Words: Miljan Milekić
For the past few years, Neck Deep, a five-piece band from Wrexham, Wales, has become a leading force in the pop punk scene. With the new record ‘The Peace and the Panic,’ they went on their biggest mainland European tour so far. We caught up with them in Brussels, on their first stop, and spoke with singer Ben Barlow about new music, new videos, recording with the new lineup, Brexit, and much, much more.
So, you just finished your UK tour. How was it?
Ben: It was really good. It was our biggest UK tour so far; we played Brixton Academy in London for like 5500 people and Apollo in Manchester for 2500. Both gigs were sold out, and those were our biggest headlining shows to date. It was amazing, I mean, really, really good. We’re very, very happy.
But those weren’t your biggest shows. You were on tour with two biggest metalcore acts today – Bring Me The Horizon and A Day To Remember. How did you fit into those tours, and how was it for you to play there?
Ben: Pretty well, actually. Yeah, because I think, as far as the pop punk band goes, we may be on the more energetic side of it. I think our fans and Bring Me The Horizon’s and A Day To Remember’s fans are kind of similar. They want to mosh; they want to crowd surf. You know, they want to jump around and sing really loud, and we definitely try and encourage that. So it was pretty well.
We actually saw you earlier this year in Vienna with A Day To Remember, and at that show, you had an extraordinary guest. His name was Carl. Is he with you tonight?
Ben: Oh no! Oh my God! Carl! Oh, God no. (laughs) No, he’s a nomad, he’s on his own. He’s a lone ranger. He’s… I don’t know where Carl is. Honestly, I think he’s with our gear; he’s with our equipment sitting locked up somewhere with some other stuff. God, I forgot about that. We should probably get him out.
So, can you compare those two tours – the one with A Day To Remember and Moose Blood, and the other one with Bring Me The Horizon and PVRIS? Can you compare the crowd?
Ben: I think maybe Bring Me The Horizon’s crowd was a little bit rowdier. I remember seeing Bring Me The Horizon back in the day, and they were all about the “wall of deaths,“ all that kind of crazy stuff. But I do think they’re quite similar. Maybe the Bring Me The Horizon fans were slightly more “enthusiastic,“ but for the most part, I think quite similar. They wanna mosh, they want to jump around, crowd surf. But I’d say Bring Me’s maybe is a little bit rowdier. No offense to A Day To Remember.
So, this is your first date on the mainland Europe tour. Is this your biggest headlining tour here so far?
Ben: I think it is, and I’m really surprised with how well some of the tickets have been going. Some of the tickets have been selling really, really well. We played here with A Day To Remember, and they sold out at full capacity. I think they closed off the balcony but still sold-out. That was the best Brussels crowd we ever played to. So, I think we will have like 700-800 people. I know that tomorrow in Amsterdam is selling really well, too. Some dates in Germany are doing well, so yeah, this will be our biggest European tour, for sure. Last time we were here with Creeper and WSTR, and I think since then it’s grown. Especially since the last record we’ve just put out. So, yeah, definitely our biggest mainland Europe tour so far.
You’re coming with Real Friends, As It Is, Blood Youth. How did you pick the bands? It’s like a perfect pop-punk holiday.
Ben: Well, Real Friends – we have toured with them a lot of times before. We’ve toured Europe with them before with All Time Low. We just know that they are a really good band and really good people, and we just wanted people to hear their music. They’re just great to tour with. As It Is do really well, they bring a crowd. In the UK especially, they definitely brought a few extra tickets to the show which is good. And Blood Youth… We had Woes on the UK leg, but Blood Youth is a very, very new band and I think that maybe it would have been tough for them financially to get out here. I know that, especially in places like Germany, they love the riffs.
And again, they are good friends of ours. Actually, our drum tech Matt Powels, and Sam, our guitarist, used to be in Blood Youth. But it’s all still good, and we’re all still friends. So we picked our support acts based on how we thought that the crowd will receive them but also based on our relationship with them. I think it’s crucial that you tour with people that you get on with, people that you like because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with each other. Pretty much the people we are friends with, and the people that we think will add something to the show.
