“There’s a history there. To have that rewarded is sick!”: Neck Deep on headlining Slam Dunk 2022

As Wrexham heroes Neck Deep are revealed as the final headliners for this year’s Slam Dunk, Ben Barlow chats to Kerrang! about beginning at the bottom, staying the course, and plotting the next steps towards pop-punk domination...

“There’s a history there. To have that rewarded is sick!”: Neck Deep on headlining Slam Dunk 2022
Sam Law
Download Pilot photo:
Nat Wood

“Ow doggy, no!” A look of pain and surprise flashes across Ben Barlow’s face midway through our conversation on a dank January afternoon. Wrestling his finger from recently acquired Patterdale Terrier pup, Eddie, however, it’s quickly replaced by that familiar grin and an admission that, despite already being “dog dad” to a beloved-but-lethargic bulldog, the recent arrival is a deliberate effort to liven up life off tour. “He’s a little shit,” Ben laughs, affectionately, “but hopefully he’s going to be more of a walking, talking all-action dog, rather than a sleeping, snoring pig!”

Indeed, Ben is straining at the leash himself.

A massive part of that is surely sheer excitement at today’s Slam Dunk headline announcement. Having made their bow at the festival as a fan-picked wildcard in 2013, reaching top billing after nine short years feels like the culmination of a whirlwind journey for Neck Deep, and an opportunity to write their name into the top tier of punk alongside Sum 41, Alexisonfire and Dropkick Murphys. Before that, there’s also the small matter of finally getting to their long-postponed All Distortions Are Intentional UK headline dates, currently scheduled for next month. Plus, they’re to get finalising work on an all-purpose band HQ, and need to get in there to record album number five…

How does it feel to be announced as a headliner for Slam Dunk 2022, Ben?
“It’s amazing. Slam Dunk is such a unique festival. It’s our favourite for what we do, the best in our specific world. It’s tailored to a very specific audience, but all of that audience turn out. Plus, [we’ve got] a history there. To have that rewarded with a headline slot is so sick – the next step on [the Neck Deep] journey!”

That history dates back to Slam Dunk Wales in 2013, where you performed as contest winners. Do you have fond memories?
“There was a fan poll for the slot, and we got voted on! I just remember playing in one of the small rooms in the Cardiff University Student Union, and Astroid Boys doing a guest spot during one of our songs. The coolest thing was that we’d been selected for the show by the fans. It was like, ‘Oooh, we won something!’”

Are you much different now from those fresh-faced 2013 boys?
“We’ve definitely honed our craft and gotten better – and tighter – at what we do, but our approach to playing shows has always just been about getting out there, having fun and doing whatever you want, as long as we’re into it and the crowd’s into it. I think we’ve managed to keep it relatively humble, and not gotten too far ahead of ourselves. Ben from nine years ago is probably very similar to Ben now.”

You’ve been back to Slam Dunk many times since. What have been your greatest victories?
“As someone who likes music, I always have a good time. But our set at Hatfield in 2019 was one of the wildest we’ve ever played, and it definitely ranks amongst our favourite UK shows. He might want to clarify, but [Festival Director] Ben Ray told us when we came offstage that we’d broken the record for the most crowdsurfers ever during a performance at Slam Dunk!”

As a festival veteran, what exactly do you reckon makes Slam Dunk so special?
“At another big festival, there might just be a small section of the crowd who’re really into our kind of music, but at Slam Dunk, there are these massive crowds of people who all love pop-punk – and those crowds seem to be getting bigger all the time! We love playing there, but it’s also the festival my punk-head oldest brother, whose favourite bands are NOFX, Pennywise and Bad Religion, always wants to come to. It’s about having mostly pop-punk bands, with a bunch of old-school punk bands, and some really heavy bands all playing together. That makes for this really nice eclectic mix of everything that represents our world. And it’s a showcase for the very best of those things. It’s a great platform for young bands. If you’re playing Slam Dunk, you’re probably doing something right. [Fans might come for the acts you already know, but] their next favourite band will probably be playing Slam Dunk, too.”

Is it fair to say it’s got that same moveable feast quality as the old-school Warped Tour, with that buffet of brilliance packed into one day?
“It’s so specific to our world, and all the subgenres in it, that it does have something of a Warped Tour feel to it. That’s certainly how I’d explain it to Americans. But, nowadays, Slam Dunk has also gained a reputation around the world in its own right.”

You’re sharing headline status with three iconic bands in Sum 41, Dropkick Murphys and Alexisonfire. How does it feel to see Neck Deep held up alongside such legendary names?
“I try not to think about it too much. If I get in my head about it, and think about how I’m getting to play alongside these people I idolise, I could start freaking out and being weird. The Dropkicks are more of my brother’s thing, but Sum 41 were a huge influence from my childhood onwards. I’ll still go back and jam All Killer No Filler if the mood’s right. I never imagined I’d share a stage with them. I love Alexisonfire, too, but I’m even more excited just to get to see [guitarist/co-vocalist] Dallas Green. Dallas was a huge, huge influence on me with City And Colour. I’ve never met him. I’ve only ever seen him live once before, and never with Alexisonfire. If I can get a chance even to shake his hand and say, ‘Hey!’, it’d be super cool.”

As the relative newcomers, how do you go about holding your own?
“If we’re going to be put in a category alongside some really cool, influential musicians, the only thing we can really do is enjoy being in such good company. We just do our thing and whatever happens, happens. Even if we were only playing to like 500 fans, a sick show is a sick show. And it’d be cool if some of those other bands caught our set. A big part of why we do this is that recognition from the people you respect. If someone I looked up to as a kid comes up to me and says they enjoy my music, it’s always like ‘Fuck yeah!’ Those are the times when I’ve done little-me proud.”

