One of the most creative musical units in the UK, These New Puritans change spots with each new release. They’ve shape-shifted from the sharp post-punk motifs of 2008’s ‘Beat Pyramid’ to the elegant orchestrations of last year’s ‘Field Of Reeds’, via the NME Album of the Year-winning envelopment of 2010’s ‘Hidden’. What they are tomorrow, only they know.
What they’re doing right now is promoting a special live album, ‘Expanded – Live At The Barbican’. It’s the recording of an April performance where they (as the title implies) expanded their line-up to incorporate a 35-piece band of strings, horns, percussion and electronics. The set featured new arrangements written by frontman Jack Barnett, and included a complete run through the material of ‘Field Of Reeds’.
I sat down, at the Barbican, with Jack and drummer brother George, for a little chinwag. Okay, a fairly long chinwag.
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These New Puritans – ‘Expanded – Live At The Barbican’
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A year on from ‘Field Of Reeds’, and with ‘Expanded’ out, are you happy with where the band is, right now?
George: I think so. You’re content, yeah?
Jack: I think so. The last record did well.
Great. Taking it right back to the early days, a then-DrownedinSound.com colleague of mine wrote, when reviewing your first EP, ‘Now Pluvial’, that you don’t sound like any other band in Britain.
Jack: In Britain?
In Britain. Would you still agree with that, as the band is today?
George: I think we’re definitely still different.
Jack: I don’t know. Perhaps there are other bands, somewhere, who are doing things like us – but if there are, I haven’t heard them. But we don’t really think about that too much.
George: I don’t think there’s another band that’s anything like what we do.
Why do you think that is?
George: I don’t think we’ve ever made a record that sounds like the last. It’s easy to mimic bands that do the same thing. We’re not part of that sort of focus-group method of making albums.
After the first album, well received as it was, did nobody lean on you to produce some more of the same?
George: I think, even if anyone wanted to say that, they never did. And even if they had, we’d have just ignored it. But we’ve been lucky to be involved with really great people, throughout, who’ve pretty much let us do what we want. There are bands out there that you expect to be able to do what they want, but the reality is that they don’t.
Is that because those bands get too big, so they have to shift some of that control? Because as popular as your music is, I’d say you’ve not become so big as to be a ‘product’-type band, something to manage from a distance.
George: We do have autonomy, I suppose. But then there are unsuccessful bands who have a lot of that autonomy, too. And then there are those with great autonomy, and are really successful. So I’m not sure. Someone was talking to me about Beyoncé, who I’m sure is someone who can do whatever the f*ck they want, but apparently she records so many songs, like 70 or something, for every album.
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You go to a stadium rock gig and everyone knows what they’re doing. With this show, everyone was out of their comfort zone…
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Do you foresee yourselves ever writing for other people? I think that’d be really interesting: a Puritans compositional mentality applied to a pop format.
Jack: I’d quite enjoy that, I think. With These New Puritans it’s so personal, and I get so involved in it. And you have control over every note and nuance, so to surrender some of that, and be like a hired hand… that’d be interesting. We’ve been asked to do quite a few remixes, but I’ve only ever done three, maybe?
George: Who? There was Björk.
Jack: With Björk, her music suggested so many ideas, and if you don’t have those ideas, then as a remixer you’re just taking their cash. I can’t blame people who do that though, to be honest. I have respect for those who can say no to things – but then, it’s easy to do that if you have loads of money already. It’s more difficult, otherwise.
When you were expanding the band for this performance and subsequent album, did those same people who let you do your own thing react positively? Or did you have to really work to bring it to fruition?
George: It wasn’t that much of a big deal, really. The Barbican asked us to play the show, and they paid virtually all the musicians. I don’t want to talk about the accounts, but that did make it easier. We tend to plough all of our money into impossible projects, anyway – and if you had to design a show that was really difficult to put on, with lots of technical challenges, this would be it. But that’s part of the fun. It’d be boring otherwise. You go to a stadium rock gig and everyone knows what they’re doing, whereas with this show, everyone was out of their comfort zone.
I’m guessing you don’t want to ever feel totally comfortable with what you’re doing, musically? Which explains the progression from album to album.
Jack: I think that’s a natural thing, but for me I always want to reach just beyond what you can understand. All of the best stuff is what you don’t really know – once you know what you’re doing, it’s never as good, for some reason.
George: Anything is possible in the studio.
Jack: You always have to be prepared to scrap whatever you’ve done, and also take advantage of mistakes. You have to be receptive to that kind of thing. But, mostly, when we’re in the studio, we work from quite a tight script. We do a lot of experimenting outside the studio, because there’s no point in wasting time when you’re in there. When we record, it’s a mix of very lo-fi and very hi-fi, with a lot of the experimenting done at home. Then we’ll hit the studio like a bank job: we get in there, do everything as efficiently as we can, and then we get out. Then we work with that stuff again, at home.
George: We rarely throw away that much, after the studio, because we know what we want before we go in. I don’t like the idea of moving around too much while in the studio. I mean, I like the studio environment, and you can do some really great things, but a lot of them seem like a combination of a youth club and a boardroom. They’re very sterile places. And you meet people there who think of themselves as real pros. I remember being disappointed, going to a studio for the first time when I was younger. I thought it’d be this incredible place, where magic happened – but a lot of the time, they’re really not. That’s why we have this hit-and-run approach.
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‘Fragment Two’, from ‘Field Of Reeds’
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Is your attitude the same when it comes to things like, say, going into your label’s office for a meeting? You’re in and out as quickly as possible?
Jack: I’m not a good meetings person. After about two minutes, life tends to begin to ebb away from me. I envy people who are good with that stuff.
