Field Music is one of those oddball bands, small and marvellous, who form part of the fine print in modern pop. A band that is big because of its singularity. They'll be playing at Primavera Sound, and they've just released “Plumb”, so we wanted to talk to someone as intelligent as David Brewis.
We need more bands like Field Music. Bands who make pop a bit more complex, who fight against the boredom of the rules and the triumph of mediocrity. The number of daring, adventurous groups is increasing, shaken up by the tsunami of impulses coming from the Internet and the infinite crossover possibilities this generates, but still, one gets the feeling that there aren't enough bands like brothers David and Peter Brewis. Surreal, aesthetic and cerebral, “ Plumb ” ( Memphis Industries, 2012) is more proof of what good draughtsmen the Sunderland duo are, whether they're drawing the quadrants of their musical crossword puzzle or keeping the lines of the pentagram they're writing on parallel to each other. The Brewises know how to use a set square, and their handwriting is excellent, too.
Some people may find them twisted and affected, but they are, above all, a cultured group. So I'm not surprised when David answers my request for a recommendation of a book about musical theory with Scott DeVeaux’s fascinating “Birth Of Bebop”; or when he confesses to me that he makes music for himself, rather than for his audience; or when he talks about perfectly complicated pop songs like “Good Vibrations”, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Wuthering Heights”: “in order to write a perfect pop song, you need the element of novelty, or, at least the element of depth. If you have something that is new, but superficial, easy and cynical, it'll be boring.”
We talk for half an hour about how to fight boredom in pop and about some other more or less attractive things, like apologies, liberties, obstacles, measures, responsibilities and surprises. David speaks calmly, thinking about his answers while giving them, and he leaves exactly the same space between each word, as if he were following a metronome. Our next meeting: at San Miguel Primavera Sound, on stage this time.
In construction, the term ‘plumb’ is used to adjust the verticality and horizontality of floors and walls. As a title, it sounds exact and powerful. Why did you choose it?
For several reasons. Firstly, we're very straight people. Furthermore, we had just built our new studio, in early 2011, and we we'd grown familiar with construction lingo. And then there was “The Spirit Level”, a book we had both read that analyses the impact of inequality on social issues. Plus, we had been thinking about the album in volumetric terms, of imbalance between the heavy and light parts. So we had several options with the term 'level' popping up everywhere, and in the end, 'plumb' was the one that matured the best as a possible album title.
It sounds rather different from your other albums. Because it's more orchestral and fragmented, the fifteen songs feel like thirty.
We were facing loads of small pieces that didn't seem to want to grow, so we tried to find ways to channel them all. Usually we think a lot about how to fill the thirty or forty minutes an album lasts. Let's say that by shaping the LP with short pieces merging into others, and with those interludes linking them, we're clearly not playing by the rules of traditional song-writing.
Was it hard to come up with the structure? It sounds anarchic at first, but then you find out it's actually meticulously put together.
Not really. The truth is, it came out pretty naturally, though nothing on it is coincidental. Even though everything is built deliberately to transmit a certain feeling, I still think many people won't like the album, or that we're going to hear the typical “why didn't you make these pieces into actual songs?” [laughs]. What we do know is that we don't write conventional songs, and we're very lucky to have fans who expect us to surprise them, to do odd new things. One thing's for sure: if you're a bit narrow-minded, our music won't speak to you.
That means you constantly have to force yourself to surprise everyone.
Yes, but that's what's exciting to me as an artist: to hear something and not understand it immediately, to always be surprised. I don't want something predictable and easy to take part in. We write more for ourselves than for our audience.
And do you get feedback from your fans?
Yes, but it's something I find hard to deal with. I mean, there are many people who like this record, but I assume there are many who prefer the previous ones, and others who hear us for the first time and whom our music doesn’t really reach. It's nice to hear that people are into what you're doing from time to time, that it gives them the same kind of things you get from it, but it's better not to take it too seriously. It could become too much of an obsession.
In comparison with “Measure”, on “Plumb” you sound freer, as if you cared less than ever about 'what people say', as if you wanted to break with everything that came before.
There's always a bit of that on our records. After spending five or six months recording and a year on tour, our natural instinct is to change and do something different. Not repeating ourselves motivates us, and in that lies an effort to learn from what we have done before. Sonically, “Plumb” is a step forward from “Measure” and, in terms of structures and duration, yes, it's a deliberately very different album.
Did you each write half of the tracks, like you did on “Measure”?
We still write separately, and we help each other in the studio in order to make everything work on the record. What happened with “Plumb” was that though we work with tracks that stand on their own, we started to think about the transitions and structure from the very beginning. With “Measure”, that only happened during the last six weeks of the process.
Do you write the lyrics first, or the music?
I usually write the music first, and then the vocal melodies and lyrics come out pretty easily. I think Peter has a lot of already-written lyrics lying around and what he does is combine them on different tracks. The truth is neither of us feels like a writer. It's easier for us to do the music; the lyrics are always a bit harder.
Who'll Pay The Bills?
The radiant a cappella of ‘ How Many More Times?’ especially draws my attention.
That was an idea Peter had been playing with, writing a harmony based on something spoken and not on something so subject to musical notes. I didn't ask about the lyrics, but I find the track itself a nice way to clear the sound on that part of the album. It's something very open and clean before the guitars and drums come in.
Yes, it literally sounds like you’re taking a breath.
