Setting Fire To Field Of Reeds: These New Puritans Interviewed

As These New Puritans put an end to their Field Of Reeds phase of activity by releasing a live album of their Barbican concert back in April, Jack and George Barnett tell Luke Turner about constructing a sound library, Arsenal, soundtracks to jogging and where the band will be heading next

At the event to unveil These New Puritans’ Magnetic Resonator Piano, one of the myriad of instruments featured on masterful 2013 album Field Of Reeds, the following statement by Jack Barnett was painted onto the venue’s walls: “I’m always distrustful of music that you can write coherently about! So I will write something short and incoherent: This is music for music’s sake, but it’s also music about what a person can provoke you to feel, to some extent. I consider this to be soul music really.”

My initial reaction to and review of Field Of Reeds got perhaps overly stuck in to the sense of place that it gave me, of Essex hinterlands, marshes, an England sliding into a sea both spiritual and physical. Perhaps Barnett’s quote was playing on my mind when, on April 17th 2014 I went to the Barbican to see These New Puritans play the album in order, with Barnett, his twin brother George and Thomas Hein accompanied by a large ensemble including Synergy Vocals and the Heritage Orchestra. It was a dense, beautifully produced performance and, in the austere flashes of white light that came from the stage, the maximalism intriguingly ignited something more intimate, personal, romantic, lost and yes, soulful in these songs.

Five months later, Jack Barnett and twin brother George are back at the Barbican to talk to me about the Field Of Reeds concert and live album, released this week. They’re on fine form, relaxed and engaging and zipping between each other in a way that only siblings really can, largely relaxed after the conclusion of this phase of operations and looking forward to getting stuck into creating their next album. George Barnett, we hear, recently ended up spinning himself around a pole at a party the the group attended. They discuss a high concept website based on Choose Your Adventure books that reveals unreleased These New Puritans songs and are full of praise for the support offered by the Infectious label where they’ve found their perhaps surprising home amidst the likes of Alt-J and Temper Trap. Jack Barnett says he admires their commitment to These New Puritans – “it’s not just spending. It’s putting their energy into it" – and their label boss Korda Marshall, who signed both Psychic TV and Peter Andre.

Looking back, how do you feel about the way Field Of Reeds evolved? Did you achieve everything you wanted to achieve?

George Barnett: The Barbican for me was the pinnacle of that record. What else would you want to do? 

Jack Barnett: I never usually would consider being pleased with anything I do, but there were so many things that could have gone wrong, from arrangements to technically – technically it was a complete nightmare, we had to make a concert that was difficult to put on and put together, with a lot of technical hurdles. We did a good job there, and recording and mixing. 

What have you been doing since?

JB: I’ve been creating a sound library. This is the first point for the next record. In all of our music there are sounds from that library. We were in Beijing airport, and there was this amazing band playing Beatles covers and stuff, playing this weird music. It was this huge building, massive amounts of echo.

GB: What about the magic? There was a magician, Jack got called up on the show. He was doing the rings trick.

JB: He came over to me while I was watching and I had to go ‘woah’ as he did it. I was recording the music as he did it, this funny, carnival music.

Do they end up being the start of tracks or ideas?

GB: There’s going to be a song about a musician in a Chinese airport.

JB: The idea is that these work their way into things. It’s more in the sound design, really complicated bits of sound with loads of things layered, that’s where they come in usefully.

Have you enjoyed putting it together in a more regimented way?

JB: It’s simultaneously enjoyable and mind-numbingly soul-destroying.

GB: Why soul-destroying?

JB: Things like if I’ve made a catalogue of different drum hits from Field Of Reeds. I’m doing this so I can use it in the future, it’s not mad… I’ve exported whatever, 950 pieces of audio, I’ve pressed the same key command 950 times over the past few days.

Do you always have a recorder on you? A Chris Watson, Simon Fisher Turner approach?

JB: I always try to. It depends what time of year it is. In the winter it’s easier because you can have a coat and put it in your pocket.

GB: You always wear a coat though.

JB: That’s true.

Is that why?

JB: Partly yes, I like to have lots of stuff in my pockets.

GB: He’s like Columbo. He’s always got lots of pens. Where were we?

JB: Getting the Eurostar.

GB: He was doing an impression of Columbo that was so good. Columbo had lost his pen. Then we saw Robert Pires going through security and I said to the woman ‘can you make sure we’re sitting next to Robert Pires on the train’ and she said ‘oh yes we’ll make sure you’re sitting next to your parents’.

Do you support Arsenal then?

GB: All our family are Arsenal fans.

JB: Our father isn’t, he’s a West Ham fan. A lot of Southend is West Ham. I used to go and watch Arsenal, I lived right next to the stadium. I’ve got lots of recordings of that, announcing the team when they walked out.

Was it a bit of a relief to get the Barbican concert and this live LP behind you?

JB: Not a relief really. It’s just one more thing to do.

GB: You’re pleased about it, I’d say.

