Making a concept album was not on Neck Deep’s to-do list necessarily. But after writing their single “Low Life”, the record took on a form of their own, when the intermingling of rugged and rowdy characters Jett and Alice began to unravel.
Vocalist Ben Barlow imagined Jett and Alice with some of his own personal experiences in mind but also deviated from that while idealizing them as characters, which offered some space and comfort to be vulnerable as a lyricist on their recent release All Distortions Are Intentional.
“Things happened out of nowhere but started with ‘Low Life,”’ the frontman told American Songwriter about the early development of the record. “I was writing that song and noticed it didn’t necessarily come from the same place as our other songs. It was a different part of my psyche. I was thinking it could be a character or a story and it snowballed from there. Doing it as a concept allowed me to be more honest and authentic even though it’s from a character, it’s most me lyrically.”
The outline for the record was completed loosely as the band approached each song. Jett and Alice were at the center on the story and as the band realized Jett’s character journey, they were able to carve out the plot direction more clearly. “A big part of the record was when we got the opening and closing track down,” Ben said. “Then we bookended the record and could fill in the gaps in the middle.”
“Low Life” opens the record and portrays Jett in an abstract light that is not usual for his character, with assets of behaviors and emotions not encountered throughout the rest of the story, where he is met with inner-struggles, battling mental illness. “Low Life” offers an upbeat musical profile with gritty, lyrics meant to make the listener just uncomfortable enough to pay attention. The music video presents a visual of the characters at the beginning of the story, showing them together, adorned with retro punk-styled wardrobe, vibrant colored hair and piercings, while following the pair from a vintage looking apartment through the city streets, doing nothing and everything at the same time. Jett is rejoicing and galivanting in his own happiness, sparked by his infatuation with Alice, but the songs to follow show a darker, more tumultuous side to Jett and his mind.
“’Low Life’ is meant to show Jett uninhibited by his depression and feeling good for once, accepting himself because he’s on this high from meeting Alice and then the rest of the record is the opposite of that,” Ben explained. “I always imagined Jett to be a bohemian character and kind of arty looking. People have drawn a lot of comparisons to the Sid and Nancy, Kurt and Courtney types, just two kind of rough around the edges characters.”
Other than drafting the concept and characters, Neck Deep spent the most amount of time for the record on production and recording, especially guitars, which was only drawn out when the band blew every single amp, they had in the first days of recording. Going for an authentic and less digital sound, they quickly replaced their amps and continued to use analog rigs, while adding to the diversity of the record by expanding their instrumentation wherever possible.
“Most of the sounds are organic, we used a few amp sims but the guitars were mostly analog gear,” Ben said. “We were so used to our first records which were digital. We wanted to be as natural as possible, but if we didn’t have something we needed, we would use a Kemper or something like that.”
“There was way more percussion, organs, analog synths and mandolin,” bassist Seb Barlow added.
“It was like being back in music class where the teacher brings out a basket of instruments,” guitarist Sam Bowden said. “We just used what we had instead of searching for digital sounds or loops.”
Searching for the best studio to produce their analog-leaning sound, they chose the renowned Monnow Valley Studio in Wales, that has produced a history of iconic albums from Led Zeppelin, Queen and Oasis. The environment definitely added to the weight and vibe of the album in conjunction with producer Matt Squire, who has worked with several other successful pop-punk bands and a partner Neck Deep had unintentionally found while overseas for a three-week trip to interview producers.
“We landed in New York with a schedule and had like thirty people on the list to talk to between New York and LA,” Sam said. “Day one we met Matt Squire and we knew he was the guy. It was done and we just didn’t waste anyone’s time. We went to Guitar Center, bought some recording gear and demoed some stuff then we lost our minds and flew home.”
Despite the compromised gear early in the studio process and cutting their US trip short upon locking in Squire, Ben recalled the writing experience as one of the easiest and welcoming environments to draft lyrics in, mostly due to the beauty and echoes of past creations projected from the inside walls of Monnow Valley Studio paired with the support and lack of pressure from his bandmates.
“It’s a beautiful studio and the environment affects your mood and how you write,” Ben said. “So being there with this vintage décor and lighting definitely helped. It was also so far away that there were no distractions, we were just living the album. A big part of my process is bitching and moaning about it too. But you can give up quickly and revert back to something you were half happy with or you can dig out the thing you know is better.”
What Ben knew was better was writing an album with lyrics that were personal to him and his life, while also building in attributes to Jett’s character that resonate and tell the tough truths about struggles, relationships and mental illness that listeners face.
“We’ve all experienced our fair share of sadness. I would count myself very lucky if I never went through any mental health struggles,” Ben said. “I think it’s also something our fans look to us for. It’s something we’ve always put in the forefront. We’ve worked with various charities to spread awareness and talk from experience while serving our fans. Even though the record is not completely my perspective some of it is and in some ways the record is the most personal I’ve ever gotten.”
The towering song and first single, “Low Life” that introduced Ben’s story of Jett and Alice and was soon followed by the releases of “Fall,” “When You Know,” “I Revolve (Around You)” and “Sick Joke” before the premiere of All Distortions Are Intentional on July 24.