A few years back, I went to see Pierce the Veil in Portland. I felt ancient in their sea of early-20s fans, but I got a drink and settled in, hoping I would somehow find my place in a setting that for once felt so foreign. I don’t remember anyone else that opened for PTV that night because this pop-punk band from the UK came in looking and acting like the fun-loving, trouble-making guys I grew up within the ’90s. Baggy pants. Skater shoes. They just looked like they were having fun. Everything about their set took me back to what I nostalgically treasure about my youth and still love about the same scene today. When the band finished their set, I immediately pulled out my phone and tried to learn everything I could about who Neck Deep actually was.
Since that night, they’ve continued to follow a deserved upward trajectory in the pop-punk world. They’ve established a niche and an audience that allows them a wide spectrum of sounds from croony acoustic to rowdy punk. Today, they should be on tour. But instead, they are sitting with the rest of the world in a holding pattern, waiting to see what is next. A fan of their music and their hands-on approach to fan interaction, I’m grateful that if nothing else, the COVID-19 downtime has provided an opportunity to speak with guitarist Sam Bowden and lead singer Ben Barlow. (We’re a world and many time zones apart – Washington state, United Kingdom – but Zoom brings us to common ground.)
Bowden joins first, and, as we wait for Barlow to join in, we chat about the band’s upcoming release, All Distortions are Intentional. It’s their fourth studio album and, so far, all press material has been colorful-but-vague in terms of describing the music. “It feels like a lifetime because we were recording it in November,” Bowden says. “We did it song by song, mixing it in real-time as we were tracking it, so we had four songs recorded and one mixed. It was a super unusual way of doing an album.” An album that took six weeks to complete, Bowden recalls it wrapping somewhere in mid-December of last year.
It’s impossible to skirt the issue, and being that this is my first interview with someone outside of of the US, I’m curious about how COVID-19 is impacting the U.K. When asked if he had gotten to see the other members of Neck Deep during all this, Bowden tells me he hasn’t. I explain that we’re still in a version of lockdown and he tells me they are as well and have been for some time. “Since February,” he tells me. “I’ve seen a few coffee shops open, but the majority of businesses are closed and people aren’t fully back at work. You’re allowed to see up to six people but still be distant. Yeah, it’s still pretty crazy.”
Barlow pops in and goes somewhere outside that is sunny with blue skies and fluffy white clouds. (And they say it only rains in the U.K….) We catch him up, and he’s quick to catch on. Much like Bowden, he is also a pleasant conversationalist. “I think it’s starting to kick in for a lot of people, the mental toll,” he says. “I was speaking to a friend last night who has had to move back with his parents and is quite isolated in the middle of nowhere and he’s like, ‘I feel like nobody’s talking about it.’ I was like, trust me, everyone is over it.”
This sentiment hits close to home. In isolation, it’s easy to forget you’re not going through it alone. Everyone is sacrificing something. Barlow replies, “That’s for sure, but generally it’s for the greater good.”
“We felt the need to be able to do and say something. It’s become very apparent that this is not just a cause for African Americans or people of color to be undertaking; it’s everyone’s time to do something about it.”
Just before this meeting started, the band posted on their Twitter about raising funds for Black Lives Matter as well as the George Floyd Memorial Fund via all proceeds from selected merch. It’s a respectable gesture, especially considering their distance from the epicenter of what is happening in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder by a Minneapolis police officer. I ask them to explain the perspective of the situation outside of the U.S. because George Floyd’s death is having a significant impact worldwide.
“It’s definitely affecting all of us,” Barlow says. “Dani (Washington, drummer) – as a person of color – is very passionate about this and definitely rallied us to educate ourselves and do something positive. We felt the need to be able to do and say something. It’s become very apparent that this is not just a cause for African Americans or people of color to be undertaking; it’s everyone’s time to do something about it. Any money that we can donate, any awareness that we can raise, we’re going to attempt to do so. A lot of us in the band (due to our privilege, probably) don’t feel qualified to talk and feel like we should be echoing the words of people that do know what they’re talking about. And, at the same time, trying to educate ourselves.” He goes on to tell me about a British rapper and author named Akala who has been politically active on the subject of racism. Barlow is halfway done with his book, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire.
I’ve been reading about the roots of racism and reflect to Barlow: Do you think that this form of hatred is a product of nature or nurture? Are people born with it, or is it taught? “I think it’s definitely more of a nurture thing. Let me use my own point of reference,” he says. “I was born to a predominantly white area. But at the same time, I was brought up Christian, went to church, and went to a Catholic school with a lot of Black kids. Because we had this religious center point to our schooling, generally, race was never an issue. We had Black and Muslim heads of state and really successful and intelligent people of color that went on to do great things.
“I can’t say for sure – because of my privilege, I might not be aware of the small day-to-day things they might feel – but, as far as I was aware, it was a pretty safe environment,” he continues, candidly. “I used to play a lot of sport, as well, and some of the best and most popular that ended up being most successful were young black lads, too. From a working-class area, you’re always going to get those fucking morons that let a racial slur out or be so careless as to ignore the plight of those people. I can’t say that I’ve never seen it. I don’t think that anyone can say that they haven’t seen some instances of it.”
Bowden’s experience was similar. “At my school, there was a zero-tolerance policy. You would be immediately expelled from school. I remember growing up with active programs of antiracism. At least for me – and I get it, the privilege of not having to be around it to be exposed to things like that – I am learning that (racism) does happen. I was taught: If you see it, say something. It is one of those things where talking about it and raising awareness is how to get change.”
