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A Quietus Interview

Ire And Fury: An Interview With Field Music
John Freeman , February 8th, 2018 10:17

David Brewis talks to John Freeman about Field Music’s sixth album – the brilliant Open Here - and how a post-Brexit, post-Trump world fueled some of the Brewis brother’s angriest songs to date

The last time tQ met up with Field Music, the interview was conducted in Peter and David Brewis’ hometown of Sunderland. We spent a glorious day eating falafel at their favourite vegan café (Sunderland’s only vegan café), browsing for Prince vinyl in the mighty Pop Recs store and mooching around Jacky White’s market, a gaggle of stalls seemingly reluctant to venture out of the 1970s. I was given a tour of Field Music’s now defunct recording studio – a haven of creativity on a ramshackle industrial estate overlooking the River Wear.

That was early in 2016. Since then, Brexit has happened. Sunderland strongly voted in favour of leaving the EU and became synonymous with the ‘leave’ vote having been the first area to post a result. The town set a tone. It’s against this socio-political backdrop that Field Music’s sixth album – the wonderfully adventurous Open Here - was birthed. So, when David Brewis sits down to chat about the subjects that fuel Open Here, he’s crackling with frustration and disappointment.

And, there are songs on Open Here that positively seethe – ‘Count It Up’ checks off a list of privileges for those unwilling to express any empathy for the less fortunate, ‘Goodbye To The Country’ crashes against the festering racism endemic in our post-Brexit dystopia, while ‘No King No Princess’ rails against gender stereotyping, inspired by David’s new experience of being a father to both a son and a daughter.

However, if the subject matter might point to a heavy musical palette, Open Here is happy to disappoint. It’s Field Music’s most expansive and brightest album to date. Songs are bathed in string, brass and woodwind (Sarah Hayes’ flute is particularly enthralling), while the Brewis boys are close to perfecting their brand of sinewy prog-funk that graced previous album Commontime and David’s 2014 School Of Language album, Old Fears. Amongst the carnage, Field Music have created a magical musical bubble. Anger has rarely sounded so positive.

Before talking about the album, can I ask you about your studio. I believe you have had to move out. What happened and how big an impact will that have on Field Music?

David Brewis: Well, I don’t think we have ever taken for granted that us being creative is entirely dependent on having our own space. However, we have always known that eventually the space we were in was going to get knocked down. We only got it because it was earmarked for demolition. We initially had a three-year lease, but by the end we were signing on a month-by-month basis. So, we knew our time there was ticking down over the course of recording the album – we had to finish it by June [2017].

When I visited, it seemed like the studio acted as a sanctuary for the Brewis brothers. Is that a fair observation?

DB: Yes, to a degree. Peter felt that element of sanctuary even more than I did. He’s been having his own personal stuff to deal with and has gone through periods of feeling very down, and the studio became his sanctuary. For me, there has been a big change in how I work, because I have two kids. I only have a certain amount of time in the study and I cannot muck around anymore. I can’t have a lot of time to ponder a certain keyboard sound. I know you and I always seem to revert to talking about Prince, but finding out about his working techniques in the studio was quite inspiring. He got in the studio and just did it. If he didn’t like what he’d come up with, he would just put it in ‘The Vault’.

Was there a Field Music vault in the old studio?

DB: [Laughs] Um, have we left anything exciting in the rubble of the studio? No, we haven’t.

And are there plans in place to get a new recording space?

DB: Absolutely. For most of the second half of last year, it’s been my number one priority to ensure we have a new space and that we can carry on. We have a place lined up; we have just knocked down some walls and are building a bloody good studio. We will get excited about having a place to record again. With our old space, it was a comforting place but it wasn’t exciting. We’d been there for seven years and, basically, never really tidied up.

Let’s talk about the album. Musically, Open Here is perhaps Field Music’s most expansive album to date. I love the use of strings and woodwind instruments. Was it a conscious decision to extend the ‘sonic palette’ for this album?

DB: It wasn’t a conscious starting point. We had a few moments on the last album and with touring, where we started to think that we could use the palette in a better way. We wrote a few extra arrangements to have the horns play live, and we were inspired. It’s about gaining experience. We felt we knew more about what we could do with those sounds. We used the term ‘idiomatic’ in the studio - it was about writing something that fitted the language of the instrument.

Can you expand on that a little bit more for my non-musician brain?

DB: Well, you can write whatever you want on paper and then put it in front of a trombone player and they might say “where am I supposed to breathe?” You cannot have 34 seconds of long notes. Many of the instruments can play different shapes of notes. We tend to play instruments where all the sound is at the beginning of the note and then it fades away – like piano, drums or guitar. Anything that starts quiet and gets louder, we were initially lost. We had to learn how to write for an instrument that builds up the sound over a note.

I saw you play a recent show at Manchester’s Albert Hall. Of all the new songs, ‘Count It Up’ stood out. Lyrically, it’s very transparent, listing out a series of privileges. What was the genesis of that particular song?

DB: It’s just one of the things that I am most angry about. It comes out in an emotional burst. The genesis was a silly thing – I was playing a riff on my son’s toy keyboard and he was shouting numbers in the background and it just became a little demo without any lyrics. That combined with all my recent furies and I wrote tons and tons of lyrics. I was conscious that lots and lots of privileges apply to me. If you are going to write a ‘finger-pointing’ song – as referred to by Bob Dylan – it’s best if you are aware that some of the finger-pointing is at you, or else it is just preaching. And don’t like that kind of song – I wrote my preaching songs when I was in my early 20s.

