These New Puritans are perhaps the most eclectic and diverse band to arise from the UK music scene in the last decade. From the brutal apocalyptic menace of Hidden to the graceful electronics of new album Inside the Rose, the band always manage to sound both ground-breaking and familiar. Before their show at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, James Turrell sat down with brothers Jack and George Barnett to discuss amongst other things; the new record, working with classical musicians and the artistic merit of noise music.
When you were organising this tour, were you worried that there would be a no-deal Brexit and it’d be a pain in the arse going from country to country?
George: We were supposed to leave on the day of Brexit, weren’t we?
Jack: Our album was supposed to be released on the day of Brexit, but we moved it.
J: Yeah, it was just the idea that you know the news would be completely saturated.
G: I was saying that we wouldn’t offend anybody by saying we were huge Remainers, like the people that like our music. I would say they’re all Remain; I think you have to get to a certain level to have Leave voters.
Did Southend vote to leave?
J: Massively, yeah. Where we’re from is a hardcore Leave area. David Amis is the local MP of where our parents live, and he’s the most absolute no-deal Brexit MP.
G: I like Southend, though. Real place, real people. No pretence.
So you did this insane sounding show at ICA in London, how did that go?
G: Yeah, that was amazing. That was us putting together a really big show, because more time went into artwork, films and editing stuff. It was really good.
J: It was sort of your magnum opus, wasn’t it? Drawing together all these people and collaborators who we’d worked with over the years.
So you were playing in a massive Perspex box, right?
G: It was a sort of brutal scaffolding structure; it was like this prism that goes down at the end of the box and then a cube with hand cut silk. It took five days to cut this silk and it obscured us from the audience. This silk had circles punched it in that were pink, like a larger version of what we did for the front cover of the album, these panels of fabric. Over the whole stage there was an orange organza silk which you could see through, but then if you projected on it you couldn’t see anything, like a gauze. It was a like a ballet show.
J: The thing we don’t like is the production value of big rock bands, it’s just so benign. It’s like an arms race for the biggest lasers.
J: It’s just not interesting at all. It’s like a big Hollywood film that has all these explosions and big CGI effects. It’s just really numbing and doesn’t really do much to you. We want to go the other direction of that.
G: And reign it in. It’s not anti-American but it’s anti-American pop, modest and handmade in five days. It’s not instant, it’s a proper immersive thing.
Did you record it?
G: We did record it but it’s a bit shit to be honest.
J: We also had this other scaffolding structure made of red fabric and inside there was a performance artist called Soojin Chang. She was inviting people into to this red thing, and she wore these hair extensions which meant she was attached to the ceiling. Soojin was naked, giving out instructions and telling people what to do.
Do you think that’s it, you’re just going to do it that one time?
G: It’s quite nice to have just done it once, but if we get another commission we might do it again in a different way. All the people working with us enjoyed it, so I think they’d want to do it again, maybe in a bigger venue or a different setting.
There were six years between Field of Reeds and your new album Inside the Rose, what was the reason for that? I know you did the soundtrack for Brave New World.
G: It wasn’t really six years because if you think about it, we stopped touring Field of Reeds and did a big live album for it which came out in 2014.
J: We did a few other things, like the soundtrack for Brave New World and few commission things and then moved to another country, so that’s our excuse.
Do you still live in Berlin?
J: No, I moved back about 6 months ago.
Are you writing songs as you go or do you write within the thematic structure of ‘this stuff will be on the album’’?
G: Jack writes all the time.
J: It’s more of a constant thing, it’s just part of your everyday existence. Part of your routine, I suppose. And then with album we were recording as we went along, and I would demo things. Some of the vocals are the first time I ever sang that line or even thought it.
G: A.R.P no?
J: Yeah A.R.P. is one of them. And then at a certain point we gather all those ideas together and try to narrow them down and make a selection. You go from this state of complete innocence and it’s all differentiated, and you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re not thinking at all, and then you get to this point where you refine it and try and be a bit more discerning about what the album is going to be.
G: What is it that Walt Disney used to do? That thing about having the biggest idea you can possible have?
J: I always say this to you because you’re critical all the time, even at the point when you have to be open to everything. The Walt Disney thing is that they had a room where you could just make stuff with no one ever passing any comment. You just do it, and that’s it. Then you have the room where people edit things and make judgments on what’s good or bad. Then there’s a room where people try to sell things or make them presentable.
And you can’t mix things in each room.
J: Yeah, if you are in one room then you can’t do what the other rooms are meant for.
It’s actually not a bad idea.
G: Yeah, it’s not bad. I work in multiple rooms though, that’s the difficult thing.
J: I like to remain in the first room and never leave. Even though we don’t have three rooms or anything, it’s a good way to think about the work.
What was the reason you moved to Berlin?
J: I just felt like change, to go somewhere different and re-arrange your instincts. It was just a possibility; a good friend of George’s had a space that I could go to.
