Henry Cox has spent a lot of time reflecting on his formative years in Blackpool lately. Although he was born some 112 miles away in Burton-upon-Trent, the sprightly lead singer of Boston Manor has proudly called the Lancashire resort home since he was four.
“It’s such an interesting place, and there isn’t really anywhere I’ve found that’s quite like it,” says Henry, now aged 25. “There’s this weird culture that hasn’t changed since the 80s – it’s not relevant to 2018, but it’s still there. It’s fascinating. The kind of people you meet here and the aesthetic are unique.”
Henry’s unwinding in his parents’ living room in Blackpool, the glass of Shiraz in his hand well earned after wrapping up three consecutive nights of filming the quintet’s latest music video. It was a “fun and a little bit stressful” milestone for Henry – having previously directed music videos for the likes of Jamie Lenman and Weatherstate, the promising young filmmaker took on the helm of a Boston Manor video for the first time.
“We’ve just been doing lots of weird shit in Blackpool at night and filming it!” Henry teases of the “film noir-y, trippy journey through the surreal” which he captured over shoots which started at 9 pm and ended at 5 am. “I went to film school, and I’ve been directing videos for a while, and I felt confident enough to the point where I was like, ‘I can do this for Boston Manor, I can direct a video for us’. For every video I can think of, we’ve come up with a treatment for it and worked with the directors quite intensively.
“I’m sure I’m a director’s worst nightmare because I’m always peering over their shoulder and asking, ‘have you thought about maybe doing ‘this’?” he laughs.
Through the eyes of a child, Blackpool is a wonderland of amusement arcades and enough sugar to give you diabetes just by thinking about it – a haven of good old-fashioned family fun. Henry has very fond memories of his childhood and adolescence in the seaside town, but as he has grown older, he has inevitably become more aware of the harsher realities that cast larger silhouettes over the town than its eponymous tower.
“I’ve seen what Blackpool is from a young age, but when you’re young you look past the bad stuff,” he says. “You go out, your parents take you to the arcade or to Pleasure Beach, and you ride on the rollercoasters, and then you go to McDonald’s, and it’s a really nice day out. You don’t notice the things in the shadows, but they’re constantly there. All I saw was the bright lights, but in reality, there was all this stuff going on in the background, and it’s tough.”
Henry admits that he would be lying if he said that he was raised on Blackpool’s meaner streets, but he has seen enough to know what goes down in the town’s darker underbelly – whether it’s through heroin addicts shooting up in the bus shelter around the corner from his house, or the man who threw himself off the shelter and landed right next to the Cox family car when Henry was just 10 years old.
These sad scenes aren’t exclusive to Blackpool of course, and Henry remains optimistic about his hometown slowly getting back on its feet, but he’s also fully aware of the ongoing struggle for just one of the many dilapidated industrial towns in Lancashire and the North of England as a whole.
“The North suffered when industry moved abroad,” he says in an authoritative manner. “Blackpool has that element, but its industry was entertainment, and that entertainment has since gone. It’s unique, but it’s got this constant battle between the fun, sunset-y place that it once was and the totally deprived, uneducated, rough place that it’s become.”
It’s those shadowy corners of Blackpool that a young Henry was once blind to which Boston Manor – completed by guitarists Ash Wilson and Mike Cunniff, bassist Dan Cunniff and drummer Jordan Pugh – have explored on their hotly-anticipated second album, ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’. Set within a fictional re-imagining of the town, desolated by crime, poverty, addiction and failure, it’s in serious contention for the most outstanding British rock record of the year, but it’s also the last record you might have expected from a band who were ordained the ‘next big thing’ in pop-punk following their 2016 debut full-length, ‘Be Nothing.’.
Although ‘Be Nothing.’ is a frenetic, heart-on-sleeve masterclass in the genre, Boston Manor felt like they had outgrown pop-punk even by the time they wrapped up production of the record nearly three years ago.
“We’ve often been pigeonholed in the pop-punk scene, and I don’t really mind that, but I would never label us as pop-punk,” says Ash who, having been raised in the suburb of Thornton-Cleveleys, claims to be the only member of Boston Manor that’s ‘100% Blackpool’. “I don’t think any of us listen to pop-punk. I can’t remember the last time I listened to anything pop-punk other than my friends’ bands when they put out new music.”
“We found ourselves at a weird point where we came to write the first album,” Henry adds. “We felt somewhat naïve that we had this audience that we needed to not extradite by releasing something that wasn’t pop-punk. At that point, we were still unsure on where to take things, so I feel like we were playing it safe on that album.
“We’re very proud and happy with ‘Be Nothing.’ because it’s our first ever album,” he assures. “But it would be a bit overzealous to say we were creatively satisfied with it.”
With not a single two-stepping, skate-worthy beat to be heard anywhere near it, ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ is a far cry from the frenetic sounds of old, but a slowing in pace does not mean a lessening in intensity. The bop and bounce of a song like ‘Flowers In Your Dustbin’ and the titanic choruses of ‘Halo’ and ‘Tunnel Vision’ have the momentum to push Boston Manor to the heady heights of daytime radio. On the flipside, the likes of ‘England’s Dreaming’ and ‘Funeral Party’ instil a feeling of dread through sinister, sprawling and at times almost Korn-esque guitars. If anything, ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ is more fired up than anything Boston Manor have previously committed to memory.
