“I think the me of 2003 would be gladdened to know that I’m still desperate to rip up whatever set of rules we played with last time and get on with the next thing.” – Siobhán Kane talks with David Brewis of Field Music.
Field Music‘s creativity mainly revolves around brothers Peter and David Brewis; forming around 2004 in their native Sunderland, they have based their body of work so far on being contrarian, not in a combative way, but in a more idiosyncratic sense, constantly pushing the limits of what they expect from themselves.
Sometimes this manifests in recording work under other guises, for David – School of Language in 2008, for Peter –The Week That Was – or for creating work as Field Music that is as protean as it is brilliant. No two records are the same, from their self-titled debut (2005), which was a mixture of whirling harmonies and lush complex arrangements, that signified great ambition, to 2007’s Tones of Town which swelled that ambition further, providing little clues in lyrics such as on “In Context” “I was expecting a change“. This change came in the form of a cacophony of lovely influences, for example, Harry Nilsson on “Sit Tight” and at times mid-career Timbaland – with interesting drum patterns snaking their way throughout a record that is as shiny as it is full of depth.
After times spent on other projects they returned with Measure in 2010, which sounded epic, literally, running to 20 songs, but also in terms of content. While they retained their rigorous arrangements, they offset that rigour with a vitality of melody, always one of their most winning qualities – for example, the poppy “Them That Do Nothing” with its jaunty guitars, or the more spindly “The Rest is Noise” – and yet this record seemed even more ambitious than the previous two, even fuller in scope and sound. Then along came Plumb (this year), which almost seemed like Field Music in miniature; epic’s became vignettes, 15 songs in under 40 minutes – “trying to beat the traffic” as the lyric goes on “Sorry Again, Mate“; imbuing their layered compositions with a wry humour, acknowledging the sometimes grinding everyday on something like “Choosing Sides“, it may all be busy accomplishment, but it is achieved with a sense of wonder, craft and grace. David Brewis talks to Siobhán Kane.
Can you map out how your own relationship to making music has changed since you first formed the band around 2004, to now?
It’s quite difficult to remember quite what we were thinking back when we started making the first record – the earliest recording on that record is from 2002 and the first recording made specifically for the record was in late 2003. We were pretty determined not to sit around waiting for things to happen anymore and that hasn’t changed. Me and Peter had a fairly strong sense that we didn’t want to be a band – even though that first record was our attempt to do something together after a few years of trying to keep things separate, and that hasn’t changed much either. We’re obviously a lot more experienced now and a bit more skilled which has alleviated some of the anxiety we felt about trying to make ‘real’ records early on but it’s also reinforced some of the more negative aspects to touring and promotion – not in the clichéd ‘life on the road is a drag’ or ‘the press don’t understand us’ ways – more that both things are much more necessary than a record-maker might like, and that both are necessarily reductive to some degree or other. We’ve tried to resist and make both things less reductive but that’s also probably made our lives a bit more difficult and has ramped up our frustrations at times.
When you both first started making music together, was there a certain idea/thesis that you had – where were your influences coming from? Sometimes with musicians, it is as if the music has chosen them, the musicians becoming a conduit for an idea, or expression of an idea – there is something quite mystical at work.
There were lots of different concepts buzzing around, some of which grew out of the earlier bands we were doing with Barry Hyde from the Futureheads – in particular, the idea that we had to find a way to sing using our own accents even though it might sound odd and there weren’t many precedents to follow. Then as now, we were trying to find a way out of reliance on clichés – and not just the ’60’s and ’70’s-centric clichés of what pop music is supposed to be, but also the clichés of critically-admired indie music. So we had a bugbear about indie music which was lauded for its experimentalism but which to us seemed to consist of totally normal songs – same melodies, same chords, same sentiment – with occasional contemporary cultural references in the lyrics and a bunch of squiggly noises lashed on top, and from that we made the first album with a deliberately restricted palate of instruments, as if trying to prove that experimenting in pop music shouldn’t be dependent on some trendy synth and an echo pedal! For us, it certainly didn’t seem mystical – it was driven by anger and frustration and maybe some wilfulness along with an optimism that it was worth the effort to try and do something different.
