Neck Deep: “As soon as we got into the studio back home, we knew this is what it’s supposed to be like…”
In our latest Cover Story, Neck Deep vocalist Ben Barlow explains how they took a no-compromise approach to their self-titled new album.
Wrexham mates Neck Deep are one of the success stories of the British pop-punk scene. They’ve conquered both the UK and the States and quickly rose to the status of arena and festival headliners. A couple of weeks ago, the band released their fifth studio album, an album which quickly propelled up the album charts at one point vying for the top spot with another well-known pop-punk outfit Green Day. However, the journey through this fifth album wasn’t without its challenges.
In our latest Cover Story, V13 sat down with vocalist Ben Barlow to chat about their meteoric rise, why he loves pop-punk and the story behind writing their fifth album.
The record is out. Five albums in now. I remember seeing you guys at Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms and I’m thinking you were supporting We Are The In Crowd…
“That would make sense. I was trying to think when, when would we have played Portsmouth early days, and yeah, I think, I think you’re right, yeah, Save Your Breath and We Are The In Crowd.”
You started out as a bunch of mates getting together. Did it ever cross your mind that you’d be five albums in and talking about the band a decade later?
“No, to be honest, it all just happened so fast. Especially those first couple of years. I think pretty early on we had said “let’s see how far we can take this,” but now it’s still definitely kind of mad, especially as we just hit the 10 year anniversary.
We’ve been a band for nearly 12 years now so it’s mad to think that we’re not a new band anymore. For ages it seemed like we were a new band, an up and coming band, and now, we’ve been around for a minute, but it still feels like we’ve got a lot to do, still room to grow.”
The trajectory of the band at the beginning it seemed to go from like nought to 100 miles an hour, especially in the States where you just blew up and then you blew up in the UK more. Was there a point where it flipped from being a bunch of mates in a rehearsal room to thinking this is actually going somewhere?
“That flip definitely happened quite early on. Our second show, we played in front of some management who we ended up working with for a long while and from there really the ball started rolling pretty quickly. We signed a record deal and it all happened really that first year or two of the band, it just all got very real very quickly.
Like I said, within our second show, we were already picking up more steam than we really knew what to do with. It got real very quickly but it took us a while before we’re making a living off it.
I was on the dole for a bit, which was great. Got spotted outside the job centre one time and asked for a picture, which was really cool. It was great. I was 18, 19, touring the world and writing music. I think that shows, especially on our breakout record Life’s Not Out to Get You.
I think that record was so insanely positive and so insanely exuberant because it was such a mad time for us all. We really couldn’t stop to blink before we were on to the next thing. So, in a way I’m glad it’s chilled out a bit as I probably couldn’t have kept that pace up forever. It was definitely fun times for sure. Definitely very important times for the band and great memories.”
“We’ve been a band for nearly 12 years now so it’s mad to think that we’re not a new band anymore but it still feels like we’ve got a lot to do, still room to grow.”
Onto this record, you’ve talked about the album being unapologetically Neck Deep with no compromise. Did you feel you had to compromise in the past?
“Maybe at times. I think whenever you’re working on a record when there’s more than just the band involved in the creative process, which, you know, in modern music that’s a lot then you’re always gonna have to make some kind of compromise. Sometimes that’s for the best, but then sometimes it might not work.
That can be down to loads of things. We got to a point right in the middle of this record, we had gone out to LA and we’re working with producers and stuff and kind of just got a bit stuck in the mud. What we were getting wasn’t the way that we wanted it to sound, little kind of sonic signatures weren’t really there.
It didn’t really feel like Neck Deep but we’ve got the means to do something about it. We’re good enough songwriters now. This is our fifth record. We’re good songwriters. We’ve got the creative ability and the technical ability to make a record and do it ourselves. We have a studio that’s pretty much good to go.
When you decide to pivot halfway through making a record, you don’t always have a whole world of options in front of you other than the path of least resistance. We got to do this ourselves and that was a blessing in disguise because then, like you said, it became that everything that got put down that went into the record, only had to pass through our filter and we didn’t have to explain things that seem natural to us to anyone else. All that rationale was purely on us and definitely ended up being the best thing for us.”
Was there an actual trigger for that where you thought this isn’t us?