JB: I’m pleased to put a full stop of this phase of our music, and we can move on…

GB: …make new sound libraries…

JB: …work on something else, I’ve given enough of my life to this music now. Set fire to everything related to Field Of Reeds and make something else.

Does it feel like you want to do that sometimes?

JB: Yeah. The  number of rearrangements of these songs that I’ve done. Madness. The different versions for the live band.

Because it’s not just doing it for EXPANDED. There are all those different incarnations you’ve used. Do you have to rearrange it every time?

JB: Yup. And really like the version that’s on this album. There are little bits and pieces that have come from the septet, little adjustments and rearrangements.

The concert and live album have made me listen to Field Of Reeds differently, like I misinterpreted it the first time around. It feels more romantic, personal and sad after seeing it in a massive space, strangely enough. 

GB: That’s a good reading of it.

JB: The two different versions are really different, not that I’ve listened to Field Of Reeds since I finished it, but they bring out totally different aspects to the music, and are equally definitive or not definitive. I really like being a custodian of songs, they’re never really finished to me. A song like ‘Three Thousand’, I never listen to the original version, to be it’s the sum of all these different versions that have existed over the years – there have been so many version so that song, and the version on the live albums is the best.

GB: The sudden chord change or whatever it is after the second chorus…

JB: It’s totally different harmonically, it’s got those chords in the chorus then there’s the bit at the end where it’s got this chromatic bassline falling down, weird stuff going on. I’m pleased with that.

Was there anything left to chance in the live show? Was it a fairly rigid affair?

GB: As far as the production goes it was about the most rigid thing we’ve ever done. We had a really amazing tour manager who was completely on it. Everything was arranged, as well as me, come on…

JB: The woman at Music Cabal said between George and Craig [tour manager] she’d got the most e-mails about an event that she was putting on ever. That stuff is just as important and just as interesting to us. 

Do you like the teamwork you two have?

GB: That was really fun, I felt like we were really working then, doing that. Next will be the West End musical…

Well I was going to say that new track ‘Spitting Stars’ has a musical feel to it.

GB: There’s one song that isn’t included that… I’m not allowed to say this am I?

JB: Nope.

Was ‘Spitting Stars’ written around the album or did it come later?

JB: That track is a combination of something that was written around the album and never finished…

GB: …I forced him to finish it…

JB: …and then a new piece as well. I put it together just for the concert.

GB: I wanted to give something more than just the old and the new record, I wanted something completely new. 

It sounds like it might have been arranged for a larger number of players

JB: It’s like, "We’ve got a 35 piece ensemble, let’s do something with it."

GB: I love that song, but I want more drums in it. In Field Of Reeds when there is drums it’s so much more powerful, it’s all or nothing.

JB: In so much music the drums are there but they exit your head, they’re almost like wallpaper, they’re there all the way through so they have no impact. If I’ve learned one thing in arranging it’s if you have something going all the way through a song it may as well not be there at all. 

How does the relationship you’ve got with Tom and George get affected by working with other musicians with whom you have different or no history with? Do you have to, or do you, treat them in a different way from how you treat the other two?

JB: I really like that thing in the Quietus where the guy had written a piece saying that a rehearsal studio owner had let on to him that "a band called New Puritans or something" had been in and had just been banging on tin cans…

GB: …it was like no rehearsal he’d ever heard. You don’t really hear that, you only hear segments of drums.

JB: The other thing that always confuses rehearsal studio owners is we’d come in and won’t make any sound for a week, we’ll come in and just be sat there programming some bit of equipment.

GB: There’s nothing worse than going into a rehearsal session with classical musicians and not being able to play your instrument. And then there’s me who doesn’t practice the drums.

JB: George doesn’t play the drums at all unless it’s to do with These New Puritans. It’s really weird. 

GB: I’m a good drummer…

JB: You’re an amazing drummer.

GB: If I played every day I’d hate to think what’d happen.

JB: It’s like Buddy Rich. Buddy Rich said he didn’t rehearse, he just played when he played live.

GB: It’s really good if you don’t play for a couple of weeks then come back to it

JB: Rather than musicians who are workhorses, who play every day. It becomes habitual, and you don’t want that. 

Working with these very professional, classical musicians, do you worry about becoming too formal?

JB: I really respect it. I’m not into the whole idea that being able to play an instrument is a bad thing, or being technically good is a bad thing – I think it’s something you need in order to do something worthwhile. The idea that you should be working on your attitude or what kind of character you are without being able to play a note. We were working with some British jazz people on the album, and the way they produce a note is just incredible, and amazing to see, and that comes from working hard. Those kind of people, classical people and their attitude, played a role in this album. Then at the same time you’ve got Tom who’s making weird electronic stuff that also has the potential to spin out of control with weird feedback loops and stuff. It’s good to have a mixture.

Do you think the musicians enjoyed it?

JB: Some of them definitely didn’t, no. 

