Progress Report: Field Music

Name: Field Music
Progress Report: David Brewis discusses the making of Field Music’s forthcoming 2012 release, Plumb.

As far as I’m concerned, Field Music (a.k.a. Sunderland, England, siblings Peter and David Brewis) is arguably one of the most criminally underrated bands in the world. Like a hybrid of every great 120 Minutes-era jangly post-punk band from the late ’80s, Field Music make music that is melodic, harmonic, and nerdishly smart. The band’s previous albums, particularly 2007’s Tones of Town, offer some of the most catchy and wonderfully brainy English indie-pop since XTC released Skylarking back in 1986. Next February Field Music will release their fourth album, Plumb — a reported return to the loose, fragmented style of the band’s early work. Earlier this month we were offered up a preview in the form of excellent new track “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing” which is currently available as a free download via the band’s website. You’ll have to wait until next year to hear the rest of the record, but in the interim I called up David Brewis at his home in Sunderland to find out about the the new album and just how Plumb came together.

STEREOGUM: Hey David. Thanks for chatting. I know you are currently very busy trying to wrap up things with the new record.

DAVID: No problem. It’s nice to get out of the studio and have a break.

STEREOGUM: How is everything going? Are you working out of your own studio?

DAVID: Yeah, we’ve got our own space and we’ve ended up doing everything ourselves — including mixing, recording and mastering. I’m on the third round of mastering today, which is the advantage of doing everything ourselves. I can have another go at the master and we can take it home and then start again if need be.

STEREOGUM: What has transpired since the release of Measure last year?

DAVID: We did probably more touring for the last record than we’ve ever done before. The touring didn’t really stop until last December. Then we had to move studios — we had been in the same practice space, which we shared with the Futureheads, for about ten years but that building was closed so we had to find a new space. We built a studio with a couple of rooms. That took a while and in the process of doing that I trapped a nerve in my elbow which meant the little finger side of my right hand went numb and stayed numb until I stopped using my right arm entirely. It’s still not one hundred percent but it really effected the first three or four months of this year. I couldn’t really play anything or type. It was probably the most frustrating period of my entire life. Since then we’ve been recording. At the moment, because we’ve had the last two or three months to work, we’ve got an album nearly ready. We’ve been very focused on that. Pete has been busy with some bits of work for this mental health arts project in Manchester. We did collaboration with this Norwegian band called Jaga Jazzist, which was really interesting. It involved the two of us flying to Bergen and meeting them there, having a couple of practices and then doing a gig in a huge hole. And they’re like a nine piece band, along with the two of us, some guys from Tortoise and a pianist from Los Angeles. So it was quite a big band and good fun. I think the only proper Field Music show we’ve done this year was at Primavera sound in Barcelona. So it feels like we’ve been busy.

STEREOGUM: Is the lineup now the same as for the last record?

DAVID: Well when it comes to the recording for quite awhile now it’s only been Peter and me in the studio. So the first two records we were kind of closer to being a trio with a friend of ours from school who is a wonderful piano player but he didn’t have the time to do it anymore. He also may have been fed up with being bossed around by Peter and I in the studio. We’ve taken in turns to being incredibly dictatorial. Then as of doing the last record we’re like ‘Bloody hell we’re going to have to go up and play!’ so Kev who had played piano and guitar in the Week that Was band stayed on with us. Because he was determined as we are not to have a 9 to 5 office job. And we got a friend of ours in to play bass. Unfortunately he’s not be able to do the next record so we’ve just been finishing bass auditions. It’s the first time we’ve ever done any kind of audition in order to really ready to get a touring band together, but I think anyone who does it have an idea of how Peter and I work. Which is pretty much along the lines of “if you want to remain our friend it’s best if you don’t come anywhere near the studio when we’re in there.” We’d be horrible to work with in the studio for any outsider, really.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel like the way you work together has evolved over time?

DAVID: I would say “more refined over time” rather than “evolved.” It’s like we gradually figured out the ways not to piss each other off and we’ve gotten better at that. We still do, but less than we used to. We generally don’t write together at all and it’s generally not until we’re ready with a song that we bring it to the studio or if one of us gets stuck we help each other problem solve.

