Interview: Field Music
Published on May 9th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
In this March interview, we asked Sweet Billy Pilgrim main man Tim Elsenburg which five artists’ back catalogues he would take with him if he had to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, and amongst his picks was Sunderland duo Field Music. This is what he said:
I think they’re pretty much untouchable in terms of modern pop music. They can have a song with the most heartbreakingly beautiful chorus, and they’ll only do it once, end the song in two minutes, and it’s not too bloody-minded because you can see they’re going somewhere else. Everything is there for a reason, poised and perfect, they don’t overload stuff, there’s not too many layers. It’s deceptively complicated, but always in service of the song rather than being a ‘look how clever we are’ sort of thing.
We played with them at KOKO a few years ago, and when we turned up they stopped their soundcheck to help us unload. They’ve turned it into a sustainable business as well; they’ve got their own van, got their own gear and they book their own gigs. They were really lovely to us, and they’ve got five albums I think so they’d been good to take. I haven’t heard anything this year or last that’s better than their new album Plumb. It’s breathtaking, and I think we share a bit of common ground in terms of the way we like to do things, even if they do go in a completely different direction.
Suffice it to say, Rocksucker checked them out and are now utterly in thrall to their complex yet richly melodic three-minute dispatches of what could be described in convenient yet grossly oversimplified terms as ‘prog-pop’. Their frankly stunning fourth studio album Plumb was released in February so we’re a little bit late to the party even in that respect, but David Brewis – one half of this scarcely believable operation alongside his brother Peter – agreed to answer our enthused set of questions nonetheless. First, though, here’s a taster of the joys abundant on Plumb…
Firstly, hearty congratulations on perhaps the finest opening response I’ve ever seen in an interview…
Ha! Thanks! I’m always a bit exasperated when bands are surprised by the things they get asked in interviews given that most of it is directed there by their own press releases. The moral of the story: if you don’t like the questions, write a better press release!
You also talk there about whether or not you could be described as “prog-pop”, and for good or bad that’s one of the phrases that initially sprang to mind. But that’s also the revelation of it for me; complex music without the bombast and long running times, great songs without the concessions to formula that might eventually make them boring. Did you ever talk in even vaguely similar terms about what shape you wanted your music to take, or did it just, well, happen?
We’ve never set out specifically to make complicated music but I do like music which takes unexpected turns. I like to be surprised! For me, that doesn’t exclude pop music or a pop sensibility and almost everything we write comes from a melody and momentum driven perspective, even if we tend to avoid repetition and those same old chord changes which dominate pop music, even at the weirder end of the spectrum. I only really enjoy bombast when it’s done with humour, so I’ve got a soft spot for Queen (Mercury rather than May).
Occasionally we’ve had a explicit plan in mind; for [2010 album] Measure we were keen to embrace our love of classic rock, and with Plumb we wanted to cut down the repetition and slot the songs together in a more deliberate way, but that’s always grown out of our musical pre-occupations at that moment rather than some imposed set of rules. Essentially we’re still trying to make the kind of music we would want to listen to; it just so happens that it’s a moving target.
On the recordings, who’s handling what in terms of instrumentation? To what extent do you write separately, and together?
There’s no hard and fast rule as to who plays what on the recordings. Peter played probably 90% of the piano on the last two records (original member Andy Moore played most of the keyboards on the first two albums). I play probably 80% of the bass. Outside of that, it’s a free for all; we both play guitar and drums and sing and we’re both always desperate to dig into the percussion box. We don’t even necessarily play the same instruments on stage that we played on the recordings because it’s often not practical. I’m probably a little bit more comfortable with the mixing/engineering and Peter’s got more of a knack for string and horn arranging.
We almost always write separately. There are only a couple of examples on each record where we’ve either contributed a section to each other’s songs. A couple of times Peter’s made a song out of a riff or a melody I couldn’t do anything with.
How mathematical is your playing, if that makes sense? Are you constantly counting in your head during the more complex riffs, or is it more fluid than that, time signature not really a consideration?
I never think about time signatures when I’m writing and it’s very rare for me to have to have to count while we’re playing. If I have to count then the tune isn’t strong enough. It’s usually not until we start writing string arrangements or programming electronic sections that we find out what time signatures the songs are in. Saying all that, I studied maths at university and after a a few years of that you get a lot better at counting without consciously thinking about it so it’s possible that makes it slightly more natural for me.
Do you try to outdo each other at all in terms of writing songs and/or riffs? Do you ever find yourselves writing something so ridiculous that it just makes you burst out laughing?
All the time! Not so much in terms of complexity, more audacity! I love it when Peter writes something which sounds amazing but I just don’t get it. This time round I had those moments with both “Who’ll Pay The Bills?” and “From Hide and Seek to Heartache”. For me it’s the best compliment to see someone in the audience burst out laughing when we do one of the more outrageous manoeuvres. Likewise, when I go and see a band I want to spend at least a portion of my time shaking my head in disbelief and laughing.
Peter said this to The Stool Pigeon: “It started with this linear riff which was ambiguous harmonically. It wasn’t a definite C chord and it wasn’t a definite D chord… It shifted, like what I imagined Bernstein had taken from Stravinsky, or something like that.” Is he talking about the riff from “A New Town” here?
He’s not; he’s talking about “Start The Day Right”, though I have no idea about the chords to that song. You’re right though, the riff to “New Town” is kind of a C mixed with kind of a D which then goes to kind of an A and kind of a D. It’s an hilarious song to try and strum chords to; generally our songs become comical when you try to pin the chords down and strum them. We are definitely not a strummy band.