I was surprised by a memory the two of them shared, however, no memory of which I remember having in the States growing up. “Do you remember the benefit bands, like Livestrong and stuff like that?” Barlow asks. “One of the (football) leagues had one that was antiracism and plenty of leagues got behind it. I do believe that played a massive role in our generation’s understanding of what racism was and how that affected people.” Bowden agreed emphatically. Barlow continued, “That played a big role for young kids like me and Sam – probably 10-11 years old – who didn’t really have a concept of what racism was. But it definitely highlighted that issue for us. We probably thought yeah, our favorite footballers are all saying that this is something that we should be behind, and, even from that early age, our generation has at least had the mindset that it shouldn’t be accepted.
“But everyone being aware and saying racism is bad is really not enough,” Barlow continued on, knowing his statement was obvious. “Innocent black men are still being killed by police, black people still have to live in fear of any police altercation, even any altercation with some drunk idiots at a bar. There’s always that fear. Everyone has to educate themselves, everyone has to do something, even if it’s just enlightening yourself and your idea and perception of what racism is. It’s come to that now, a greater understanding is required to understand how we can overcome it.”
In the middle of a pandemic and a revolutionary approach to systemic racism, Neck Deep is prepping to release their new album, All Distortions are Intentional. They’ve created an app to drive fan interaction, and I can only imagine that, right now, when they can’t have face-to-face interaction with fans, it’s an incredibly useful (and prescient) platform.
“We should be using it more than we are, to be honest,” Barlow admits. “We did have a grand idea to make it work – and we still do have ideas about what we could be doing through the app. We are such a fan-centric band and we have a really loyal fanbase, so we wanted a platform similar to Discord that totally highlighted and targeted Neck Deep fans. Traditional social media can be such a collage of all of these different things in the world that people are promoting, that it can be hard to just access content in a concise way, even down to simply getting tour dates. There are a million different sites selling tickets and they all have different information, so we felt it would just be better to have a clear, concise platform for each of the concepts for our fans.”
The first two singles from the release are the poppy “When You Know” and punk-heavy “Low Life.” The band’s self-appointed tagline “generic pop-punk” is applicable, but the band is mum on the details on the style of the tracks. Barlow keeps a fair amount under wraps. “I think people are going to be surprised,” he says. “Our single choices have been very intentional. ‘Low Life’ we got out there to throw people off of what the record would sound like. ‘When You Know’ is more of a pop-centric song. A lot of our fans love that sound, and we love that sound, too, so we wanted to share that one.
“I would hope from all of this madness we will come out of it and we’re better equipped to understand and have compassion for each other, that we’re living in a society where it will stand up for the rights of every single person on earth and not just a select group of people.”
“But there’s still a large portion of the sound that is yet to be heard. I think it’s a good combination of everything that makes Neck Deep Neck Deep,” Barlow continues. “The whole premise and mindset going into this record was that we weren’t going to hold back and tell ourselves no. We weren’t going to aim to write a certain kind of song or in a particular style. If it feels good, then let’s go with it. So there is quite an eclectic mix of sounds on there, really. There’s some things on there that we haven’t tried before, new sounds and new ideas.”
One of those new ideas is stringing together the tracks with a pseudo-concept album approach. “Conceptually having (the album revolve) around two characters, (there is) a story and this narrative you can follow we’ve never done before,” Barlow explains. “I think if you love Neck Deep then you’ll absolutely love this record. We’re trying to evolve our sound, but there’s a song on there called ‘Telling Stories’ that wouldn’t be out of place on some of our older records, too. I think we’ve done a really good job of being able to encapsulate every aspect of our sound and keep it in the realm of what fans love and expect but also do things that they might not expect and still open the door to new fans, too. We’ve managed to strike a really good balance, having a sonic concept and a solid idea which makes it intelligent, interesting, and unique. It’s a musically intelligent record. The more you listen to it… Definitely a sit-down-and-listen-to-it record from start to finish.”
Considering we’re in the middle of events that, in our species’ history, will be referenced in books for all generations that follow, I ask Barlow and Bowden how they will look back at this moment and how they hope other people remember it.
“I’m sure we’ll all look back on it and it’ll be a defining moment in all of our lives,” Barlow jumps in first, “whether that’s because of Coronavirus and the effects that’s had, or the social, political, and cultural changes with Black Lives Matter. There’s so much happening in the world right now in every aspect that people will look back and go, fuck, that was crazy. But, I would hope that in 20 years, we’ll look at the world around us and we’ll go, all of this good we have was a result of all of that uncertainty and all of that trouble.”
He doesn’t let up, and the silver lining of his approach is certainly a refreshing thought. “I would hope from all of this madness we will come out of it and we’re better equipped to understand and have compassion for each other, that we’re living in a society where it will stand up for the rights of every single person on earth and not just a select group of people or to discriminate against people because of their skin color but that everybody has an even platform. And that we’re more well equipped to deal with diseases and outbreaks, and that science has advanced miraculously because of it, that climate change will be easier… All of these things are issues in the world now and are all bubbling to the surface. I hope in 20 years’ time we can say that change has happened and we’re living in a better world.”
Bowden’s sentiments are succinct but similarly hopeful: “I hope everyone gets totally aware and spends the majority of lockdown, where you have the time, to be educated, and you can look back and be like, ‘I did use that time to learn about the world.'”
Neck Deep was posted on June 24, 2020 for HM Magazine and authored by Danielle McCallister.