The Cover Story

Neck Deep: “We’ve hit a point where we don’t have anything to prove, and we’ve still got room to grow – so we just keep doing it”

Life is good for Ben Barlow right now. As Neck Deep gear up to release their glorious self-titled fifth album, the frontman takes a moment to appreciate the pop-punks’ dazzling ascent over the past 10 years – and looks to a future that sees him and his bandmates simply continuing to enjoy the ride…

Neck Deep: “We’ve hit a point where we don’t have anything to prove, and we’ve still got room to grow – so we just keep doing it”
Words:
Emily Carter
Photography:
Nat Wood

In the charmingly self-deprecating, soon-to-be-immortal words of Ben Barlow on the opening song of Neck Deep’s impending fifth album: ‘I’m useless, a doofus…

Except that he really isn’t. Nope, not one bit. And yet this comedically critical admission on brilliantly-titled banger Dumbstruck Dumbfuck is exactly how the 29-year-old feels. Never mind the fact that he’s the frontman of the UK’s best pop-punk band. And he’s about to release a career-high record. Ben Barlow believes the words he sings.

“I’m a dumbass, man!” he laughs today, sipping a flat white in a quiet London coffee spot near Kerrang! HQ, as we question these lyrics while pointing out that he’s got every right to have a much bigger ego than he actually does. “I’ve always been that way; I’m aware of who I am. And we’re aware of how lucky we are as a band, and how unique the opportunity that we have is. It’s not that it’s undeserving, but we’re amazed that we’re in this position. So yeah, we’re not afraid to put ourselves down!”

Our hour-long catch-up with the currently “very caffeinated” singer is full of light-hearted reflections such as these. Having made an early drive down from his home of Wrexham with bandmate and guitarist Matt West, Ben’s as relaxed and relatable as ever – a rock star whose easy-going disposition makes you immediately forget that you’re even hanging out with a rock star. (A not-so-subtle trucker hat he’s wearing also helps hammer home this total lack of pretence: ‘Life is like a bed of roses,’ the message across his forehead reads, ‘watch out for all the pricks.’)

“I was up at 5am which was pretty gnarly, but I feel good, to be fair,” he begins with a contented smile, leaning forwards in a baggy black hoodie. “I’ve got a little espresso machine at home so I smashed two of them before the drive. The aim is to get back home later before it really hits me.”

The 400-mile-ish round-trip is all in aid of this Friday’s superb self-titled album. Brought to life at their own warehouse in Wales, the five-piece – Ben and West, plus guitarist Sam Bowden, new drummer Matt Powles and Ben’s older brother Seb on bass – made it their mission to really capture the essence and joy of their band this time around. It worked wonders, and they’re ready to let the world know about it. In the eternally modest Neck Deep way, of course.

“Music in general is pretty serious these days,” considers Ben. “Most of the time, people want to big themselves up in music; they want to flex and brag about the shit they do. Whereas we’re not trying to do that. We’ve never really paraded ourselves as, like, famous people – we’re five dudes talking about how stupid we are, but having a bunch of fun doing it. And I think that’s an influence from pop-punk in general, and from bands like blink-182: don’t take yourselves too seriously. They’re people that I would want to hang out with, and people that seem real and not like celebrities. It’s just about trying to keep it real as much as we can.”

Have you ever been a bit too much of a diva?

“I think at times maybe there’s been some inflated egos,” ponders Ben, “which naturally will occur when you’re playing shows to thousands of people every night – and you should be proud of yourself. But we always manage to keep it in check, and we’re not afraid to knock someone down a peg (laughs). We’ve never once done this for any sort of personal or outward-facing thing; it’s just been about the band, and the band’s message, and the fans, ultimately. You can burn out so quick or you can get so far ahead of yourself otherwise – and maybe things don’t work out or maybe you’ve got this inflated view of yourself. I just try to stay realistic and keep it about the music.”

This down-to-earth approach, in fact, was exactly how Ben and his bandmates first realised they were getting album number five… well… wrong. Initially flying out to Los Angeles for the recording process, it didn’t take long for Neck Deep to notice it wasn’t going quite as well as they’d hoped. So they headed home, back to trusty Wales. Back to how they’d started out.