There is a sense of you being industrious, yet I also remember that Guardian interview where you said that you earned very little last year – something people might not realise. How do you keep going? I always wonder about this, I think of my own life in that regard, you can’t compromise, and don’t want to, but there is also that horrible stress regarding finances – reading that interview with you was a bit of a comfort, because you keep going.
You shouldn’t feel alone! For me, I think I’d rather go and work in a completely different field than try and make more money from music, which would probably involve working on music I didn’t like or having to accept principles I don’t agree with – for instance, I think there are huge issues with the very concept of further education in popular music. We both occasionally do other pieces of music work – Peter’s had a couple of composing commissions and we’ve both done bits of lecturing and recording other bands, but for the time being we’re pretty much committed to living on a pittance in order to spend as much time making music as we can. When we eventually go back to the world of real work, I’m sure we’ll keep writing and recording but I personally wouldn’t try to tour and making a record will take a lot longer – without wanting to sound self-pitying, avoiding clichés is a really bloody time-consuming business!
Some years ago, you had other jobs – you worked for Oxfam in their accounts department, and Peter was a youth worker – both admirable organisations. Social responsibility is another thing that is a bit of a struggle, you want to do more for others, and also want to do your other work – the more creative work. What are your thoughts?
I struggle with it all the time! Unfortunately most of my attempts to be more socially-involved have been incredibly frustrating. For instance, I really love Sunderland and I’d love for it to be a better, more culturally-engaged and less insular place but I’m not sure there’s anything I can do directly to make that happen. I’ve kind-of arrived at the conclusion that the best thing I can do is to make the best, truest music I can and use my incredibly-limited public profile in an honest and not-too-moronic way – the hope is that there are a few people out there who are already close to making great things or having great ideas and maybe we could just give them a tiny push that would help them. I think that the vast changes needed in public opinion on really important things – global economic justice, environmental protection, inequality – you know, the big ones – can only come about through a much broader public awareness and much braver political leadership. I suppose we can all contribute to both of those things – mostly by not falling for stupid media crap and not making incredibly selfish and short-sighted political judgements – but only in a very, very tiny way. The rest of the time, I’m trying to think about what it is that I can do which no-one else is going to do and make that as good as I can.
Your work is fizzing with ideas, something like Plumb is a huge testament to this – do you struggle sometimes to rein it all in?
Even though I’m coming up with new musical ideas whenever I have the time to do it, I don’t ever feel like I have enough of them, let alone so many I have to rein them in! The issue for us is really how much space we give to any one idea – on Measure we let things spread out a little bit, while on the new album we had a lot of ideas which seemed to make more sense if they only happened once.
Plumb seemed almost a response to Measure- once you have completed something, are you quite keen, not to destroy it exactly, but destroy those conventions again in order to pursue new ones? You never repeat yourself, but it seems as if there is something more at work than just that impulse not to repeat yourself.
There’s a couple of things going on there. One, as you say, is not wanting to trap ourselves in a set of Field Music clichés – though I’m not sure how successful we’ve been at that – and alongside that when you’ve spent six months making a record and then a year touring it you’re desperate to do something else! On the other hand, for me there’s still a feeling that there’s a kind of music which combines all of the things I like but which doesn’t exist yet and even though I think I’ve got nearer to making something which can fill that gap in my record collection, I’m still a long way away.
When you decided temporarily to leave the Field Music moniker/umbrella – and release work under School of Language and The Week That Was – was that quite a frightening moment? You had gained such a following, but there seemed an inherent trust with that following.
It wasn’t frightening for me. I didn’t feel like we had all that much to lose and I really needed a break from collaboration. I probably wasn’t thinking at all about whether an audience would follow us to these new records – and in terms of crude record sales and gig attendances, not many did! Other than that I had a weird feeling that the songs I was recording would sound better on radio than the first Field Music albums did. For me it was something which was mostly selfish but totally necessary for my state of mind.
It also seemed like a little bit of a black eye for commercialism, and you haven’t followed the path that so many others have – there is a bravery required, but I also suppose it is real freedom – being free is the only thing, really, isn’t it?