There is a definite target for the song. We are both white males, so we tick off two of the biggest privileges.

DB: There is a target. There is a group of people, especially in Sunderland, whose ire is directed at immigrants and I find that really appalling. I find it horrendous that if you are a white person, living in an affluent Western country, and you are not trying to understand why someone would want to migrate to an affluent Western country. Also, take the whole debate on the US Muslim ban and the discussion about the US borders being too porous. I don’t know about you, but my experience of getting into the US on a work visa is that it’s not particularly easy. It’s quite arduous and stressful and I am an articulate, white, Western person. Imagine trying to get through the US border controls if you have family in Iraq? I bet the border doesn’t seem porous in that situation. Those are the kind of things that came into my head. I didn’t intend it to be a ‘counting your blessings’ song, it was more about looking beyond your own experience.

Is Open Here Field Music’s angriest album to date?

DB: I don’t know whether it is our angriest album, but it’s got my two angriest songs on it. The album was written post-Brexit and ‘Count It Up’ and ‘Goodbye To The Country’ are definitely the angriest songs I have ever written. I am quite proud that I have managed to make them into listenable songs and I am sure that anger will resonate with some people.

How was the Brexit experience for you, especially living in Sunderland, which voted ‘leave’?

DB: Sunderland was the first place to declare a result. Brexit was a shock to a degree. I felt awful about if for a while. You start to feel suspicious of everybody and you feel let down. I felt that my understanding of other people was way off. I though the world worked in a certain way and it turns out I was wrong. That began to dissipate a little – even in Sunderland, which was strongly pro-Brexit, it was still ‘only’ 62 per cent of people that voted to leave. So, 38 per cent of 300,000 is still significant and there is a myriad of opinions. It was probably good for me that not long after the Brexit vote, the doomed Sunderland City of Culture bid started up. Amongst the artistic community, there was almost an optimism – a sense that things can happen – that proved to be a bit of solace. However, I am still furious about Brexit. I’m furious about how the arguments were presented on both sides - the fact that nobody really made an articulate positive argument for being more involved in Europe. It was just about how disastrous it would be if we left. Anyway, I don’t want to this to turn into Question Time.

The other song I’d like to ask you about is ‘No King No Princess’. As a father of a son and a daughter, I remember being shocked at the differences in the way society perceived my baby daughter compared to my experiences with my son. Is that the same for you?

DB: Absolutely. One of the most frequent thing was a comment made about Mary when we were out and about. She is very inquisitive. She wants to be involved in everything. She is exactly the same as Will was, when he was tiny. However, when Mary did it, people would say, “Ah, that’s because she is a girl.” Somehow, she wants to know what’s going on, because she is a girl. That would happen over and over and it shocked me, as no one ever said that about Will. The inference being that girls are nosey – and want to know what’s going on – and boys don’t. It’s the idea that your gender says more about you than your character would. It’s so bizarre. Will and Mary are alike in lots of ways. However, how people respond to their character traits seems to be entirely due to their gender.

I particularly dislike the ‘boys will be boys’ mantra.

DB: I totally agree. I have seen dads with tiny sons telling them not to cry and to be tough, as if it is entirely appropriate to toughen up a two-year old. Also, I feel a bit weird about dolls – one of the first things a baby girl gets is a doll baby, as if the first things a girl needs to learn is how to look after a baby. That’s totally mental. The idea that because Mary is one, she probably needs to learn how to look after a baby is a bit surreal. For girls to have that throughout their childhood is a pretty insane. So, we don’t have a blanket ban on pink, but there’s not a lot of pink going on. For us, the challenge - not to apply gender neutrality, as I don’t feel that extreme about this – is to ensure the kids can do what they want to do, and play with whatever they want to play with. I want them to develop their own characters without everything from the outside telling them that boys go one way and girls go another way.

You kids are getting to an age where they will have an appreciation of your music. Do they like any particular Field Music songs?

DB: Well, they aren’t conscious of the lyrics. They like the catchy songs. They like ‘The Noisy Days Are Over’ and ‘Disappointed’ [from Commontime]. Occasionally we will go to Costa coffee in South Shields and it is inside a Next store. ‘The Noisy Days Are Over’ is on the Next playlist and Will gets really excited about hearing “Uncle Peter’s song” in the shop. It’s unambiguously nice to write songs that they might like, so I don’t think I am going to give up on my pop music anytime soon. They would be disappointed.

Compared to relationships/break-ups, there isn’t the same wealth of songs about parenthood. Do you find it hard to write lyrics about either the children or your relationship with your wife as parents?

DB: I finally bought myself Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman and got a bit teary at ‘Father And Son’. It is a really good song. My wife and children are the most immediate things in my life. I write the songs in good faith. I am not trying to tell Laura something that I couldn’t say to her in person. I might be able to do it better in a song, but it’s not about trying to hide the way I feel in a song rather than talking about it. So, I haven’t found it difficult or strange at all. The first time she hears those songs is a little bit odd, because it’s talking a touch more honestly, as we probably don’t have enough time to talk. It ends up in a song instead. I wish I had written ‘Share A Pillow’, as that’s Peter’s song. It’s about musical beds with your kids, even if a review I read thought it was relationship bed-hopping. It’s definitely not. It’s about having a toddler!

Open Here is out now via Memphis Industries. Field Music tour the UK in March

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