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INTERVIEW: These New Puritans
Luke Turner , October 14th, 2015 13:06

Jack Barnett discusses moving to Berlin to record a new These New Puritans album... that won't be a 'Berlin album'. Photo by Valerio Berdini

For most groups, rearranging their work for a spectacular performance alongside choir and large ensemble at the Barbican Centre might count as a career high after which they'd feel justified in taking some time off before a perhaps inevitable decline. Not so These New Puritans. Just a few months after their October Hidden:Live spectacular, the group played a more intimate gig at Oslo where, with a stripped-back line-up, they introduced new songs in one of the best performances I've seen them do over the past decade. Next week, These New Puritans will head to London's KOKO for a Red Bull Studios gig (supported by Vessel) to play further-advanced versions of the music they debuted earlier this year, along with material from Field Of Reeds and Hidden. It'll be a six-piece These New Puritans line-up of Jack and George Barnett, Thomas Hein, Graham Sutton, vocalist Elisa Rodrigues and trumpet player Yazz Ahmed. For tickets and information go here. We caught up with Jack Barnett, writing new material in Berlin.

How's the German capital treating you?

Jack Barnett: I was enjoying Berlin, until it became horribly cold. It's weird how it changes character so much. As soon as it goes into the winter it's like a different city, there are two seasons: glorious sunshine, there are parks everywhere and it seems like everyone is outside, then suddenly it plunges into cold. I'm not really in Berlin because I love the mystique of Berlin or anything like that, so the whole miserable winter thing doesn't really hold anything for me.

Why did you decide on Berlin in the end? Last time we spoke it wasn't high on your list of destinations to work in

JB: I guess socio-economic reasons. I just found a really good space to work. You can find places relatively close to the centre of the city which are affordable and you can't really do that in London. At the moment I have a strange room that's a bridge between two huge old 1950s broadcasting studios. I'm suspended in mid air in this long thin room that joins the two buildings. It's got a great view of them and trees, and it's right next to the River Spree. Mouse On Mars are here, and some crackheads. There's are really incredible commercial studios, and a room that's thought to be the largest recording space in Europe, which is where the orchestra was based for the entirety of the East German period. I've got everything down to a writing set-up, it's quite spare really - just monitors, computer, a few keyboards and bits of processing equipment. Tom, George and Graham came over a few months ago for a week to write stuff, rather than work through things that are already written. We pressed record the whole way through and there were a few good things there.

Do you ever get tempted to move away from the format of putting out a record?

JB: Every time I make an album I then say 'that's the last album I'm ever going to make' but so far every time I've then been drawn back into making them. I suppose the Brave New World soundtrack was partly that.

How did that come about?

JB: The director of the theatre company James Dacre has asked us to do things before which we've always said no to, but this just seemed right. It puts you in a position where you write pieces of music you wouldn't otherwise have written.

Were you a fan of Brave New World?

JB: I read it when I was 16 or something, and Islands, which is the inverse of Brave New World. I suppose it would make more sense for me to make music for that rather than a panto. It makes obvious sense, you can imagine it mapping onto it quite well.

Why wouldn't you do a panto?

JB: It would be great if we made a poster for a gig where it was exactly the same typeface [as a panto poster] and one of us in costume as Christopher Biggins as Widow Twanky.

Who would be Widow Twanky? Would that be you?

JB: I always said it'd be Tom. Sadly that didn't come to pass. But with Brave New World It's interesting to see how different artforms work, and they slot together.

Has Brave New World impacted on what you're doing now?

JB: For that I was working incredibly quickly, writing loads of music and handing it over to them, which was fun and liberating. But that hasn't had any affect on my process, though I think there are bits of music that I'd like to use for TNPs. It shakes you up a little bit, I suppose it's the same thing as moving to a different country, things just appear new, you're like a child.

Has that happened to you moving to Berlin? When this music comes out you're going to have to put up with the likes of me calling it a Berlin Album - it's such a fetishised city when it comes to music.

JB: I was anticipating that, that's what I imagine will happen. But it could be anywhere, I'm the sort of person where my environment doesn't have a massive effect on what I do, I don't think it would change the music particularly. I think had I moved to Lisbon it would still have been similar music, it's just the fact of going somewhere new. It could be anywhere. It shakes things up and makes you step outside of yourself and your habits. Another good side-effect is that you can't understand advertising, it's like being a child or illiterate.

Do you feel more in your own headspace?

JB: I don't know if it's that. Everything's just incomprehensible and mysterious. In fact, it's probably just the same old shit that's everywhere.

How would you say it's sounding? From the Oslo gig I'd say it seems like the most traditionally song-structured music you've done.

JB: I think you're probably right. When I remembered I had an interview in ten minutes I thought 'what am I going to say about the new music?' because I don't... it's so foreign to me, trying to articulate it at all, right up until the point when we're recording it or a lot of the time a long time afterwards. With Field Of Reeds someone said to me 'what's with all the references to water, islands and rivers?' It just hadn't occurred to me at all, I didn't know what they were talking about. I didn't realise that was a pattern that had appeared in it, because actually there were loads of lyrics that didn't manage to fit in or songs that were dropped that were totally different. What I'm saying is that these things don't occur to me, they're just as or more likely to occur to someone else. At a certain point I was interested in simplicity, but I think that's against my nature a lot of the time. There is something quite simple, but a twist that takes it into a different world. If there's one change in the song, making that change the most powerful it can be.

That's quite a pop thing to do isn't it?

JB: It is, but I guess in a pop song that would be something like a key change but I'm more thinking about other kinds of music where there'd be quite a simple change but it'd have a mystery to it - I'm thinking of Mahler and Morton Feldman. There's nothing systematic to it, but it's just a strange change. It's almost what you'd expect to happen, but not quite.