Interview These New Puritans: ‘I Can’t Really See The Big Difference’

Danny Wright puts Jack Barnett to task on his band’s rooting against convention.

Jack Barnett, the man at the heart of These New Puritans, is talking about writing the band’s intensely sublime new album ‘Field Of Reeds’. The follow up to 2010’s universal praised ‘Hidden’, he’s perhaps surprisingly not suffering from the weight of expectation. “I didn’t feel that, no. It’s not like we’re a massive pop band. If we were and we’d had a big hit I can imagine a pressure to recreate that success. But I was just concentrating on making this record.”

And it’s thanks to his singular vision that These New Puritans are now a band it’s becoming harder and harder to define. Where the imperious ‘Hidden’ was a dark and thunderous mix of ferocious taiko drumming, orchestral flourishes and mind-melting electronics, ‘Field Of Reeds’ succeeds in being calm, studious and reflective. It’s a triumph of an album, which, though drastically different to its predecessor, is just as astonishing. Yet that’s not something Jack can hear: “I can’t really see the big difference. People have been saying that, but to me this is just the music we’ve created.”

When announcing this new record, Jack stated that “the music on this album speaks for itself more than any other we’ve done before. There isn’t much outside of it that informs it and there aren’t any soundbites to tell you what it is,” and he’s sometimes reticent to get involved with the triviality of talking about specifics or revealing too much. “I don’t really want to talk about that,” he says, when asked about sampling a hawk, and spending a full day smashing panes of glass for the track ‘Light In Your Name’. “It sounds like a novelty thing when there’s too much focus on it.”

Similarly, he’s reluctant to pick a favourite song on the record because, he says, “I don’t really have favourite songs, it’s more that I have favourite moments. Like the moment on ‘Organ Eternal’ – when we recorded that I knew we had it right, and I was really pleased how that came out. We put a lot in to this and we all drive ourselves into the ground making it right, so it’s rewarding when those things happen.” And ‘Organ Eternal’ is a wonderful moment on a record full of magnificent pieces; of striking beauty and deft arrangements. It’s an album that gently demands your attention, that is complex and intense without being overwrought.

Though the band is also made up of Tom Hein on bass and Jack’s brother George Barnett on drums, the album was written solely by Jack (“George is a good songwriter but he’s so focused on drumming. I’ve never met a musician with a narrower focus on the music they make”). Songs began “just as piano and voice”, yet in total ‘Field Of Reeds’ took a year to undertake. The complex instrumentation was painstakingly scored and arranged, before they brought together huge orchestras to record it. Just take ‘V (Island Song)’ which, during its nine minutes stay, swings from electronic throbs to de-tuned piano and orchestral sweeps.

It even features the little known magnetic resonator piano, seldom even featured in contemporary classical music, and it was only by chance that they came to use it: “I had the idea of the sound I wanted to create without any real knowledge of how to make it. Then a friend of Graham’s [Sutton, who produced the album] put us in touch with Andrew [McPherson] who’s a professor of digital music. So we went along to have a demonstration and he showed us how it worked. It’s an amazing thing, it’s like a trap that you place over a piano which takes five hours to calibrate. Magnets resonate the strings, making these incredible sounds that you might associate with electronic music. A lot of sounds you might think are electronic on here are actually made by this.”

This commitment to finding and creating the perfect sound shows just how seriously These New Puritans take their roles as musicians, especially Jack. And this album, even more than their previous works, seems particularly personal and close to Jack’s heart. He mentions the romance of Essex, his home, and the personal connection he feels for this album. Yet he had said after Hidden that he was “never going to sing again”. “I probably did say that, I can’t remember if I meant it at the time or not. But it became really important that it was me singing on it. I love singing these songs – though I also like having all different voices on it, these different characters coming in to the songs. The most important thing for me with the singing is that you really mean it.”

The incorporation of Fado singing, a Portuguese blues style, courtesy of Elisa Rodrigues, also helped bring a new perspective to the album. “It was obvious to me that there had to be this female voice,” he says. So he did some research into the style of music and found Elisa. He admits that during rehearsals for the live performance he’s found it has given him a fresh impetus as a singer himself. “I’ve really enjoyed singing with two different voices – it’s so different to what I’ve been used to and only doing fifty percent of the singing means you can relax more and take things in.”

He’s about to go off to Japan, and on to support Björk in America. He’s excited by the chance to play the album live after some intense rehearsal time and, though he’s unwilling to give away the secrets of the setlist, he says it’s going well. “There’ll be a seven-piece band and the set is 50/50 between this and the last album. It’s been good to see how they contrast with each other and how we can make them work together. This album is a lot more melodic than ‘Hidden’, so it works better; you can rearrange it for different instruments, even just playing it on piano if you wanted.”

‘Field Of Reeds’ is a remarkable achievement, one that exists in its own universe and doesn’t seem to fit in with any records around in 2013. No simple descriptions do it justice. It also makes you wonder where the band will go next. And Jack is unsure himself. “I couldn’t tell you. I’m always writing but I’m certainly not thinking of another album yet. Let’s get this one out of the way first.”

These New Puritans’ new album ‘Field Of Reeds’ is out now via Infectious Music.

Taken from the July 2013 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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