Features I by I 14.06.13

“You have to be quite obsessive”: These New Puritans on their dizzying new opus Field Of Reeds

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Far too many people are mistaken about These New Puritans.

Despite the critical attention lavished on their second album, 2010’s Hidden, a quick poll of friends, colleagues and distant internet acquaintances suggests that this mercurial band from the Essex coast have a way to go to convince fans of experimental music that they are the real deal.

Somewhere along the line, it seems a cataloguing error occurred: These New Puritans got filed alongside the post-punk dandyism of Southend-on-Sea’s Junk Club scene, birthplace of The Horrors, Neils Children, Ipso Facto and other bone-thin monochrome types. An easy mistake to make at first, but even their debut album – 2008’s vastly underrated Beat Pyramid – offered a glimpse of sharp minds at work, with serrated guitars bashing against Timbaland-inspired electronics and drums in a dynamic, often claustrophobic bubble of angst.

The arrival of Hidden two years later was a watershed moment. The spindly four-piece had swelled in size and stature with the addition of orchestral instruments – not the syrupy strings deployed by indie oafs for the serious second album, but an eclectic combination of clarinets and bassoons, a brass section, a children’s choir and vast Japanese taiko drums. Frontman Jack Barnett stopped shouting, started singing and taught himself music theory and notation, beginning a process of experimentation and discovery that allowed him to deftly combine inspirations from dancehall rhythms to Benjamin Britten.

This week These New Puritans released their third album, Field Of Reeds, available to stream below. As you’d expect, it’s an evolution, and very different to each of its predecessors. The kinetic aggression of Hidden is gone; in its place is a feeling of tranquility and space that echoes its title and mirrors the album’s lyrical explorations of England’s overgrown edgelands. An assortment of voices – men, women and children – weave through each other in complex arrangements, constantly veering off into dissonant directions over skeletal piano lines, brass tones and snapping drums. While you’d struggle to situate Field Of Reeds in any particular musical genre, its thematic cousins might include the exhumation of English witchcraft carried out by the likes of Demdike Stare and The Eccentronic Research Council, W. G. Sebald’s psychogeographical tour of coastal East Anglia in The Rings of Saturn, and Jez Butterworth’s magickal state-of-the-nation play Jerusalem.

That may not be the only reading of the album, but Barnett and his bandmates – twin brother George on drums and Thomas Hein on bass and electronics – have been careful to avoid mentioning any outside influences, the better to keep their sound world untainted, segregated from the hype stream. “There aren’t any soundbites to tell you what it is,” Barnett announced on the band’s website, alongside the admission there had been “a gap between me and the music” on the first record. That gap closed a lot with Hidden, and now it has finally disappeared, he stated.

“The music just got closer to life, I suppose,” says Barnett. “With previous music there had been ideas that were at arm’s length from myself. You know, ideas for sounds that I’d take from different genres. With this album we just got rid of all that. I felt that wasn’t the way I wanted to do things. I wrote more based on how you feel, that kind of thing.”

I’m speaking to Barnett at the end of a long day, which comes at the end of a long stretch of rehearsals before the band fly out to Japan to commence their tour. He’s a considerate interviewee, thinking carefully about questions before answering, and often trailing off mid-sentence as he looks for the right words. Prodded to discuss the ideas and concepts behind Field Of Reeds, Barnett explains that he instead tried to avoid outside influences.

“With the last [album] we were playing around with rhythms from dancehall and things like that, whereas this time it’s more just the moment of songwriting, that’s what it’s all about. So instead I’m being told I’m ripping off bands I’ve never heard of,” he jokes. “I think the influences are the obsession of journalists, really. I don’t think many musicians actually think about that at all.”

The songs on Field Of Reeds (if indeed they are songs; the album seems to be divided into three movements rather than chopped into shuffle-able tracks) refuse to follow the patterns and paths our ears have become used to under the tyranny of the three-minute pop song and the pentatonic scale. But how does Barnett – who had a late start with music theory and composition – get from the blank stave to the finished recording?

“I don’t really have a formula, so that’s why all the songs are different,” he says. “Every now and then, not every day, I’ll sit down in front of a keyboard and just play stuff. And I’ll think, oh, that bit was good, when I went from that note to that note. Then you get a few of those, put them together and you’re on your way.”

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It sounds so easy. But surely that’s just the beginning of the process? “There are things that took a long time, things that were lots of different fragments pulled together. But on ‘Organ Eternal’ I wrote the original repeating phrase, left it on a loop, played on the keyboard and recorded it on a dictaphone. Just played along to it, and that is basically the song, start to finish.”

Still, the journey from his piano to the final mastering sounds arduous and complicated, not least because of the number of people involved. The first task for Barnett is to show his working to Graham Sutton, former leader of post-rock innovators Bark Psychosis and producer of both this album and Hidden. “It’s only when you play it to people that you realise there could be an album there,” says Barnett. Sutton seems to be a sage-like presence in the studio, offering a steady hand and a reliable point of view.

“I think trusting someone’s opinion is a really valuable thing, and I trust his opinion – I don’t trust many people’s opinion on music. And you can’t undervalue having a sense of humour and a similar sort of outlook – he’s from a similar part of the world. And I totally trust him to record instruments beautifully. I don’t have to worry about that, and that’s a really good thing to be able to say.”

Despite the diverse instrumentation – including a piano capable of infinite sustain and a living, breathing hawk, more of which later – human voices are the lead instrument throughout the record.

“I enjoyed singing and I enjoyed the words this time round a lot more than previous albums,” he explains. “I felt that in alternative music, or whatever you want to call it, you can get away with saying anything. No one really cares as long as it kind of sounds sort of right, so I wanted to kick against that.