Exactly, like taking a breath. I'll use that in future interviews [laughs].
I also wanted to ask you what “ Sorry Again, Mate” is talking about.
Well, Peter is always apologising because he tends to arrive late. He doesn't do it too often, in fact, for a musician, he's pretty punctual, but he always feels he's later than he actually is, so he's saying sorry all the time, especially to me, as I usually arrive first. That song is very Peter-like, always running and with loads of things to do. It's also closely linked to the start of the album and to “Start The Day Right”, which would be him getting out of bed and leaving his dreams behind to face “ Sorry Again, Mate”, which is like the interaction with that real world where he always has so many things to do and so many apologies to make for not having been able to do all of them.
On other records you also refer to alarm clocks, codes, hours and numbers.
The thing is that I'm a mathematician. I did Exact Sciences and sometimes I sing about numbers.
And could we say that mathematics is an influence in your music?
That's a tough one to answer. Studying maths has a lot to do with being able to count and use numbers in an abstract, almost subconscious way, and being able to count without thinking about what you’re doing comes in quite handy, especially when playing the drums. But I think the influence in my lyrics has more to do with me being a hyper-analytical person who has a little system for everything, and in many of them I talk about myself trying to deal with those systems.
The record sounds methodical and precise. I suppose it also has something to do with that...
Could be, but not with maths. I'm pretty cautious about recordings. I think most records make a false commodity out of energy, and that they're very much manipulated by someone, who might be the band or not, who might be the guy who knows his way around ProTools, the producer, or the sound engineer. However, our recordings are the simple reflection of how we sound. Peter and I have been playing together for a long time, and when we get together, we generate a very special kind of precision, which is nothing more than the natural result of how we are as musicians.
Are you still playing with Ian and Kev? How are you going to do your upcoming live shows?
Ian's not in the band right now, he had to return to his normal job. We have a new guy, Andrew, who plays bass and synths, so there are still four of us. The live shows are going quite well. There are a lot of sounds from the new record that work splendidly, even though they seem a bit complicated to do onstage. We go onstage with a lot of energy and we behave like a rock band.
A New Town
Looking back, how do you feel about the years you were in The Futureheads and Maxïmo Park? At one point you stated you wouldn't trade places with them, and the truth is I can think of few groups less trendy or more timeless than Field Music.
Let's say they're dealing with a different kind of pressure. They quickly conquered a large audience and were immediately facing huge expectations. With us, our fans travel on the same boat as we do and they don't care if we change or do weird things. I think that's why we feel more secure, because we can make songs that, in theory, don't necessarily have to work on stage, or because we can play stuff like “How Many More Times?” where we just sing for a minute. That's hard to do if you're in a stadium in front of thousands of people. Arcade Fire or U2 aren't going to sing a four-part harmony. They can't afford to do that, but we can. And that's freedom.
You mentioned a book on social problems earlier and I wanted to ask you about that, because of the way you have been talking about facing the reality of social current affairs on your records, especially since “Measure”. Would you say you're a political band?
I would say we're people with very strong principles and values which we try hard to stay true to. In pop music it's very hard to stay true to yourself, because there's a lot of pressure to be... egoistic. It's as if the rules of the game were egoism, as if everything were about not thinking about the rest of the world. I think that for some time, the way to deal with the problems of the outside world has been to escape through fantasy. It's been happening in Spain in the past two years, in the UK and, well, everywhere really. What will happen now? Simply escaping just doesn't seem to be enough anymore.
There's one thing I admire in you: you suppose that the listener is intelligent and you demand that they pay attention.
Rather than guessing who our listeners are and what they find interesting, like other bands do, we try to write music that we would like to hear. And as our audience isn't massive, we can afford to do so. To see that there's an audience for something truly complicated reminds you of the fact that there are people out there who want to hear and feel a tougher kind of pop.
Which bands made the kind of pop you like?
Oh, there are loads. The Beatles are always a good starting point. David Bowie, Beck and Fleetwood Mac when Lindsey Buckingham was producing their records— they did really careful records full of details. The list is huge. Wire, Talk Talk, The Flaming Lips…
There's a bit of Bowie in “ A Prelude to Pilgrim Street” and, well, a lot of McCartney on the whole album…
Of course, they're giants who have recorded so many things. There's so much to steal from them that that's basically what we do: steal from them [laughs].
What can you tell me about progressive music? Is it much of an influence on Field Music?
When we started to play the guitar we were rather into Led Zeppelin, but I don't usually listen to prog-rock records. In fact, I don't listen to any prog-rock at all. I have Genesis' “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, because I heard one of their songs on a Jeff Buckley album and I liked it, and there are a couple of King Crimson records I like a lot, but I'm not a big prog fan.
And what about XTC? They're mentioned in almost every story about you.
I like XTC's ideology, but I'm not a big fan of theirs, either. For some reason I like Colin Moulding's songs more than Andy Partridge's. I can't deal with Partridge's voice. I find the progress they made during their career magnificent, but they're not a big influence, because I simply haven't listened to them all that much.
But I do feel that what you have in common with XTC is that you both try to sound different on each record.
Yes, I love it when bands do that. I don't want a band's every record to be perfect, also because I think that's just impossible. It's very important for each record to be different and interesting in its own way. Most bands only make the same record over and over, trying to perfect it again and again, which becomes very boring, because most of the time the first one is the good one and the rest just isn't.