Ahead of this month’s tour, we talk to These New Puritans’ Jack Barnett about their visionary, Elton-praised third album Field of Reeds
“This music’s symbolic,” sang Jack Barnett on These New Puritans’ debut Beat Pyramid. But while there were obscurities and tensions to sink into and unpick from the start, it wasn’t until 2010’s Hidden that the symbolism and complexities truly began to take hold. As taiko drums confronted children’s choirs, lyrics spun riddles of Egyptian gods, swords and labyrinths, making an open mockery of early, confused efforts to align the band with the transitory pleasures of nu-rave.
On tracks like We Want War, Barnett embarked on psychogeographic tours that evoked Sebald, Keiller and other chroniclers of the British landscape as much as any musical points of reference, resulting in an album of striking ambition – the sort of grand project that can see lesser acts flounder in a mire of self-importance, but which, for These New Puritans, evidenced a conceptual, compositional intelligence unafraid to challenge its listeners without severing all tethers to the mainstream.
“We don’t fit easily into certain brackets,” says Barnett, speaking over the phone in-between legs of an extensive tour that’s seen them collaborate with avant garde vocalist Salyu in Tokyo and support Björk in Los Angeles, and which this month takes them around the UK. “I like the fact that we do that, because we always have one foot in popular music, or with a popular music audience, whatever that might entail. I like that it’s not exclusive.”
This balance between experimentation and accessibility continues with recently released third album Field of Reeds [review here], which ditches the militant percussion and mantric vocals of its predecessor in favour of a quieter, more pastoral tone. While much has been made of the album’s more esoteric aspects – the arrangement of tracks into extended suites; the estuarine topography traversed by its lyrics – it’s not as opaque as the sum of its parts, which incidentally range from a prototype Magnetic Resonator Piano to a hawk taking flight (together, a neat representation of an album with its roots in nature and its sights future-facing).
"There are very few bands in the world who have the level of autonomy that we have" – Jack Barnett
To Barnett’s evident chagrin, the hawk recording has been a conspicuous focal point in recent interviews (“music doesn’t lend itself well to being talked about – there isn’t a good vocabulary for it really, so for that reason everyone has to talk about everything other than the music,” he sighs), but he volunteers background information for the other piece of kit, which uses electromagnets to warp the piano’s string vibrations into something straight out of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. “Most of the time it’s obvious to me when I write a piece of music what instrument should carry a part or roughly what the sound should be,” he explains. “Because of the way we work, with lots of instruments, we can’t muck around in the studio – we kind of have to plan every hour precisely. But there was one sound on the album where I didn’t really know how we’d get it. We called it an ‘un-organ’ – a kind of organ sound, but something else. It was the last piece in the jigsaw. I thought I was going to have to sound design it, to fit this particular role, and then purely by chance we got a phone call from someone who had seen a demonstration of this instrument that had recently been invented. So yeah,” he deadpans, “that was a bit of luck.” It’s the first time the piano’s otherworldly timbre has featured on an album, but you don’t doubt for a minute that novelty played little part in its inclusion.
When even the piano sound comes with a layer of mystery, it’s clear why These New Puritans attract active, investigative listeners. With recurring motifs and repeated imagery, their music offers a rabbit hole down which to get lost, seemingly filled with immeasurable meanings that beg to be deciphered. “Our music does seem to invite a lot of peculiar interpretations,” Barnett agrees. “It reminds me: I recently got a letter from a molecular biologist who was saying that Hidden was all to do with Christian symbology. That was quite an interesting read.” Not only does the example indicate the intellectual calibre of the average piece of These New Puritans’ fan mail, it also makes clear the breadth of interpretive possibilities. “A lot of interpretations seem to say and write that it’s really ominous and dark music,” Barnett adds, “but for me, quite a lot of the songs are quite hopeful. There’re bits of darkness in them and bits of lightness.”
The other key narrative to have affixed itself to Field of Reeds is Barnett’s Kubrickian desire to get things absolutely perfect, Working Time Directive be damned. For Fragment Two, it reportedly took 76 takes for twin brother George to nail the drum sound the band had in mind. “The process of making this album necessitated inhabiting this very insular world,” Barnett reflects. “I think a lot of people got sick of us because we were determined to get it right at all costs. It’s quite a difficult mindset to get out of actually – I remember a couple of weeks after we’d finished the album I went to buy a pair of shoes. I don’t care about shoes, it’s not something I think about, but I ended up taking them back and getting more, then taking them back and getting more until they were exactly right. I think we had to be a bit rehabilitated.”
Barnett credits the process of rearranging songs for live performance with “bringing the pieces back to life” again after the precision engineering of the studio. “It’s a process I’ve enjoyed quite a lot for this album,” he says. “When you’ve been working on the music for a long time, getting it to its final state…” he pauses. “It sounds a bit like a bullshitty artist thing to say, but I’ve lived very close to this music and given so much for this album that it was difficult. I don’t like listening to things after I’ve finished them, because I think too much about what I would change. But when you’re reinventing the music live, you make it different every night and add different things. I think this band generally is probably the best we’ve had. We’ve a seven piece-band – small enough that we can have agility and big enough that we can bring a lot of different sounds. Plus we’ve got Elisa [Rodrigues, Portuguese jazz singer who appears on several Field of Reeds songs] singing with us, which is pretty fun because she can do her 50 per cent and I can do my 50 per cent. I don’t have to try and do everything – we can specialise a little bit.” And it’s not just vocal duties that are divided 50/50, with Barnett promising an equal split between Hidden and Field of Reeds material at the upcoming shows. “It gives us a big range of contrasts,” he somewhat understates. “It allows us to do a lot of stuff.”
This freedom to ‘do a lot of stuff’ is not one Barnett takes for granted, noting that “there are very few bands in the world who have the level of autonomy that we have.” Indeed, These New Puritans seem to occupy a blessed middle ground where they have the time and budget to, for instance, set-up 28 Thai gongs or spend a day recording the sound of smashing glass (both features on Field of Reeds), despite the decidedly un-commercial end results. Barnett has also recently become more involved in the band’s visuals, scripting a ten-minute animation for V (Island Song), due later this year. “Up to a point any idea is just as expensive and time-consuming as any other idea, they just have to draw it. So it’s amazing what you can do, in terms of the range of ideas you can use,” he enthuses.
We end by asking about a tweet (“not ‘industry’ enough”) made the night of the recent Mercury Music Prize shortlist announcement, for which Field of Reeds was submitted for consideration but not chosen. “People had said to me ‘oh no, that’s so disappointing,’” Barnett explains, “but I never expected to get it. I just don’t think it’s the kind of album that would go on,” before noting that he’s “not deadly serious all the time” and drawing attention to the tweet that followed in order to prove it (“Maybe it’s the fact that we’re touring with the Operation Yewtree Roadshow as support act”).
When asked more generally if there are any accolades that mean something to him, Barnett's pensive interview manner suddenly becomes animated. “Yeah, yeah!” he replies. “In today’s Guardian, Elton John said he loves the arrangements on Field of Reeds. I genuinely think he’s an incredible songwriter, so that’s fantastic.” But, he adds, the most satisfying feedback comes from less starry quarters. “It’s more important to me when people come up to me and say things like ‘this album changed the way I think about music,’” he concludes. “That’s a wonderful thing to hear.”