"Olivia Rodrigo has roots in pop-punk": Neck Deep talk rock's increasing mainstream influence

Since forming in 2012, Welsh pop-punk band Neck Deep quickly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, racking up over a billion streams and Top 5 records in both the UK and US. Today (Jan 19) they return with their new self-titled album. Released via Hopeless Records, it is the follow-up to 2020’s All Distortions Are Intentional (23,151 sales, according to the Official Charts Company). 

When speaking to Music Week in November last year, frontman Ben Barlow revealed all about the decisions to go DIY for the self-titled record, his thoughts on streaming, and what he believes the industry needs to do to support grassroots venues.

Here, in an unread extract of our interview, Barlow talks Neck Deep returning to their roots, how he feels about where the band are at now and the state of rock today…

Your last record, All Distortions Are Intentional, marked a stylistic departure for Neck Deep, but you’ve gone back to your roots on the new self-titled album. What was the thinking behind those moves? 

“We’ve always done what we felt like doing at the time. When we went a little more rock and expansive that was where we were at. That was also a Covid record, so it was a weird time to release music. I think we just wanted to move away from pop-punk for a minute. We didn’t have it in us to squeeze pop-punk songs out and what we were writing were more expansive songs. We’ve never really relied on songwriters too much, but we have worked with producers in the past who become almost like a sort of sixth member and that plays a part too. I think we’ve simplified things now, but almost perfected it. We’ve done that all by ourselves on this record.”

Was that always the intention this time around?

“It wasn’t. We did initially head out to LA and tried working with a producer. We were meant to be there for five or six weeks getting a good head start on the record, having everything written and most of the recording. When we got a week in it was like, ‘This is not going the way we wanted it to.’ It didn’t feel like Neck Deep, it felt like something else. There were too many moments where we felt we were questioning decisions. We knew so clearly what we wanted to do and that wasn’t really clicking initially. So, back home we essentially had to record everything from the ground up. It’s boring songwriting stuff, like little tricks here and there, transitions, tones and nerdy things like how the drums were laid out. Sometimes you can’t really wrangle that with someone else.

“It wasn’t the intention to do it ourselves at all. I think the catalyst of what made it what it is was when we sat in a café in LA wondering what the hell we were going to do. My brother Seb is a producer in his own right. He was always writing and recording for us way before he officially joined the band (in 2020). He would pre-produce and demo our stuff. We have a studio space back home where we store all our gear and we practise there, so we figured, ‘Why not use that?’.”

Was it daunting to make the decision to walk away from the LA sessions and take the record back home?

“It was actually a good moment for the band, stressful as it was. We were like, ‘Oh god, have we just wasted all this time and so much money doing this!’ But without being too cliché, it’s all part of trusting the process and your gut, so if something isn’t feeling right you’ve got to say something. Everyone was on the same page, but it was a stressful time too. As soon as we got into our studio and started laying things down it was much more comfortable. We were a lot closer to home. There was less of a schedule to it, so we worked at our own pace to be comfortable with what we were doing.”

There are millions of rock fans, they’re just not necessarily represented in mainstream culture

Ben Barlow

How did you bring working discipline to that sense of freedom?

“We had to be pretty disciplined with it. We were in the studio from 12pm to 7pm every day. Because Sam (Bowden), our guitarist and one of the main songwriters lives in Nashville. Generally, he is one of the more organised of the bunch. I’m usually the one who has to feel a song out and know what I want to write about first. But we were on it most days. And even if we weren’t, we were at least talking about it and that stuff is important too. It’s our art, it’s the next couple of years of the band, it’s everything. So, we do everything we can to make it the best it can be. We’re open enough with each other as a band to be able to just say, maybe let’s just chill today.”

What’s your take on the state of the rock scene right now?

“It feels like it’s in a really good spot, at least in musical terms. Hardcore and emo music has had a boost in recent years, alongside proper punk bands. Look at Idles, they’re killing it right now. Thrash metal and crossover is as big as it’s ever been, and it feels like it’s a matter of time before a band from that scene breaks out. I think rock and heavy music is in a good place. Even in the mainstream you can look at someone like Olivia Rodrigo and see that she has some roots and influences in pop-punk and alternative music. Alternative music will always have that impact. 

“Shows might have taken a hit due to the cost of living, but generally, it seems as though there’s a lot of good music out there. It’s called alternative music because it really is the alternative to the mainstream, so it’s not always there to serve. Look at a band like Sleep Token doing Wembley [Arena] and selling it out so quickly. Nobody would have bet on that. I don’t think anyone has the pulse on the world as much as alternative music fans. It’s a really fan-centric world, of which there are millions. They’re just not necessarily represented in mainstream culture. That’s how it’s always been.”

Finally, are you happy about where Neck Deep are at as a band now or do you always want more?

“We could get no bigger and I’d still feel pretty landed with where we’re at. We would have fans coming to shows for the rest of our lives if we never got any bigger. Beyond that, we’re always talking about bigger tours, more success and more sustainability. We’ve always got our eyes on the next thing. We’ve achieved so much and ticked off so many bucket list things in our first couple of years; touring America, meeting my favourite bands, playing with them, various awards, silver records. We're very pleased, but it makes you want to shoot for more recognition. Why don’t we look at the Grammys and playing with even more of our favourite bands? Basically, more bucket-list shit. What we do happens to zero percent of people, so why wouldn’t we try to do as much of it as we can? Things took off from the start and we realised we had to make the most of it. We want to do it forever and do it as hard as we can.”

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