Why Neck Deep have swapped pop-punk for their own universe

First, Neck Deep conquered the pop-punk world. Now, they’re creating their own. Here, Kerrang! navigates four months in ‘Sonderland’ for the birth of ambitious new album All Distortions Are Intentional...

Why Neck Deep have swapped pop-punk for their own universe
Main photo:
Tom Barnes

It’s a chilly November afternoon, and Ben Barlow’s eyes are fixed on the countryside outside the kitchen window. Neck Deep have been living at this studio for three weeks, and will remain so for as many more, and have already grown immune to the charms of the 400 acres of fields that surround it, the nearby river that recently broke its banks, and the mysterious cats that watch the humans from the safety of the long, snaking driveway. The band’s singer has something more pressing in mind right now – namely, the bonfire planned for this evening, and scouting for materials to build it, which need only satisfy one criterion: “If it burns, we’ll burn it.”

Encouraged by his bandmates, Ben, with a couple of strokes of a marker pen, makes these words the 10th of Neck Deep’s “Album 4 Rewlz” – an ever-growing list of guidelines they’re living by while making their similarly combustible follow-up to 2017’s The Peace And The Panic. These “rewlz” are written on a large whiteboard, repurposed from its role recording the results of games of pool hampered by uneven floorboards beneath the table.

According to the board, rule number three is “Get it blown”, a reference to Neck Deep having recently destroyed three amps in as many days, necessitating a seven-hour round trip to collect a replacement, only for that to also go boom within half an hour. The band can laugh about it now, thankfully, because rule number six is “Keep being comedy legends”, a rule they don’t struggle to observe, enjoying an easy chemistry characterised by self-deprecation, especially after a few beers. Alcohol doesn’t make an appearance too early in these parts, though, as stipulated by the all-important ninth rule: “No bevs before quarter past piss”. That’s 6.15pm to the uninitiated.

Welcome to Monnow Valley, a remote studio in Monmouthshire, South-East Wales where, since 1974, bands have come to get away from the world and concentrate on the job of making important records that radically alter the trajectories of their authors. Black Sabbath visited here many times as they transformed themselves from the niche purveyors of darkness of their early days to the goliaths of metal they’re known as today. Ozzy Osbourne even once reportedly used the bedroom currently occupied by Neck Deep guitarist Sam Bowden to summon spirits with a Ouija board.

Liam Gallagher might tell you Ozzy was successful in contacting the other side. His band Oasis were here in the autumn of 1993 to transpose the Manchester band’s formidable live clout into their debut album, Definitely Maybe. Not only did the £800-a-day sessions prove fruitless, the usually cocksure Liam became unsettled by witnessing overhead lights being manipulated by unseen forces. And while, ultimately, those “forces” turned out to be the singer’s mischievous bandmates using fishing lines to simulate the work of a poltergeist, Neck Deep are in no doubt over the supernatural status of the place.

“It’s 100 per cent haunted,” confirms guitarist Matt West (or simply West), before revealing that Matt Squire, the producer for ND’s fourth album and the man responsible for records by All Time Low, Panic! At The Disco and Ariana Grande, insisted on ceremoniously burning sage to purge bad energy after witnessing a crow’s death.

Neck Deep are also clear about what they’re here to achieve: an album that fundamentally shifts them from pop-punk’s leading lights to a great band full stop, transferring these big fish from their small pond to the limitless oceans of the big time. Not because they think that’s what they should be doing now, mind, but because it’s a point they’ve arrived at organically.

“Pop-punk’s where we came from, and the reason we’re doing what we’re doing now,” says West, not wishing to discredit the world that birthed them. “We started out writing pop-punk songs because that’s what we were listening to at the time. Naturally, over the years, we’ve grown and tastes have changed. On [The Peace And The Panic], we had songs like Parachute and In Bloom that wouldn’t sound particularly out of place on the record we’re making now. We enjoyed writing and playing those songs so much that the natural evolution was to do [last year’s non-album single] She’s A God, and that took us to where we are now. I don’t think there’s any conscious effort to step away from where we were, it’s just a natural thing that’s happened.”