“Your taste changes in two years, particularly in your twenties,” adds Henry. “Our tastes now are so vastly different, so when it came to writing this album, we were in a totally different world to where we were on the first album.”
Their second album is one that prides itself not only on its unpredictability but also in its ability to uncover its layers and nuances with each infectious listen. From the opening title-track, which subtly spirals down into a series of static bursts and distorted screams, Boston Manor have created a gloriously unsettling listening experience. So determined were the band in creating these ominous vibes that they even scrapped and re-wrote what Henry reckons to be “around 60%” of the album just a couple of months before recording it.
“It’s a blessing and a curse that we’re absolute perfectionists,” laughs Ash. “We would write an idea out for a song, and we would just work it to death until it sounded absolutely perfect. It took a while, and there were times where a couple of us would get a little bit frustrated – someone would prefer one idea while someone else would prefer the other, but everyone came to an agreement that it was for the benefit of the song. It has to sound as good as it can, and we definitely accomplished that.”
“We decided that the stepping stone approach wasn’t going to work and that we needed to do something different,” says the frontman. “When it felt the most like we were pushing [on ‘Be Nothing.’], we were only crawling an inch, and even that felt like we were stepping outside of our comfort zone. With this one, we threw all caution to the wind and just went, ‘Fuck it, let’s try stuff’.”
When Henry and Ash mentally leaf through the records and discuss the artists that have inspired their changing approach to music in the last few years, they talk enthusiastically about albums like ‘White Pony’ by Deftones and ‘The Downward Spiral’ by Henry’s favourite band, Nine Inch Nails. They detail how the band have “started to go down the rabbit hole with industrial music”, picking up inspiration from Skinny Puppy and Ministry along the way, but then they give a nod to the more cinematic, art-rock stylings of Failure and ‘OK Computer’-era Radiohead as well.
As someone who grew up on hip-hop and wasn’t a devout rock fan until he was in his teens, Henry has also been hugely inspired by Californian quintet The Neighbourhood and their infusions of R&B, hip-hop and indie rock.
“The Neighbourhood’s music sits very nicely in an open space,” he explains. “There’s a couple of tracks on the record where we kind of managed to capture that and we’re trying to look at how to do that more in the future. That’s definitely a vibe – the hip-hop element of the sound we’re going for is something we want to indulge ourselves in further.”
Not only did Henry want to balance out his no-fucks-given vocal delivery with an enhanced focus on the more soulful side of his range, but he also sought the opportunity to take his pride in lyrics and cultivate more of a reputation as a wordsmith.
“I look back at the lyrics on the first album and I cringe because I was finding my feet, and I still am,” he says. “It would be arrogant to say that I’ve cracked it, but I’ve written a few lyrics on this record that I’m proud of. It’s a yin and yang of lyrics and melody, and it’s hard to keep them in balance.”
When you hear the sheer ferocity with which he belts out the line “Give me morality / Give me a soul / Give me cheap alcohol and put me on the dole”, or even the way he cautiously drawls “Welcome to the Neighbourhood / If you could leave you would,” you can’t deny that Henry has enhanced his profile as one of the UK’s most impassioned bandleaders.
“I wrote the lyrics to be duplicitous,” he reveals. “If you wanted to dig, you can find little references and meanings, but at face value, you can make these songs about what you want to make them about. It’s an angry album, and the whole purpose of the album is to channel your anger through it. So, if you’re pissed off at your stepdad or whatever, and you listen to the song ‘Hate You’, and it makes you feel something and allows you to process that, then you process that.”
In September 2017, Boston Manor decamped to Hopatcong, New Jersey – once a popular summer getaway destination for New York yuppies, it is a modest town with a population falling short of 15,000 – to start pre-production on what would eventually become ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’.
“It was really nice and sunny,” Ash recalls of his first experience of Hopatcong. “When we were jet-lagged one day, me and Henry got up at 6 am, took two kayaks out onto the lake and just paddled around for a few hours.
“After that, we couldn’t wait to go back and take those kayaks out again, but then fast forward to January, and the whole lake was frozen over. There were people on motocross bikes bombing it down the middle of the lake and pitching up tents and fishing. It was mental; I’d never seen anything like it.
“I used to have an app on my phone which, instead of telling me what temperature it was, would just tell me if it was ‘fucking freezing’ or ‘pissing it down’. [The temperature] was probably always under ‘fucking freezing’! There were days where we would get snowed into the studio, so we just decided that we might as well camp it out and write some stuff.”
The band were in esteemed company at the Barber Shop Studios with producer-engineer Mike Sapone – a man whose CV name-checks the likes of Taking Back Sunday, The Xcerts, Mayday Parade, Motion City Soundtrack and even Public Enemy.
