About 15 minutes into this interview, Peter Brewis, co-founder of Field Music, said something that genuinely took me aback. Not some revelation about a childhood trauma that he’d repressed until recently. Not some terrible allegation against an Oscar-nominated actor. Not even a confession of flicking his brother and band-mate David’s ears on the way to school. It was this:
“We’re a rock band, and we approach Field Music like a rock band.”
Since 2004, Field Music have been gently subverting pop music until it resembles something new and thrilling. On their current album Open Here, the ratio of flute solos to guitar solos is approximately 7:1 in favor of the flute. The beat may be 4/4 but syncopation and a Philip Glass attitude, make it a little more difficult to dance to than, say, Nickleback. As the noted popular music historian, S’chn T’gai Spock once (almost) said, “It’s rock music Jim, but not as we know it…”
Formed in Sunderland, UK some 14 years ago, the band is currently basking in the glow of the acclaim for their new album Open Here. That doesn’t seem to have phased Peter Brewis, but then, neither did the demolition of the bands HQ and recording studio, the minutiae of the recording process or even who will be in the band (“about eight of us, I think”) when they start a UK tour. When PopMatters asked him if all these plaudits put the band under pressure, his response was his typical combination of humility and down-to-earth practicality:
“No. God no. I’d much prefer that than the alternative,” he starts. “I can’t speak for Dave, but when we finish something, I’m more relieved that we’ve made something that we both like — it’s almost a bit of a surprise when we get the reviews in. It’s not that we don’t care: I do care, but I don’t realize I do care until the reviews come in! I’m not sitting around thinking, ‘I wonder if someone is going to like this?’
I don’t even mind bad reviews; we’ve had some really terrible reviews for records which I don’t mind because at least we’ve provoked a reaction, but when they’re ‘Meh, not really bothered” — I don’t like that. I don’t think good reviews put any pressure on us because we put pressure on ourselves to make good music and fit it together into a good record that works as a whole. That’s not always easy because me and Dave write separately and then come together. I’m pleased with the new one. I thought it was a good as anything we’d done, which is good considering we’re getting on a bit, [laughs] both as people and as a band.”
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Weirdly, people still think of you as a new band but you formed in 2004.
Yeah, we got together just to make a record – we weren’t meant to be a band. We got together to record some songs with a schoolmate, and after a slow start, we’re still here. I’m still surprised when people have heard of us.
Is this the last record to be recorded at your old studio and office on an industrial estate in Sunderland?
Yes, we’ve moved out — we’ve gone. FMHQ is due to be demolished in the next couple of weeks.
That pretty final. Is it the end of an era?
Yeah, kind of. Strangely, I wasn’t that sad to leave the place. There are worse things to be sad about, I suppose.
I look forward to the unveiling of the blue English Heritage plaque on whatever is built on the site of your old studio. There’s one on Strawberry Studios in Manchester.
I don’t know about that: there might be a blue recycling bin with our name on, but I don’t know about a heritage plaque.
Apparently, you prepared for Commontime, your last record, by listening to the Hall and Oates back catalogue. How did you get ready for Open Here? Protracted listening parties comprising of nothing but records by Seals and Crofts and Loggins and Messina?
We prepared for Commontime by listening to the music that our kids wanted to listen to. They’re not really into Stockhausen and Thelonious Monk, so it was Hall and Oates, David Bowie, Prince (that’s what our kids were into at the time) — the big tunes. My son has a Graceland fixation: he just wants to listen to that. I’ve grown to really like that album. But Dave and I have really liked Hall and Oates since we were kids. They’re one of our favourite bands — along with Wet Wet Wet.
Your kids have pretty refined tastes.
My son really likes Bowie, but he’s not given an opportunity to listen to anything too bad. He loves the Beatles as well, but if I gave him a best of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman, he’d love that too. He would find something in it, and I think that there’s a lesson to be learned in that. That was the lesson we were trying to learn when we did Commontime. We really do love pop music and that love of pop is still there on the new one, as well — maybe in a slightly different way, but I think the issues that we were dealing with on this one maybe didn’t lend themselves so much to a pop approach.
The joys of parenthood and coming to terms with aging were themes of the last record, but this one seems darker and more concerned with global events.
The things that have been going on in the world and personal events have made Dave and I react in different ways. Dave got incredibly angry, and I got a little bit sad — quite down. Despite the anger and sadness, we tried to make a record where the songs were like spells to get rid of some of those things. I think we succeeded in that.
Do you feel as writers that you are duty bound to write about those subjects? I mean, you could have gone the other way and written 40 minutes of relentlessly upbeat tunes about inconsequential fluff to counter it all?
I don’t think we felt that we had to address that stuff. Dave and I make notes all the time about what’s going on, and we looked at them, and we couldn’t ignore what was happening. We’re not like a pop band: we’re a rock band, and we approach Field Music like a rock band — everyone misses out that. What we are into is rock music, the idea of rock music, and that can be as far-flung as Led Zeppelin and The Beatles — they were rock bands. We approach things as a rock band or as makers of rock records anyway.
