Black Honey: a band who know how to make magic on a shoestring

This super-talented group are slowly working their way to the centre of attention

Black Honey: Tom Dewhurst, Izzy Baxter Phillips, Tommy Taylor and Chris Ostler

Black Honey: Tom Dewhurst, Izzy Baxter Phillips, Tommy Taylor and Chris Ostler

 

“Do you want a drink? We’ve got beer or –,” she gestures, holding up a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

I’m barely in the door and Izzy B Phillips is already the perfect host. She apologises for the mess in her dressing room at the legendary Gibus club in Paris, now strewn with balloons and pink ribbons. “It’s our manager and our tour manager’s birthdays today”, she explains, as a friend scrawls “Happy Birthday” in surprisingly neat cursive across a strip of kitchen roll – a makeshift birthday sign.

A lot of things in Black Honey’s universe are makeshift, but you’d never think it. They expertly straddle two worlds; one, the rock’n’roll world of cramped tour vans, hastily pulled on fishnet tights, dressing rooms without sinks (it proves quite the nuisance as the night wears on); the other, the world of dark, sugary pop that has seen them endlessly compared to Lana Del Rey and Lush. The latter is a high-gloss veneer over the gritty everyday life of the former. “You’re gonna die if you think that was high budget,” she tells me of their I Only Hurt the Ones I Love music video. “We basically looked up locations online for places that looked cinematic, and I found the Tabernas desert in Spain was where they filmed all the spaghetti westerns.” “I thought you filmed it in California?” I interrupt. “Exactly,” she grins.

We’ve done a licensing deal. It’s not like a record deal where you sign away your life for, like, £10,000. This way we’re creatively in charge

“It was a theme park called Sergio Leone Land, we just turned up dressed in full character. There were so many outtakes because tourists kept coming into shot. All the cowboys were actors at the theme park who were just like ‘Sure we’ll help, got nothing else to do, not many customers here today!’”

The DIY ethic pervades everything they do. “I did all the styling myself, and all the actors were friends,” she says of their Dig video, now at quarter of a million views on Youtube.

Black Honey’s ability to create magic on a shoestring has earned them hard-won acclaim. They supported good friends Royal Blood on their headline arena tour and played Glastonbury in 2017, and following the release of their debut album Black Honey last September, they’ve been spotlighted as the Observer’s Ones to Watch. But as many of their previous interviews have emphasised, they’ve been playing “the long game” – this album comes eight years after Phillips started the band back in Brightonian obscurity.

“I met Chris when I was 16,” she says. The band cycled through various formulations before arriving at the current line up of Phillips as frontwoman, Chris Ostler on guitar, Tommy Taylor on bass and Tom Dewhurst on drums. It was 2014 when they found this sweet spot, two EPs followed, and now they’re finally doing a headline album tour around Europe. It’s been a long time coming. “Ages. Literally ages!” Phillips summarises.

The media has delighted in tales of their early days and the scrappy, rock’n’roll brazenness of it all; they used to hand out their phone number in the days before they had a PR. Now, despite growing success, this independent philosophy still defines them: they’re still technically unsigned (“We’ve done a licensing deal. It’s not like a record deal where you sign away your life for, like, £10,000. This way we’re creatively in charge. They give you a marketing budget like a label would and you can use their in-house people and the infrastructure of a major label that you need, but you can do it on your own terms, as your own A&R,” Phillips clarifies), and unbelievably, they still hold down day jobs.

I think a lot of bands still do day jobs. I don’t know why people try to hide it. It’s so lame

“I think a lot of bands still do day jobs. I don’t know why people try to hide it. It’s so lame,” Phillips shakes her platinum blonde wig. A red neckerchief and a blue sheriff’s shirt compliment it; one of her big visual influences is the Milkybar Kid. “I do creative consultancy on the road from my laptop. And I sell a lot of my vintage clothes on eBay. We’re on fuck-all money still, we’re broke.”

