Boston Manor are the voice of a new generation

Is Boston Manor's GLUE the most important record of the year? It finds singer Henry Cox looking inward to confront self-loathing, toxic masculinity and suicide. It's a beacon of hope and reason in our uncertain times…

Boston Manor are the voice of a new generation
Mischa Pearlman
Andy Ford

Henry Cox was just seven years old when it happened.

He was sitting in the passenger seat of his parents’ car near a now demolished bus station in the centre of Blackpool, idly looking out of the window. All of a sudden, he saw a body fall from up high, landing a mere 10 metres away from his side of the vehicle. Henry’s father, a fireman, immediately rushed out in an attempt to help, but it was too late.

“I’ve never forgotten that,” the Boston Manor vocalist shares, almost two decades later. “My dad was amazing. He ran straight out there and checked the guy’s pulse, but he was instantly dead, so he covered him up and got us out of the area. My main takeaway from that was how brave my dad was in that situation, but I also obviously learned first-hand, quite graphically, about the concept of suicide. I don’t want to say there was some inbuilt childhood trauma from that event, but it was grim. I wouldn’t want to see it ever again.”

Understandably, the incident had a profound effect on Henry, and all these years later it remains vivid enough in his mind to have helped inspire On A High Ledge, a song on Boston Manor’s third album, GLUE. As a young child, however, it was impossible for him to process what he had witnessed, so he repressed the experience and pushed it to the back of his mind. It was still there, though, lurking deep within his synapses, waiting to emerge once more when Henry began talking to a professional about his mental health a number of years later.

“For a long time, I kind of buried it,” he says, “because I didn’t really understand it. But I’ve struggled a lot with mental health issues – particularly when I was quite young – and I went to a lot of therapy in my early teens. It was only when I started talking about this horrible experience and reflecting on it much later that I realised it’s not the kind of thing any seven-year-old should ever see.”

Coincidentally, another member of the band – Henry prefers not to say who – almost experienced something similar. At the time, writing GLUE was already proving to be a difficult process full of tension, frayed nerves, and uncertainty about both the songs they’d written and the future of the band.

“The night we wrote that song,” explains Henry, “one of the guys was driving home on the motorway when he saw a fella stood on the side of the barrier, visibly very upset. He pulled over and talked to the bloke for about 20 minutes until the police came, helped him over the other side, put him in an ambulance and took him to safety. When he told us, it was clear that he was very shaken up by it. So it provided a weirdly-timed context for the song, and fuelled the fire to finish writing it. I hope that guy is doing better now.”

Born in Burton-upon-Trent, a two hour-plus drive southeast of Blackpool, Henry’s family moved to the seaside town when he was four. It was there, in 2013, where he started Boston Manor, with guitarists Mike Cunniff and Ash Wilson, bassist Dan Cunniff and drummer Jordan Pugh. Henry’s reckonings with his own head – his thoughts, fears, anxieties, sadness and problems – have always been a salient part of the band, and he’s never been one to shy away from expressing his innermost emotions. Yet as he and the band have grown older, their focus has shifted, placing those very personal emotions within the context of a fractured – and oftentimes kind of dystopian – world. As such, Boston Manor have developed and evolved immensely. They’ve always been a band with something to say – something, it should be added, very much worth listening to. Now, however, it feels like they have something important to say. Henry puts much of that down to how much the band have seen their audience grow in their relatively short time together.

“We’re not Oasis,” he chuckles in typically self-effacing style, “but some people in the world have heard our name, and we have a growing fanbase, so for the first time we have a bit of a platform – and I think there is a responsibility to use it. But it’s a fine line to walk. Just because I have Twitter followers and people in a room watching us play, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I know more than they do. But if I have these issues that I want to talk about – which I most definitely do – I think it’s my job to do so. I could never tell people what to think – who am I to do that? – but I think providing spaces where people can ask themselves questions, and then proceed to talk to other people or to me about it, is fulfilling a role.”

