Being a fan of the British group These New Puritans means curbing your expectations on a regular basis. The band's angular, post-punk-influenced debut, Beat Pyramid, was rigorous in its attention to style and detail; on the band's next album, 2010's Hidden, the intensity was still there, but the style drifted in many directions, toward hip-hop, dub reggae and classical instrumentation. Its newest album, Field of Reeds, is wide-open — experimental, seductive and liable to shape-shift from moment to moment.
The group's leader, Jack Barnett (the two other main members are Barnett's twin brother, George, and Thomas Hein), taught himself notation, and his songs include sections for choral and string ensembles. But he resists the idea that TNP has moved in the direction of classical composition just because the group's instrumentation has changed since the days when it was lumped in with post-punk dance revivalists like Bloc Party in reviews of Beat Pyramid. Still, it's tempting to describe the confident, emotional Field of Reeds as something Radiohead might come up with if its members stopped messing around and got serious about composition.
After its release in the U.K. last year, Field of Reeds was released in the U.S. in March — both on CD and as a beautiful double LP that includes three sides of music and one side that features an etching of the band. This week, a seven-piece version of These New Puritans that Jack Barnett put together to play the songs on Field of Reeds arrived in the U.S. for just four shows, starting in New York on Wednesday. I spoke with him on the phone the next morning.
When you do a short tour like this, is it all work, or do you have time to do anything other than show up at the venue and do interviews with people like me?
It's always different. Sometimes you end up just seeing hotel-room walls and a venue. That's it. A lot of time when we go to Asia we get to spend a lot of time. That's part of the deal. We get to spend a lot of time doing things.
In the U.S. it's all business?
Actually, we've had a good time here. Also, seeing venues actually gives you a particular reality of a place as opposed to being a tourist.
The album has been out in the U.K. for almost a year. How are the songs different for you now? Does it feel like you're playing for an audience that's hearing them new?
The songs are different because we have a seven-piece band that we've been playing with. When I finished the album, I set about rearranging the songs for this lineup, and I like it when songs are alive and they change and they have different qualities to their recordings. I'm not someone who listens and thinks about recorded versions once I've done them. I like it when songs have a life of their own.
The songs on the record do feel very alive. They're constantly moving and shifting. When you are rearranging them, is there a basis for how they change? It feels like they could move off in any number of directions. Where do you start?
Well, it's very composed music. It's not improvised music. So in terms of the structure, except for a few points, they don't change hugely. More so instrumentation and things like that that changes. But there are a few points where we allow ourselves the freedom to kind of expand and contract parts of the song and take it to different places.
I have the album sitting in front of me. It's really beautiful, and feels like an object. The release in the U.S. was probably more on Soundcloud than anywhere else. Is that frustrating, or just part of reality?
I found it really strange that the record was released at a different time in America. That seems like such an anachronistic thing to do. Surely it should all be released on one day worldwide. I'm sure there are reasons. Is it frustrating? I don't think about it too much. I just think about making the music good.
If you buy the album, you do get to see the credits, including this interesting line about the opening song, which is now called "This Guy's in Love With You."
"The opening track originated from a field recording made by Jack Barnett of an amateur singer half-recalling fragments of a song. TNP were unaware of the original song until completion of recording 'The Way I Do.' Since then the trustees of Bacharach and David's songwriting material have demanded that the title of the half-recalled song be used in place of TNP's title."
Can you tell the story of how it came to be?
I was in my house, and someone I know was doing the washing up and singing that song. And in another room, I think there was a song playing on the radio. And the layout of the house means that if you're in one room you can't hear what's going on in the other. But I stood between the two rooms, and there was this incredible soundclash that sounded really stunning. So I recorded the singing and used this soundclash as the harmonic basis for the song. And I didn't know what the song was that was being sung. I didn't know until it was almost complete. I made the recording and sat down and played along to it on the piano. Once it was complete, we had to obviously get permission for the use of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David [song].
They thought it was close enough to the original that it should bear the same title?
Well, it's complicated. It's because we changed it so much that you have to seek permission to use it. And so they took all the publishing rights, which is fair enough. After all, they don't have anything to do with it personally. And so we had to change the title and use their original title, which actually I quite like. It's disarmingly direct for a These New Puritans title, and it reminds me of the American songbook or the classic songwriter era.
Reading interviews about the making of the album from last year made it sound like an incredibly involved process, if not a difficult one. A year later, is the feeling of bringing it into the world still present with you?
I don't know. It wasn't a difficult process. It was quite a long process, because it's complicated music in some ways, and there were lots of different techniques used to record things and lots of different musicians. It wasn't difficult. I never understand when people talk about writing and recording music being difficult. That's the last thing it is. We do whatever is the most fun, ultimately, as our guide. But it was a long process. But ultimately, if you're not having fun, what's the point?