You certainly reaffirmed that you can command the biggest stages at Download Pilot and Reading & Leeds last year. Are those big shows particularly fuelled by the silence and solitude of the pandemic?
“It feels sort of like everything has been bottled up. You don’t get to play a show for ages, then you play 20,000 people over a couple of days. It’s like this massive release. But I still love small shows, too. Nothing beats the roar of a massive crowd, but nothing beats the feel of stagediving in a tiny sweatbox.”

How did your end-of-2021 U.S. All Distortions Are Intentional headline dates measure up?
“The U.S. tour was great. It was just that little bit bigger, where we were consistently getting to play to a couple of thousand people a night. Plus, COVID didn’t hit until right at the end of the run. We joke that Eric [Egan] from [opening act] Heart Attack Man cursed that tour right at the very end. The night before a few of us tested positive, we were talking with him about how both our bands had had to cut short tours in the same area when COVID first hit, and he [cracked a joke about] how we might’ve already played the last show of this tour. Then the next day rolls around, and we had!”

Still, to manage that length of run must’ve felt like a win…
“[Music] is a dicey game these days. Every show that you do feels like a little success. Being able to play a handful of shows each year is always better than not being able to play any!”

Has that changed your perspective on seeing your upcoming UK headline dates pushed back once again?
“We’re just as bummed about it as everyone else, because it’s just more and more delays. It’s a pain in the arse for us, too. It feels like people’s attitudes about this thing are a lot different to how they were last year – and I hope those people come out to the tour to support us – but there are also definitely a lot of people who don’t feel safe coming out yet. Hopefully, things can take a turn for the better in the next couple of weeks. We obviously can’t wait to see our friends and play some shows and do what we love doing, but at this point it’s been such a long process of actually just trying to get this tour done that it has to happen now. We’re looking forward to being able to give ourselves a pat on the back for having gotten these shows done, then being able to move onto the next ones!”

Is there anything you’d say to fans who’re uncertain about coming out?
“Always make up your own mind, think for yourself and trust your gut. But, generally, it’s about people being sensible in the lead-up to the shows. Be careful, minimise your contact with other people, especially when numbers are high. And if you’re not comfortable, you don’t need to get in the pit. Balcony seats have always been notoriously hard to shift, but they’re a great place for people who want to come along without getting bumped into and covered in sweat.”

The “bedroom” production you’ve been using for these headline dates is a far cry from your instantly-recognisable “GENERIC POP-PUNK” backdrop. By the time you get to Slam Dunk, should we expect an even bigger show?
“In typical Neck Deep fashion, we’re just always clambering around to sort that out. Maybe we’ll bring out that bedroom set one last time and tailor it to the Slam Dunk stage specifically. Maybe there’ll be a bigger production with a few more bells and whistles: explosions and lights and fire – all that good shit. [Maybe we’ll] be too broke to afford that. If we do end up coming out with a big, flashy production, assume that the UK tour went really well for us. If we end up coming out with just a piece of paper with “Neck Deep” written on it like NOFX, assume that it didn’t (laughs).”

Aside from music and “dog dad” duties, what else have you been up to?
“We’ve just been enjoying our lives as people and beginning to write new music. Over the last six months, the band has become a lot more independent, which is a really good position for us – to be an established band with so much control over what we do. We’ve been busy working on setting up a band hub with a studio and practice space specifically for Neck Deep.”

Like While She Sleeps’ Sheffield HQ?
“Pretty much exactly that. We’ve been practising at Sleeps’ for a while now, using their practice space and the storage at their place. They’re great dudes, and super productive, inspiring people to be around. They want to make shit happen and they do so much of it themselves. That’s what we need to do, too. After a couple of years of not really doing much due to the pandemic we needed something that we could all focus around and a place close to home where we could all go whenever we want, as often as we want, to be productive. We’re hoping to have it ready in the next few weeks.”

How is the new music taking shape?
“It sounds like Neck Deep! That’s really the best way that I can explain it. We’ve learned a lot from the last record – both good and bad – and we’re just going to keep doing our thing. It’s about not overthinking it too much, and keeping being ourselves. Hopefully people like it. I think they will!”

As a product of the pandemic era, is it a reflection of the darkness and uncertainty of that time, or more of a colourful reaction to what we’ve all been living through?
“I’d say it’s definitely more of a reaction. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the times that we’re in. It’s still in the early stages, but from what we’ve got so far, I think it will speak to people in the same way that Life’s Not Out To Get You did, but also in the same way that The Peace And The Panic and All Distortions… did, too. It’s a nice mix of messages that’s been developing over the last 10 years. Whether that’s to be positive and have a strong outlook on life, or to maybe dwell on life and sadness, being able to cover all of those different emotions, and tying them into where we fit into society and the wider world today, is what I’m going for. New music is about making you feel a certain way, and hopefully lyrics sum up your thoughts and feelings in a way that you’ve not articulated, or even thought about, before.”

Are there any timescales for finalising the next Neck Deep release?
“It’ll happen when it happens. We’re ready whenever, but it can’t just happen whenever. Work does begin in earnest pretty soon, though, and hopefully there’ll be something special in time for Slam Dunk. Beyond that? Hopefully we’ll have an album out at some point in 2022. I can’t say when exactly, not because it’s classified information, but because we’re taking our time. I can say, however, that we’ll definitely have some new songs out this year.”

And, finally, what else can we expect from Neck Deep going into 2022?
“We’re going to have a very busy summer – a lot of it isn’t announced yet, so I can’t talk about it – but safe to say, it all kicks off with Slam Dunk!”

Slam Dunk Festival takes place on June 3 at Leeds’ Temple Newsam Park, and June 4 at Hatfield Park. Before that, catch Neck Deep’s UK headline tour next month.

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