When I first spoke with drummer Charlie Wayne, guitarist Luke Mark, and keyboardist May Kershaw of the exciting U.K. band Black Country, New Road last Thursday, the young musicians were beaming with excitement, as they were eager to unleash their brave and groundbreaking second album Ants From Up There. The album builds off the quietly disrupting momentum of their debut, last year’s For the first time, and reinvents the band’s sound through sprawling orchestrations bursting at the seams with untamable beauty. Speaking via Zoom from the Ninja Tune office, the three members of the seven-piece collective seemed upbeat and jovial, ready to talk about not only the new album, but also the healthy and inspiring energy around the band, as they were already working on new material ahead of a massive tour that would bring them Stateside this spring.
That was how this story was supposed to go. But a lot can change in a week.
On Monday, just days before the release of Ants From Up There, the group’s guitarist and primary singer and songwriter Isaac Wood announced—in a joint statement with the band shared via social media—that he would be parting ways with Black Country, New Road. In his part of the statement, Wood explained his departure was primarily an act of self-care, as he no longer felt that being a member of the band was good for his health.
“I have bad news which is that I have been feeling sad and afraid too. And I have tried to make this not true but it is the kind of sad and afraid feeling that makes it hard to play guitar and sing at the same time,” he wrote, adding, “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.” He went on to explain that he is still on great terms with the group, describing them as “six of the greatest people” he knows, and gave his thanks for his time with the group and all the fans who enjoyed the music they made together.
The band echoed their love of Wood and said that they would remain friends: “The things we’ll miss about working with Isaac are too many and various to list here,” their statement read, “but by listening to the music we made together I’m sure you’ll understand at least a few of them. It’d be difficult to overstate how much our experiences as a group have affected us. In fact it’s difficult to say anything at all coherent about what we’ve managed to do. But it has certainly been the greatest privilege to do it all together, as seven friends.” They went on to say that they would unfortunately have to cancel their plans to tour, but reassured fans that they were, in fact, planning to continue performing as Black Country, New Road as a six-piece, promising that new music is already in the works.
Prior to that plot twist, this was a story about the band’s musical reinvention from For the first time to Ants From Up There. Even though the group’s debut had been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2021, their new record feels like a watershed moment for contemporary guitar rock. There’s a sense of hopefulness throughout the album that feels missing amongst the band’s contemporaries. Wood’s surreal and romantic songs—now fully sung with conviction, instead of spoken—feel more triumphant than ever, as he sings over the band’s early-aughts indie and post-rock-influenced arrangements that comfort and sway, rather than alienate. It’s an emotional palette that recalls early Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade at their most cathartic and sentimental. But in light of Wood’s departure, Black Country, New Road as we knew them will be only remembered on record for the foreseeable future. Speaking again this week with Wayne, Mark and this time bassist Tyler Hyde, I had the chance to find out what Wood’s departure means for the group.
According to Wayne, Wood’s decision to leave had been known well before our initial interview, and the three members felt a little disingenuous talking about performing songs from Ants From Up There on a tour they knew wasn’t going to happen. When we first spoke, they had already received Wood’s statement, but wanted to give him the chance to release it in his own time. “We wanted for him to be able to deliver that message on his own terms, rather than us to say it to anyone else, without having that kind of a proper channel available to him,” Wayne explained, happy to shed more light on the process, now that Wood’s decision is common knowledge.
Mark affirmed the band members all remain in contact and on good terms with Wood. Even though he has left the group, they understand that finding a proper balance and the help he needs is more important than being in a rock band. “The reasons are very serious,” Mark said, “but the reason for [Wood] leaving the band is very much tied to realizing that those issues that he was having are tied to the band itself. So the process of getting himself out of that situation and making sure people know that that’s what’s difficult for him, means that now he’s actually really well at the moment. We’ve been seeing him a lot. It may not seem like that because it’s quite sudden, it might seem like we just sort of got that out of the blue and put it out straight away. But it’s quite difficult to organize these things. They’re always a little bit delayed.”
As for the direction of the band as a six-piece, they have been working on early versions of the follow-up to Ants, even working on integrating some songs that Hyde had been performing on her own as a solo artist. While so much is uncertain right now, one thing is for sure: They will never be the same Black Country, New Road that we once knew. Even though he is saddened by not being able to tour this new record in the way they had intended, Wayne feels the band’s constant mutation shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Everything about them has been unorthodox up to this point.
“I feel sorry for the people that have bought tickets that were expecting to come and see [us]. If we could have performed, then we would have performed. It’s not like we have made this decision out of spite for our audience. We’re incredibly grateful for everyone that has supported us. We’re doing the only thing that we can and want to do right now, and it’s obviously sad that we can’t play an album that we’re all incredibly proud of. But we still made the album, you can still listen to it, and that’s something which I think we’re incredibly grateful for,” Wayne explained, adding with a laugh, “It’s disjointed and it feels disjointed. But we didn’t get to tour the first album, either.”
When the band finally do tour, they plan to not play the material that they wrote with Wood out of respect for his crucial contributions to those records. For the band, they are fine leaving the new album as a recorded document for listeners to discover. “I think we all managed to pull off recording the record in a way that we hoped we would be worried we wouldn’t be able to do. It’s exactly what we wanted it to be,” said Mark. “We’re all really proud of what it sounds like, and with the songs and everything. This sounds odd, but that is more satisfying than knowing that you’re going to be able to play those songs for two years in a field [somewhere].”
“This is what’s going to last for forever, essentially, not the gigs that we play,” chimed in Hyde, reiterating how proud they all are of Ants From Up There. “I think we all have such faith in it. We all love it so much, and believe that it’s strong enough to just sit there by itself and exist in the world, and have people get from it what they want.”
Riding high on what they’ve accomplished as a group of musically adventurous friends, the band said that they planned on meeting up with Wood today (Feb. 4) to celebrate the album’s release. While they will continue on without him in the future, they are more than willing to let him rejoin Black Country, New Road if he is ever feeling up to it.
“The door is always open to him, of course,” said Hyde, with Mark and Wayne nodding in agreement.
“There’s no point in speculating on that now, as to whether that would happen,” Mark said, “but if in some super hypothetical version it did, obviously, yeah.”
Ants From Up There
is out now on Ninja Tune.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.