Maybe meticulous, rather than difficult?
Yeah, I suppose so. But only because you have to be meticulous with all of the different sounds and that sort of thing.
Can you talk about one of those techniques you used? Tell me about the magnetic resonator piano.
The magnetic resonator piano. This was the first album to use the instrument, and we're now good friends with the inventor, Andrew McPherson. We were told about the instrument by a student of Andrew's who is a friend of Graham [Paul Sutton]'s, who produced the album. We went to the Queen Mary University, where Andrew works, and tested it out. It takes three or four hours to set up and calibrate. It sounded incredible, and it's a really beautiful instrument. It's essentially a piano which is activated by a series of magnets over the strings. Stunning instrument.
This happened quite late in the process, and every sound was accounted for except for this one sound, which is like a kind of organ sound. But we didn't want it to be an organ. We didn't know how we were going to make it. We referred to it as the un-organ. We thought we might have to do some sound design to get this sound, which is part of the compositions. In the end, it was complete luck that we were presented with the MRP.
Was it exactly the sound you were looking for?
It was exactly what we were looking for and more. We recorded for essentially 24 hours. I sat and played it. It's a completely different technique to using an actual piano. You get weird variable sounds and pitch bends, and it almost sounds like feedback, but all produced entirely acoustically. It's not an electronic instrument. It's a purely acoustic instrument activated by magnets.
It's on a couple of songs. Almost everything that you would think, "Oh, that's an electronic sound" — a lot of the time that's the MRP. It's used a lot in the song "Field of Reeds."
I was thinking about the record, and it reminded me of a song by the songwriter and producer Matthew Herbert. There's a song he has called "Something Isn't Right" where every moment in the song feels composed just for that moment. It's a very poppy song, but instruments come in for a moment and then disappear for the rest of the song — and when a refrain comes back, it'll sound just ever so slightly different, but the emotion will change. And I feel like your music, in a lot of ways, is like that taken to a different level. Songs like "Fragment Two" have hooks and melodic sensibilities, but they move from moment to moment in that way. Is that the way you see it when you're writing?
I don't have the attention span for music that apes itself. I tend to like things that shift and change. That's one of the advantages of composed music over improvised music. You can do these sudden changes where something will spin off into a different world. I like that kind of stuff musically. That's important, especially if you're going to be working on a song for a long time. I mean, it's very melodic music. Sometimes when people write about it, it sounds like they think it's almost going to be something atonal and terse, but it's actually about melody, really. Melody and harmonic stuff.
It reminds me of film scores, a little, the way the music can change on a dime and reflect different emotions. Do you pay attention to scores when you see movies?
I've been inspired by film music. The way we make the stuff has more to do with soundtrack recording than rock 'n' roll tradition. In rock 'n' roll, everyone's obsessed with warmth and distorting things, where in broadcasting, it's all about clarity, and that's really what we're interested in. Not tape effects. You always hear people banging on about "warmth," and that doesn't really interest me. And I've been inspired by film and sound effects, like foley effects.
That's been a part of your music since the beginning in different ways. I was watching early videos of your band performing, and it would have been easy to confuse you with a band that was interested in something that sounded dirty or rough, and that wasn't as interested in clarity. Was there a moment when that became the thing you were after, as opposed to warmth?
I can't really relate with my early, early stuff. That seems like a different person, a different time. I supposed it would be around the time of Hidden. I almost feel a little like Hidden is really our first album. We were very young when we made Beat Pyramid.
So was there something you figured out between those two albums?
It was more that, really, Beat Pyramid was an experiment, and it was a very narrow band of things we were doing, and a narrow band of kinds of ideas that fit into the Beat Pyramid world. And then with Hidden, everything opened up a bit more and I started using all of my ideas. And that's really the big change. Because I'd written music that was more like Hidden or Field of Reeds before Beat Pyramid, but it just didn't seem to fit with the Beat Pyramid world, which is to say very narrow frequency range.
As a listener, it's easy to see why people would, as you were saying, describe your music as difficult or terse. It's relatively easy to draw a linear pattern between Beat Pyramid and Hidden and Field of Reeds in terms of the slow draining out of explicit, beat-driven rhythm. Hidden is a sparer record than Beat Pyramid, and Field of Reeds does feel more like the high end is taking the lead rather than those beats. But it sounds like your experience of it is not anywhere near as linear as it is for a listener who is just connecting those three dots.
You're probably right. Rhythm is still important in Field of Reeds, but it'll just be in other instruments than the drums a lot of times.