George: We have a really great label, who is really enthusiastic about what we do. I think that’s a rare thing these days, so we can’t complain.
Jack: We’ve been really lucky. But then again, why would anyone sign us if they wanted to change what we do? That’d be bad business.
Can you tell when a so-called innovative band probably isn’t? When something that might be presented as spontaneous is actually the work of several weeks? Because there are plenty of ‘quirky’ indie acts around, who are acclaimed for their ‘singular’ styles.
Jack: Well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, that it’s taken a lot of people to reach a certain end product, and it’s true that a lot of people help us with our music. We spend a lot of time on our music.
And are ideas constant for you? Or do you try to compartmentalise things, keeping the inspiration for what comes next in the background so as not to obscure what you’re working on right now?
Jack: They overlap. I do try to… Well, I’ve had to stop myself from working on new stuff while we’ve been doing the ‘Expanded’ album. I have a Dictaphone, which I am always using for ideas, so I’ve been building up this massive backlog of ideas, which I really need to go through and sort out. When I get to that, it’ll be good to move onto something new. I’ve got samples and stuff, too.
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The ideal state to be in, when writing music, is as close to dreaming as possible…
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Is this a collaborative phase, the going through these ideas?
George: I’ll be involved, to a point. It’s in Jack’s hands as to what he plays me.
Jack: A lot of what I have is just me, mumbling to myself, in the middle of the night. It’s likely that only I can decipher it. It’s like a kind of shorthand.
George: I imagine it’s really quiet, too, because you’re quiet at the best of times.
Jack: Tom (Hein, bass and keys and more), the other person in the band, is my housemate too. He said he walked past my door at four in the morning and could hear me singing to myself. He didn’t know, though, whether or not he was imagining it. But that’s my thing, and that’s the beginning of any album.
And the best ideas come to you at night?
Jack: Yeah. I think the ideal state to be in, when writing music, is as close to dreaming as possible. That can be just before sleep, or just as you wake up in the morning.
George: I want a bit more humour for the next record! All of these people think we’re so serious, but we’re funny. More belch noises next time, more farts.
Is that how you feel you’re perceived, as this deadly serious band? In the sense that you’re all killjoys, or something?
George: We probably are. But, it’s not enough to just be a musician now – you have to be a comedian too. Everyone has to be Bruce Forsyth, otherwise you’re filed as ‘serious music’. You have to be a 24-hour guy, and be on panel shows and that. Who’s that one who’s really middle class? Jack someone… Jack Whitehall. Nowadays, it’s like every musician has got to be like that.
Why’s that? What’s changed since your first album?
George: I just think that with a lot of new bands, they’ve got to be seen to be treating it like a joke, really. We’re really serious about making our music, of course, but we really don’t take ourselves that seriously. I suppose we’re maybe in the wrong profession.
But you wouldn’t want a ‘joke’ plumber, would you?
George: Well, that’s exactly it. It’s no different. But it’s a lot more difficult for new bands today, compared to when we came through, because there’s so much less money in the music industry. So now there’s just a bunch of rich kids doing it – unless you’re okay with making music in your bedroom, which is very cost effective. I think it’s difficult to be a new band, now – you’ve got to have money. When we started… Well, if we were a new band now, I don’t think we could exist.
You certainly couldn’t do an ‘Expanded’ show on a £50 support fee.
George: It’s more the lack of money at the labels that is the problem these days. But I can clearly remember the first time we got properly paid for a gig, and it was £170 for a support slot somewhere in London. We couldn’t believe it, and thought there must have been some mistake. Were these people mad? We left really quickly, in case they realised what they’d done. But we did exist on nothing. We were kids, and we’d had nothing before, so we didn’t need money. But I do think it’s more difficult now.
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‘Organ Eternal’, from ‘Field Of Reeds’
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Putting yourselves in the shoes of a younger band, do you see These New Puritans as having ascended to the level of an influential band, now?
Jack: We get word that a lot of bands, or a lot of musicians, are into us. I don’t know whether or not we’re a band to pass down traits or anything like that – or if we even have identifiable traits ourselves. It’s not just me singing, for instance, on ‘Expanded’ – we’ve got Elisa (Rodrigues, who features in these photos), who’s got a great voice.
Live albums can be pretty hit and miss, can’t they? They’re curious beasts.
George: But this one is an exciting beast. It’s the complete opposite of one that’s just been put out to make a fast buck. We’re losing money… Well, we’re not, but we’ve put everything into this record.
Jack: There have been so many different versions of these songs, and they’ve all fed into this one performance. Which makes this just as definitive as the studio versions – they’re different expressions of the same music. And, also, there’s lots that I have adjusted in the arrangements, which took a few months to do. It took two months to arrange. It’s a big project.
George: It’s something we’d like to do more, but it all depends what we’re doing with the next record. When that comes, we’ll draw a line under things – but what with all of the arrangement that has gone into ‘Expanded’, it is something that we could do again. I think what would be good to do is a four-hour show of ‘Hidden’ live, ‘Field Of Reeds’ live, and the next record live. With totally different musicians for each one, so we’d need a revolving stage of some kind.
Jack: But if you’re going to do it long, I’m not sure that three or four hours is long enough. I feel like some people might get bored at around four hours – there’s a point there. But if it was six or seven hours, it comes back around and becomes interesting again, and you just absorb the music.
Would you say you’ve learned on the job, ultimately?
George: Absolutely. You’ve got to push yourself. You can’t play the same three chords over and over again and call that a career. I don’t get that. I don’t get bands that can do that. I think you’ve always got to reach just beyond what you know, as we were saying earlier. And I hope that space is infinite.
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Words: Mike Diver