Black Country, New Road on “Ants From Up There” and the Departure of Former Frontman Isaac Wood | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, July 5th, 2022  

Black Country, New Road on “Ants From Up There” and the Departure of Former Frontman Isaac Wood

Friends First, Bandmates Second

Feb 10, 2022 Photography by Rosie Foster Web Exclusive
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“I’m not one of the main ones, but I am one of the ones,” Black Country, New Road’s drummer Charlie Wayne jokes over Zoom, a week before the British band’s second-length album, Ants From Up There, hits shelves and streaming services.

Wayne is eagerly sharing stories of how the songs were composed and it’s very clear in our conversation that Black Country, New Road are a comprehensively collaborative group. The band’s members discuss every part of every track. They share a love of pop music and a sense of humor, and hang out when they’re not playing music—they even recently watched Pixar’s Luca together and shared a big cry.

At the band’s core and public image, they are a group of friends who just happen to make music together. That music (last year’s For the First Time) also just happens to have been nominated for the 2021 Mercury Prize, and Ants From Up There is one of the most anticipated and acclaimed indie releases of 2022 thus far. So it came as a surprise to fans and the music press when, just days before the release of Ants, the band’s vocalist and principal lyricist, Isaac Wood, announced he would be leaving the band. He issued a statement, citing struggles with his mental health and referencing Professor Farnsworth regrets over not inventing the fing-longer.

“Together we have been writing songs and then performing them,” Wood wrote in the statement, “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.”

A week after my initial conversation with Wayne, we reconnected for a follow-up alongside his bandmates Tyler Hyde (bass) and Luke Mark (guitar). (The band also features Lewis Evans on saxophone, Georgia Ellery on violin, and May Kershaw on keyboards/backing vocals.) The mood on the call is optimistic, jovial—the feeling after months of work on their sophomore album. “I think we’re mostly relieved,” says Hyde. “That’s the biggest feeling perhaps. Because we’ve felt that we’ve been lying to people, or just withholding information, which doesn’t feel very nice. And [we feel] relief for Isaac as well, that he’s now able to have the breather that he needs, and the space to be happier.”

There’s a collective sense of excitement for Ants From Up There’s release, which has been circled on the calendar since October. “Now that the statement has come out, we can just be 100% excited for the album coming out,” says Hyde. “I’m going to have a drink,” adds Wayne.

It’s also very clear that the band remain friends, they have plans to celebrate with Wood. “Friends first, bandmates second,” says Hyde. And they don’t seem fazed at the awkward position in which they now find themselves: a newly released album of 10 songs, but without a singer to sing them.

The group explains that there’s no intention to replace Wood with an outsider, nor will an existing member step up to take on vocal duties. “These songs were written by the seven of us,” says Wayne. “It would feel wrong to perform them under any other context. And that’s not a veiled ‘Isaac might come back at some point and do it’—that’s just not the case. We’re not playing them at the moment and the last thing that any of us would ever consider doing is getting another singer to come in, someone who wasn’t previously in the band.”

“Unless Ozzy Ozborne asks,” Hyde points out.

“Oh, yeah, if Ozzy’s around then we’ll do it,” Wayne replies.

The band will continue to make music, with the remaining six members already working on new material. “We’re writing new music,” says Wayne, “with every intention of seeing how that goes. If it sounds good and we want to perform it, then we will when the time is right. We’re not going into exile or hiding. We fully intend on playing shows in the future, hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Following the news, though, the lyrics from Ants from Up There take on new meanings. It’s hard to listen to “Chaos Space Marine” and hear Wood sing, “So long chumps!/I’m coming home!” and not draw a conspiratorial connection. However, the songs were written before Wood made the decision to leave so any closer readings should be taken with a grain of salt.

“I would definitely shy anyone away from thinking that there’s some kind of grand master plan involving [Wood] leaving the band,” says Mark. “The way Isaac writes lyrics is that they have a multitude of possible interpretations. That’s very much by intent.”