You know you had a pretty weird situation a few days ago or maybe a week with security at the Nottingham show. Do you know what actually happened?
Ben: Yeah, we actually already talked about it at this point, but there’s some good news on the way surrounding that. It’s all good. That’s all I can really say about it. It’s all good, it’s all behind us, and we have some really good news for people coming shortly. But it was crazy. It was wild.
In your statement after the show, you said you want to raise the level of security at your shows. I see that as a big state of commitment to your fans. How important they are to you, how would you describe your relationship?
Ben: They are incredibly important to us! And some of our fans are quite young. And they are coming to our shows you enjoy themselves. Like everyone else. The reason people go to shows is to enjoy themselves, to have some of the best nights of their life, and to go home smiling and to be happy. That’s paramount to us. That is incredibly, incredibly important to us and we just want to make sure that all our fans are safe and all our fans are happy. When security does a good job, we let them know. We say – “Hey, the security is awesome, they kept you guys safe, and they’ve done a good job.“
It’s just frustrating, and it’s not only in Nottingham. It’s happened before in lots of places around the world that we’ve had issues of security being quite rough. And we never react, we always get those securities out there. And that’s how it should’ve been; we should’ve handled things differently. I can’t say too much about it now. But our fans’ safety and our fans’ happiness are the most important. So, if we ever see, especially a young fan in distress in the hands of the security, it’s like seeing one of our friends being manhandled by security. We just want that everybody that comes to a Neck Deep show to have fun and be safe. And that is the most important thing.
As an underground touring band from the UK, how do you see Brexit, and what do you think the consequences for the music scene and touring bands will be?
Ben: I was… the entire band, we wanted to remain. We wanted to remain in Europe. Well, 50 percent of the country basically wanted to remain, it was a very, very close and tight decision. I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult than people who voted to leave think. That decision for a lot of people was made out of fear and frustration, and kind of ignorance. I think that they were just looking for a change, but they were looking in the wrong places, instead of what can they change in their own government.
I think some of our “evil“ politicians use the European Union as the scapegoat for all of their problems. And a lot of them do it for their personal get-in. They can make a lot of money. It’s basically money. I think the people who were in charge of that “Leave” campaign were being very selfish, and very shortsighted because it’s coming out bad for us. And that’s coming out now. Polls are showing and recent events have shown that actually a lot of people would rather us remain. Now they see how difficult it is. But it’s actually fucking stupid, they wanted one thing, and then they realized it’s gonna be bad, and they fucking turn around and go “Well, actually no, we don’t want to do that now.“ This is very, very frustrating, especially for the people who wanted to remain the whole time anyway, who wanted to be a part of the European Union, who wanted to be a part of something and didn’t want to separate ourselves. Now it’s down to the choices of a few ignorant.. racist in some areas – no everyone who voted to leave is racist, I’m not saying that – but there is a lot of bigotry, a lot of ignorance, a lot of fear in that decision. And I think is going to come back to bite us in the ass.
But, as far as it’s going to affect the UK touring bands, I think the next few years will be OK. There’s a period where they have to figure it all out and all that shit. It would be OK for now, but when it comes to, who fucking knows? Again, it was such a blind decision. Nobody fucking knows what it’s going to be. Nobody’s ever left the European Union, and nobody knows what’s going to come of it. Not just bands, but a lot of UK industry, a lot of jobs that require people to travel to work within the European Union. It’s going to affect that massively. Hey, if in three, four, or five years touring Europe is incredibly hard and expensive for us, it’s going to be bad for us, and it’s going to be bad for our fans in the end. And the whole scene because so many British bands come over here and have a great time. Especially some of the small underground bands. You know, some of the heavier bands from the UK tour over here like 90 percent, 80 percent of their time. Bands like Blood Youth do way better out here than they do at home. It’s gonna affect them massively.
