You couldn’t accuse Blaenavon of rushing their debut album, but good things come to those who wait.
Words: Martyn Young. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
A bit like the mining town from which they took their name, Hampshire trio Blaenavon (that’s singer and guitarist Ben Gregory, bassist Frank Wright and drummer Harris McMillan) have an unassuming reputation. Beneath their carefree exterior, though, lies a story of evocative beauty just like the wonders of South Wales’ industrial heartland. Just without the dragons.
Blaenavon’s tale is one that goes back to school classrooms, cafeterias and the family living room which still plays a central role in the band’s songwriting. “I’ve got a spot in my home, on my little red sofa with a nylon string guitar. That’s where I write tunes,” says Ben. Family ties are held dear. A recent show in Cologne was attended by a whole bunch of relatives, including Ben’s 80-year-old great grandmother. Despite their skyrocketing success, Blaenavon are in no danger of losing touch with their roots.
Perhaps those close bonds were forged by the band’s beginnings. Formed in 2012, their early days were shaped by the attitude that fires all teenage bands: living for the moment and making music purely for the sheer joy of it. As they approach the release of their long-awaited debut album, ‘That’s Your Lot’, Blaenavon have cast aside the worries of tired industry politics and embraced the youthful idealism of their teenage years, delivering a super smart, effortlessly classy and deeply ambitious debut.
“It’s gone full circle,” explains Ben. “When you first start making music at 15, you’re not worried if anybody’s going to hear it or what they’re going to say. When you start to get to a position of minimum power you’re like, ‘Crap, what’s everyone going to think about this?’ You realise after a while that all you can do is make the sort of music you want to make, and people will say about it what they want to say – and that’s fine as long as the music you make is fucking sick and important to you. I feel like we’re back to that stage now and our album reflects that; it’s very honest and sincere, and we’re all so happy with it.”
Blaenavon’s coming of age is the product of years of well-received singles, false starts, creative breakthroughs and gradually finding their feet. Back at school, the band was an outlet for the flowing creative ideas of three young, talented musicians. It never quite felt like they were a ‘proper’ band. Not yet, anyway – not until they made their defining statement. “We were all pretty busy,” says Ben. “We had a lot going on at school and college. Music was like the sweet relief when we had time off after school, where we could forget about all the bullshit that is growing up in a shit little town. We were trying to be creative with our friends and get something artistic done.”
In truth, there could have been a Blaenavon album of sorts at any point in the last five years. It’s not like the songs weren’t there. A casual listen to the bright exuberance of first single ‘Denim Patches’ still excites, but they wanted more than just putting out a record because that’s what bands do. It had to feel real. “We’re proud of the releases we’ve had over the years, and we could have put a record out two or three years ago and capitalised on a little bit of buzz, but it would’ve been substandard. We wanted to take a long time over it and hopefully make something that will last in people’s memories. We want people to listen to it in years to come and think it still feels fresh.”
Those long years honing their craft have proved crucial in forging the close relationship between the band members and inspiring their vaulting ambition. “We’ve gradually learned to accept everybody’s insecurities and appreciate everyone’s different skills so that we can get the most out of all three of us,” explains Ben. “When you’ve only got three people live or in the studio, you need to get the most out of everybody, or you’ll feel empty.”
The last couple of years have seen a drastic acceleration in Blaenavon’s development. Signing with Transgressive Records and hooking up with celebrated producer Jim Abbiss – a man who knows a thing or two about producing outstanding British debut albums after helming Arctic Monkeys’ breakthrough – has been the catalyst to finally feeling like the band they want to be. “We recorded music in the Easter holidays and played the occasional London show, so it never felt like a career. It was just a strange, different world that we’d enter accidentally when we weren’t studying,” says Ben. “It was only since we started recording with Jim and being on tour so much that it’s felt like a real job and something we want to keep on doing in the future. The last year has been massively significant for us, and that’s when it’s felt proper I think.” The realisation that they’re in this for the long haul helped to spark new belief in the band: they know they’re onto something special. “We know exactly what we’re doing, and we’re quite well versed in this whole band business these days.”
