“The only way you can really describe it is, it’s a Neck Deep record.”
In the words of Ben Barlow, singer and tour guide to Sonderland, the fictional setting for Neck Deep’s new album ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a pop record or a pop-punk record or a rock record. It’s got all of those elements in there that make it Neck Deep,” he continues, pointing towards the more conscious effort the band are making to forge their own path as opposed to conforming with the constraints of being a part of any one “scene”.
The goal is to put Neck Deep into a league of their own, with the singer nodding to how both Bring Me The Horizon and The 1975 are “leading the progression” in music that defies categorisation.
It’s an ambitious step for the band from Wrexham who have been pushed to grow not just as musicians, but people too in the last few years. It’s impossible to cast a reasoned eye towards Neck Deep without considering some of the non-musical issues which have surrounded the band. Back in 2015, allegations of sexual misconduct were made against then-guitarist Lloyd Roberts. Since then, bassist Fil Thorpe-Evans has also left, with guitarist Sam Bowden and Ben’s brother Seb both joining.
The growth since that point hasn’t always been smooth, either. In 2017, Ben was forced to apologise after some deeply problematic comments on International Women’s Day. But, over recent months there have been positive actions, too. The band have been active in promoting socially aware and progressive causes. In a world where, rightly, we’re all expected to change and grow, the current incarnation of Neck Deep have at least shown signs they’re prepared to learn.
“We wanted to display that we’re all older now,” Ben says of their new record. “I was 18 or 19 when we wrote ‘Life’s Not Out To Get You’. That album was amazing and will go down as one of our best, but that came from a 19-year-old with a naïve view of the world.”
A product of what could be the signs of growing maturity, their determination to progress and to stand out from the crowd is obvious on ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’. A concept album set “far away / as far as the eye can see”, it revolves around Jett and Alice who fall in love, love to hate the town they live in and spend their time wrestling with the existential uncertainty of their place in the world.
By creating a place for the songs to live in, Neck Deep have liberated themselves from the world around them and taken the pressure off just writing from their own perspective. Despite not directly pointing to just one concept record as inspiration, Ben credits Green Day’s use of St. Jimmy as a narrator to ‘American Idiot’ and for how The Beatles reinvented themselves and their perspective in ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
For Ben, the concept came together with the creation of the bouncy and optimistic hit ‘Lowlife’ which was conceived last summer while the band were touring with blink-182.
“I was just stumbling around in this daze of like, ‘oh my God, I’m on tour with one of my favourite bands of all time, and I’ve got pretty much all day to just mooch about’. I dunno, I was just really stoned, to be honest,” he laughs.
“We were blazed and cruising around, and living in this little dream world. I wrote this song, and I started off writing this nonsense song of just, ‘I’m fucking living in a dream world, and no one can tell me any different’. And I thought, that’s an element of my personality. It’s not where I’d always wanna write songs from, that angle, but if I can personify this…”
And from there, ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’ started to take shape with Ben free to write “behind this veil of a character” as he puts it.
That wasn’t the only bonus either, as, by making a concept, the band allowed themselves the opportunity to make a full, cohesive album too.
“It was always the intention from the start, this record should be played from start to finish,” Ben explains. “We want it to be heard as a record. In the age of the single – where the single is king – we were like, nah we don’t wanna write an album full of a load of disconnected singles. Let’s write an album that is it’s most impactful when it’s listened to as an album. And we got that experience.”
Rather than just 3 and a half minutes and one great chorus, Neck Deep created an immersive experience and emotional story over the course of 12 songs. The journey flits in time with Jett’s mental health and showcases the band’s devotion to the dying art of album making.
“We made a very intentional decision at one point to have the, probably the sweetest song on the record, ‘When You Know’, immediately be followed up with a song [‘Quarry’] that’s really quite dark and moody. Here’s a song that we’ve never ever done anything like before, and that was to show his instability mentally and the reality of what it can be like if you’re struggling with your mental health. How quickly you can fluctuate from being overwhelmed with being in love, to just overwhelmed by the weight of the world and your own life and your own self-image.”
Despite being a fully realised concept album that does stand alone in the Neck Deep catalogue, Ben is certain that the new tracks can stand side by side with the band’s previous work. He explains, “I still think that there are songs on this record that fans, whether you’re a ‘Rain In July’ fan or a ‘Life’s Not Out To Get You’ fan, there are songs on there that fans are gonna be very pleasantly surprised by. And, I think fans will find, for whatever era of Neck Deep you love, I think we’ve managed to cover all the bases as well, again, not intentionally, it was just kind of, we’re just gonna write and see how we feel.”
However, he does refer to ‘All Distortions Are Intentional” as a “grower’, likening it to how ‘In Utero’ divided opinion as a much more polished departure from Nirvana’s earlier sound, but has since gone on to be heralded as groundbreaking.
“[I’m] not saying, ‘fucking hell we’ve written the next ‘In Utero’, but, perceptions change and, to that effect, I do think that this record is quite a grower as well,” he reasons.