STEREOGUM: Does it ever become a struggle when you have a lot of songs to decide whose songs are going to make the record?

DAVID: I don’t think we’ve had that problem up until now. Generally there’s never been a point where Peter has said I don’t want that song of yours on the album or vice versa. I’ve never said that to him. We tend to be hyper critical of our own songs and to a certain extent we acquiesce to each other in the way bands do with each other. We try to figure out what the other person is going for and give them some room to make it work. I don’t like to argue for the sake of it and luckily we’re coming up to making our fourth album and with each one there’s been an idea at the beginning of the kind of thing we want to do. It’s always changed as we’ve gone on, but it does mean to a certain extent we’re going in the same direction.

STEREOGUM: Did you guys always make music together?

DAVID: Yeah from when we started it just makes sense when you were small and you don’t have a lot of friends who play music and you can’t pick and choose. You just get stuck with each other. Also we’re quite similar in age, so at the time we started making music very seriously we had to play together because there wasn’t anybody else good around. We had a long break from trying to do the band as a democracy and from about 1998 to 2003 where we said ‘OK we’ll play with each other in a band but we can’t do a band where we try to make decisions collectively, which was probably a very sensible thing to do. Field Music has been the story of us trying to figure out how to make collective decisions.

STEREOGUM: I find that so fascinating.

DAVID: I’m not sure how anybody does a band with anything like a democracy. Most of what we do is whoever originated the song has veto and is in charge, which is great in a studio if one of us just had to be sent out of the room. Like, “Go and buy me a sandwich while I finish this song and you’re not here.” It becomes a bit more difficult on stage figuring out how we’re going to do things live. We can’t have two bands live — that would be impractical — so there’s a lot of negotiation figuring out what will be practical in that setting.

STEREOGUM: Do you have a sense of how this new record is different than the other ones?

DAVID: There’s one very telling statistic from the new record, which is that the last one was twenty songs and seventy minutes this new one is about thirty-five minutes and fifteen songs. It’s definitely got a lot of shorter songs. We talked about doing something where we didn’t try to make the structures of the songs normal if it wasn’t what they naturally wanted to be. Most people do songs and they’re between two and a half to five minutes long and they have two or three verses and three or four choruses and another section. Well, not every bit of music needs to be that so that was foremost in our minds when we started doing it. I think we both felt that Measure had a lot kind of normal songs to it, pretty much as normal as our songs get. It’s not like that as much now. There are still some songs with normal structures, but there are a few things that are forty or fifty seconds long and combine with other tracks and it kind of flows differently. Peter has been really kind of having a musical theatre, twentieth century film and music renaissance. I think if we tallied it up the record the two of us would probably find the most inspiring right now is the soundtrack to the original Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. The music to that film is just superb; it’s interesting looking at the way it’s been done — the synth modernist compositions. It’s probably the one place where all of the dissonances and experiments of modernist classical music is available to the general public. I suppose we found those types of things inspiring. That’s what happened to that kind of music and where it can meet listeners in a more general way. There’s a bit of that and it ties into things that are structurally quite different. You listen to a soundtrack album and not every piece has to be turned into a song–every piece of music just has to fit something.

STEREOGUM: Did that idea sort of serve as a guiding principle to what you were doing?

DAVID: I think so, certainly at the beginning. What’s always happened with us is that each record is part a progression from the last and part dialectic opposite of the last. So with this one it’s just a straight progression, but in other ways we really looked back to our first record and structurally the songs are quite odd or the way the parts work together are odd. Certain songs are constructed in an incredibly modular way –- rather than flowing into the next section –- it was just like {we’ll do this then this and not repeat anything was the way we did the first album” and I think we wanted to have a bit more of that. I think especially because when you play live certain conventions really work, like a three and a half minute long song works live in a way that a minute long song never can, but we’re making records not songs to play live and I think it’s one of the things that can make a lot of bands records quite boring. You know that for every song they’ve either wanted it to be the kind can be played on the radio or the song that’s going to get live audiences into their set. There are loads of other types of music than that. We’ll find a way to make it all work live, but that shouldn’t be the guiding principal. You know, where we feel the need to have those kick ass anthems where they’re going to get everyone jumping up and down? I mean we just don’t do that sort of thing; it would be a waste of our time.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, I think you’re right. A lot of bands do that and think about it a lot. But I think that everything should be in service of the album and you should never really think about how you’re going to play them live, that’s something you work out later when you’re going to go on tour.