“That kind of gave us the hook for the record,” Ben explains, putting a positive twist on the experience. “It’s pretty cliché to say ‘trust the process’, but that was just one of the steps along the way. At the time it felt like, ‘Oh my god, this is so bad…’ but there was something pushing us in that direction. It led to us doing the album ourselves, and the whole full-circle story of ending up writing the way we used to with no outside influence felt great.

“If we needed to suffer through some setbacks,” he shrugs, “then it was because it led us to the place that we needed to be.”

“We get messages every day from people saying how much our music’s helped them”

Ben Barlow

Suffice to say, all of this has made Neck Deep – the band and the album – as strong as can be now. Following 2020’s ambitious and conceptual All Distortions Are Intentional, this new full-length is a triumphant, natural return to their roots: making fans feel like they’ve got five pals down the other end of their headphones via the medium of world-beating pop-punk.

“That’s always been one of the biggest driving factors for us,” Ben nods. “We get messages every day from people saying how much it’s helped them, and that keeps me going. And regardless of whether we’re playing to 10 people or 10,000 people, if there’s one person saying, ‘I just got out of the worst period of my life, and your music helped me,’ that’s a bigger impact than a fleeting moment under the lights. That’s lifelong shit.”

For what it’s worth, we think this is one of Ben’s most underrated qualities. From the outside, he’s a cool-as-hell frontman who’s into skateboarding, football and fashion. But through his songwriting he can tug at the heartstrings of people all across the world, and isn’t afraid to show what it means to be vulnerable.

“I’m quite a sensitive guy underneath this buffoon that I put out there,” he chuckles. “When I first started writing songs, I was just a sad, heartbroken kid, and was writing about break-ups, about girls, and about love. I felt like I could actually say how I felt through music – probably more so than I could say it to people. I’m not very good at anything other than that. Like I said, we’re constantly reminding ourselves of how lucky and blessed we are to be in this position. If I didn’t have music, fuck knows where I’d be. I’ve always used music as a sort of vehicle for my emotions for myself, and maybe for other people to understand it. And so if that translates to other people, then fucking great!”

Though he doesn’t allow himself to outwardly get too carried away, there’s one track in particular on Neck Deep’s new album that you can tell Ben’s exceptionally proud of. And rightly so. Its subject matter, the singer explains, isn’t often touched on by most bands – and certainly not pop-punk ones. But the “melodic, catchy ’80s punk”-inspired They May Not Mean To (But They Do) is the shining example of their decade-long growth since 2014 debut Wishful Thinking. Thoughtfully tackling the topic of a “tense or complex relationship with your parents” (‘So did they love too much / Or was it not enough / You know they’re not to blame / Because we’re all fucked up’), Ben had been itching to work on a song like this for a good few years.

“We’re all nearly 30 – me and Powles are clinging on to the last of our 20s,” he laughs, detailing his headspace and reason for writing it. “I think it’s something that a lot of our fans will relate to, because, for me, the mid-20s was looking back at my childhood and my relationship with my parents. I think you have that realisation of, ‘My parents are just human beings, and they didn’t have a fucking clue what they were doing!’ And I love them for it, but at the same time, you look back at it and you’re like, ‘It could have been different.’ It’s quite a big realisation that you have when you’re at that point in your life, and that can lead you to be maybe a little bit resentful at times, and a little bit longing for the past, or what could have been. But at the same time, it’s part of life, and we’re probably gonna make those same mistakes.

“We’ve written songs about family before,” he adds, “but it’s not something that bands always wanna talk about. Whether you have a great relationship or kind of a shitty relationship with your parents, I think there’s something in there for people who have reached that point in life.”

While Ben’s dad sadly passed away in 2016 (something he so powerfully wrote about on the following year’s 19 Seventy Sumthin’ from The Peace And The Panic), he admits he’s slightly nervous about his mum’s reaction.

“I don’t think she’s heard it yet,” he says, “but, to be fair, she is rational to a fault, so I think she might understand the creative expression. I don’t want my mum to feel like I’m fucking outing her in front of people, because that’s not what it’s about!”