Years of playing the long game despite being perennially tipped in those January tips lists gave Blaenavon a good perspective on the dangers of doing too much too soon. “It’s strange seeing some bands before we’ve even started, get big and fail already. It’s fucking scary. That’s why we didn’t want to rush into the buzz. We wanted to take our time and not be a flash-in-the-pan. The bands who have got something decent to say have survived and are doing well; I think we’ve got more to say, so I don’t worry about it. We’ll stick around for a while.”
Blaenavon are a band fond of a curveball. ‘That’s Your Lot’ is an album that reels you in and lulls you into a false sense of security. Side 1 is packed full of bangers and the sort of literate, smart indie pop that makes them a cut above their peers. Singles – like the positively buoyant in-the-face-of-despair ‘Let’s Pray’ and the doleful, sensual groove of ‘Orthodox Man’ – provide the sweet bait before the second half veers off into all sorts of compelling tangents. It takes a whole lot of ambition to put three six-minute-plus songs on your debut record, but ambition is something Blaenavon have pouring out of every orifice. “People are a afraid of the consequences of doing that. They just want to play it safe and do the catchier songs for the radio,” begins Ben. “That’s important, but if there’s nothing more to your band, then it’s not worth doing. We’ve got some amazing musicians in our band, and we needed to show off what we could do as a three-piece.”
It’s a theme that Ben and the band regularly come back to; the desire to prove themselves and reach their fullest potential. “It’s difficult in times when people can’t pay attention to something for more than 20 seconds unless it’s bright and colourful and in your face,” he ponders. “We’ve got all the sides to it, though. We’ve got the stuff that will hopefully get people excited about the band, like the singles, and once they’re excited hopefully, they’ll be willing to be attentive and give the tracks that require attention a lot of time. If you listen to ‘Ode To Joe’ and ‘Swans’ you get much more of an immersive experience than just with the catchier tracks.”
The immersive experience that he describes also takes in the lyrics. Blaenavon’s flights of fancy give the album a spark and flair that colours every one of its twelve songs. “I was very happy to get the word ‘pipsqueak’ into a song,” laughs Ben as he describes one of the witty lines speckled throughout the album.
As befits a record that they’ve spent years building up to there’s a distinct theme running through ‘That’s Your Lot’. “I wouldn’t say it’s a concept record, but it is a massive journey,” explains Ben. “You start with a lot of positivity on a song like ‘Take Care’ which is about being massively enamoured with someone you think is utterly brilliant. It moves through some more positive moments feeling like having a lot of faith in mankind then gradually becomes bigger, darker and deeper. The mood changes. Duality is such an important theme on the record, so it’s good to have light and dark. It works well and builds you up slowly for some gargantuan moments and brings you back down with some painful relief.”
The diversity in mood and tone and change in dynamics allowed the band to be more expansive musically as well. It fits Blaenavon’s endearing idiosyncrasy that Ben enthusiastically compliments Frank on playing “a badass bass scale” on ‘Ode To Joe’’s noise rock wig out. There’s a dexterity and power to their sound that dwarves their rudimentary beginnings back in Frank’s sister’s bedroom. “As a three-piece, the guys I work with are such amazing musicians,” says Ben. “When it’s the three of us it’s amazing seeing everyone’s attributes across the whole thing. It’s important to reflect all our skills across the songs; that’s why we didn’t want to be just a normal indie band. We wanted to show all the different sides to us and all our amazing abilities.”
While the music on ‘That’s Your Lot’ displays depth and vitality the songs themselves are rich in imagery and a storytelling quality that place Blaenavon in the lineage of great British songwriters. At times these tales of desire, longing, and life’s cruel twists of fate are reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker and Morrissey. Ambiguity plays a big part in the record as best exemplified by the album title. “The reason I like the title ‘That’s Your Lot’ is that it has so many different meanings,” says Ben. “It’s about finality and acceptance of the end of something. There’s a lot of duality and divisiveness on the record because I’m a very painful hopeless romantic who can’t make his mind up and ruins everything very quickly. There’s a lot of being indecisive across the record. It’s difficult to write an album when you’re twenty and not have young romance involved. It’s been a long process for us and quite a difficult process, so there’s lots of self-doubt on the record.”