DAVID: Yeah I think that’s a trap a lot of bands fall into, especially after you get three or four albums in. I can totally empathize with why bands end up doing that. Especially now that there’s an economic imperative to do that since there’s much less money in making and selling records. Why spend loads of time making something which isn’t going to help in your day job, which is basically going out and playing live? Again that sort of thing doesn’t make any different to us since we don’t make any money anyway.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned the struggle is to always figure out a way to be able to do this for a living and not have a day job or not have a job you have to quit when going on tour. It sounds like you’ve mostly managed to do that?

DAVID: Just about, you know we live very frugally and we live somewhere very cheap and we wouldn’t have been able to keep making music if we moved to London -– we just couldn’t afford it. We also have incredibly understanding wives and I think that’s probably the most important aspect.

STEREOGUM: Is the record almost done then?

DAVID: I’m really hoping that the record would be finished today unless I have to do the fourth draft of the mastering. The record is basically done. This week has been tweaking the master. Pete is working on the artwork, which hopefully will be done in a week or so. Aiming to get it out in the beginning of February, which would be good since it would be just less than two years since the last album came out. I think two years is too long for a wait between albums. I think two years would indicate we’d forgotten to write songs or were too old to write songs now … which would be very disappointing.

STEREOGUM: Does that mean your 2012 will most likely be spent on the road?

DAVID: I don’t think we’re going to tour anywhere near as much as we did last year. I think last year was kind of the maximum we would consider doing. I think we did 85 or 90 shows across the year. You know that doesn’t make us James Brown or anything, but that’s probably too much for a studio band. So I don’t know, I think we’ve been around too long to do that thing of we’ll just play everywhere to build up an audience. I don’t think we’re building up an audience by playing live so much anymore — I mean a little bit, but not worth the financial and emotional cost of doing it.

STEREOGUM: Yeah.

DAVID: So we’ll see, there are definitely certain places we’re keen to go back to and I’m looking forward to kind of trying all the new songs live. We’re going to start rehearsing them next week. So that’s definitely exciting — but what next year will bring? I don’t know. I’m really trying to figure out ways to write and record while we’re busy with the live band and I find it impossible to write when I am away. Maybe because when we’re away I’m never ever on my own. Maybe for thirty minutes each morning when I get up earlier than everyone else and have a coffee and read the newspaper, but it’s just those thirty minutes I don’t really feel like I’ve got the time to write the next batch of songs in that time. So next year is going to be about figuring out how to use the time when we’re at home more efficiently or somehow getting over the post-tour blues quicker than we usually do. Since it’s always the case when you’re away for a few weeks it takes a few days to get back into the normal swing of things return to a normal life and routine. So I’m going to have to figure out how to do that soon or otherwise it’s going to be another two years before we have another record and that would just be devastating.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, so many of my friends are in bands and everyone has to overcome that inertia of being back home. It’s a weird thing.

DAVID: Yeah, it’s not like I am particularly enamored with touring, I really love being at home but there’s always those four or five days of decompression where you’re just no use to anyone let alone yourself. I think to a certain extent I need to get into a routine of writing before the record comes out. If anything it will be the most dead time but my list of things to do is still huge: mastering for the CD, mastering for the final mixes, got to figure out how we’re going to do the synths live and start rehearsing with the band but somehow in amongst that I have to start sitting with my guitar at home and start writing again, but we’ll see. I’m really determined but I’ve failed at doing it so many times I’m before I’m beginning to think it’s futile. Fingers crossed!

Plumb is out in February 2012 from Memphis Industries.

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Comments (2)
  1. Amen — Field Music are putting out some of the smartest, and catchiest guitar-based rock music in ages. They sound nothing like any of their peers (at least not in this era), which is probably why they are so short on attention. I wish more people knew about them. Huge talent. Great live band too.

  2. can’t wait for this album.

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