As well as looking all the way back to his childhood, Ben does even more digging into his present-day psyche across these 10 tracks. Infectious single Heartbreak Of The Century hears him sing lines like, ‘Depression is the devil on my shoulder that I can’t suppress,’ while the honest Sort Yourself Out revels in the fact that no human being – himself included – is perfect (it’s also a song that rhymes ‘future’ with ‘karma sutra’ so shout-out to Ben for that). And then there’s Go Outside!’s powerful sing-along of ‘I should play it off like there’s nothing wrong / But I’m not that big and I’m not that strong / Held it all in for far too long,’ which addresses “the very real, genuine struggles with anxiety, depression, mental health”.

“I think everyone in the band has struggled at points, and the older we get the more that comes to mind,” Ben says. “I think just having more experience and more context, and knowing how to talk about it, that serves that message and intent, and it passes on to fans who can hopefully say, ‘This song described how I felt about things, and maybe now it’ll help me rationalise my feelings.’ It’s very much about the thick of a mental health episode. I love the line about, ‘It’s like I fell through the trapdoor / I’m casting such a long shadow.’ I remember writing that bit and being like, ‘Yeah, fuck…’ Because that’s how it can feel sometimes: one minute it’s all good, and the next minute you’ve fallen down the trapdoor and you can’t leave the house.”

“I think uplifting music has been something that people have grown to love about us”

Ben Barlow

This is still Neck Deep, though, and these are raw and real emotions expertly woven into adrenaline-pumping earworms that you’ll want to yell in your mates’ faces at massive festivals.

“I think uplifting music has been something that people have grown to love about us,” Ben agrees. “Especially going back to [2015 second album] Life’s Not Out To Get You, which was the quintessential positive pop-punk record, and a little guide to life. Whereas now we’re a little bit older, maybe a little less naive. And I think it feels that message is maybe a bit more mature, a bit more realistic, and a bit more applicable to people. If you want the youthful naivety and exuberance, that still exists, but this is us 10 years later, with just a slightly more mature perspective on things. It doesn’t have to tell you, ‘Hey, everything’s gonna be alright,’ but it still feels that way.”

There’s also Ben’s favourite political Neck Deep song to date: passionate single We Need More Bricks, which has the seal of approval from one of their heroes, blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, and eagerly incites listeners to do their part. Well – most listeners…

“You see a few shitty comments,” Ben says with an eye roll. “I think one dude said, ‘(Puts on a nerdy voice) This guy’s actively calling for a revolution!’ It’s a bit of a jump. But even if that was the case, so fucking what, dude? It’s art; it’s expression. If you’re listening to punk rock music for it to be safe, sanitary, too afraid to touch on politics or comment on the world we live in, then are you listening to punk music? Come on!”

As is the frontman’s way, though, he’s not being preachy about it. He simply reckons that there are ways to make the world a better place, and he’s putting out a “good, strong message” that he’s done his research on.

“I think I’ll always be very politically minded,” Ben adds, “maybe too politically minded at times, I must say! But I’m passionate about it, and I want to at least make people think. If we can do that, then it’s mission accomplished.”

Neck Deep has, Ben succinctly sums up, “been the adventure of my life”. It’s a good time to be thinking about this sort of stuff, given how nicely things are lining up for him and the band in 2024. Of course, there’s the self-titled record. Then, there’s the small matter of their biggest-ever headline show in March, at London’s Alexandra Palace. On a personal note, soon the frontman will be getting married to his long-term partner Niamh, and then turning 30 in the summer. These past 10 years have seen him grow more than he could ever have imagined – and if all goes to plan, it’s an adventure that’ll never come to an end.

“I think we’ve found a really happy place as a band,” Ben smiles. “The start of the band was this rocket-launch trajectory, and now we’re cruising – we’re just in orbit. We’re in a good place and the band feels really good. We’ve been good friends for over 10 years, and we care about each other deeply. We’ve actually gotten really good within the last couple of years about just being very honest with each other – whether it’s about music, whether it’s about band stuff, or whether it’s personal, being able to be there and fucking cry around each other and feel vulnerable. And I feel like we don’t really have anything to prove anymore – we can just keep doing our thing, and the pressure is off in that sense. We’ve hit a point where we don’t have anything to prove, and we’ve still got room to grow – so just keep doing it!”