“For me, the highest form of praise for this record would be people thinking it’s been made by real artists rather than some everyday lads in a band,” adds Ben. “We are more than loveable idiots – there’s a deeper level to what we do. We’ve evolved into creative people with taste and a vision, who have carved out our own pocket within the music world. I want people to think Neck Deep don’t sound like anyone else – that they sound like Neck Deep.”

It’s not alterations to the band’s creative process that have brought about this evolution, because little has really changed from the early days of Ben and older brother Seb piecing together music in the attic of their childhood home. And while today they’ve got more space in which to play, the band still favour close confines and a production-line mentality. They record in the wood-beamed studio attached to the house, before Seb, ensconced in an upstairs bedroom, reviews what’s been done, noting any tweaks required, or mixing the stuff that makes the grade.

It’s a model of self-sufficiency young bands should aspire to. And Monnow, located 100 miles from their home base in Wrexham, seems a much better fit than the Los Angeles studios where Neck Deep worked on The Peace And The Panic, and began writing this one – experiences not necessarily to their tastes.

“It feels like we’re here for the sole purpose of making a record, whereas in LA we were also having to shake hands and network and shit,” says Ben, explaining the key difference between there and here, then and now. “We wake up here just a few footsteps away from the studio. Being close to home takes a big element of stress out of the situation, too. We don’t have to constantly fly or live out of a suitcase. I know I’m not going to go home yet, because we’re going to work on this until the final days. But psychologically, it’s comforting to know I could.”

Far from skipping out, Ben – ever the night owl – regularly stays up until dawn here, a glass of red wine in hand, recording vocal takes or listening back to his efforts. As a result he’s the last to rise each day. At 2pm, he hasn’t been up long, sipping coffee and vaping as he explains how these dark nights of the soul provide the “total immersion” he craves when making an album, as well as time to piece together what this emerging opus is about.

“Having a lot of strong songs already is obviously a big boost,” says Ben of material that, under the freewheeling stewardship of producer Matt – a creative kindred spirit for whom no idea is too experimental – kicks open the door to musical possibilities only hinted at by The Peace And The Panic. The new album draws influence from the aforementioned Sabbath and Oasis, as well as Weezer and Nirvana. “There’s some stuff that’s got a Smashing Pumpkins vibe, too,” he adds, hitting his stride for the day ahead. “You wouldn’t have been able to say that before, would you?”

“It weirds me out that this is my life and I get to do this for a living,” admits Ben that night, the bonfire thawing a reflective side he doesn’t readily reveal. He’s discussing whether the changing fortunes that he and his bandmates have enjoyed in recent years have altered their drive. Is it harder to leave the homes they’ve bought and domestic lives they’ve built to make and tour a new record? Or does knowing what Neck Deep has given them make them keener to reap and enjoy the rewards?

“Absolutely!” nods Ben, emphatically stoking the fire and sending embers soaring into the cold night. “My attitude is that this band has given me everything. So I have to continue to put everything I can offer back into it.” That’s truer than ever, given that Ben, a natural storyteller, has developed for the album a narrative framework to help channel his ideas and provide a landscape his bandmates navigate in weird and often wonderful ways.

“We’re trying to present our sound, as individuals and as a band, in a way that’s palatable to the biggest audience,” explains drummer Dani Washington. “That may seem like an obvious idea, but it’s not really. If you view music as a language, you want as many people to understand your language as possible, which isn’t easy. You don’t want to copy anyone else, so you’re taking interesting, original ideas and channelling them into something bigger that brings people into our world.”

Broadly speaking, the conceptual arc holding the album together concerns the life, love and existential questions contemplated by Jet, a complicated character the singer doesn’t mind admitting is loosely based on himself. Jet resides in a place called Sonderland – a play on “Wonderland” the band are considering for the album title, despite Sam joshing that it’s a bit too much like Sunderland.