All that for the choice of a few important, wealthy people, and what they wanted. That how they could manipulate people, that’s going to have a massive effect on thousands if not millions of others. Yeah, very, very, very frustrating. Again you can tie it into a Trump in a way. Like the whole world and what’s going on. We could have just remained in Europe, and we would’ve been fine. We wouldn’t have to deal with this, and could just carry on with our lives. Because being in Europe, being in the European Union was not the issue, it was made that way. Tie it to Trump, as well. It’s the people who are frustrated, scared, angry, and ignorant in some areas. They wanted the change, and I think that they just got the wrong kind of change. They just saw a chance to make a change, to shake the system a little bit, but it did not work out too well. It’s scary times, very scary times, and I can only hope that if we’re still at the point where we can go back, and I hope that we are, I don’t know that we are, that we will go back. That’s me being an optimist. I think that everybody who now sees the trouble with Brexit would want to remain. But if we ever could go back, then I would. I would hope that would be the outcome. But we will see, we will see.
But anyway, even if that doesn’t happen, you can’t let politics and the rest of the world dumping your stray. At the end of the day, you need to look out for what makes you happy and the people around you that you love. I’m sure the world over the next 20, 30, or 40 years is going to be a very, very, very different place to how it was even now. But what people should remember is that politics doesn’t have to influence your happiness or your well-being. Even if the worst does happen, if people remember that they’re in control of their own happiness, that’s what is most important. But I hope that something good can happen.
On your new record ’The Peace and the Panic,’ you touched on some serious topics, some that you haven’t been writing about so much until now. Was it your reaction to what’s going on in the world right now?
Ben: I don’t know. With Neck Deep, I’ve always written the vast majority of the lyrics, like 95 percent of the lyrics. I’ve always written about what’s going on in my life at the time, what’s going on around me. And I think that there was just a lot for me to talk about. There are songs like ’Happy Judgement Day,’ looking into the world of politics and society and things like that, but then also ’The Grand Delusion’ looking into mental health and anxiety, and depression. And then with ’19 Seventy Sumthin,’ ’Wish You Were Here,’ and ’Where Do We Go When We Go’ looking into death, and what happens when we go.
I think just how the band has evolved over time we’ve grown up as people as well. You know, I was 17 when I started this band, and I don’t want to sing about the girl I had when I was 16 or 17 anymore; I’ve been with the same girl since I was 18. I don’t want to write songs about my ex-girlfriends anymore. But what we do want to write songs about is the world around us and important issues like mental health and death, and how that can affect you. How to deal with loss and that kind of thing. I think just growing up generally, and becoming an adult and becoming more mature you see the world is a little bit more than just love and heartbreak.
Obviously, they’re still important issues, but I think that we’ve just grown up. Me and my writing, as well. I used to find it hard to write about things other than girls. Now I’ve got to a point where I’m like – “OK, I can write about these different things now, and I can put myself into the songs in a different way.” I think how we’ve grown up; our fans have grown up with us. We’ve been a band for five, nearly six years now, and I think fans that used to like us five years ago may have been 14, 15, 16. Now they are 18, 19, 20 and they don’t want to hear those songs anymore, they want to hear the songs about different things. I think it’s just all part of the evolution. Just always have your finger on the pulse a little bit, realizing what it is that people want to talk about. And I’m kind of putting ourselves into that and get our piece on that.
You said you think your crowd has grown up with you. How do they react to the new songs?
Ben: Really, really well, actually. Yeah, they react well. I mean, some of the new songs have bigger singalongs than the old stuff. Songs like ’In Bloom,’… Everyone kind of know us for ’A Part of Me,’ and now, songs like ’In Bloom’ have bigger singalongs than ’A Part of Me.’ And now, we’re at the point where we don’t have to play ’A Part of Me’ anymore. It’s funny, because I have been talking to our manager earlier, and I was like “When can we fucking stop playing that song? When can we stop playing it?“ Btw, we’re still playing that song. (laughs) And he was like – “When you write the song that’s better.“
And we did, with ’In Bloom.’ And now, ’In Bloom’ is a moment in a set everybody looks forward to, rather than ’A Part of Me.’ I think our fans have grown up, and they want to hear something different. People from outside want us to do something different. And think we did it, and we did it well. We’re still keeping it Neck Deep; it’s still a very Neck Deep song. We’ve managed to kind of reinvent ourselves a little bit, and show people we are way more than just our old material. We can still get out there a write a banger, that people can latch on to. We still have the ability to write a catchy song. And fans are receiving that really well. ’In Bloom’ gets a huge singalong now, and ’Where Do We Go When We Go’ gets a huge singalong, too.
