Frontman Ben Barlow on the band's self-titled fifth album and going back to their roots ahead of their landmark show at Alexandra Palace
For over a decade, Neck Deep have been at the forefront of the UK pop-punk scene.
Formed in the spare room of the Barlow brother’s Wrexham home back in 2012, they’ve risen from scrappy young hopefuls to one of British rock music’s most successful global exports. Amassing over a billion streams, and with top five records in both the US and UK, it’s safe to say they’re a big deal these days, but the more things change – in some ways – the more they stay the same.
On their fifth, self-titled album, Neck Deep are going back to basics. Written and recorded in their own warehouse space just a few miles from where they grew up, it’s a high-energy slab of pop-punk made with no compromises and brimming with confidence. Channelling the passionate youthful spirit of their beginnings – now guided by years of experience as professional songwriters and producers – the Welsh five-piece are primed to take 2024 by storm.
With their biggest UK headline show to date taking place in March, we sat down with frontman Ben Barlow to talk LP5, trusting the process, and plans for Neck Deep’s Alexandra Palace takeover.
You spent a good portion of 2023 celebrating the 10-year anniversary of your debut release ‘Rain In July’. How did it feel to revisit that period in the band’s history?
Everyone was there for a special reason, and the energy was unreal. We wanted to keep the shows small and tight, so no barrier was a big stipulation when we were booking venues. I enjoyed reflecting on where it all started for us because that’s a version of Neck Deep that people love, and it’s been a while since we’ve played no barrier shows.
Ten years ago, none of us knew anything about songwriting – and I think that’s what makes those songs so beautiful. People still love the energy of those early EPs, and that vibe transferred onto the new album – which is an in-your-face pop-punk record. I love our story, and I love how we came up because we’ve come a long way from there. It was great to get down and dirty in the way we used to at our shows, but by the last few dates all I could think about was how much better our new songs are!
This band has grown a lot since those days, and you can track that journey across every release. Having reflected on your past with those shows, how did you approach defining where you wanted to go with album five?
It took us a little while to recover off the back of the pandemic, but around two years ago we started putting things together and talking about what we wanted this record to be. This album is self-titled for a reason because this is us doing what we’ve always done. We’re going back to our roots, and even though we’ve not recorded this in Seb [Barlow, bassist]’s bedroom – it’s the same feeling. Seb’s still at the helm, Sam [Bowden, guitarist]’s riffing away and putting in hours tracking guitars, and I’m pulling strings and penning lyrics. Those are the things that make us sound like Neck Deep, and on this record, there are no other influences. We didn’t go with a producer this time, and we chose to trust each other to make a record from top to bottom. There was no one there to filter us down, it was just us in a room making a fast-paced, fun pop-punk record. Not being able to play shows during the pandemic made us want to go back to basics a little bit more – and it was time to get back into doing what Neck Deep do best.
It must take quite a lot of self-confidence to go into that process with no producer to guide you…
Initially, we had gone out to LA to work with a producer but about halfway through we realised that it wasn’t sounding the way we wanted it to. There wasn’t a great energy in the studio, and we weren’t all stoked on what we were doing. We had to trust each other and be honest because we had a stressful and expensive decision to make. We had to decide if we wanted to scrap six weeks of work in order to do what we felt was best for these songs, and that involved a lot of trust in our abilities and the process. You have to go with it though, especially when you’re working within such a tight-knit group where everyone cares so much.
We spent another month or two back home in our warehouse studio getting things into shape, and we realised that we can do all of this ourselves. We’re good enough songwriters, and we’re good enough producers now. At this point, we know what we’re doing, we know how we want it to sound, and we know what people love about our band. We don’t need to explain that to anyone or have anyone else try to define what that is.
This album is quintessential Neck Deep, and it feels like the most positive collection of songs you’ve written in a good while. Was that intentional?
Going back to Life’s Not Out To Get You, the message of that record was very positive, and it was an arm around the shoulder for a lot of people. Those songs helped people, and it defined a purpose for this band. We touch on that more with this record than the last couple of releases, and that’s because we always write from the heart. I don’t always feel super positive, but on Life’s Not Out To Get You I was young and hopeful. I didn’t have much to be sad about back then, but this record feels like a nice balance. It’s not naively idealistic, but it reflects on what gives life purpose and how to get through tough times. That’s what we gravitated towards this time, and having that positive element to the songs came very naturally. That’s what people want from our music, and I’d rather be like that than be super depressing. If we can help people through tough times, it doesn’t matter how successful we are as a band.
You’ve developed a close-knit fanbase over the years, leading people to form strong emotional connections with your lyrics. Does sharing your personal stories with the world via Neck Deep’s music bring a level of catharsis and comfort for you too?
It’s a place for me to unload a little bit. When you’re writing lyrics, if it’s not real, people can see that. You can tell if a person really feels what they’re singing about, and that emotion is what makes great music. You’ve got to be honest, and I think that some people feel as though our lyrics describe their situations and how they feel. We never want to tell people how to feel, but the best music sparks a little eureka moment in your life. That’s what I love about music, and it’s one of the few things that makes me randomly emotional. Some people cry at films, but I get emotional over parts of songs that just feel great. I get a little lump in my throat when a song describes how I feel better than I ever could, and I hope we can do that for other people.
There are songs on this album that touch on all manner of topics, but ‘We Need More Bricks’ stands out as the most political Neck Deep song to date. What are you hoping that track inspires in people?
I grew up on very political music. Seb and I have an older brother who’s the elder punk of the family, and his favourite bands are Bad Religion and Dead Kennedys. Whatever part of the punk spectrum you’re on, I believe it should always be somewhat political. I feel like it’s our job as a semi-punk band to make clear where we stand, especially when the world is this crazy. We’re living in some of the most challenging times in modern history, and the world is operating in a way that benefits only the very wealthy and those in power. I don’t want to be a mouthpiece for anyone or anything other than myself and the band, but I hope that song can make people think because that’s the mark of great art. It’s important to put politics back into music because if we shy away from it, what do we have a voice about? Do we just have to sing about going out and breaking up with our girlfriends? I want to use our platform for something good, and I want to try and open people’s eyes to some of the terrible things that are going on around the world and the corruption that exists.
Alongside the album release, you’ve also got a huge Alexandra Palace show lined up for this year. What can people expect from that evening?
Playing that venue has felt like a carrot on a stick for a while, and it’s been on our list for a long time. We want to sell that bad boy out, because it’s one of our favourite venues in the UK. We want it to be a celebration of how far this band has come. We’re going to be playing some stuff that we haven’t played in a long time, and a bunch of old fan favourites. We’re going to go hard on production and go out there and do our thing. I think by this point our songs and the energy speak for themselves, but it’ll be a chance to be a part of the biggest Neck Deep singalongs ever. We’ve played some big shows in our time, but I think this is going to be our most extravagant one yet. We want to make it a memorable one.
With that show lined up, and an album on the way that feels like a definitive statement of this band, how are you feeling about the future of Neck Deep?
There are no plans to slow down, and we’re the best songwriters we’ve ever been. The music that we’re writing now is our best yet, and we want to keep that going and strike while the iron is hot. After ten years, we’re in a place where we have an incredibly dedicated fanbase and we’re still growing, but we don’t need to be the biggest band in the world. In fact, I don’t really want to be the biggest band in the world, I just want to take care of our own flowers and let them grow. We can make our own records now, and we can make a good living doing this. Whether we’re playing to 10,000 or 200 people, this is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. I’ll be doing it until the world explodes.