When I first spoke to Wayne the week prior, we discussed the new album at length, including its title, themes, and artwork, as well as some of the album’s influences, such as Frank Ocean, Billie Eilish.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia on this album,” Wayne says. “It’s meant to be super uplifting. There’s a lot of sadness on it as well, but I don’t think it’s the same kind of anxiety as there was on the first album. The first record is very angular, and I think quite mean in some parts. This record isn’t really that at all. It’s meant to be very warm.”

Throughout the album, certain phrases are repeated: “Billie Eilish style” appears in two songs, “Concorde” in four songs (including the track, “Concorde”); not to mention the references to other pop culture figures such as Kanye West (“Concorde, Bound 2, and my evening”) and a possible wet dream involving Charli XCX (“In my bed sheets now wet/Of Charli I pray to forget”). “The album itself is meant to be enjoyed as a whole,” says Wayne. “It’s meant to be conceptually consistent and I think that using repeated phrases and lyrics, and exploring the same kind of ideas is all part of writing an album which is kind of consistent.

And yet, there’s a deeper sense of humor at play in Black Country, New Road’s music: a self-deprecating, sometimes painful, honesty. “Most of the stuff that we do begins as a bit of a joke,” explains Wayne. “A lot of Isaac’s lyrics—some of them are very serious, but some of them are also obviously very, very funny. On ‘Chaos Space Marine,’ a lot of that track we just thought was pretty much a joke, but then it turned out to be kind of epic. So we stuck with it and then it sort of just became really epic and then it wasn’t a joke anymore.”

The album artwork too (a hyper-realistic metal toy plane in a plastic bag) at first seems whimsical—but it soon also conjures a sense of nostalgia: for childhood trips to a toy store, for a sense of innocence and wonder that we all possess at a younger age. “We knew we wanted to do something different [from the first album] but I think we also knew that we wanted to create something which had that same slightly uncanny feel to it,” says Wayne. “And I think that the painting does it really, really well. It’s like a hyper real painting and it looks so real but it just isn’t. You know that you’re not looking at a photograph of a toy, but it conjures all those same sort of emotions as getting an Airfix model or a Warhammer model.”

The covers for the album’s singles (“Chaos Space Marine,” “Bread Song,” “Concorde,” and “Snow Globes”) all feature the same style—a toy in a plastic bag, hung on a hook against a wood backdrop—and are painted by UK artist Simon Monk, who is a friend of Wood’s mother. “The artwork is an image that I think that a lot of us have either seen in films or we’ve seen in our own lives. It’s a projection of something. It’s not the actual, real thing.”

There’s a certain playful throughline to Ants From Up There, of a group of friends just hanging out and playing music. Aside from the lyrics, and the album artwork, the album title too appears like it started out as a joke, but then quickly became the perfect name for the record. “I was thinking about how, when you’re on an airplane, and you’re looking down on the ground you might turn to someone and say, ‘We must look like ants from up here,’” Wayne says. “But then someone pointed out that it might be a very easy vehicle for people to think that we’d become very big-headed over the relative success of the first album, that this is meant to be a kind of megalomaniac return to music, which it wasn’t. So we decided on Ants From Up There, which actually makes more sense when you turn to someone when you look up at a plane, you’re like, ‘We must look like ants from up there.’”

Another joke, Wayne reflects on fondly, is an early album title. “One of the album titles that Lewis, Isaac, Tyler, and Luke really liked was Lifting Up a Log and Seeing a Tiny Little Woodlouse Underneath It,” he says.

“Regardless of what’s happened with Isaac,” Hyde tells me in the follow-up interview, “no matter what the circumstances are, we would never feel pressure to write songs in any way. That’s one of the beauties of Black Country—the sound is ever-changing. If we worry too much about the external world, and what people may expect of us, then we’re just not going to produce any music at all, because we’ll be so trapped by worries of what others think.

“We’re just focusing on moving on creatively and not having an idea of what the end goal is, not having an idea of any specific sound, or any specific outcomes. Because if you do that, then you just can’t get there. You have an idea of a specific angle, and you just can’t get there if it’s solidified in your mind. So the important thing for us is to just carry on, to not worry about anything, and to just really enjoy this creative process that we are involved with right now.”

www.blackcountrynewroad.com

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