What else is on this forthcoming covers album of yours? Inspired choice of Beatles cover, I must say.
The choice of “Don’t Pass Me By” was accident rather than design. We did it for a Mojo covermount and by the time we were onboard all of the great songs were taken. The good thing about the Ringo number is there’s nothing to it so we could complete pull it to bits and then stick it back together without feeling like we were being sacrilegious. We went for a kind-of Beatles mash-up – if you listen closely, you can here “Blackbird”, “I Need You”, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”, “Strawberry Fields” and “Ob-La-Di” as well as the obvious “Don’t Let Me Down” thing.
We’ve also done a Leonard Cohen cover and “Terrapin” by Syd Barrett for Mojo. There’s a School of Language Roxy Music cover floating around somewhere and then two Pet Shop Boys tracks which we recorded for Record Store Day. We’re also putting together a version of John Cale song we used to cover with the Week That Was band. There should also be one or two more but we haven’t quite decided yet.
Stuff like this is good to see…
OK, here’s the deal – please don’t spend £20 on our rsd 7″ – both songs will be on our covers compilation CD and that should only be a fiver
— Field Music (@fieldmusicmusic) May 7, 2012
Does this sort of honesty come under any scrutiny from your label?
They probably see it and laugh! They know me too well to be surprised! Luckily for us, Memphis Industries have both a sense of humour and a fairly similar set of principles to us. I try not to make like too difficult for them. Obviously we have different priorities – we make the records, they have to figure out a way to sell them, poor buggers – but we never have any major fallings out. I love them. How many bands can say that?
Ridiculously early to ask I suspect (and feel free to point that out) – but have you started thinking about the next studio album yet? Do you think there’ll be any more School of Language or The Week That Was releases?
We’re both writing or at least trying to write. We’re both desperate to get in the studio recording but it’s a bit tough when we’re touring. At the moment, I’m imagining the next things we record won’t be a straight-up Field Music record. The idea of recording another School of Language is quite appealing but until I finish some songs I couldn’t say for certain. The Week That Was was definitely intended to be a standalone album but I’m sure Peter has lots of ideas which would make more sense for him to do on his own rather than with me. If Pete’s got something good he wants to do on his own, I’m happy just to press record.
Which festivals are you particularly looking forward to playing this summer? The line-up for Primavera is particularly mind-blowing.
Primavera should be good although I have to rush off after we play for my best mate’s wedding. I’m looking forward to the festival straight after that in Dublin, Forbidden Fruit, and Green Man is always good. In fact, we’re only doing nice festivals – I think everybody realises that the Reading-type mega-fest doesn’t really suit us so we end up at smaller festivals with carefully put-together line-ups and delicious food stalls.
What do you think of The Futureheads’ a capella album?
Some of it is amazing and all of it is interesting. I’d urge anyone to go and see them do the a cappella stuff live if they get the chance. I wish they’d been able to get through the recording quicker – it seemed like a slightly bitty process what with running Split Festival and Jaff starting University and Hyde & Beast touring – but that’s mainly because as a fan I want them to get on with writing new music.
Which is your favourite Beastie Boys record?
Probably Hello Nasty. It came along at the right time for me to appreciate it and the density of ideas and the playfulness still appeal. We went to Manchester to see them in the round on that tour and they were incredible.
How did the Centre For Lifelong Learning’s Explore speech go?
Well, it was less of a speech and more of a nice chat. There were maybe only 10 people there and mostly friends – lots of discussion about the nature of creativity and whether creative drive can be resilient once you let creations out into the world. Luckily for me, Paul Smith from Maximo Park came along, and I hope he wouldn’t mind me saying it, but I think we have quite similar principles and drive. Of course, our experiences with the music industry and with audiences are quite different, so we could look at the same ideas from different viewpoints.
I felt like there were a few people there who were trying to confront the same problems and being quite open and self-critical about it might have been helpful or interesting. However, I’m not much of a public speaker so I don’t think it’ll be something I make a habit of.
Are there any up-and-coming acts that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
I’m probably not a good person to ask about ‘up-and-coming’. There have been a few bands I’ve enjoyed live in the last couple of years and a few records I really like by bands who should be more widely known. Medications‘ last album Completely Removed is a favourite of mine and I can see lots of parallels between what we do and what they do even if the aesthetic is a bit different.
We played with a guy called John Wood in LA in 2010 – he’s done a whole series of albums called Learning Music Monthly, which he did as an album-a-month project and contains more interesting music than most bands will manage in a lifetime or two. He also works with a band called Mad Gregs who are really good.
I recently heard some recordings by a band from Dundee called Art of The Memory Palace and I’m excited to see them live.
Also I’ve been listening to a record called Distract Engage by a guy from Ottawa called Estan Beedell; he’s a little bit disparaging about the recording quality but again it’s full of interesting ideas. It reminds me of the more outré end of baroque-pop, bands like Montage or the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band.
We toured with a band called Stealing Sheep earlier this year and they were amazing live so I’m pretty excited to hear their new album too.
Finally, if you were forced to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, but were allowed to bring the entire works of five different artists along to tide you over, whose would you choose?
I’d have to go with the prolific ones. The Beatles, David Bowie, Prince and Bob Dylan are pretty easy picks for me. With just one more slot, it’s a bit tricky. Even though it means missing out The Band, Big Star, Roxy Music and The Velvet Underground, I’d probably go for Miles Davis because there’s such a breadth to it and sometimes I just don’t want to hear guitars and singing.
David Brewis, thank you.