Phillips doesn’t seem overly bothered by the fact. The band has occupied unknown indie territory for so long that making money from the music just seems like an aside, a remainder in an equation where the only real solution is the burning need to be an artist. “I hated normal society. I hated doing a normal job. I got shouted at every day for being late,” Phillips grins mischievously. “I can’t function in that world.

“It’s inherent. I would watch documentaries about artists and I’d always be like ‘I am that!’ Even from a really young age, I identified with these people who just can’t touch base with reality. You can be as poor as you like but nobody can take your songs away from you.”

Black Honey: a bunch of best friends bent on an old-school rock’n’roll dream
Black Honey: a bunch of best friends bent on an old-school rock’n’roll dream

Black Honey’s sound is fittingly sweet and dark, as sticky and absorbing as treacle – unarguably pop-inspired rock. The theatricality of their image, largely driven by Phillips’s stylised persona, is rooted in pop art, the wild west, gay clubs, 60s imagery of motels and neon signs, and icons such as Blondie. Her stories of watching documentaries and knowing she would be a star one day are reminiscent of Lady Gaga. These references, coupled with their highly polished (but secretly low budget) videos, beg questions about what Black Honey is, or wants to be: is this Brighton rock quartet with humble beginnings aiming for the big leagues of pop?

“I’ve got that kind of eccentricity that’s probably more common in pop music than it is in rock’n’roll, which is what confuses people. They can’t place me,” Phillips says knowingly. “They can’t understand that I wanna get drunk with my friends, play guitar, and write a song about wanting to fucking die, but also wanna dress up as Ronald McDonald,” (which she did, for London Fashion Week this year).

“I find I have this confrontation with my own eccentricity in my head every day. I’m like, ‘Today I wanna wear this crazy stupid thing but I also don’t want to be looked at’. Every day I have a war with myself, if I get through it I’ll be like ‘I’m glad I was eccentric today’. It’s like I’ve won something.

“That’s why I identify so much with drag culture, getting up in the morning and deciding you’re going to be a fucking weirdo, because that’s the truth of you.”

Drag queens feature heavily in the video for most recent single Midnight, as Phillips and bandmates take bloody revenge on her former love in a gay club.

“That’s the confrontation I’m interested in. I don’t know any rock bands who do that.”

My weird hate of pop music comes from a strange obsession with it. It kind of comes back to the existential crisis of being a complete outsider

In the London Evening Standard in February, Phillips sounded like a perfect disciple of the rock doctrine of authenticity, stating: “I can’t think of anything worse than being a pop star. There’s nothing sincere about pop music nowadays.” Then, in DIY mag in July, she said: “Pop is the goal.” In my yearning to understand what this band is really about, I simply have to go there: “What’s changed?” I venture.

“Nothing”, Phillips laughs. “I still believe both those things. When I say I hate pop, I mean the idea of ‘I’m going to put my hot pants on now, go to the gym at 8 in the morning to meet my personal trainer’,” she explains, putting on a faux chirpy robotic voice. “Like the lifestyle, the bullshit, the conveyor belt they’re on. I wanna write pop songs, but I wanna write ‘Paint it, black’,” she clarifies, referencing the 1966 Rolling Stones track. “The whole of the ’60s pop music thing is my goal.”

Watch them for long enough and it becomes clear that Black Honey is still just a bunch of best friends bent on an old school rock’n’roll dream. After their set that night, Phillips and Ostler join their friends behind the merch stand to talk to fans and sign everything that’s handed out – they couldn’t be further from pop star sterility. Though they flirt with pop, their relationship with it is as bittersweet as the failed romances that populate their lyrics.

“My weird hate of pop music comes from a strange obsession with it. It kind of comes back to the existential crisis of being a complete outsider, and feeling so detached from mass culture. Ultimately I write music for outsiders,” Phillips concludes.

“If you weren’t bullied in school I don’t really wanna be friends with you,” she finishes, with another sly grin.

Outsiders or not, this super-talented band is slowly working its way to the centre of attention. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re 60 per cent rock, or 40 per cent pop – because they’re 100 per cent stars.

Black Honey’s self-titled debut is out now

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