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Interview - These New Puritans

Posted on Monday, 7 October 2013 | No Comments

Ahead of their October UK tour, which starts this Friday in Manchester and hits The Sage in Gateshead on Friday October 18th, I had the chance to interview Jack Barnett from These New Puritans for NARC Magazine. A very thoughtful, intelligent interviewee. Due to space constraints, not all of the material would fit in the magazine piece, so here's a full transcript of the interview.

Field of Reeds has been receiving a great reception from listeners and critics: did you anticipate this kind of reaction?

No, before we started I said I thought the backlash was going to come with this album. I always think if you expect the worst you have a chance of being pleasantly surprised. I've enjoyed hearing people say that it's really affected them, that's been the best thing - there's been quite a lot of that and that's been great, way over and above critics or whoever liking it. But the making of these albums necessitates a very insular way of working for some reason; we just work on the music. It takes that kind of focus; long hours and no-one outside of a very small group of people hearing anything. It's pretty much a unique way of working these days, there must be only a handful of bands who can get away with it, and we're lucky in that respect that our labels have let us get on with it. It's almost unheard of these days.

You debuted two new live pieces with These New Puritans in 2011: were the sonic ideas for this album already in place then?

I'm struggling to remember what they were. Oh, I remember now, yeah in fact one of them was a completely unrecognisable version of the song Nothing Else that's on the new album. Our songs quite often have a thousand different forms before the final version, with different fragments coming in and out of the song as time goes on, and sometimes the same part popping up in different songs - there's the same melody used in three songs on our first album and there's a few little fragments of lines from Hidden that are echoed on the new album if you pay enough attention.

On the vinyl, the division of the pieces into three suites is especially clear. How did the idea of dividing the tracks in this way come about?

It just fell into place. It's always an organic thing. It also means you don’t have to listen all the way through in one go, you can listen in three chunks. I like the idea as well that you could listen to the three sections in another order too, not necessarily one, two, three…

I'm really interested as well in how the lyrics on this record go much further with some of the more naturalistic imagery of Hidden: were there any particular sources/inspirations behind the lyrics on this album?
It's funny, a few weeks after the album was finished someone said to me, “what's with all the references to water: rivers, the sea, waves, and ships?” I was completely bemused, I hadn't realised that almost every song has some kind of reference to that kind of thing. I'm still a bit at a loss to explain it. Ultimately this album has a lot more to do with things I've been through. When I was writing the songs, I suppose certain feelings would just override any other sort of consideration, so I wasn’t something I had particular control over. The sea just felt right to explain certain things or get across certain things. One inspiration was Japanese Waka poetry actually. It is very simple and economical but very powerful and distilled; very short and often about something quite simple or small, like the leaves on a tree, but is very powerful for it. I'd really recommend it. I'm not usually into poetry particularly.

In the press release for the album, you mentioned how Field of Reeds closed a gap between yourself and your music. Could you expand on this?

Basically this music is in the tradition of people writing music about how they feel. To an extent when you go through things personally and have strong feelings then you have to match that in your music or at least try. Or that's how I felt this time. It's no good writing about some obscure species of slug or something that I don't know. Music is expected to be trivial and ironic these days but I just want to do something and mean it a hundred percent. I feel like standing up for that in music. I've lived every second of this music.

You'd mentioned in interviews around Hidden that you hoped to work with a different singer other than yourself on future work. At what point did Eliza Rodrigues join the project?

She joined quite late, but I knew we needed a female voice on the record. I'd written the parts, it was just a matter of finding the right one. I knew there had to be a female perspective on this album. I just came across Elisa through research. We asked her to come to England to sing on it and she said yes, luckily. It was a bit of a leap of faith from us and her as well. But the risk paid off, I love her voice. It has a smoothness but soul as well. Even when she's singing in a linear way there is expression in her voice. She really threw herself into the music and worked really hard, and put up with us getting her to sing the same thing a thousand times. It’s very counter intuitive music. I think it’s very different to how she's used to recording with jazz, just singing something a handful of times, so to adapt so well is great and shows what a musician she is. She's in the touring band now too.

I'd be interested to hear about the genesis of the videos for Fragment Two and Organ Eternal… 

Fragment Two is by Daniel Askill, who we worked with on the video for We Want War. He's close to the band and is kind of part of the inner circle now. If you don't know our music, I'd say go and watch the We Want War video on YouTube, it's a good introduction. We went to New York where he lives and works and filmed all the foreground stuff in what used to be The Hit Factory, where Michael Jackson recorded Thriller. Quite an odd place as it's now half been turned into flats and half is still there, but they're not allowed to use it as a studio for some reason to do with the flats, so it's used for all sorts of stuff. Then Daniel shot all these epic landscapes in the background in various locations. Some of the middle ground stuff is actually photos I took of the Thames Estuary near Southend, where I live. It's all a patchwork that was put together by the digital effects studio that has done the new Superman film and all this kind of thing. Organ Eternal is by Willy van der Perre. He's a friend of George's. He took some aerial photos of us for the artwork of the album, which are incredible, and we wanted to continue that idea into the video for Organ Eternal.

I was struck by the grand, ruined landscape of the first video and how that contrasted with the urban-to-natural journey of the second?

I've been on about this feeling of breaking through into another world. It's a feeling I like to have at the end of songs, where you suddenly spin off into this other world. Both Organ Eternal and Fragment 2 have that musically; they have these repetitive endings that do that. So I wanted that in the video. Daniel got that across with the way you move through different landscapes in Fragment 2 and Willy got it across with the whole man-made to natural thing.

How challenging has it been transferring this new material to a live format? What shape does the new live show take?

It's very fun playing with this band. We have a seven piece band. It's good - not too big, not too small. It's agile but we can still make a big sound and a big range of sounds. It's perfect really, just right. It really adds something to the music - it's not a pale imitation of the record, it actually focuses it and gives the music a whole new thing. We stretch out some sections and there's a bit of freedom to twist the music in different ways. It's the best band we've had I think, or certainly from on stage it feels the best. Some top musicians. Elisa is singing with us live which is a pleasure. It means she does half and I do half, I can kind of focus on my fifty percent. And singing with someone else is very fun, everyone should try it. We play music from Hidden and Field of Reeds, so we have this quite wide range dynamically which works well, the contrasts.

These New Puritans got to support Björk at the Hollywood Bowl recently: how was that experience?

It was great fun. It was only our second gig as a band – madness. In fact it was Elisa's first because for the previous gig which was in Tokyo, we got Salyu, a Japanese pop star, to sing with us. That's another story. But Hollywood Bowl was a good gig. Björk was very nice. She had asked us to do a remix last year and it went on her Bastards Remix album. But Hollywood Bowl is this massive venue that's made out of a natural 'bowl' in the landscape with seats going up the side of the hill. the venue staff had all been there for decades and were all quite jolly and part of the furniture.

What's lined up or planned for These New Puritans beyond the UK tour in October?

We have a tour of mainland Europe in November and there will be a video for the V [Island Song] coming out quite soon, I'm working on it now. It's an animation that I've written the script for.

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