I’m not sure whether it’s true to say we’re happier – we have our ups and downs like anyone does. In particular, if you commit yourself to trying to create something which is honest and true to who you are and what you feel then if people criticise it or don’t respond to it, it can leave you feeling very alone and apart from people, especially if they’re all going crazy over some record you think is derivative, cynical rubbish. I’m very lucky to have my family and some really close friends who don’t let me mope excessively. I’m also not sure it’s particularly brave – it’s just a natural consequence of my personality. I’m far too inclined towards picking apart the mechanics of things to unthinkingly buy into the more distasteful and self-deluding side of self-promotion.
Memphis Industries seems to understand the way you want to work – how would you describe the relationship with the label?
It’s probably about as good as a long-term relationship between a band and a label can be. I always wonder whether they just tolerate our operational idiosyncrasies or whether they secretly quite like our shtick. I consider them friends and I admire what they’ve managed to build and the drive and humour they bring to it. And they’ve stuck by us when most labels would have dismissed us because we’re obviously never going to ‘break through’ – urgh, horrible phrase – which is still an oddly totemic goal for most of the music industry despite it being the apotheosis of a business model which basically can’t survive in the long-term.
I believe that during the making of Plumb you trapped a nerve in your arm, which must have been not only painful, but upsetting in the sense that sometimes things happen which serve to remind just how frail life is, and it must have hugely impacted on your own creativity. Could you expand a little on that time?
We moved to a new studio in December 2010 and had to do quite a lot of work on the new space. Peter went away with our parents for a few days between Christmas and New Year and I thought I’d impress him by getting all of the painting finished while he was away. Unfortunately the combination of freezing weather and repetitive paint-rolling caused a continual numbness along one side of my right hand. I tried resting it and read up about what it might be before going to the doctor’s. Before I got to see a specialist neurologist I came to the conclusion that I must have trapped or damaged my ulnar nerve and tried as much as possible to stop using or bending my right arm or wrist. Not great for a drumming guitarist, eh? By June, when I finally got nerve conduction tests done the numbness was very mild, but it did mean learning to brush my teeth and eat and type with my left hand and sleeping with my arm straight down my side. Up until then though, it had been quite scary – every time I used that hand or arm, the numbness got worse so how could I possibly keep playing? How could I make a living doing anything?! I’m quite pragmatic though. I’ve had a few experiences in life which have enforced a kind of stoicism – whatever crap is going on right now, it won’t last forever. Something else will happen for better or worse but it won’t, it can’t, stay the same. True to form, my nerve is better enough not to have a significant impact on my life, though it seems likely that for the rest of my life remnants of that nerve problem will kick in whenever there’s cold weather or I’m bending my right arm a lot. The stupidest consequence is that I’ve had to lengthen my guitar strap.
The actual space and setting of your studio seems like a metronome of sorts to you – do you see it as an integral part of your compositional process?
For me, there’s very little separation between writing and arrangement and recording – the sounds that happen in my head aren’t words and chords and a tune, they’re already records basically – so having a studio space just seems essential to how we work. The fact that it’s in Sunderland is partly practical – it’s cheap and near to the metro line – and partly gives us a sense of space and homeliness and isolation which definitely makes it easier for me to think more clearly and work for longer.
How far do you think that a lot of your work in any incarnation is about yours and your brother’s relationship? Do you find sometimes that it all flows seamlessly together, and sometimes where it is more fragmented? There must be an intensity and shorthand with creating with a sibling – but I can imagine it provides difficulties also.
It’s difficult for us to say because, for our music, we’ve only ever worked with each other or on our own. I’ve never been in someone else’s band! We do use a lot of shorthand communication in the studio but I can’t say I always understand what Peter is aiming for and at those points it can get a little bit frustrating – for both of us, I imagine – I find myself having to remove myself from the creative decisions and taking a more technical role until his idea starts to reveal itself. We’ve both got a bit better at knowing when we need the other’s input and when it’s best to give each other space but it can get quite intense. We have periods where our differences in approach -broadly, I’m impatient and Peter is finicky – he may disagree with this assessment – seem heightened but we’ve also learned just to trust each other’s intentions and to remember that we like each other! I think that always having someone right there who has a similar set of reference points probably has shaped our approach – we’ve never really needed a band in order to make music.
The North-East is a particularly interesting part of England, not least because of the ghost of industrialisation, but also its geographical place – it has a separate identity again, perhaps. There is that sense that the North-East is out on a limb, somehow. I also think there is an inherent melancholy in the place, what are your thoughts?