G: An art gallery basically, wasn’t it?
J: It was an office block in the centre of Berlin, so I lived in an office and it had the strip lighting you get in them.
G: It was in an area of only commercial buildings wasn’t it? You come out at night and there was nobody in the street.
J: There were no shops there or anything. I only stayed there for a few weeks, so that was just the entry point and then I managed to find a studio and a place where we could record.
You talked about writing every day, but do you feel that these collections of songs have a cohesive theme, or possibly multiple themes? I think there is definitely recurring imagery, like ecology.
J: It’s partly a coincidence of course, because when you write over a period of time certain thoughts will end up coming back to you and certain images will come back too. The theme is more or less the extremes of life and experiences that overwhelm you. Field of Reeds was more to do with thoughts, but this [Inside the Rose] was more to do with action.
G: Reality, no?
J: Yeah, everything that reality can be; absolute ambition and absolute commitment to not accepting the conventions that don’t suit you. The things is, when you’re writing you never think about this. You never think, ‘these are the themes on the album!’ So it’s easier to say what a song is about, it sounds less general or pretentious.
Weirdly, I think my favourite song on the album is Lost Angel.
J: I knew you were going to say that.
Aha! Really? It’s just a really beautiful piece of music. That’s obviously really short, like 90 seconds long. When you’re writing that, how do you make the decision to not to make that a full song?
J: It’s funny you should say that! Essentially it was a whole song that was supposed to be on the album, but that string part came out of a particular song. We heard the string part on its own and thought it just sounded better and didn’t need all this other decoration. We might still release it, but the more I listen back the more I think we didn’t quite nail it.
How much of the instrumentation do you play on the record?
J: On this album loads, on Field of Reeds it was much less but with this, everything that is percussive was just George. I played the piano and vibraphone and all the electronic stuff was just us.
G: And if he isn’t playing it, he’s written it really precisely for someone else to play it.
Is that written in proper notation?
J: For the album Hidden I learnt notation, as I’d never studied it before. I did it so we could put across our ideas for large groups of musicians without it being a puerile case of ‘I’ll sing a rough melody and you do your thing.’ And then it just came out a bit bland. If you really want to get interesting arrangements and proper musical momentum and for it to feel alive, the only way to do so is to learn notation. It’s the only way to communicate with that many musicians. And it’s just a really great tool for getting people to play exactly what you want because that’s the starting point. You can diverge, and the person playing it can find something better. But if you have the absolutely clear idea to begin with, that really helps.
G: I like working with conductors because they bring something different as well. I wanted to say it’s great that you can do that [notation], but people have this certain idea about classical musicians that they might be like, ‘what the fuck is this?’
J: Yeah, I don’t think that if you are a classical musician you’re any better than someone who has done it on their own.
I thought you would have both been classically trained, but then subsequently reading you were from Southend I thought there can’t be that many classical music schools there.
J: (Laughs) Yeah, The Southend Conservatoire! It’s funny because when we do stuff with orchestras; people always ask me where I studied.
G: Or they’ll say, ‘who wrote this?’
J: Yeah, they are quite often surprised, which is nice.
A lot of the press surrounding These New Puritans often uses words like ‘experimental’ or ‘difficult’ when describing your music. And to a certain extent that is true, but there is definitely a massive pop element to it isn’t there? Three Thousand on Hidden is a great pop song.
G: I don’t think people are always quite ready for it, I think if you listen to These New Puritans records five years later they sound more like pop music. We should produce a pop person and ask someone if they want to do a record with us. Because sonically, stuff like Anti-Gravity I imagine being a Steely Dan record and it being sampled a lot. That’s what I was thinking when we were making it.
J: You mean in the sense that people will sample the song?
J: I think we both don’t like things that are self-consciously abstract, and our instinct is no matter how unorthodox the musical ideas are, always make it really clear. And the easy way out is to make really noisy music and I really do think anyone could do that. If you grabbed someone off the street and said, ‘here’s a modular synth, you’ve got two days to figure it out and make an album’, they could probably do it. With stuff that is a more direct it’s a bit harder. I just like this kind of thing myself, that’s my taste music; it cuts you a bit and has a sharpness to it.
How many drafts of lyrics do you write?
J: Loads for this album. It almost always divides into two categories; it’s either the first or second time I’ve ever sung it and it’s perfect as it is when it comes out. You’re dreaming the song and it’s just there. And then there’s the stuff where you just have to keep working at it and do like ten drafts of the lyrics. It’s almost never in between the two. I think the music comes very naturally for us; we’ve written music together since we were kids. I find that quite a straightforward process really, whereas the lyrics take a bit more work. I’m quite pleased with the lyrics for this one, I think it’s some of the best I’ve written.
G: He’s quite clear on it as well, the vocals are quite loud.