You’re called a lot of things, but very rarely are you called a “rock” group. “Pop-prog” gets used a lot. Are you just a long-haired, flared-jean-wearing, ELP fan in spirit?
I like some things that are kind of prog. I like it when the Beatles go prog and a lot of King Crimson stuff — the three periods of King Crimson: the “Red” era, the “Discipline” era and the “Court of the Crimson King” stuff.
The way you layer instruments and riffs reminds me a lot of early ’80s King Crimson.
I can see that: and a bit of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell. They can get pretty prog, and they’re all big influences on us. I never got into Yes and that sort of thing, but I’m sure there are things in there that I’d like, but I’m not a fan of complexity for complexities sake. I quite like the proggy end of 10CC like “Don’t Hang Up” from How Dare You — it’s a masterpiece. That’s definitely something we aspire too. And Prince got proggy while having a 4/4 beat; that’s something that Dave suggested. He said, “Let’s see what we can do with that!” Although saying that, I’ve got no idea what goes through David’s mind …
You mentioned Stockhausen earlier and that, combined with your prog rock leanings makes me think you must also listen to a lot of classical music?
Definitely. We grew up listening to things like the audiobook versions of Treasure Island, Wind in the Willows, and Swiss Family Robinson and they all had famous orchestral pieces to accompany them. I went to bed every night listening to these tapes. I was a bit of an insomniac, so I listened to Beethoven’s Fifth most nights without even knowing it. Mendelssohn, Vivaldi — I was always attracted to that. I studied music at University, although I was a pretty bad student. Fortunately, I made lots of notes, so when I want to nick a riff from Stravinsky, I can go and do it.
Your string arrangements sound like they are part of the tunes, not just pasted on to show how important and serious you are.
I think we’ve got better at doing them. I never liked the idea of grafting string arrangements on. Dave loves the Left Banke and the Beatles and things like that. Kate Bush was brilliant at that too. Use the instruments for composition, not just for texture.
Would you ever work with an outside producer?
Yeah, but it depends on who it is. It would have to be somebody whose records we thought were great, but I don’t think we’d be able to afford it! And we have a lot of fun just messing about — trying things out, anyway. In the place we had a few years ago, we ended up using the ladies loo as an echo chamber. We used it for at least three albums. You’d get different reverb times by opening the doors. You couldn’t use the men’s as the cistern was on a timer for the urinals. The new place has got a tiled stairwell, so we’re looking forward to sticking microphones in there. We really like using the environment in wherever we record. Dave is a lot better at the technical side than I am and we always change things around. We ended up using a load of old, mid-price microphones on Open Here.
If you used a producer, do you think you’d take direction well?
Hmm … I’m not sure. [laughs]
I love all those stories about how Todd Rundgren and Andy Partridge were on the verge of killing each other when Todd produced XTC’s Skylarking album.
I’m not a massive XTC fan, but I really like Drums and Wires and Skylarking and I like Todd. It’s a great album. I’ve got a book with all the projects he’s been involved in — he’s really funny. It would be great to get Todd in to produce us.
I think you have to go to Woodstock and live in a shack in his back garden if you record in his studio.
Yeah, let’s do that! If we could afford him…which we can’t!
Surely your record label, Memphis Industries, have his number?
I doubt it — I don’t even think they’ve got mine!
It’s time for the inevitable “siblings” question: are you competitive?
Yeah, a little bit. Actually, not a little bit: it’s more a case of not wanting to let him down. When we do out separate things, Dave comes up with a great School of Language (Dave Brewis’ side project which has made two albums to date) album, and I think “God, I’ve got to do something really good now.” It is competitive, but it never gets nasty
It’s been ten years since your solo project, The Week That Was. Are you dusting off the outtakes for a legacy edition or working on anything outside of Field Music?
Well, I’m just finishing up an album I’ve been making with Sarah Hayes from Admiral Fallow. She’s kind of a folk musician, and she’s played on some Field Music stuff. I met her doing a Kate Bush thing. I thought we could do a The Week That Was record, but as an English Folk Rock thing. There’s elements of Fairport and Richard and Linda Thompson, elements of the Blue Nile and Kate Bush. I’ve been working on that for the last six months while finishing off the Field Music album — trying to get as much done as possible before the studio got knocked down.
Nothing like a deadline to sharpen the senses …
They might have bulldozed it with me in it if I hadn’t got it finished!
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It’s not difficult to picture that last image. Brewis with the headphones tightly clamped to his head, brow furrowed, as he ponders which microphone will work best with the bassoon section and how far to open the door of the toilet to get the optimum reverb effect. Is that rock and roll? Probably not. It’s Field Music, which is like rock and roll, but better.