep playing together as soon as we could, even in private — also because we want to play shows at some point. It feels like something to look forward to, to be working on something. It’s still early days.
Obviously when you lose a singer, that’s a radical change to the presentation of the music. Are you still trying to figure out who will sing live? And what about the writing process? This is a very collaborative band anyway, which is a good thing.
Hyde: It’s still super fresh, so the details of this stuff still haven’t been discussed. And to be honest, when it comes to making anything as an artist, any idea or sense of the end goal just totally debilitates you from being able to produce whatever that is. It’s really important for us to not have these discussions and just [focus on music]. One thing we’ve learned from what happened to Isaac is that it’s really important to share the load. We should be reminded that, when we go play a gig, the person singing has a totally different experience from the rest of the band. You can’t just have fun — there’s this pressure that no one else shares with you.
We don’t know what that sounds like yet. Right now we’re just working on my songs because I have these songs and I wanted — and we all wanted — to hear what Black Country could do with that. That’s the exciting thing about Black Country: Someone brings a song or a skeleton, and all of us together take it to a world that none of us could have conceived in the first place. We can’t answer that question because that’s the nature of Black Country — who knows what’s going to happen? All I know is that you’re going to hear lots of different voices, and it’s going to be even more collaborative. I don’t know, maybe we’ll be the next Fleetwood Mac. [Laughs.] It’s kind of the ethos that we always had in the first place. We’re opening up more clearly and collaborating even more and sharing the load. It’s a direction we were always going to go in.
It seems like every music critic loved the first album — it was on all these top 10 lists. Have you been keeping up with all the hype, or do you try to block it out?
Wayne: I think we all like to try and pay some sort of attention to it. We kind of stay abreast of what’s going on — there was no other tangible way of finding out if people liked it or not because we couldn’t play any shows. But generally, you just try and keep some sort of distance from it because otherwise, it’ll just ruin whatever you’re trying to do next.
I think that’s also part of the reason why we kind of wanted to get this second album out ASAP: We didn’t want to have the feeling of the first album hanging over us for a super long time. Also, we weren’t necessarily in the same place musically. We’d written all the tracks for the first album quite a long time ago, and we recorded it, and it had been delayed. And then when it came out, we’d already done those rehearsal sessions for the second album, so we were kind of not even there anymore.
Because so many people love that first album, did you have that in your head at all when you were writing new stuff — like, “What is it that people love so much about that one? How did we make lightning strike the first time?”
Evans: I’m not expecting [fans] to suddenly like a different type of music or suddenly change their opinions because of a first album that they liked. We were just so sure that it was really good. There are also going to be critics who aren’t going to like it because it’s not like the first album — it’s not taking that to a new level. It’s going in a different direction. And I think that’s fine. Really, without trying to sound too nihilistic about it, the whole thing is kind of silly — this expectation that you then have to go and push the thing that you were doing before, that you have to think, “Okay, well, how did we do it really well, in this previous one? Let’s react to that.”
That’s not what we’re in it for, to get that first critically acclaimed album. It’s just some random person saying that they really liked something you did. That’s not as fulfilling as making sick music. And we’ve made a sick album. The whole time, we knew it was different. We went into it being like, “We really like this. This is sick. Even if people don’t like it, people will like it in three years’ time when they’ve forgotten about the first album. People who haven’t heard our first album will like it.” It’s as if we were a new band doing this album.
It seems like there’s a new crop of bands exploring the idea of progressive rock — taking some of these influences and putting their own spin on them. Is the Canterbury scene an influence for you?
Evans: Yeah, definitely — in a way. I couldn’t really name any [of those] artists that we’ve been directly inspired by. But the approach to the music the Canterbury scene has is similar. It’s this almost a bit twee, a bit fun, not taking yourself too seriously, but it’s also quite detailed music — and the way that lots of different instruments interweave is quite a proggy thing as well. Despite not being in a prog or a Canterbury scene sound world, theoretically, it’s there. There’s a tune we have that we’ve got like seven kazoos — silly little ideas that people had in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, stuff you would hear and be like, “Why have they done that?” [Everyone laughs.]
Lewis, I know “Mark’s Theme” was written for your uncle who passed away from COVID-19. Could you talk about putting that song together? I’m sure that was a powerful moment for you.
Evans: That was written on the day that my uncle passed away. It was actually the day before the first album came out — on the fourth of February 2021. I had just gotten a tenor saxophone about a week before. It had just come out of the workshop on that day, and I was walking home. My dad called me to say that he passed away. I just went home and played on that sax for the first time, and it was really nice — I just wrote that straight away. That’s the only song really where nobody had a say — I wasn’t insistent on it, but everyone gave me my space to have that tune as I wanted it because it’s obviously quite personal. But the recording process, in the end, was really interesting for that one. We experimented quite a lot with what we could do because there’s so much space in it. There’s this silence where you can hear the room sound — you hear me pressing down on the pedal on the piano to start playing. You hear the creaking of the seats. It’s quite an atmospheric thing. We recorded it, and we were so happy with it.
But between having finished the album and going in to mix it properly, part of me was thinking, “Would he have really liked this song?” Because he was a very, very boisterous, annoying Scottish man who like to have a good time: get pissed and dance. He liked the Prodigy and stuff like that. “Is, like, Gary Numan’s biggest fan gonna like this song?” I was like, ‘We’ve got to make this gotta have something a bit funny about it.” He used to send me these voice notes when he got drunk that were just him making weird sounds. So I stuck one of them in at the end — I thought he would like it if it wasn’t too mournful and sad. That whole side of that family is really, really proud to have that on there. I’m really happy to have that out in the world to remember him because he was a massive fan of the band, a huge supporter of me and everything that I did musically.