J: Yeah, and the text is quite an important part if it. But on Field of Reeds, to some extent, the voice was just another instrument.
In The Guardian’s review of the album it said that you had finally learnt how to sing, which I thought was a bit harsh to be honest.
G: Who wrote this?
It was Alex Petridis I think; he always writes the lead reviews.
G: It’s a good thing for somebody to say, I think. It’s a good point, like he’s marked it.
J: I suppose so, but it is also sort of saying I was shit at singing before.
Well, it is a bit exactly what he’s saying, isn’t it?
J: It’s just a different way of singing isn’t it? It’s not like before I was just shouting En Papier, it wasn’t like I thought I was Pavarotti. I think you just learn as you go along, and it’s about finding the stuff you can do with absolute conviction. As soon as you can do that, it’s easy and it’ll come out well. You can work over and over again on something that isn’t quite right for your voice and you’ll never get anywhere with it.
We mentioned it briefly before – the soundtrack you did for a stage production of Brave New World. Was that as a band or was that just you, Jack?
J: It was just me really –
G: Whoa whoa whoa, I did some of that! What about that moment when it turned into Beyond Black Suns?
J: That is true, writing the drum part from Beyond Black Suns was George’s contribution to the Brave New World soundtrack.
G: And you did shout at me for that a few times, I’m sure?
J: If you insist. I mean it’s not a crime for suggesting I did that on my own is it?
G: I’m not suggesting that but what percentage do I get of that? 0.1? 1%?
Was it a production in the UK?
J: It was a touring production in the UK.
G: Somebody from Spooks was in it!
When you’re working on something like that, are you going to watch rehearsals? I imagine they sent you the script.
J: They did send the script, and they gave me a list of stuff they wanted. I wrote tons and tons of it, and I gave them way too much. There is easily an albums’ worth of stuff if we wanted to release it.
I realised that I’d never listened to Beat Pyramid recently. It’s very different, and I wouldn’t say it was dated but it sounds very much like a particular time in British musical history. Do you play stuff from that record?
J: We play one song from it; En Papier. We’re playing on this tour.
G: I like that record.
J: Yeah, I mean I hadn’t listened to it for a long time, but I listened to it recently and I was quite pleasantly surprised. It has to be seen in the fact it came from a time that was very conservative, and it was all about straight guitar music. Which is fine, but at that time we were influenced by J Dilla and lots of British electronica. I think a lot people thought we were mad to be pursuing those influences, but in the long run it’s helped us massively as it means we weren’t tied completely to one scene.
Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, there were thousands of bands who released albums in 2008 that aren’t going anymore.
G: We would probably be laptop musicians if we were 18 now, sadly.
J: Yeah, times have changed. We were really lucky as well, because our Dad was a builder and he had a van that we could borrow. In the day he’d be working with it, and then at night we’d empty out the tools, put our gear in it and go up to London to do a gig. That was pretty handy for us, just being able to play in London. It’s a lot harder now to survive as a band, so I don’t think we would exist if we’d started now.
G: It was good that we started in that era, because otherwise we’d be noise musicians making albums in two days. (Laughs) I actually really want to make a noise record.
J: I don’t have a problem with noise records so long as it’s interesting. I think it’s easier to get away with.
G: I really want to make a seminal noise record, like honestly give me three days.
What have you been reading recently?
G: I’ve been reading J.G. Ballard Miracles of Life.
I was in England two weeks ago and bought that from a charity shop.
G: No way! It’s a good book, it’s his autobiography. It’s really interesting, the front half of it went on to form Empire of the Sun and the only big difference he made was that he wrote his parents out. They effectively had no control over anything when they were in the Prisoner of War camp. All of that historical period; post-WWII Asia is interesting to me. Jack, what are you reading?
J: I’m reading an account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, like the Aztecs that had been in Mexico for years.
How is it?
J: it’s incredible, in terms of great moments in history when the world could have gone in one direction or the other, it’s fascinating. And I’m re-reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
G: I’m looking forward to the new Michel Houellebecq novel. I would recommend all his books.
I read in an interview that you are Arsenal fans?
G: Jack is but I’m not really that into football.
J: Yes, I am.
In the ten years that Leicester were outside of the Premier League, Arsenal became my Premier League team, which was like the worst time to become emotionally invested in them.
J: An awful time, yeah.
Who do you think is going to win the league?
J: Man City probably, but I think Arsenal will come third above Tottenham.
G: You should quiz him more on the politics of football because he’s really into it.
J: I’m not so much really.
G: You fucking are!
J: I’m not so much anymore, I don’t have the time really. I’m more of an Arsenal fan than I am a football fan, I follow everything to do with Arsenal, but I have less and less time to sit around watching French football or whatever.
G: What’s that podcast you listen to?
J: Do you mean Athletico Mince?
That is quite good to be fair.
J: It’s the greatest piece of art being made now I would say.