GB: Before we played at the Barbican there were definitely…

JB: Watch what you say though… With these things you know you’re going to alienate a particular proportion of people who are playing it, let alone even listening to it, so you just have to do it, and work through it.

You’re pushing people out of their comfort zone – when I think of when I first saw These New Puritans in the Buffalo Bar ten years ago, you’ve pulled yourselves out of your comfort zone too.

JB: The lads done good.

GB: Where we started was electronic music…

JB: Well not really.

GB: Before the Buffalo Bar there was a whole other thing, which was basically electronica but it became a band. We never thought of being a band.

The band was an accident?

GB: Yeah, people asking us to play a gig. I’m not saying I regret any of it, Beat Pyramid is a great record. 

JB: Or not.

Do you not like it?

JB: I like bits of it. It’d be narcissistic if I thought everything we’d ever done was perfect.

So the band was an aberration?

JB: The stuff we were doing before has a lot more in common with Field Of Reeds. We’re thinking of releasing some of our really early stuff.

GB: Maybe that’d influence the next record, rather than being something we put out now.

I always felt that Field Of Reeds is quite an evolution from Hidden, there are connections between the two. Do you think that now there’ll be a chopping off and it might go somewhere completely different?

JB: I really don’t know. It’s hard to say at this point really.

Have you started doing any of it?

JB: I’ve done bits and pieces, but it could go anywhere at this stage, it depends on what I choose to focus on. I always write lots of really different pieces of music, and it’s then a case of narrowing that down into something that holds together. Or not, as the case may be.

What do you do between times? Ah this sounds awful – "how do you relax?"

GB: There was a thing, wasn’t there, a tweet saying that someone had seen you jogging and what do you listen to when you’re jogging? I wanted to reply to it. 

JB: I’m into running along to the pier and back. I’ve been listening to the new Aphex Twin. I either listen to podcasts, Radio 4’s In Our Time, or really intense electronica. Brain mangling.

Last week’s In Our Time about maths and Euler’s number fried my mind. I find those ones very confusing.

JB: I think Melvyn does as well.

Did you actually enjoy the Barbican?

GB: [To Jack] Didn’t you enjoy the gig, the fact that it was happening? I think it was one of those where it puts your hair on end and afterwards you want to do it again.

JB: If you don’t enjoy that then why are you involved in music? It’s the first gig I’ve been nervous about for a long time. Usually I’m totally relaxed, there’s no point worrying while you’re playing. When we’re rehearsing, I’m worrying because I can change things. When you’re onstage there’s nothing you can do, you have to let it wash over you.

Has it led to you getting strange or interesting approaches? Do you get daft offers?

GB: Like Dancing On Ice, Jack got offered. 

JB: Not really. 

GB: There’s some stuff you’re working on, you wanted to write for certain people. But the next record, I can’t wait for that, I’m excited by what’s happening and what I’ve heard of the next record. 

Is that how it works? You hear new material from Jack? Do you two ever fall out?

GB: We haven’t fallen out for ages actually. 


JB: Ahhhhhh yeah, we do though don’t we?

GB: I wouldn’t say we ‘fall out’. We have differences of opinion, but we don’t fall out.

What’s the importance of Graham Sutton [mixer, producer, former Bark Psychosis member] within These New Puritans?

JB: He’s great isn’t he Graham? He’s one of the team, we’ve had the same team of people from the monitor guy to lighting, everything, for quite a long time for these kind of shows.

GB: Graham is somebody with an opinion we really respect, that’s why he’s there. It’s similar for you to me, you respect my opinion in exactly the same way. 

JB: I really respect his opinion. It’s just about being surrounded with people you get on with.

How will the next record take shape do you think?

GB: We don’t know, we might go to a different country to do it?


JB: I’m sick of England. It’s just so expensive, especially London, it’s ridiculous. Just rich Russian people. Everyone’s trying to scratch a living together and it’s depressing. I want to go somewhere that’s… I just feel like change.

GB: We want to get more recorded for the same money. You could get quadruple for your money somewhere else.

Are you as sick of England, or is it more London?

JB: I love England, I just feel like a change. 

GB: London is the epicentre…

JB: You said this to me, you said it’s the best city in the world, that’s kind of depressing. This is the best in the world? Really?

GB: I don’t want to trash countries…

JB: Trash countries? "These New Puritans Hate Countries".

GB: You’re saying you hate England!

JB: I said I love England, which I do. I’m tired of it. I can make a living in any country, I don’t need to be in this one.

GB: You’ll be back in England at some point.

JB: I’m sure. 

That’s the thing with England, I love it and despise it, a dreadful place, the people get on my tits.

GB: You go abroad for two weeks and the first day you’re back you’re, "Oh wow, England’s amazing!"

JB: I get in the airport and you hear English people talking. Oh God. But, having said that, it’s because it’s familiar. People probably talk about the same old shit everywhere, you just can’t understand them. I like being a foreigner.

These New Puritans Expanded is out now, go here for more information

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