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That’s not to say mental health or Henry’s own personal experiences aren’t a driving force now. The lyrics on GLUE are some of the most honest and open he has ever written, tackling heavy subject matter head on. It’s just that their background has suddenly come sharply into focus. On A High Ledge is a prime example. While it’s rooted in that horrific childhood experience, the harrowing, foreboding video for the song – in which the camera follows a hooded young man as he walks through the streets before ascending the stairs of a high building, presumably to jump to his death – includes a number of shocking statistics at the end: that there were 6,507 suicides in the UK in 2018, that 23.7 per cent of them were people under 25, and that more than 75 per cent of suicides worldwide are men. The song’s lyrics, though simple, bring to attention a different, yet equally important aspect of the song, however. ‘Father, I think I’m different / I don’t like playing with the other boys,’ sings Henry, sounding sad, yet at the same time almost numb, as if incapable of feeling. ‘Father, I’m different / I like the way the flowers smell.’ Towards the end of the song, the reason for that stoicism becomes clear. ‘I want to cry but I don’t know how / My lips are chapped / My hands are soft / Circles don’t fit into squares,’ he continues, juggling themes of toxic masculinity, traditional ideas of what it means to be a man, and exposing the inner battle that many suffer through, of not feeling empowered enough to show one’s emotions. It’s something that Henry felt and understood all too well, growing up.

“I was a sensitive kid,” he recalls, “and that phrase ‘man up’ always irked me, before I really found out why. I was never good at sports, I did theatre and I liked to paint, but there was this construct of what it is to be a man, and I wanted to be like that. But I also hated it, because I felt that if I wasn’t that, I was a let-down. At the same time, that behaviour seemed so unnatural to me – all the shit that surrounds that whole idea really bothered me, and it always has.

“When you get out of adolescence, you find your feet and figure out who you are – or you try to, anyway,” he continues. “I knew I was a heterosexual binary dude, so I knew where I was at with my sexuality, but when I was really young, it was like, ‘I like all this other stuff, so does that mean I’m not, like, a guy? What does it mean?’ I saw so many kids who were sensitive like me suffer – and I even knew some kids who killed themselves because of it. So many people have so much trauma from this idea that you can’t bare your feelings because you’re a man and you have to man up; that showing your emotions is being vulnerable and being vulnerable is weak. That’s always bothered me. It’s something I really felt that I had to sing about.”

Although Henry believes that showing emotion has become less stigmatised in recent years, he also doesn’t think that the notion of what constitutes ‘real’ masculinity has disappeared entirely. Rather, he feels that because of social media and the pressures of the internet age, the world has become even more compartmentalised. That means it’s easier to find like-minded people than it ever was before, but the issues and the prejudices that people previously encountered, sadly, still remain.

“Toxic masculinity has become part of the conversation,” he says. “People reject the idea a lot more commonly than they used to. But in so many parts of the world – even where I live right now – it’s still incredibly prevalent. I remember being a little punk kid, wearing skinny jeans, and being made fun of in school and called names by ‘lad’ lads. Now every fucking Creatine-guzzling knobhead wears skinny jeans. I also see a lot of butch lads’ lads and Geordie Shore motherfuckers wearing make-up. I’m not shaming them for that, but if you were to tell the kids that used to pick on me and my friends in school that 10 years later they would be wearing skinny jeans and foundation, they would have punched you in the face.”

So that archetypal, toxic notion of masculinity isn’t quite dead then?

“I think,” ponders Henry, “that the idea of what a ‘man’ can be has changed, at least aesthetically, but we’re a long way from men being comfortable about being vulnerable. I think a lot of it is down to the individual. People need to start asking themselves hard questions. Sometimes, the hardest part is being honest with yourself. You’d be surprised how much shit you lie to yourself about every day, just to push things away. The further you push them away, it becomes comfortable and easy to put things in a little box and not think about your problems. But as soon as you start saying these things out loud, you can start to ingest them and begin sharing them with other people. I’ve a way to go yet, but I feel I’m really vulnerable in the lyrics on this record, and that was a big challenge for me. I’m a fairly heart-on-sleeve kind of guy compared to a lot of my male friends, because I had those problems when I was younger. I learned that the only way I could get through this was to talk and not bottle things up, because it makes it real when you do that – you can’t hide quite as well. Never be afraid to reach out, because most people will always want to help. I’d encourage anyone who’s having any sort of difficulty in their life to do that.”

While Henry has never been afraid of baring his soul or emotions, earlier in the band’s career – especially on their more pop-punk leaning 2016 debut album, Be Nothing., and Saudade, the EP that preceded it the year before – he tended to shroud everything in metaphor. It was still visceral and real, but it was also guarded, perhaps precisely because he wasn’t yet comfortable being so vulnerable in a public setting.

More recently, Henry has allowed himself to be more direct. 2018’s second full-length, Welcome To The Neighbourhood, saw the band experiment with their sound and move away from the pop-punk tropes that defined their earliest material, while also bringing Henry’s social conscience into the equation. The album’s setting was a fictionalised, dystopian version of Blackpool, haunted by poverty and drug addiction – the very real effects on the town caused by years of Tory government austerity. Lyrically, it was a reflection of Henry’s cerebral, analytical mind, and his desire to push his songs beyond himself, while at the same time keeping himself present within them.