“Because I think our previous records have maybe just been on face value like, ‘fuck these are all really energetic bangers’. You listen to them once, and you get it, and you want to listen to them over and again. I think these, you listen to it a first time and you go, okay that was good, kind of want to listen to it again though. I kind of wanna understand this a bit more, I want to listen to different elements. Listen to the instrumentation, listen to the lyrics, listen to all the little subtle nuances that make this song what it is. And I do think that for the first time we’ve written a record that you really have to listen to to get it.”
Once you see past the concept, you can see that ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’ is filled with echoes of what’s made Neck Deep tick since their breakout EP ‘Rain In July’ from way back in 2012. The album’s introduction ‘Sonderland’ is the classic pop-punk hometown lament which would slot neatly in with 2015’s ‘Life’s Not Out to Get You’ while ‘Fall’ is the wide-eyed, arena-sized, rock hit that seemed second nature on ‘The Peace and the Panic’. Throw into the mix the “twinkly love ballads” of ‘When You Know’ and ‘What Took You So Long?’ and you’ve got a complete Neck Deep record.
“We still went into this whole album with total creative freedom, and we all made it very clear from the start not to put pressure on ourselves or on anything for it to sound a certain way or for it to feel a certain way,” Ben continues. “We were literally just, let’s hit record, let’s record something and if we like it let’s roll with it. If we don’t, let’s not – let’s leave it.”
That freedom to test the waters in any way they wanted leads to the album’s finale ‘Pushing Daisies’. As an “epic Britpop ballad straight into a Sabbath style riff”, it’s the moment of epiphany and release as the shouts of “Fuck society / fuck your politics / fuck yourself / and fuck the way it is” becomes the cathartic cries of the story’s characters realising they don’t need approval from anyone but one another.
That “Sabbath style riff”, actually, could be credited to the spooky presence that lent a helping hand on the record. Yes, really. Working in the renowned, and apparently haunted, studio at Monnow Valley (situated in the middle of nowhere, Wales), Neck Deep “conquered the ghosts” as part of the album-making process.
“We were chill with them. We got pretty fucking scared at first; we were like, ahh this is too weird, a couple of super fucking weird moments. But in the end, I think we made peace with the ghosts. Apparently, it’s the ghosts of Sabbath’s old bassist or guitarist who died so maybe he’s trying to encourage us to write a better record. I think he was pleased by the end, because I think he left us alone eventually.”
It was, though, when stuck on coming with how to transition ‘Pushing Daisies’ that the ghost stepped in according to Ben. After getting frustrated with how writing the section was going, drummer Dani Washington left to jam it out on his drums while the band took a break.
Ben describes, “Dani went and played and just out of nowhere, [on] the other side of this house, all I heard was this faint sound of this Sabbath-esque riff, and I’m like, I’m not sure if these guys are just fucking around right now but I’m gonna walk in that room and tell them that that’s what it needs to be. It just happened. It just came along, and as soon as I walked into that room everyone was just like, fuck yes. Everyone’s faces were glowing. I think the ghost helped us out with that, and it’s the last track on the record.”
Whether you believe in the supernatural forces working on Neck Deep’s album or not, it’s undeniable the effect of recording ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’ back home in Wales had.
“No bullshit, this is the most focussed, the most free that we’ve ever felt writing a record. We’ve recorded records in Florida, and we’ve recorded records in LA and, while we had an amazing time doing those things, those records all came out great, we felt as though sometimes just things can be a little distracting really,” Ben rationalises.
To escape the distractions of partying and producers in LA, the band elected for the live-in studio (with the added bonus on no phone signal and “fuck all” wi-fi) to allow them complete autonomy and absolutely no distractions.
“We could get up at whatever time, start at midday and work till 3am if we wanted to or we could start in the evening and work till stupid early in the morning. We could do whatever the fuck we wanted, and we were really cut off from the rest of the world.”
That, with all the comforts of being close to home helped create an unrivalled atmosphere in the studio that “100% had a very positive impact on making the record,” he adds.
Of course, any new endeavour in 2020 has to cope with the small matter of a global pandemic. In late February, the band managed to host an immersive fan experience in Camden to celebrate the announcement of the album, but the original plan was to do much more with record store signings and performances, festival appearances and more pop-up shops planned for around the world this year.
Not only that but they also were forced to change their music video ideas pretty quickly with the plan to continue the story on from the ‘Lowlife’ video now not possible. Originally, the music was going to be the soundtrack to visual accompaniment that would tell the entire story of ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’ and, while that plan hasn’t been completely scrapped, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
“Maybe we won’t go full Beyoncé and have a million-dollar budget for every video, but we’ll try and do what we can with it for sure,” he hopes.
In spite of all the setbacks, Neck Deep have instead found ways to “get back to basics” by connecting with their fans through Twitch. The band have been sharing a few group calls hyping their new album and deep diving on some older works but, more importantly, they’ve been streaming their time on Call of Duty and Animal Crossing too. It’s a long way from the big plans they had but, in Ben’s opinion, they “stripped it all back to a pure fan experience.”
They’ve made the best of it in recent months when other bands would be disheartened by their best-laid plans going awry. With ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’, they’ve redefined themselves apart with a concept album that is definitive Neck Deep. They’ve made their own world, and you’re invited to live in it.
Taken from the August issue of Upset. Neck Deep’s album ‘All Distortions Are Intentional’ is out now.