The Brewis brothers are not ones for following the rules and expectations of the music industry. Their last album as Field Music, the not-quite-eponymously-titled Field Music (Measure), was a massive double album packed to bursting point with ideas.
Hot on its heels (within pretty much exactly two years) comes Plumb, an album that contains a similar degree of ambition and inspiration in half the amount of time. It’s a recklessly confusing, brilliantly enjoyable but mercilessly concise statement that might well be the best summation of Field Music’s distinctive approach yet. There are numerous about turns and unexpected gear shifts, but also a natural and unforced pop sensibility that ably supports their more adventurous tendencies.
In conversation, David Brewis is keen to emphasise the band’s individuality. “From our very first dalliances in the music industry, we were very wary of following conventions that got in the way of making music. People making any kind of art should feel free to follow what they care about. If you have a pigeon hole and that is part of the promotion of your band, it can be problematic. It can be a massive hindrance to take commercial considerations into account.”
With that in mind, could the brief duration of Plumb be seen as a conscious reaction to the sprawling nature of its predecessor? David agrees, with refreshing candour. “Once we’ve done something, it’s very natural for us to get a bit restless and want to do something different.” Some bands seem to reject any notion they think that carefully about what they are doing, seeing planning and thinking as counter-intuitive. “I think it would be pretty dishonest for us to say that. If you’re going to put months of work into making an album, it’s got to be right.”
It does not take long to establish just how independently-minded and creative Field Music are. So much so that just as they were poised to join a massive tour as support to Snow Patrol, they (temporarily, as it transpired) abandoned their Field Music moniker and returned as two separate projects, School Of Language and The Week That Was. David Brewis suggests the bold move was actually quite ‘scary’ at the time. “We really wanted to get people to think about us in a different way. We were very keen to take the opportunity to get off the indie treadmill. We were told it would be commercial suicide, but as a result I think people now appreciate that we’re not commercially minded. We’re really trying to be honest to the music and not be driven by financial motivations.”
Perhaps the band’s geographical approach has also informed their approach? Remaining in the North East, they have resolutely refused to relocate to London in order to get closer to the industry. “The distance that we have from the music industry is quite useful for us. It means that we don’t have to do certain things.” Such as? “Well, we can afford to work in our own studio and we don’t have to ask our label for big chunks of money for this, that and the other. We’ve managed to make six albums all in our studio and now we even master them ourselves as well. We don’t have to chase hype and we’re very lucky to be with Memphis Industries, who really appreciate the way in which we want to work.”
Brewis sounds increasingly thankful and aware of his quality of life. “We’re incredibly lucky to be able to do this for a living – we should see it as a privilege that we can talk about our music.” That, in itself, ought to be music to any journalist’s ears.
“The distance that we have from the music industry is quite useful for us. It means that we don’t have to do certain things” – David Brewis
Is it possible that one of Field Music’s goals is to somehow make less commercial music more accessible? Brewis thinks slightly differently. “The general listening public’s taste is wider than the promotion industry believes it to be. Even with broadsheets, people are very restricted as to how they can talk about music. It’s even more of a problem with radio – anything esoteric is seen as a bad move commercially.” Surely, now, things are starting to change with a more rapid progression? “Well, I see further fragmentation over the next ten years, with one media industry that is all about the biggest things and a growing number of pockets that present things in a different way. There’s now a big difference between those artists selling in the hundreds of thousands and everybody else. I actually think a lot of bands come unstuck by worrying too much about getting into the bigger division, instead of working out how they can become sustainable.”
It’s a fascinating and informed perspective. To what extent do the band’s working methods on the actual music itself fit in to their sense of identity, and their perceptions of their place in the industry? The Brewis brothers have always worked together on their recordings – even performing on each other’s projects as School Of Language and The Week That Was – yet they have never made any secret of the fact that they are not collaborative writers. “The fact that we write alone means that we have a much clearer vision of what we want the end result to be,” explains David. “In a democratic band, making huge left turns and discontinuities is actually incredibly difficult. By writing separately, we make sure that we keep moving.”
It transpires this process became even more pronounced in the making of Plumb. “This album actually came about from us having loads of fragments of music that didn’t necessarily lend themselves to becoming three and a half minute pop songs.” Whilst this is certainly true – the album contains some oddly abrupt moments and interludes – it’s not an entirely accurate summation of the record’s shape and sound. Some songs (A New Town in particular) are actually remarkably insistent and catchy. “Ah”, says David, “you’ve just picked the one song that very much does not adhere to that template and, actually, there is a difference with my songs. My songs tend to be less fragmented. On the whole, though, we were trying to make something where the structures were more modular.” What does that mean, exactly? He pauses for a while, before elaborating. “Something where individual parts are self contained, and don’t necessarily lead obviously to the next section.”
In the end, physical constraints actually made the contrast between David’s approach to songwriting and that of his brother more marked. “I actually trapped a nerve in my arm whilst building the new studio and I couldn’t play,” he explains. “I could only play very simple, repetitive things on the guitar and I couldn’t play drums at all. I had to learn to brush my teeth and shave with my left hand.” The experience sounds horrendous, particularly for anyone who lives and breathes music, but perhaps having to restrict some musical choices turned out to be liberating? “I wish it had felt like that but in reality it was absolutely maddening. However, I think it probably has worked out well for the record as a whole. It’s good that there are three or four songs there which allow themselves to sit in a particular rhythm.”
There are other aspects of Plumb that feel like fresh musical territory for the band. They are renowned as intellectual songwriters, something playfully deconstructed in the album’s concluding track (I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing, but it often feels like Plumb is a more personal, even melancholy statement. The liberal use of strings informs this – but there must be more to it than that. “I think so, yes”, David tentatively agrees, “but I don’t think we’ve always been that good at capturing the atmospheres that the songs needed. I felt like this when Tones Of Town (the band’s second album) came out. To me, that felt like a very downcast and negative album lyrically, but people described it as ‘upbeat, cheery pop’.” It must be one of the more frustrating aspects to being a musician when your work is misinterpreted so flagrantly. “Yes, for sure,” he agrees, “but it’s one of the things we just have to work with. “One day I might write a thesis about it but I’d have to stop making records!”
On which note, what will the next move be for Field Music? Is there any chance of the School Of Language and The Week That Was projects being revived? “I think the next thing we do probably won’t be a normal Field Music record. I think it’s good and healthy for us to take occasional breaks from that. Musically, sometimes my brother and I draw towards each other and sometimes we pull apart. I think (Measure) was an example of us drawing together, and this new album sees us pulling apart a bit.” It seems this openness and honesty allows the brothers to continue to pursue their own individual agendas without a substantial falling out. Whatever guise their working relationship assumes, it is impossible to second guess the outcome of the Brewis brothers’ restless artistic drive. It is precisely this that, with some degree of irony, makes them such a rare and valuable commodity.
Field Music’s Plumb is out on 13 February 2012 through Memphis Industries, featuring the single (I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing. The band are touring the UK during February. More info on field-music.co.uk.