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This time around, the setting is less conceptual and tangible, but no less bleak: a post-general election, post-Brexit Britain. And make no mistake, as much as there is soul-searching on this record, alongside ideas of identity, masculinity, social justice and the ills of social media, Henry is also just really fucking angry. 1’s & 0’s, for example, is a blistering attack on an older generation who voted without any consideration for the future that people Henry’s age and younger will have to endure as a result, while You, Me & The Class War and Monolith both serve as calls to arms for that younger generation to stand up and fight back.

Of course, Henry being how he is, he injects that sense of rebellion with an element of empathy and consideration, too.

“I’m trying to process it all with compassion,” he says, “and trying to understand it, knowing that not everybody is me, not everybody has my upbringing or is from my part of the country. There are so many factors. And I might not be right – that’s another thing! But I think I’ve been seeing, both in America and England, people vote against their best interests so commonly because of how social media and facts can be manipulated – and just because of straight-up lies. That part of it is very frustrating – you can intellectualise the Brexit vote all you want, for example, but there were so many straight-up fucking dirty lies that were told to people, and that massively influenced their decisions. There were so many parts of it that were massively illegal.”

In his native Blackpool, 67.5 per cent of the population voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. But even though Henry firmly believes the vote will usher in some harsh realities to an already deprived area, and he’s bitter and depressed about the situation, he’s also aware that his anti-Brexit stance is very much in the minority.

“The difficulty I always have with this,” he says, “is that we live in our own bubbles. I surround myself with like-minded, intelligent, left-leaning people, and you forget that the rest of the world doesn’t think exactly the way that you do. Most of my friends from home, their parents voted Leave. I hear people saying, ‘If I could vote again, it would probably be for Remain,’ because so many people were lied to. And I’m not trying to write every Leave-voter off as an idiot, but I think it’s heartbreaking to see that many people vote that way in Blackpool. It’s a tourist town: if you’re voting Leave, you’re furthering the gap between us and other countries, so fewer people are going to come and work there. And we need our immigrant population. We need it in our hospitals, our care centres and our hospitality sector, but they’re all having to leave now because of Brexit, and all these businesses are only going to struggle even more. No business in Blackpool that I know of is going to benefit from that vote.”

Rather than bear a grudge against those who think differently or who bullied him in the past, though, Henry wants to help stimulate dialogue – about masculinity, about suicide, about Brexit, about everything contained within the fabric of GLUE’s DNA. That might not sound like the usual modus operandi for a young band comprising five young men – especially one who came up in Britain’s pop-punk scene – but that shows why Boston Manor stand out from their contemporaries.

“The main purpose of this record is to have these conversations, and to talk about these subjects in an open manner,” says Henry. “The fact that we have Twitter, YouTube and all these mediums allows people to have these discussions. We’ve kept fairly quiet in terms of our immediate reaction and response on social media, but we have the option any time we want to directly converse with the fans about these things. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed sitting back and letting other people share their ideas, because it’s as much about other people as it is about us.”

That sense of community has helped instil in Henry a sense of hope for the future – despite Brexit, despite the results of the last general election, and despite the rise of right-wing populism around the world. In fact, it actually finds him in the best state of mind he’s been in for a long time.

“I’m actually weirdly positive for the first time in my life about a lot of this,” Henry admits. “Maybe this is a pessimistic way to look at the world, but in the UK at least, politically and economically speaking – and I don’t want to jinx this – it really feels like the only way is up. I feel like we have hit rock bottom, but I think we’ve also learned from some of the mistakes we’ve made already, and I’m hoping it means we learn and grow from this. We’re going to have a difficult decade, but I think it’s going to define us as a nation, and as a planet. As long as we start asking these hard questions and having these hard conversations, making the sacrifices that need to be made, I think we’ll come out smelling of roses.

“It’s up to young people to be focused, but also to be positive. I know it can seem like it’s the end of the fucking world – and a world that doesn’t represent you, a culture that doesn’t share your views, that’s racist, xenophobic and backwards – but that’s not the only side of humanity. That’s just the side that’s being pushed at you through a screen. I think that people are generally good and want the best for their fellow men and women.

“I think we’re going to have to do a lot of hard work. But it’s going to get better.”

Boston Manor's new album GLUE is released May 1 via Pure Noise.

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