“‘Sonder’ is a German word for the realisation that every stranger you pass in the street has a life as vivid and complex as your own,” explains Ben. “You’re just an extra in their story, and they’re just an extra in yours. A lot of this comes from the way I see the world, but told from the perspective of an accentuated character.”

West, something of an accentuated character himself, is also no stranger to giving back to the band that’s changed his life. The bearded guitarist, tending the fire from the opposite side to Ben, is constantly using the knowledge he’s accumulated from a lifelong curiosity with how things work to create efficiencies for Neck Deep. The busyness of his brain means he’s generally the first up in the morning, though he doesn’t spend those extra hours practicing guitar or jotting down ideas, instead enjoying some uninterrupted gaming before the work begins. When it does, you’ll find him glued to his laptop at the dining room table, working on another key element of the band’s future. Having trained in animation as a younger man, he is dusting off skills he’s not utilised in eight years to create visuals for a future tour, after baulking at an eye-watering quote from an agency to do the work. It’s painstaking stuff, with each element of the flowers that will accompany In Bloom during shows created from scratch, while the online tutorials he uses for pointers remain at the mercy of an “absolute potato” Wi-Fi connection.

“Dividing and conquering is the best way to work because we’re here for a finite time,” explains West, who’ll contribute musical ideas, but is happy to let Sam play the guitar parts in the studio. “If he can track better than I can, why would I slow things down? It’s about focusing on our strengths.”

West is currently showcasing another of his strengths, designing merch on his iPad while casting a confused glance at the others as they work on a song that’s proving rather contentious. Lowlife started out as a riff Ben played on an acoustic guitar so often during last summer’s U.S. tour with blink-182 and Lil Wayne that his bandmates grew sick of it. There are therefore some raised eyebrows that it’s being fleshed into fuller form, particularly now that it features lyrics like ‘I’m drinking coffee on a trampoline’.

“I just don’t get it,” West admits to K! later. “It’s definitely a lot further out from our comfort zone than I’m personally used to.”

Early February. Two months have passed since Neck Deep left the studio, and they look relieved to be out the other side, quaffing beers much earlier than “a quarter past piss” in a London pub. Despite the calm setting the band were in when we were last with them, sedentary living, comfort food and antisocial working hours became side effects of their focus and took their toll. When Dani returned home to Colwyn Bay on the North Wales coast, his girlfriend took one look at him and asked, “What the fuck happened to you?”

There are bigger questions now, though. Why, for example, is the 12-track album they’ve emerged with now called All Distortions Are Intentional, rather than Sonderland?

“We realised [Sonderland] pigeonholed the record a bit, putting too much of a focus on the fantastical setting than the characters involved,” explains Ben, who’s happy the name found a home fronting the opening track. “All Distortions Are Intentional came from the artist who ended up doing the cover [Tom Noon]. We were flipping through his stuff, and he had a piece with that name, and I thought it sounded sick. It’s a statement that plays into the record in a lot of ways. Our understandings and misunderstandings in life happen for a reason, and in our journey from point A to point B there are a lot of emotional fluctuations, which are all part of the bigger picture. This is an album of drastic juxtapositions and creative choices that might not all make sense right off the bat, but they are intentional.”

This idea is best illustrated by the seismic lyrical and musical shift between tracks five and six. When You Know is the most traditional pop-punk song on the record, in which Jet realises he’s in love, before giving way to the glacial Quarry, which finds him contemplating suicide. The bleakness of the latter, it turns out, came from a very real place.

“For a while that song was making me sweat,” says Ben, of Quarry. “Because Jet is drawn from elements of my own personality and psyche, his admission that ‘Yeah, I want to jump off a cliff,’ is a dark realisation I’m sure we’ve all felt at times – what if it all ended right now? I did wonder if I’d gone in too deep with that. Then there’s the stylistic choice – I wouldn’t say it’s rapping, but would describe it as spoken-word. I’m used to hearing my singing voice back, and I don’t mind it, but hearing myself talking and my accent coming through didn’t feel typically Neck Deep, because it was me as me. It took me a while to accept it, but we told ourselves at the start [of making the album] that we shouldn’t fight what comes out, whatever it is.”

