Ben Barlow talks traditional tattoos and vintage shopping in Japan

Ben spoke to us about thrifting in Asia and how his evolving style impacts his confidence on and off stage.

Whether it’s tattoos, vintage band tees or rare Supreme pieces, Neck Deep singer, Ben Barlow, is an avid collector.

The Wrexham, UK-born muso has spent the last six years on the road, and with little to no financial ties until now (he’s about to buy a house), Ben’s been busy carving our a well-travelled style that’s unmistakable when we meet in Melbourne.

The 24-year-old is donning double Supreme for our chat, which by his own admission feels a little predictable, but a loosely-buttoned, white on brown spotted shirt feels fitting for his quietly confident character.

The success of Neck Deep’s third album, ‘The Peace And The Panic’ has afforded the band some financial freedom, at least at a level not normally associated with a British pop punk band. Now at the end of the record’s year-long tour cycle, Ben says he’s soaked up influences from Japan in particular, having moved away from designer brands to invest in original, vintage pieces while shopping in Asia.

A combination of skateboarding, streetwear and high-end designer labels are responsible for what Ben calls a ‘clusterfuck’ style. For anyone admiring his latest looks though, Ben’s time overseas has guided him towards new levels of comfort and confidence.

Ben’s reaping the rewards musically too, with a new creative mentality beginning to play out as he tells us about album four.

First, Ben reflects on the albums gone by, and where his latest work leaves him heading into 2019.

On songwriting: “I want to talk about the times that we’re living in.”

Before we delve into your wardrobe, how’re you feeling now you’re at the tail end of promoting ‘The Peace And The Panic’?

The record really took us to a new place and maybe proved a point to a few people that we could actually write a diverse record and weren’t just a one trick pony pop punk band. From here, I think we’ve set ourselves up to do whatever we what, or at least expand our horizons a bit. It could’ve been a risky record for us to make, but it actually turned out to be the record we needed to make. After a Europe and UK run in February, it’s pretty much fourth album time.

Where’s your head at as you approach the next record?

It’s fucking terrifying when you have nothing done for it and you don’t know how things are going to come out sounding. I’ve sat at home and I’ve written stuff but I rely on the other guys a lot to bring stuff forward and I just don’t know what everyone else is writing yet. We’re going to take our time with this record, essentially. We’re going to take up to a year to write it, if it happens sooner then cool, if it happens later then that’s fine too. We’re putting no pressure on ourselves with it.

Until you get into it and you start actually getting a sense of what the record is going to be, what it’s going to be about and how it’s going to sound, it’s fucking terrifying. I’m confident that we’ll expand in the right way. After thinking about it constantly, I think I’ve got a solid idea of where I want it to go and where I think we need to go with it. It’s a matter of actually putting that together but we’ve got plenty of time and we’re not stressing ourselves with it. We’ve definitely done that in the past, where we’ve written records under pressure. Whereas this time, we’re going to chill out and not put so much pressure on ourselves.

Hopefully it might be the first record in a good while that we end up recording in the UK. Normally we end up getting shipped off to America but I think being in the UK will be cool. I think we’ve always been inspired by the places that we end up recording, so if we can record it at home, I think it’ll definitely add something to it. By being in the UK and closer to home, it’ll allow us some space and time.

Brexit means it’s a turbulent time to be in the UK right now, do you think that will take your writing in a more political direction?

Yeah, fucking hell. The political side of it is super important because I grew up liking political music. It was always around me and my brother was a massive punk. He would always be listening to The Dead Kennedys, who are obviously a majorly political band. My first ‘political band’ that I got into was Rage Against The Machine, then it was a lot of political hip hop like Immortal Technique, weird shit like that. These days, I feel like it’s super important to be political but it’s also super dangerous to be political. You’re going to come under attack from someone who disagrees with you.

I think politics is important, but rather than making ‘political songs’, maybe make songs that define the time, rather than a specific social or political situation. Ultimately everyone is sick of hearing about politics so you can’t talk about it without pissing some people off, but you can make enough of a statement about the time that we’re in without going too far either way. It’s shit like this that you have to consider. I want to say something and I want to talk about the times that we’re living in, but at the same time, I don’t want to alienate a group of people. Fuck Trump, but there are perfectly normal, nice people who listen to our music who support Trump. I’ve learnt from it, it’s murky water and it’s tough.