“Mike is an absolute genius,” Ash gushes. “He is super into electronic music, and he likes to do a lot of things on the composing side. That was awesome for us because we’d give him an idea or a demo of a melody or sound of some sort and the next day he’d bring in about seven different synths that we’ve never heard of before. He’s a god when it comes to finding sounds that he thinks are suitable for the record.”
“The process of making [the album] was just so fulfilling and enjoyable,” Henry adds. “I’ve listened to the album almost every day since we got the masters. I love it so much, and we’re all just so creatively satisfied with it.”
The shivering climates of your average winter in the Garden State, combined with what Ash calls the “Twin Peaks-esque” nature of Hopatcong, almost lend themselves to ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’’s more chilling and unsettling moments.
“If we were somewhere that’s as hot and awesome as California, I think [the album] would definitely have a different vibe to it,” says Ash. “This is going to sound outlandish, but in America, you’ve got East Coast hip-hop and West Coast hip-hop. East Coast hip-hop is kind of industrial and it resonates with cities like New York, and then you go to the West Coast, and it’s all super chilled and mellow. I feel like Blackpool is the New York for us in that we’re just trying to implement the surroundings and make it work like that.”
Despite the backdrop it is presented against, Boston Manor are reluctant to call ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ either a concept record or a political record.
“I’m not an expert on sociology, politics, economics or even popular culture,” Henry shrugs. “I can only really write about my experiences, and a lot of those experiences are literally about Blackpool and what I’ve seen, and the metaphor is for things I’ve seen travelling the world in the last two years.”
“It’s a weird time for anyone to be maturing and growing up,” he adds. “I think there’s been a bunch of reasons in the past three years that have caused a great divide in our country – it’s been a socio-economic divide, but it’s also been a generational divide. I’ve seen qualities come out in my kin that I would’ve never expected to see in my neighbourhood, and it’s very ugly and dissatisfying, and I felt disenfranchised.”
Unlike a lot of people, Henry refuses to pin the blame solely on his parents’ generation. “We’ve all had a part to play in where we’re at, and we’re all digging ourselves further into a hole,” he argues. “My personal anger is aimed more at my generation, because I’m just seeing this real nastiness coming out, and a lack of education as well.”
There’s a resentful tone to Henry’s voice which slowly intensifies as he talks. “I’ve seen a lot of hatred but equally a lot of misrepresentation, laziness, racism, sexism… But my main issue is just stupidity. I cannot abide people swallowing the fucking pill that they’ve been given, and that is what is happening to our generation. It’s easy to point the blame at older generations – yeah alright, we’re economically fucked, and we can’t buy a house, but is fucking sitting there watching Love Island and scrolling through Instagram so important?”
Ash also knows all too well about how his hometown has been moulded by complacency in recent years. “Everyone’s still here not knowing why they’re here, and everyone’s like, ‘Well I could go and do this or do that’ but no-one ever really does,” he sighs. “A lot of my friends that I’ve grown up with are still here and still doing what they’ve always done. I’d bump into them at Christmas, and they’re saying about how it’s so cool to see me doing all of these things with the band. I just want to know about what they’ve been doing, but then they’re all in the same jobs that they’ve been in for seven years. I ask them if they enjoy it and they say, ‘no’, so I tell them that they could just quit, but they’re like, ‘Nah, I don’t wanna quit’. I’ve had that conversation a thousand times!”
“We want everything for nothing, and I didn’t grow up like that,” Henry adds. “We spent the best part of a year writing and recording this album – not all bands spend that long, but a lot of bands spend at least a month writing and recording an album. To do all that work in one month, or one year in our case, and for someone to skip a track after 30 seconds and go ‘nah’ is part of a wider problem of how we process culture, how we don’t respect art and how throwaway it all is.”
With the Olympic-calibre leaps that Boston Manor have made both forwards and upwards in the last two years, what was once a pack of five snotty Northern punk upstarts is now one of the most exciting propositions in British rock. In ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ they have crafted a stunningly frank – and frankly stunning – depiction of the state of the world and how we’re all to blame, and their UK tour in September will take them to the biggest venues they’ve headlined yet.
The band have already made a running start by making the most of festival season, and it was with that spirited attitude that, back in June, they opened the Main Stage at Download with all the confidence of a band who felt like they deserved that honour.
“It felt so right,” Henry chuckles, shameless in confessing that he made full use of the Main Stage’s vanity ramp when he walked out into the hallowed fields of Castle Donington. “Without sounding arrogant, I didn’t feel particularly intimidated. I felt at home, and we had the best time. We’re a band that suit being on big stages – we’re performers at the end of the day, and we have every aspiration to take this thing as far as it can go.”
“One of the most beautiful things about this band is the fact that we all started at the same level,” says Ash. “No-one was better than anyone else, and we’ve all grown side-by-side as musicians and as performers and as people in general.
“We’re so far away from where we thought we would be when we started this band. It’s only going to keep going from there, and I’m just excited to see what else is going to happen…”
Taken from the September issue of Upset. Order a copy below. Boston Manor’s album ‘Welcome to the Neighbourhood’ is out now.
Featuring Boston Manor, Idles, Muncie Girls, FIDLAR and more.