For proof of the dividends this philosophy paid, note that Lowlife – a rather divisive composition in its infancy back in the studio – has blossomed into All Distortions Are Intentional’s fascinating first single, which Ben describes as “a cornerstone”. What’s more, the lyric ‘I like some purple with my tangerine’, inspired by the intense colours of certain strains of weed, is directly referenced in the album’s artwork.

“Who’d have fucking thought it?” laughs West. “Turns out that song is brilliant. So that’s taught me to trust in the process.”

Another dramatic change is the fact that five men are sat here today instead of four, that fifth figure a slightly nervous-looking Seb. Always a behind-the-scenes member of Neck Deep, having co-written the songs, produced their early records and mixed this new one, the elder Barlow is officially ND’s new bassist. Speaking at their family home for the band’s last Kerrang! magazine cover back in 2017, Seb admitted he’s more comfortable behind a laptop than in front of a crowd, so this news comes as something of a surprise. Given his importance to the band’s story, however, there’s no denying the appointment, agreed during a piss-up in Wetherspoons, carries great symbolic weight – and says a lot about his belief in the band’s new output.

“It did and it didn’t come out of nowhere,” says Ben, who gained his appetite for live performance watching his brother play local shows back in the day. “When we were first looking for a bassist, Seb threw his name into the hat. He’s traditionally said he’d rather work with bands than be in one, so back then I thought, ‘Whoa! Fuck!’ It didn’t work out, because I don’t think he was at a place in his life where he could commit to it fully. A year later, with all of us in a better place and Seb along to write the record, things were different. What swayed it for me was his confidence in the idea, without any air of uncertainty at all. His confidence gave me confidence. If Seb says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it full on.”

“It makes so much sense,” adds Dani, who wasn’t in Wetherspoons on that fateful night, and wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for Seb. “He’s been part of every decision the band has ever made. He was the one who messaged me all those years back, asking if I’d like to join Neck Deep. Now I get the chance to perform with him, which is so special.”

There’s no doubt All Distortions Are Intentional is special, too – the kind of album that somehow manages to maintain the essence of the band you fell in love with, while altering its DNA so drastically you’ll give up on guessing what to expect next. Is it a creative gamble? Given that it takes a leap as sizeable as the one from 2015’s Life’s Not Out To Get You to The Peace And The Panic, and then another, that’s a yes. Will it please a fanbase who’ve come to expect the unexpected? Definitely. Will it earn new fans in people who would tell you Neck Deep aren’t their cup of tea? Undoubtedly. Given the boxes being ticked, and the new boxes added in for good measure, this was presumably the plan all along, right? Not according to West, who’s so pleased with the album that even the news that the rollercoaster visuals he’s spent two weeks designing are being scrapped doesn’t spoil his mood.

“We’ve always said we just want to do the biggest things we can,” he says. “We’re hopefully doing some big rooms at the end of the year, but one of us just asked, ‘What will we do after that?’ Well, I want us to do a show at the Racecourse Ground [the 10,771-capacity home of Wrexham FC]. We owe a lot to the town; I wouldn’t have met Ben and Seb if I hadn’t gone to college there, and would still be working in a shop rather than getting to dick around on stage, so I’d like to give something back.”

Ben, meanwhile, remains as modest as ever with his ambitions, despite all evidence suggesting his band are sitting on the record that will change their fortunes forever. For the singer, career progression and bigger shows, hometown or otherwise, are more than welcome – “We want to do the cool shit, because why the fuck wouldn’t we?” – but less important than people understanding what Neck Deep have done on All Distortions Are Intentional.

“I just hope people get it,” laughs Ben. “That it makes some kind of sense. The best reaction would be for it to just click, as it has on the last couple of records, though obviously I realise this one’s different. We got to witness it fall into place making it, which was a very exciting thing, so I want others to experience that feeling too.”

Neck Deep's new album All Distortions Are Intentional is out July 24 via Hopeless Records – pre-order/pre-save your copy now.

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