With everything Blaenavon do, there’s always room for humour, no matter how twisted their emotional knots become. “It’s just taking the piss out of yourself as well. I wanted some bits to be really funny. I wanted to be deliberately pathetic,” laughs Ben.
Being “deliberately pathetic” is something writers like Jarvis excel at, and it’s a quality that Ben admires. “Being massively delicate and honest and revealing everything and being able to express yourself in such a bold way, that’s a skill that I wanted to echo from those types of people.”
Irony and subversion aren’t far away on the front-loaded run of bangers that introduces the album. It’s hard not to take a perverse pleasure in ‘Let’s Pray’’s chanted chorus of “Let’s pray for death”. “That’s supposed to be ironic,” explains Ben. “The point of that song is that I went through a good purple patch, and I wrote like eight tracks for the record, but then I went through a difficult period where I couldn’t write any music for ages. ‘Let’s pray for death’ was me saying ‘I’m fucking sick of this, I want some music to come. If I can’t write music anymore then what’s the point of me being here?’ Ironically that ended up being one of the best songs I’ve ever written. I thought it was funny to be subversive about someone struggling to write music. That’s something you don’t really write about, being so self-reflective. It’s quite funny.”
‘That’s Your Lot’ represents the end of something in a more fundamental way: Blaenavon’s first phase. The end of those innocent school days. They’ve given everything and poured all their creative powers into one grand statement. “It’s like five years across one record,” says Ben. “It’s the end of a big period for us, and it’s us getting it all out, all the stuff that we’d been holding in and waiting to show to the world.”
Some of the songs on the album go back to their earliest days. “‘Swans’ was one of the very first Blaenavon songs. It was written five years ago when we were 15. We knew that song was an important moment for us.” Another older song is album centrepiece ‘Prague ‘99’. “That’s from back in the day. It wasn’t going to be on the record, but we do like 60 shows and end on that song every night. People lose their shit and believe in it. It means a lot to so many people.”
Typical of a band who are never quite what you think they are, Prague itself doesn’t hold any particular resonance for the band. “I wish I had a bullshit answer to sound cultured, but really that song had a name that we weren’t allowed to say on the radio,” laughs Ben. “It was a day before it had to come out and I was with my friend who had a hat on that just said Prague 99 and I thought, okay, we’ll just call it that. It’s a bit of a dedication to a good friend of mine.”
Perhaps the most powerful reaction to their treasured set closer came at last year’s headline show at London’s Scala, a gig they pinpoint along with playing Glastonbury for the first time as a key moment in their history. “When we played Scala we hadn’t done a headline show for quite a while. Before we could walk on stage, Harris starts playing the drums. The crowd was kicking each other in the shins; there were people and limbs everywhere. More limbs than I’ve ever seen in the air,” says Ben, with an infectious excitement in his voice. “That was the first time we felt that we were connecting with a shit-ton of people, and it felt amazing. Everyone was singing back songs we hadn’t even released yet. It was a real moment for us.”
From old to new, school to the Scala, Blaenavon have been making waves for a long time – now they’re ready to take that next step. The future offers endless possibilities. “I think it’s a reset,” says Ben confidently. “Literally ‘That’s Your Lot’, five years are done, and that’s all you’re getting, and we’re going to spend a shit-ton of time making sure as many people as possible get to hear it. We’ll come back and do something completely different then. We’re never going to make this record again. That’s our first album. It’s done, and we just want to get back in the studio and get our minds ticking together, and probably do something pretty bizarre. It’s only going to get bigger and bolder from here.”
Blaenavon’s album ‘That’s Your Lot’ is out 7th April.