“That’s actually one of the only things where there was an overriding theme, or a decision made before the music. I wanted to work on the lyrics really hard this time. That’s another reason me and Graham work well, because we both don’t mind working for long, long hours. I think you have to have a certain kind of personality to work on this kind of music, you have to be quite obsessive about things. We both put ourselves through a lot in order to get things right.”

In comparison to the previous two records, though, it can be hard to make out some of those carefully thought-out words. Phrases bleed into each other, voices overlap and consonants are softened; an effect that seems to reflect the amphibious wetland areas of eastern England that the record takes as its home territory.

“We tried to contact Russian Orthodox singers but we couldn’t really get through to them, we just got answerphone messages with chanting on.”

“I just sang how it felt right really, and it doesn’t seem right to me to enunciate everything – it seems a bit funny and a bit weird,” offers Barnett. “It has to feel right when you’re doing it, otherwise you’ve got no hope… I think you can hear all the words though, and a lot of people that know me can hear the words.”

He also sounds more confident using his voice, more comfortable in the role of the singer. “Well, on the first album I didn’t really sing, I mostly just shouted. I think because these songs came from a much more personal place – that sounds really cliched, but it’s just the case – it somehow made it a lot easier to sing.”

There are several other notable voices on the record, including the children’s choir (dangerous territory if not handled with care) and a Portuguese jazz singer, Elisa Rodrigues, discovered by Barnett through some internet research.

“I’m into Portuguese music and I wanted a female voice. I was just looking around generally and came across her,” he explains. “She’s got a great voice. When I heard it I could hear it singing some of the parts I’d written. It’s got a great smoothness to it, a kind of purity, but it’s sort of emotional at the same time.”

Being a jazz rather than pop singer, perhaps she was better able to tackle the complex and often very unintuitive melody lines? “Yeah, it’s all very unintuitive music, and she was a great sport in that she worked really hard in learning the music. I mean, if some strange band just contacts you out of the blue and asks you to sing all this music – I imagine a lot of people would be baffled, but she was into it.”

Also present is one of the lowest singing voices in Britain, nurtured in the lungs of bass singer Adrian Peacock. Barnett had already written the music before realising that making it a reality would be slightly more complicated.

“I knew [the part] was very, very low. At first we tried to contact Russian Orthdox singers – they have all this music for the basso profondo range, which is even lower than bass singers, it’s really, really low. We tried to contact them but we couldn’t really get through to them, we just got answerphone messages with chanting on.

“So I don’t know how we came across him, but he’s this great character, Adrian Peacock. He’s one of the three basses [in the country], this is what I’ve heard, who can hit this note. If you listen to the song ‘Nothing Else’, it starts off with him, and that’s basically his lowest note.”

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Another character with a guest appearance on the record is a harris hawk named Shylo, who was drafted in to provide the sound of whooshing wings on the album’s title track. But after flying back and forth across the studio a few times, the bird became agitated, perhaps struck by stage fright, and went for the assistant engineer, forcing them to call off the session.

Barnett seems thoroughly non-plussed by the event. “This might be curmudgeonly but I can’t really be arsed to talk about the bird. It’s not really the point.” It is pretty unusual to bring a bird of prey into a recording studio, though. “It’s unusual but it’s not that interesting. I mean, yeah, we recorded a bird – because it’s just like any other instrument.” Is it really? “In the sense that you write something and then think, okay, it needs this instrument. And it’s the same thing, it’s the same process. But there, you’ve got me talking about the bird.”

Another lesser spotted instrument on Field Of Reeds is a new invention, never before heard on a commercial record. The magnetic resonator piano is fitted with sensors on its keys and electromagnetic actuators over its strings, making the instrument capable of creating infinite sustain and unusual harmonics and timbres.

“I’d written a part but I didn’t know what the instrument was going to be,” says Barnett. “When we were recording it was the last question mark.” He was introduced to the piano through a friend of Sutton’s, who gave them a demonstration. “We really liked the sound of it. It has optical sensors above the keys so it senses your fingers, and if you just touch the keys it sets off the magnets. It has all these unexpected sounds it can create. You can imagine someone using it for the sake of it being a new instrument, but it just did exactly what we were looking for, and a lot more as well.”

“It has to feel right when you’re doing it, otherwise you’ve got no hope…”

Now the album is finally on the shelves, the band have put their minds to bringing it to life in rehearsals, trying to condense the band, half an orchestra, a choir and a bird into a seven-piece ensemble.

“It’s easier than you might think, because a lot of music was just written at the piano,” says Barnett. “You could effectively play this music, or I could play it, just sat in front of the piano. We’ve got Elisa singing, we’ve got piano, drums, electronics, trumpet, flugelhorn and… what’s the other one? Ah, French horn. I think this group’s good, we’ve got enough instrumentation to do expansive stuff but it’s also agile.”

Over the course of the three albums, Barnett has evolved from a frontman into something of an auteur, carving out a genuinely unique sound world for his band. He seems the sort of person who, faced with a direct path from A to B, would always choose the scenic route and risk getting lost on the way.

“I dunno, the perception is that we’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes or something,” he says. “The worst possible thing you can do as a career move is to change your music a lot, but it just sort of happened. I actually feel quite bad about it, for people generally, and anyone who’s expecting Hidden mark two.”

But surely nobody really wants their favourite band to stay the same forever? “Well, it’s easy to say that until you’re actually making a living from doing it. It’s less theoretical and more of an actual day-to-day worry. But I hope that the kind of people who like our music appreciate that we’re doing it for no other reason than we think it’s the best music we can make.”

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