I think The 1975 did a fucking good job on their last record [‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’] of being politically and socially aware, without overstating a certain message. I think it’s about getting that balance right from here. It’ll be a challenge but without a doubt, that’s the biggest pressing issue in the world now. You can’t ignore it and I don’t want to write songs about ex-girlfriends. I strayed away from that quite a long time ago and now I’ve got to look around me and there are certain things you can’t ignore. You’ve got to do it in a way that’s not going to alienate people. It’s tough.

On style: “I’m dialling back the brand thing.” 

How has travelling the world impacted your style?

Seeing different parts of the world and seeing different styles, and different fashions in different countries has definitely added to it. I still think I’ve got a lot of my core style influences. I definitely didn’t dress very well when I was 18 but my style is still rooted in skateboarding, and it’s always been that. I would generally much rather wear a pair of skate shoes or a pair of Vans than a fat pair of Nike Tns. It’s not really my thing. Obviously I like trainers and I like streetwear, but it’s not strictly streetwear, or strictly skating, or high fashion. It’s a clusterfuck of them all, really.

Japan massively had an influence stylistically. Going over there and seeing their fashion culture. It’s insane because all the best fashion seems so mainstream out there but it doesn’t feel mainstream and it doesn’t feel worn out. Everyone dresses super well out there and there are a lot of brands, and native Japanese brands, that are on point. They don’t really make it out of Japan but if they did, it would have a big impact. Even their vintage world is insane. The idea of a vintage store, or a curated vintage store, started in Japan. Japanese people love to collect so you’ll have these people that would fly out to America and they would collect all of the things they couldn’t get in Japan. They’d collect vintage band T-shirts and movie promo T-shirts, and Polo sport, things like that which they couldn’t get in Japan. They’ve been doing that for 10 or 20 years and it’s only just now that the resale vintage world, in the last five or six years, has really taken off everywhere else. Japan were way ahead of the curve.

You’ll go walking about Harajuku in Japan and you’ll see a shop that doesn’t look like anything massive or special from the outside, but you’ll go in and it’s just piles and piles of the hottest vintage band tees. That’s where my style has progressed to now. I collected Supreme for a while and then I got a lot of the Supreme pieces that I wanted. They’re just T-Shirts ultimately. The quality of their jackets is sick but now I’m on more of a vintage thing these days. I’m maybe dialling back the brand thing as much. The shirt I’m wearing is Supreme [laughs] but it’s subtle.

Buying and wearing brands still has a sense of success attached to it and you feel like you’ve ‘earned it’, was that what appealed to you?

Yeah, definitely. When we were coming up, money was definitely not in the picture at all. Brands were cool but they were hard to get. I remember before Supreme had a London store, or anything like that, maybe in 2011, buying Supreme online was hard. You had to basically go to Yahoo Japan, which I had no idea how to navigate and I was this kid looking at all these price tags. Or it would be a strictly Supreme forum which you had to be invited to. It was impossible but then it became super accessible.

We started being able to take a bit of money off tours and I had no financial commitments. I’d think ‘fuck it, I’m going to buy a ton of Supreme’. I started collecting and really getting into the history of the brand. Once I got all the bits that I wanted, it kind of just wore off. Prices went through the roof and it made me think ultimately, it’s just a brand and it’s cool, I respect it and I think it will always be cool but it got a little bit diluted. You wear Supreme and you didn’t feel as exclusive. If you saw another person wearing a Supreme shirt back then, you’d think it was cool and must’ve been hard to get, but now everyone’s got it. Half of them aren’t even buying it to wear and that’s what pissed me off as well.