It’s actually quite cool to see a band going straight forward and straight up. If you put all your records beside each other, each is better than the previous one.
Ben: Yeah, it goes better and better and better. And that’s what we always tried. One element of being a successful band is writing consistently good records. I feel like you get one chance to write a shit record, and people will be like – “Yeah, that’s THAT shit record, whatever, let’s forget about that.“ But you need to keep topping it every time; you can’t take a step backward. So, we keep stepping it up.
And you keep stepping up your live shows, as well. In February, a day before you played Vienna with A Day To Remember Sum 41 played at the same venue. We interviewed Cone and Dave and speaking of the new bands; we got to you. So Dave said, quote “Neck Deep is one of the greatest live bands out of new ones for sure.“
Ben: Wow! Cool! From Dave Brownsound? Holly shit, wow! That’s amazing! Thanks for telling me that, that’s great! I’m gonna tell the rest of the band. You know, Dave Brownsound said we are sick. Cool.
Yes, we actually talked about Hopeless Records and young bands on the label. And once again, you released an album for Hopeless, and it seems like a winning combination.
Ben: Again, they have their finger on the pulse. I think they can pick out exciting bands. They know what people want, they know what they want, and they can see potential in bands. And at the moment, they are doing really well. Even with bands like Taking Back Sunday, Sum 41 and New Found Glory… In our music, they are that top level. Without being a major label that will throw money at you, sign you to a seven, A SEVEN record deal and then scrap you immediately if it’s not successful. They care about their bands, and they’re still an independent label and still run by real people, a small team of people that just know what they want. And they know how to get the best out of their bands and what to be their next step. At the same time, they still know how to look after their older, and bigger bands.
This is a first record that you recorded with Sam Bowden. Has your way of writing changed, and how much did he influence the new record?
Ben: A lot actually. It’s the case with many bands that one or two people just write everything. But when Sam joined the band, it was a chance for everyone to have their input. So, that was a big change, he said – “Let’s all write together, let’s all write songs. Let’s just all be writing machines, and not just put all the work on one or two people.” But then on songs that he did write, I think he brought a little bit more flow, I think sometimes he thinks a little bit more outside the box. Maybe we destructured things a little bit more with him. And his leads, they sometimes flow a little bit more, they’re not so rigid.
When Sam joined the band, it felt like we were a new band because it felt like we can all talk, and give and put and just all be involved. It was more what Sam did for the dynamic of the band than the writing itself. Although he did have a big hand-in. Like, I wrote ’In Bloom,’ and for a long time, it was just a verse and a chorus. I couldn’t get any further with it because my guitar playing is quite limited. I’m not the greatest guitarist; I’m really good with melodies and progression. So he came in. I said like – “I want it to step up now, I want it to have a bit more energy from this point, so it builds,“ and immediately he just came in with some leads. Some of the leads on ’In Bloom’ are awesome, and really dancy. It’s a bit more flow to them. So he brought that in ’In Bloom’ so we finished that song together. ’Where Do We Go Where We Go’ was a big Sam’s track, as well. He brought a lot into that song. ’Heavy Lies’ is another one where he was really influential. He brought just as much to the table like everyone else.
And again, my brother still had quite a big input, as well. He recorded and mixed everything up to ‘Wishful Thinking,’ and from there he just helped us writing demos. My brother and Sam would both come to my house, and we would just work together. It was like nothing had changed. It was straight away, just effortlessly. When it came to finding a new member, Sam was the first, and pretty much the only choice. He already played our songs, he already played live with us, knew us very well, toured with us.
I also see a significant change in the way you approach your music videos. From ’Gold Steps’ to ’In Bloom’ and ’Happy Judgement Day.’