Again, I think it’s difficult for me to have any perspective on it as I’ve never lived anywhere else and don’t imagine I ever will. I think the industrial history of the North-East does play a big part in attitudes here and for Sunderland, the long historical rivalry with bigger, more-prosperous, more-culturally-inclined Newcastle also plays quite a big part, especially as, like you say, we’re too far away from anywhere else to feel any other rivalry. Sunderland does feel like quite an insular place. On the one hand, that can be good as there’s an intolerance of pretension and there are still some close communities. On the other hand, it seems like ambition or aspiration only manifest themselves either in a desire to get out as soon as possible or in a materialistic “my satellite-dish/car/fridge-freezer/mini-break is bigger than yours” way, or else it doesn’t exist at all – anti-intellectual, anti-cultural inverse snobbery is such a fucking badge of honour here. That’s not unique to Sunderland of course, but the fact that we don’t have outlets for counter-cultural aspiration probably does accentuate it. As you can probably tell, I have incredibly mixed feelings about the place.
Are there any local bands that you love that we might not have heard of yet? And who else are you listening to, and also, what are you reading at present?
There seem to be quite a lot of talented musicians around the North-East at the moment, some of whom could potentially come up with something great, but there isn’t anything which blows my mind at the moment. It seems that in the post-Futureheads, post-Maximo Park period, North-East music-universe bands have gotten much better at being competent and commercially-palatable but also much more conventional and it’s become more acceptable to be derivative. We’ve been listening to an anthology of pre-first-album Futureheads demos and ep’s in the van and it’s so bloody weird – creative and original and surprising. Andrew Lowther, who’s playing bass with us, hadn’t heard any of it and he was really taken aback by how crazy it all is. I kind-of want to say to all the local bands, hey, if you end up making a career out of this there’ll be plenty of time to become commercially palatable later so you should start with the craziest things you can imagine. It’s pretty rare to start your career firmly in the mainstream and then find a way out of that once you’ve had some success – once you’re involved with managers and labels and radio and PR everything pressures you away from taking risks.
I’ve been listening to all sorts of things recently. I’ve been really getting into the first two Dr. John albums and I’ve also been rediscovering lots of Beach Boys stuff after getting the Smile box set. For reading material I’m still making my way through a series of books by Joseph Stiglitz on global economics.
I read hat you were quite inspired by musicals and funk – did you really have “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka as part of your wedding? I hope it’s true, because it’s one of the loveliest stories I have heard in a while. Life should at some point feel like you are inhabiting that song – it’s so comforting.
Yeah, we did. It’s just a great, lovely piece of music – I edited out a couple of minutes of it to use as we walked into the room. We had a really small wedding – just 10 people I think – and it was very, very ‘us’.
I can understand the fascination with some musicals, something like Leonard Bernstein’s work is so astonishing – I recently saw West Side Story again, remastered – and it just folded me up in its arms, the lushness and the complexity.
I’ve never seen it! Peter had heard a radio documentary about it, also without having heard the musical itself, and it inspired him to put together the first song and gave him an idea about how to structure certain parts of the record. We’re both interested in early 20th Century avant-garde orchestral music and those sounds haven’t often made their way into pop music – in fact, they didn’t particularly follow through to the rest of 20th Century classical music. They did however spread over to film music in a huge way and even though our music has rarely been what you might call cinematic, music from films such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and of course all of Danny Elfman’s scores for Tim Burton have affected us quite a lot.
What other projects are you working on? And also,though it is quite an unfair question – but are there any parts of your body of work that you are most proud of and why?
Peter’s been doing bits of recording for The Cornshed Sisters and we’ve been polishing off some recordings of covers for a compilation later in the year. We’ve been so busy with gigs that we haven’t had time to get back in the studio to work on new songs, but both of us have been writing bits and pieces with a view to getting back to recording as soon as possible.
For me, there are certain songs which either still seem infused with the feeling I had when I wrote them or, for a song like “In Context”, have a different meaning but are still just as visceral. Mostly I’m proud we’ve kept going and kept striving to capture new ideas. I think the me of 2003 would be gladdened to know that I’m still desperate to rip up whatever set of rules we played with last time and get on with the next thing.
Plumb is out now on http://forbiddenfruit.ie/ festival on Monday 3rd June.