Having a rougher edge to style has always been a bit more my thing, but people who buy a piece of Supreme or a rare band shirt and then lock it away in a vault and never wear it, just hoard it. I get it but just wear it. People buying to sell or buying to hold on to, I was never really about that. I wanted it because I wanted to wear it and enjoy it. That’s what it’s about and if it gets a bit fucked up, if it drops a bit in quality, who cares. That’s why vintage is so sick, it’s been worn in. When you see a perfectly faded shirt on an old black T-shirt that’s super high quality, which you don’t get anymore, it’s great. I’ve never been so clean cut, I like a bit of scruff. 

How does feeling comfortable with your own style impact your confidence as an artist?

I don’t always feel massively confident. There are days when I try to put an outfit on, and it’s the same with writing songs, and I’ll think ‘you look so shit’. There’s times when I do it with songs as well; ‘what is that absolute garbage’. Ultimately it comes down to either persevering with it and getting it right, or just thinking ‘fuck it’. I think that’s where a lot of confidence comes from, just letting it go and not caring that much, as long as I’m happy with it. I’m a lot more rational than some people, maybe a bit too rational in some respects, but I can just brush those things off. Ultimately, I think that’s what gives people style and a bit of swagger. If you’re wearing a nice outfit, you look good, but it’s about how you wear it and how you carry yourself. I think as long as you’re owning it, whatever it is. Fashion can be insane and I wouldn’t have the balls to wear a lot of what fashion students wear, but they do and respect, they obviously rock it. I couldn’t pull that off but just the fact that they think they can pull it off, and they have gone outside dressed like that, then that’s you, you look good. There’s got to be a point when you just stop caring what people think and you just do it for you. I think that’s where it all comes from for me, I don’t do it for anyone else.

On tattoos: “I filled up super quick between the age of 18 and 20.” 

Have you collected your tattoos with that same mindset?

Pretty much. Our guitarist, Matt West, was probably the first person to put me on to actual good traditional tattoos. Obviously I’d grown up and seen skaters with decent tattoos, and dudes in bands with good tattoos, but I didn’t really know much about who did them, or where to get those kind of tattoos or anything about tattoo culture at all. I just knew that I liked them and always had. Dallas Green was the first person who I saw and thought I loved those traditional tattoos. Then you know Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, and get those names in your head. The first tattooer that was accessible to me that I could get tattooed by was a guy called Gre Hale (@grehale).

A lot of tattooers don’t like it, a lot do like it but straight up, Instagram has made tattooing boom. Once I started getting tattoos and being around tattooers, and being in tattoo shops, it became more than getting tattoos because they look cool. It was getting tattoos to collect tattoos from artists, or getting a classic piece of flash. I got way more into the idea of collecting and having a bit of knowledge and a bit more respect for the art and craft, and history around it. I would definitely say I’m a collector at this point, for sure.

What’s coming next to the collection?

I have a few people on my list that I’m dying to get tattooed by. Steve Byrne (@steve_byrne_tattoo) is my favourite tattooer, he’s obviously huge and it’s an obvious choice but it’s undeniable how good he is. I’m a big fan of @Greggletron at the minute, he’s awesome. Rich Hadley, who I’m lucky did my chest, and there’s a guy called @jimmie_tatts down in Bristol and @Marcosattwood is his mate as well. Those dudes in the UK are some of my favourites. Robert Ryan as well, and @koji_ichimaru is another dude I’m dying to get a tattoo by.

I filled up super quick between the age of 18 and 20, and got a ton of stuff done. It’s not that I don’t like them, there’s definitely some that I wish I would have thought out a little more, but that’s kind of the point of tattooing. You kind of realise that everyone gets a shitty tattoo. You learn from it and it, literally, becomes a part of you. Not everyone likes every feature on their body and everyone gets a tattoo that they don’t like at some point. You realise after a while that, yeah, getting tattooed is about having a good tattoo and them looking good, but for the most part you don’t need a meaning for a lot of your tattoos.

Because we do travel so much then it’s a perfect opportunity for me to get tattooed by all these people. If I was just at home with a regular job, I’d have nowhere near as many tattoos as I’ve got and I would never even be considering getting a tattoo from someone like Steve Byrne.

Neck Deep tour Europe and the UK throughout January and February 2019, before taking some time out to write and record their next album.

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