Ben: Yeah, and we actually just shot another music video yesterday, too. I can’t say what song for, but it’s gonna be awesome. It’s gonna be really, really, really cool. With the videos, as well with an album we wanted to branch out a little bit, and I think that video is a great way to represent yourself visually. Same with merch, album artwork – anything visual is important. Not as important as the music, but have a huge, huge impact on how people see your band. Music videos were always very important to us. I think we wanted something different, especially with ’In Bloom.’
Like you said, with ’Gold Steps’ and some other videos we did before, it was crazy, it was all about the movement. It’s all fun and energetic, but with like ’In Bloom’ and this video we just shot yesterday, we were like – “Let’s do something little bit outside a box. Let’s keep the camera still. Let’s think about composition, let’s think about colors.“ You know, we tried to make the video effective and memorable without all the crazy shit going on. Maybe tune it down, but add a bit of class to it, a bit of style, rather than just hectic, crazy, pop-punk, super-fun, hell-yeah whatever. (laughs)
And again I think that is a more mature approach to music videos and how we visually represent ourselves. I think we went the right way with the ’In Bloom’ video because we had a lot of choices for that video. We were on the same page; we were all like – “Hey, let’s do something different. The song is something different for us, so let’s show it visually, too.“ And it was super-well received, people liked the video just as much as they liked the song. All the comments were like “aesthetic, uu“ (laughs) You know, whatever was the Internet’s hot word was at the minute, they were all about it. It was just the more mature, and more thought-out approach to music videos.
Yeah, but you have to admit that you have to thank a lot to the Internet. I’m not saying you are the Internet band, but your Social Media and communication with fans online was a big push for you.
Ben: We know what our fans like about us, or at least not so much. (laughs) I mean. I try to stay away from that shit now just because I think, fuck, the internet is fucking weird. You don’t need it to make you happy. With the video for ’In Bloom,’ people are wild for the roses and those flowers. People are into that floral thing right now, and it was more of a stylistic choice from Louis, the director. But it was very on-trend. It was very, very current. The vibe of the video was very current, and it was intentional for sure, but I think that comes from society in general. You can look around, and there are fucking flowers everywhere. Brands have done a shirt with a little rose, like a real minimal rose. People are into it. We know that’s something that people are interested in. So let’s run with that. And obviously, it fits with the songs as well because ’In Bloom’ is about nature and growth and stuff like that.
And speaking of visual identity, your new artwork is drawn, as well as the artwork for the previous record. Is it showing your appreciation for the comic culture, or there is something else behind it?
Ben: Kind of, yeah. We really like using well-known artists for our work, and not just artworks. Artists that we like. And yeah, the guy who did it actually has a comic series, he does comic books. We wanted something visually striking, something you would remember. And I think it was purely down to that he was the artist we really liked. We gave him the concept and the idea, and he ran with it. There are so many little features in the artwork that relate back to our old work, our old artworks, and our old songs. And Neck Deep fans, I think will really pick up on.
Again, I think having visually striking artwork, and the way how you visually represent yourself with merch, album artworks, and music videos is really important. It’s not as important as the actual songs, but it’s a huge part of what makes your band. If you look back – ’Nevermind’ by Nirvana, that image with the kid in the water chasing the money – it’s iconic. Absolutely iconic. And the Green Day – ’Dookie’ – iconic. People remember the artwork; it gives them something visual to attach to the music. I think that’s what we’re trying to do with ’The Peace and the Panic.’
One more – a few days ago, I was scrolling down through some skate-punk blogs, and I came across a video, it’s a VHS video from like 1990. So there is a living room somewhere in California with like twenty people, and the band playing in a corner. It’s a punk rock band, and they are called Neck Deep. Do you know them?
Ben: No! Not at all! Wow! No idea. Holly shit, absolutely no idea. Our name comes from the Crucial Dudes song. There’s a lyric in the song ’Boom, Roasted,’ that goes “Neck-deep in what you couldn’t be.” It’s from there. I was just like – “Neck Deep!” It just sticks. It works immediately. But I had no idea. And that’s something all bands should do before they pick the name. Google it! (laughs) But hey, that confirms it to me that it’s a punk rock name! (laughs) That’s insane. That’s crazy. I didn’t know, I’m gonna go check them out, they’re probably better than us. (laughs)