“We’ve found a really happy place as a band”

Ben Barlow

But what about if this hadn’t all happened? Do you ever think about who nearly-30-year-old Ben would have been without Neck Deep?

“Yeah, it’s insane,” he nods. “Neck Deep was literally my wildest dreams come true; by the time I was, like, 19, I’d done everything I’d ever wanted to do in life (laughs). I’ve seen so much of the world, and I’ve done so much stuff that it’s hard for me to imagine what I would have done. I probably would have done alright – I’d have stuck out uni, and I probably would have done some music.

“But god…” he exhales deeply. “I can’t imagine my life without Neck Deep. Like, it is my baby. It’s the thing that we all care about the most. I could have gone off and probably done a solo record by now – we’ve joked about that for years! But I don’t see why I would do that. We all just love Neck Deep so much – it has become our lives, and it is at the core of all of our identities. So it’s really, really tough to imagine what life would have been like. It would have been very different, and I think I would have struggled a lot more in normal life. In a lot of ways, Neck Deep has saved my life – it’s been the thing that’s made my life fucking amazing, and maybe that’s the shared thing that we have with our fans: we care about this as much as it means to you.”

And having gone through their fair share of line-up shifts throughout the past decade, he laughs that they’re “set for life now” in terms of band members. Things are stable, and it all feels right.

“With Powlesy coming in, he’s one of the groomsmen at my wedding,” Ben says. “From the moment that me and Powles met, we immediately got on and were good friends, and it’s good to give that [opportunity to join the band] to a friend. We could have done a Smashing Pumpkins and started advertising (laughs) or asked around, but Powles was right there. He’s had to fill in at other times as well and already knew the songs. And the most important thing for us is having whoever’s in the band fully understand what Neck Deep is about. Because Powles is from a shitty town that’s very similar to Wrexham. He comes from a similar background and bleeds Neck Deep, and just works his fucking arse off – he’s genuinely such a fucking trooper.”

Most of the hard work setting up the year ahead has been done, of course. But Neck Deep are still eyeing up more – including actually selling Ally Pally out (“That’s a real goal of mine – and I refuse to believe that we won’t!”) and having their album hit the charts once again (both The Peace And The Panic and All Distortions… landed in the UK Top 5).

“I’d love a Number One to tick off the bucket-list,” Ben enthuses. “But paying too much attention to that stuff, I wouldn’t want it to cloud the effort that we put in. Maybe a mistake I’ve made in the past is, ‘We’ve gotta get this chart position!’ and then Taylor Swift always comes along (laughs). But yeah, it’s one of those things where if it happens I’ll be over the moon, but I think putting all your eggs in that basket isn’t what it should be about. I think the biggest achievement was the fact that we fucking made this record in the first place. If it happens it’ll be fucking awesome, but I think we’re actually releasing on the same day as Green Day, so there you go. I’m not too fussed. Even to be anywhere near Green Day…” he trails off, amazed at the notion that Neck Deep are in the same conversation as one of the key bands who shaped him growing up.

And, just like Billie Joe Armstrong and co., the goal now is longevity. They’ve made quite the lives for themselves, after all, so why not just keep it going?

“Obviously in the future we’d love to be headlining festivals and doing Wembley and big arenas and stuff like that,” Ben says. “But, you know, all in good time. We’re in no rush. We’ve done enough and worked hard enough and been consistent enough with our music where we can take our time. We’re not going to fade out of the public consciousness, and we have the self-awareness to just be like, ‘We’re happy where we’re at – we’re in our lane thriving.’ I think the growth will come if we just stay on that path.”

With a healthy dose of his signature humility, Ben concludes that everything “feels fucking great” right now.

“It feels like we operate the best that we ever have,” he says. “It’s just really easy to be in Neck Deep right now. That’s what it feels like.”

Neck Deep is released on January 19 via Hopeless Records. The band headline London’s Alexandra Palace on March 28 – get your tickets now

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