“It was about a week into the studio in LA, where I think there was just a bit of a funk in the air. We were going to the studio and they were long days in the studio. Good days in the studio don’t tend to feel that long. They’re fun. You can get through them and you’re stoked on what you’re doing. Whereas, in the long days, there was a lot of looks, a lot of sideways looks at each other at points and people not saying much. It got to a point where we got back to our apartment that we fucking hated as well because it was in the middle of nowhere and it cost a million quid to do anything and it fucking takes an hour to get anywhere.
We were just sat and it wasn’t going well. It was like is anyone else feeling the same about this? Things weren’t really vibing and everyone was on the same page. It was rough but we stuck it out for another couple of weeks out there and tried to make the best of a bad situation.
A couple of weeks into the process, a couple of heavy days of sitting in an Airbnb or a coffee shop and going at it and over it and getting to a point where, you know, we’re all happy.”
In a weird way, it must have been a good feeling to look around and realise you were actually all feeling the same about the record?
“Yeah, for sure, because that can definitely be the case sometimes but, no, I think everyone was definitely feeling it and thankfully, it wasn’t nice having to do it but it didn’t feel good to be like fuck we’re putting ourselves back a month or so here. We had to push the record back a little bit but, as soon as we got into the studio back home, we knew this is what it’s supposed to be like.”
Listening to the record, it feels like there’s so much energy to it. When you started recording it the second time around what did that feel like? Did it feel like a weight then lifted off your shoulders?
“Definitely. A massive weight off the shoulders. It was nice as well to get back to basics with it because that’s ultimately how the band started in Seb’s bedroom in Wrexham and, while Seb’s only been a part of the band for the last three or four years, he was there when it started and he was a huge part of the sound of Neck Deep which I think that shows in this record as well. It feels very true to Neck Deep and I do think that comes from Seb’s input and the fact that he was at the helm of producing the record. I think that was nice because it felt familiar, it felt comfortable, it felt true to how we started as a band and even that alone was a good motivator.”
There is a real mix of songs. There are fun, bouncy songs, emotional songs, and personal songs. What inspired you on this record?
“I think there’s a good range of things in there, but I think it’s a reflection of where we’re at in life. I think a lot of the subject matter is what you’d expect from Neck Deep, but I think from a slightly older perspective. I don’t want to say more mature, because that is a tired cliche, I think I’ve said it about every record that we’ve made, but it is in ways. I think it’s still got that youthful exuberance.
It’s still very true to the sort of core elements of pop-punk in terms of it is fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. I think there’s a lot of just self-reflection on who we are and where we’re at in life. Whether that’s love, whether that’s struggling with your mental health or struggling even with just coming of age, when you get to your mid-twenties and you realize that your parents are human.
That was a big thing I went through and I think, looking back at my childhood a bit as a kid and looking at my relationship with my parents, I have a great relationship with my parents but,I think entering this phase of my life where I’m probably going to be having kids myself in the future and I’m getting married soon, it’s just the sort of questions you start asking yourself here.
“I think it’s a reflection of where we’re at in life. I think a lot of the subject matter is what you’d expect from Neck Deep, but I think from a slightly older perspective.”
Whether you had a good relationship or a bad relationship with your parents, they’re the biggest influence on your life and, whether you like that or not, you’re going to kind of turn into them one day, so you may as well celebrate it, recognize it.
There is a few different ideas on there that I think people can relate to and I think that’s always been the key to it with Neck Deep is just be relatable. Pop music seems so unrelatable to me a lot of the time. The odd song comes around, but I think that’s always been a core part of pop punk for me. It speaks to me more than I think other genres do.
It does something and it tweaks that sort of sappy but snappy part of your brain where you’re thinking I need some strong, pretty emo lyrics. I need some strong, emotional lyrics.”
Sappy, but snappy. That’s the perfect description for pop-punk…
“I’ve been a part of the game for a while with pop-punk, I grew up with it. So I would say I know it really well, and that’s what I always look for.
The thing that sparked my interest as a kid was realising these are sappy songs about girls and growing up and having fun. I think that mix is maybe what makes pop-punk so special, so it’s good to go back and finally write a proper pop-punk record, it was fun to do that this time. We were maybe at a point with the last couple of records where we were maybe venturing out and seeing where it took us, but the post pandemic slog and getting back on our feet after all that, just made us take a step back and made us look at what was cool about how we started and where we started, and what’s cool about pop-punk. It can be one of those genres that’s done badly, it’s just a fine line where it’s done well. I think we’ve straddled both sides of that but I’d like to think more so on the better side of it. I think definitely we just know the genre very well.”
