Interview These New Puritans: Taking Advantage Of The Studio

We meet Jack Barnett, vocalist of These New Puritans on a cold and snowy February night.

We meet Jack Barnett, vocalist of These New Puritans on a bitterly cold and snowy February night, outside the venue where he and his band are about to finish their current tour. Unsurprisingly, then, he’s tired, and seems on the defensive from the outset.

Before we begin he’s already explained that he’s been doing a lot of press for the album throughout the tour - it’s clear he’d rather be somewhere else. Being interrogated multiple times daily on something you’ve created is an understandably grafting process; the interview beginning in a somewhat strained manner, with Jack only loosening up towards the end - as much as someone who is so clearly introverted can do with a stranger, anyhow.

Last night of the tour, how have you found the reaction to the new material so far?
It’s been good, surprisingly good. Well I don’t know about surprised but we’ve never really played quiet music before.

At Bush Hall you had a six piece brass orchestra play with you. How have you adjusted to playing new material without that assistance?
Quite well, actually. Surprisingly so. We’re in a weird position of not being actually able to play any of the music that we’ve written. So yeah, it’s funny but I think it’s translated quite well. It’s harder and louder.

Has it been through samples that are saved?
It’s a whole load of things, the odd drum machine, laptops.

When writing the album, was playing live a consideration for you?
No. I think it would be terrible if what you were doing in the studio was dictated by what you were doing live. I mean, they’re polar opposites. You might as well use the studio for what it is, a way of making something more interesting when you listen to it.

So there were no concessions made whatsoever?

What about in terms of budget? I mean, the music you create obviously isn’t a mainstream sound. Was the album able to be as you wanted it or were there label constraints or pressures upon you?
Not really because usually the money just goes. I think controlling what you do with money is actually a creative act in the creative field. A lot of bands just use their money in the wrong way. We could have spent ages in the studio just fiddling around but we had all the music composed, written and ready. We had half the album recorded in 4 hours. All the brass and woodwind ensembles were finished in that time. We did it as cheaply as you can. It’s about doing it in an efficient way and not wasting your time.

Dave Cooley, who mixed your record, he’s mixed records by Madvillain and J Dilla. Do you feel this gave the album an extra dimension or was it taken in a direction you wouldn’t have thought of?
Well, it was my plan originally to have him mix the record so in a way, no. He took it in the direction I wanted it to go. The way he treated, obviously someone like him isn’t used to dealing with brass etc, it’s not really his world. Which made it more interesting. And also, I was talking to someone who mentioned Benjamin Britten and the influence he had on our album: I was saying how a lot of classical music is recorded really badly and mixed really badly. It’s like they don’t take advantage in the studio. But the way this was recorded, as well as having classical elements to it – it took notice of popular music because popular music understands the studio is a tool. Whereas when you record an orchestra, it’s just too lazily done usually. The classical world doesn’t know how to record, basically. So getting Dave, it makes it a lot more brutal, a lot more like how I imagine Benjamin Britten would have wanted his music to sound when it was recorded.

You also learnt notation to construct and arrange the woodwind and brass sections. Had you recorded any earlier versions of the demos without that? Were there any simplified versions rolling around out there?
There are versions on my laptop that have got just… I didn’t even have any proper sound or anything, just general MIDI sounds. The thing is, the brass and woodwind, that instrumentation, that’s the only way this has been written, it’s not like it’s been put over the top to decorate the music, it’s essential to it. All too often when bands use this kind of instrumentation it’s just sprinkled over the top.

What was it in your mind that made you so determined to have these instruments play such a crucial part in the record?
I was just writing music for them. There was no original thought in it, I just started doing it…

But if you had to learn notation…
Oh right, yeah. Well actually because I was writing, just sequencing but it got to the point where I felt that I had to do that in order to access the musicians world directly, without going through someone else.

Influences mentioned in particular have been Steve Reich and a lot of modern dancehall/ragga. Some of the basslines are slightly reminiscent of dubstep and some techdub, more soulful elements of that music. I know it’s a bit soon to mention new material but is this a direction you could see the band moving in?
I’m kind of reticent of going in that direction because I can imagine in 5 years time it’s not going to look like….

