Since their inception in 2014, Brighton four-piece Black Honey have proved themselves one of the UK’s most ambitious, uncompromising bands. Their expansive 2018 debut, Black Honey, incorporated trap and disco alongside their own brand of fizzy grunge pop, and was accompanied by a saga of videos aired from a retro world of pink coffins, cowboys and neon-lit murder scenes. A rollercoaster of exhaustive touring followed, including supports with Queens of the Stoneage, Royal Blood and slots at Glastonbury.
Their upcoming sophomore, Written & Directed, was recorded in the brief gaps of that gruelling schedule; some of it was even written on the road. According to singer and guitarist Izzy B Phillips, it’s Black Honey distilled and on steroids.
We talked about their visual universe, the compromising power of social media over creativity, and who this new album is speaking to.
The title Written & Directed seems perfect for you – is it about creative autonomy as an artist?
Definitely…but also, on a deeper level, it’s about finding autonomy for yourself and your life, and that power…Everyone’s got to be the star of their own movie.
It reminds me of artists like Grimes who say it’s not Grimes unless she’s been involved in every aspect – writing, directing, mixing, production…
I really identify with that. I also love and respect artists who just want to be in the studio and write, but I’m much more the all round artist like Grimes. I am obsessed with every part of it…and ultimately it’s worth it because I’m so proud of everything we’ve done.
That all round autonomy of vision has kind of meant you’ve been able to create a universe, a ‘Black Honey World’.
I love to live in that world. Every day I’m striving to get deeper into that place. It’s not always music, sometimes it’s visually, or just writing in my journal. Everything is steeped in reality, but it’s also the most quintessentially fictitious thing ever.
You’ve got such a strong aesthetic. The new video, Run for Cover, is beautifully styled. What films, books or artworks were you thinking about when you imagined this album visually?
To be honest, that video came a long time after the song. We initially wrote it for Royal Blood, and we wanted it to be a Hives, White Stripes, 90’s throwback to all the bands we were obsessed with growing up. That was the song, but the thing that makes it more me is thinking ‘OK what happens if we do a Strokes video but take a Martin Parr, Alex Prager lens and put that over the top?’ By that point, it’s really removed from the original idea but it’s become us and I love that – when ideas traverse through the steps of different references.
Those latest singles, Run for Cover and Beaches, have a lot of pace and immediacy. Do they set the tone for the album?
Not really! The album is super dark and heavy…there are some really heavy songs coming, full on, rip your face off heavy.
So much as happened since the debut. What’s changed about you since you released the first album? How do you see yourselves now?
The first album was so intense, like riding a roller coaster…Now it’s like the whole track of that rollercoaster has fallen apart in the pandemic and I’m looking back on it thinking ‘I just did twelve laps of that rollercoaster in ten minutes, I have no idea what just happened.’ Now I feel like I’m meeting myself for the first time, and listening to this record we finished nine months ago, I’m thinking…I just made that? Where did that come from? I’m still sat here feeling like a failure.
I think a tough thing about the pandemic was that you felt like you should be working on something with all that free time, and guilty for struggling to find the inspiration to do it…
So many people said ‘oh now I have time to write that novel’ and they just didn’t do it – I found a lot of comfort in that. I need to be getting on a train on a cold morning, getting coffee and going to a studio, thinking ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen today…I hope it goes well’, and then at the end having something we think might be good, then going to the pub with my friends, talking about the world, going home and doing the same thing the next day. That’s how my creative process works and it fits me perfectly – going to work. But being at home, I just can’t focus, the more I’ve forced it the more it feels wrong…so when we got back into the studio with the guys I just thought ah, here we go. This is easy.
Lyrically, who are you speaking to on this album? Is it inward or outward facing?
I always write to myself, but it’s for women, outsiders, people on the edges of society who have been discounted. I want them to feel empowered.
You played with a few alternative genres on the last album, I’m thinking Bad Friends with the trap element, or Midnight’s disco flavour…Are there unexpected influences on Written & Directed, or are you going back to basics?
I loved our explorations into disco and pop, but I think we learned that ultimately we’re a rock band. Those trap drums for example on Bad Friends – at a gig they sound so small and bedroomy, and when you’re on a massive stage at a festival you want to be hitting the shit out of the ride and making everything sound massive. I’m still so proud of those songs, but this album is Black Honey on steroids.
So when you were actually writing Written & Directed, was it a case of coming back to being just a band in a room again and jamming?
We wrote loads of these songs while we were on tour. I’d get a thrill out of being on a flight, having just been on stage in Romania, and finding myself in the studio the next day, half asleep but so excited about a new song. We also wrote with loads of other people – Royal Blood, Carl Barât from the Libertines, Ollie from the Prodigy…Once we had those songs we thought ‘How do we take this back to being a retro rock ’n’ roll band?’ So, we took it back into that live performance world, got the boys to play it live in the room, we had a two drum kit set up at one point…I really love the life that comes out of the analogue instruments, I’m so obsessed with analogue tones and the juxtaposition digital sounds can have with them… It’s not minimal by any stretch!
You guys use social media very ably to express your vision and connect with your fans, but if you could would you stop and operate like a 70s band, even if it meant losing the intimacy with fans?
Oh my god yes. Because I don’t think we’d lose the intimacy. I would be hand writing letters back to them. Social media is horrendous. It’s like having to operate a multimedia franchise, and never getting paid for it, but having to do it to keep your business afloat, and that’s so compromising isn’t it? I am quite strict with it, I know who I am, there’s things I won’t do, but I think I’ve jeopardised my creativity as well. I have to put in so much creative energy that I could save for writing in my journal or for music.
Where do you imagine Written & Directed being played? Paint me a picture…
In my head it would be a young person… they’re going somewhere they need to deliver, they need to pep themselves up and just be IT. They put on their headphones and their Doc Martens and they’re saying I’m ready to take on the world, I deserve this, I am enough, and they get the job or they have the difficult conversation with someone. It’s about courage.