We talked about you not being true to yourself. How much of that was not subconsciously or maybe subconsciously inspired by the success you’d had in America and Neck Deep blowing up there, which you did early on. How much of that directed how you sounded or how you write or do you think it even did?
“No, not really. I don’t think the American success was an influence. That was just something that was cool, but I think the American music definitely was a huge influence for me. I think some people are surprised to find out that we’re from the UK because it’s such an American genre and it’s been so heavily American-dominated for pretty much the entirety of his time.
American music had a huge influence on me and, I think the way I got into it and maybe realized I could be a singer or I’d like to be in a band, was just from singing along to my favorite bands so I adopted a shitty fake American accent when I sang. We’ve spent a lot of time out there as well. There were times, there were periods where we were spending like almost nine months out of the year in America so it’s a special place and it’s definitely a key part of our story as well.”
Back in the UK though, you’ve done some huge shows over, then you did the club shows last year. What was that like for you, going back to that those small venues again?
“It’s been good to look back on where we came from. Definitely a lot of that when we first started practicing the songs and the first few shows that we played, it was really nostalgic, felt really special and it was cool, but also kind of weird and a little bit introspective because it we love these songs and these songs did so much for us but there were times where we knew our new music is so much better than this. Like, in certain bits of songs I’m sat singing thinking that this bit sucks or this is cringy. So, by the end of doing it because we ended up adding quite a few dates, I’m a little bit sick of these songs.
I’m glad we did it. I’m glad we showed it some love, but we just wanted to play new stuff. I was super stoked on playing new stuff but it was cool to play that type of show again as well and have that reminder, because I think we got so used to playing big rooms that doing no barrier shows was a nice reminder of the other side of the fence.”
“American music had a huge influence on me and I realized I could be a singer or I’d like to be in a band, was just from singing along to my favorite bands so I adopted a shitty fake American accent when I sang…”
How do you think you’ve changed as a songwriter? I’ve seen you use the term “professional songwriter”. Or do you think it is a case of you just know a good tune?
“I think that’s a key part of it. I’m not the best musician by any means. I can write the bare bones of the song on guitar, but I think it’s knowing what’s good and knowing what sucks. I think that as well, that’s a part of the relationship, that’s always been what it’s like with me and Seb as well. We both have very similar tastes and are quite telepathic in that sense, but I don’t think I’ve changed too much in the songwriting.
My approach to writing music is always very much the same. When we’re looking through instrumentals and we’re writing music, I’m looking for the thing that paints a picture. I’m looking for the song that sounds like a feeling that you can hook into and write about. That’s still very much the same process and the whole process with this album going back.
My influences have grown and maybe changed a little bit over the years and maybe there is some stuff that people don’t really expect all the time, but I think it finds its way in there in subtle ways. I think my influences have grown, but I think the process is still very much the same and still very much how it’s always been.”
Post pandemic, probably about 12 months ago, I spoke to Rou from Enter Shikari (read that cover story here) and we talked about how they regrouped after the pandemic and just took themselves off to a cottage in the middle of nowhere and rediscovered each other as a band. He said it reignited a fire in the band. Is that something you can relate to?
“Definitely. Yeah, I think we to go through a few struggles. I think we had to hit rock bottom a bit as a band. I think we definitely hit that during COVID. I think that was the absolute worst of it, as we were all wondering what the hell we were going to do. I think the post-pandemic slog was quite depressing as well, just because you were catching up on stuff that had been booked ages ago, you were still playing songs that you’re only just playing for the first time like two years later. It was a slog and it was depressing and it made you feel like you’d taken a step back and it made you feel like you’ve lost progress and that makes you lose faith in yourself.
It really was tough. It was genuinely, I think, the only time we’ve considered what’s the fucking point anymore? It always comes down to no matter what, where we get to, whether this is it or whether we grow, even more from here, what we’ve got is special and we’ve got fans, truly dedicated fans, that love us.”
The connection you have with your fans is something really special.