Like you were following a trend rather than having a genuine interest in that music?
Yeah. Also, I like some of that music and I’m influenced by it but hopefully in kind of, quite a subtle way. I don’t want to throw a big bassline in there for the sake of it.

I understand it’s a catch-all term at the moment because, y’know, ‘ahh dubstep is going to be huge this year blah blah’ so everyone’s throwing it out there, but with your music, especially the sub bass on ‘Attack Music’, that really reminded me of a lot of the more unusual end of dustup. Especially the rhythmic sense of dubstep, ragga and that kind of world.
I just like the rhythms. Especially when you translate those rhythms into acoustic instruments. I just like that. It’s something that George (Barnett, drummer) can play really, really well because he’s got a very unnatural feel for the way he plays the drums. Everything that a drummer would intuitively do, George does the opposite of. Which sounds really good for that music, as it doesn’t have a humane sound.

As far as I know, no one’s ever actually played dubstep within a live band setting. I don’t even know how you’d go about doing it.
Well it’s a recorded form isn’t it?

Could you ever see yourself attempting that form of music live? Would that interest you, trying to replicate that mechanical sound within a live setting? You always seem to try to take on challenges where possible…
I’m sure there’s someone who could do a better job of it than us.

That’s a bit modest! Lyrically it’s an extremely dark record – paranoia and tension within them. Was this reflected and influenced by the music or vice versa? Do you construct one then the other or is it simultaneous?
For this album, all the music was done and then the lyrics came afterwards. The lyrics themselves were just taken from my notebook, I’ve got a big piece of A4 for every single song. For most of the songs I had an idea of what they would be about, or certain bits of them. Then I just went through all my notebooks of the past few years, writing down phrases and fitting them to each song. Eventually, each song just built up into this group of phrases that made sense and made some story. I suppose it is a dark record but to me it’s also got moments of light, compared to our last album there’s a lot more contrast between dark and light.

The last track on the album, it seems almost hopeful…
It just works as the last track. I always think of the narrative, not only a literal narrative of a story or whatever…

There’s a definite flow to the album, yes.
It was written with that in mind kind of thing.

So do you feel a sense of responsibility to match the moods of the music and lyrics?
Not really, I mean had I just started writing really comical, light hearted lyrics then that’s what it would have been. Just whatever comes out, I suppose.

Are you still proud of Beat Pyramid? The change in sound isn’t drastic as such but there’s been a noticeable progression. Was that a pre-meditated change or something that came about?
Just natural. I mean, actually Beat Pyramid was the exception. The music that I was writing with my brother (George) before Beat Pyramid, before These New Puritans – we recorded a lot of music, just for ourselves: it’s actually more like Hidden. Beat Pyramid is kind of the exception: I’m still proud of it, especially rhythmically. It’s just different, equally as valid but different.

The critics reception to Hidden has been pretty positive, has that affected you in any way – boosted your confidence? Or do you keep yourself separate from that?
It’s quite nice but I’m quite… I don’t take it too seriously. I don’t want to take anything for granted, we are still a band whose main aim is to survive so we won’t get carried away but it is nice. I won’t pretend it’s not nice. I don’t like it when people pretend they don’t care about that kind of thing. It’s good if someone says it’s good.

Do you create music primarily for yourself or for it to be enjoyed by other people?
Purely for myself. A habit, almost. It’s what I do. A release from tension in life kind of thing. I think that’s better than trying to make it for other people because I see that as a form of condescension, if you’re just thinking about what someone else would like. I see that as insulting to the audience. I always try and make what I think is good and if other people like it, then that’s obviously a very positive thing.

Well a lot of people seem to so well done! Finally, you’re going on tour with the XX in March: how do you feel about that? Are they a band that you respect or admire?
I haven’t really listened to them, I’ve only heard one song. George likes them a lot. I think there’s probably a fair crossover in the audience.

Similarly to you, their album came out and was lauded – they’ve now pushed up and become a lot more noticeable to casual music listeners…
I get the impression that their music is more acceptable than ours. I’m not saying that in a bad way, I think accessibility is an important thing.

Their music is a lot starker than yours? Yours is a rather layered sound.
Well yeah, what I’ve heard is that their music is a lot more pared down.

So are you looking forward to that tour in particular, to get to a wider audience or is it just going to be another tour?
It’ll be another tour. I’m sure it’ll be fun.

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