“Yeah, they’ve grown up with us. They probably started listening to us when they were 18, 19, early 20s, something like that, just like we were, so they’ve gone through the same stuff in life as we have, and I think can relate to us more in that sense as well. They’ve probably been hitting all the same milestones we have, so having a solid fan base behind you and a good spark amongst you is the key to everything.
But, yeah, there when times when things definitely sucked but you’ve gotta keep going and I think once you start writing new music that helps. I think getting back and starting fresh and moving forward was a big part of it. I find that getting back into the funk of that too, even just being back in the studio again after a couple years, we were like “Fuck! How do we do this?”
There are songs you write that are personal to you, or relate to periods in your life. Do you consider fans in that? They’ve grown up with you as you said, do you write thinking we want them to relate to this record as well?
“Yeah, for sure. I think that’s the beauty of any music really is just finding a song or an album that speaks to you or helps you realize how you feel or does something that quantifies how you feel. That’s what I’m always looking for in music and what I hope our band can do too. Sometimes I’m writing quite lyrics that are quite specific to me and quite personal but then there are sometimes I feel like how can I generalize this a little bit so it’s not super specific and so that people can apply their lives to this song as well.
I think our first EP couple EPs and first couple albums it was this very unfiltered thing. I was truly writing for me but, these days, maybe that’s part of being a better songwriter and a smarter songwriter, being able to tell a story and being able to pour your heart and soul into it whilst leaving it open enough for people to apply their own meaning to and apply it to their own lives. As well as that there is always the consideration for a live show. We’re always considering how the songs are going to sound and feel live… we’ve got to be stoked on it. I think that is probably why this album is so fast and so punchy because they’re all gonna be good to play live.”
Did you record the album live?
“We had a couple of live amps for guitars but, for the most part, we were getting better sounds out of software really for a lot of it. Drums were live but everything, all guitars and stuff were tracked into a computer and, we did their magic on it there. We just didn’t have the facility for it really when we made the record we didn’t have a live room we only had a studio control room. We’ve literally, just the other day, finished the live room. So, hopefully now, if we do continue with that process, we can make some real noise and not piss off the neighbors.”
That’s part of the fun of being in a punk band though, isn’t it?
“Yeah, to an extent, but we’re all nearly 30 now, so we get it. Our neighbours are lovely as well, so we’ve got to keep them sweet. They saved our ass when our place actually flooded not long after we got it and we wouldn’t have known. They were the ones that went in and cleaned it all up for us so we owe ’em.”
We’ve talked about reaching your fifth album but, looking further ahead, what about 10, 12 years from now?
“It’s funny really. Like I said, we’re not the new kids on the block anymore even though it still sort of feels like that. It still feels like we’ve got a lot left in the tank, still feels like we’ve got a lot left to prove and we know we’ve still got a lot that we can do. We still feel like we’ve still got our best songs ahead of us. We talk about it all the time, wanting to do this for as long as we can.
I was actually talking to Mark Hoppus the other day, which was mad, and he said they’ve been in Blink for 30 years and I was like fuck. That’s what I want to be able to say I want to we have been around 30 years. Definitely if we can still be rocking out and, again, I think with the fanbase that we’ve got we can definitely do this for as long as we can. We’re excited about the future and excited about future records and just getting bigger still.
While we’re not the new kids, maybe it means that we’re entering this more established phase and we’re just getting to grips with that. I think it’s emboldening us a little bit to keep going because maybe that last 10 years we were working to prove ourselves was making sure that we got our foot in the door and that we could stay around for a long time. That’s the aim.”
“I was actually talking to Mark Hoppus the other day and he said they’ve been in Blink for 30 years and I was like fuck. That’s what I want to be able to say I want to say we have been around for 30 years.”
There’s only one way to wrap up and that’s with the song on the album about alien invasions. If aliens landed on earth now and heard Neck Deep, what do you think they’d think?
“It depends what kind of aliens we’re talking about. If they’re benevolent aliens, I think they would get it and they would love it. They would appreciate the fun and the fact that I shone a good light on them., If they’re malevolent aliens, then I think we might be in trouble.
I would like to think that the aliens are here to protect us at least. They’re my last little shred of hope that things maybe get better and maybe the aliens will come down and fix it all up for us.”
Neck Deep’s self-titled new album is out now and you can pick up your copy and get all their latest news at the official Neck Deep website here.
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