These New Puritans – Interview

These New PuritansWhilst still at school twin brothers George and Jack Barnett formed These New Puritans in 2006, along with Thomas Hein. Electronica, synth pop, and orchestral music informs their dark, panoramic music, and has resulted in four albums, the most recent album Inside the Rose recorded largely in Berlin, in an old studio which was used by the communist East Germans for propaganda purposes. Berlin is where Jack has made his home, and he took some time from band rehearsals to chat with Jeff Hemmings about the album, the studio, their music making process, the forthcoming tour, and comparisons with Bros!

Inside the Rose is your first album for nearly six years. What’s been happening in the interim?
We toured the album and did a few large scale festival shows, partly orchestral, 60-65 people on stage, and that took a bit of work. And then I started writing in Essex before I moved to Berlin. It took a while to set up a new studio, in a former communist recording facility. It was basically a propaganda studio, and probably one of the best orchestra studios in Europe. It was a bit run down when we got there. The rooms we had were radio play rooms, with all sorts of phoney sounds effects; staircases that lead to nowhere, so you can record people going up and down the stairs. And doors that open to nothing, so that when they were doing radio plays they could have the sound of a door opening and closing.

And then the longer you spend, you think what’s the harm in spending another six months to really get it right. There’s no point spending this time and do something you are not happy with.

Also, there’s Tom – who was a founder member with me and my brother, when we were at school – he’s now left. He’s pursuing computational neuroscience, tinkering about with brains. That slows things down a bit. With two people it becomes a bit more democratic. Which is good – I think it has enhanced the music – but it’s a slower process than just working on your instincts, which is what we did previously.

You also recently produced the music for a stage adaptation of Brave New World.
It was a real blast. Usually when you make an album, then it’s your work, you’re attached to it. This was for someone else. Someone else had the final word, and we found that quite liberating. We produced lots and lots of music really quickly. It’s fun to be able to sit in on rehearsals and watch the actors run through it. My role was very technical – ‘this bit needs to be louder’ or ‘this bit needs to be quieter’ or ‘no music on this bit.’

How will you do the new album live?
Live, we’re a four piece band. We are just in rehearsals at the moment. I’m quite excited by it. There really is no hope in replicating the album. It’s not what we wanted to do, it’s more about re-imaging the songs. The beauty of the studio is that you do things that are impossible to do live. Live, it’s all about the experience. There’s vibraphones, and drums. It’s a good line up, it’s agile, and powerful, I think. I also like the fact there’s moments of brutality and ferocity that co-exist with moments of real stillness and calm. I always like that kind of thing.

Tell me about the processes of making this album.
We started recording the drums. Always before we start, everything is written, in black and white. We recorded the drums in London, then we did the strings and brass, which always takes time to arrange. It’s like when they do the big car chase, the big explosion in the film, you can only do this explosion once, really. You got to get it right, you prepare a lot beforehand. That’s what classical sessions are like, you prepare right down to the last minute detail. About 50% of the album was recorded in two weeks, but it’s always the last ten percent which is the most difficult, that takes the time.

We had about a 20 piece string ensemble, plus trumpets, trombones, French horns. I played the piano and vibraphone, stuff like that. The strings and brass were recorded in Germany.

With German musicians?
There was some people we know, an ensemble called Stargaze, with a conductor called Andre de Ridder. They took the time to get it right. With classical sessions it’s very militant, you have three hours to do this, three hours to do that, then we leave, or we call the union. Which I can understand, but they were very kind with us, and the amount of time they gave.

We’ve used classical ensembles before, but when we first started it was the confidence and self-belief that comes with ignorance, but now I think we are now starting to know what we are doing.

You seem to really immerse yourself in the recording process.
I love making music, I love recording music. But when you’re in these high pressure sessions, you are really just thinking about making it right. You can’t fully enjoy it at the time. But there are far worse ways to make a living!

What do you like best about music making?
My favourite moment of being a musicians is the very moment you’re writing a song, it has this infinite potential, perfect in that moment. The further you get away from that, the more you have to deal with reality, and practicalities. But, I’m also really looking forward to playing live more than ever. When we first started we hadn’t thought much about playing live, because it was just us recording in our Mum’s house when we were teenagers. Playing live is a much bigger part of the band now.

What does Inside the Rose mean?
For me it makes me think of one moment or a personal experience that completely envelopes you and becomes your world. There is no clear explanation, and if there was I probably wouldn’t want to tell people. I always think the best stuff is very clear but also very mysterious. That’s the art I like the most. Things like William Blake, Francis Bacon.

The track ‘Where The Trees Are On Fire’ is very evocative and moving, I think.
I like the simplicity of it. In my head, it’s like a crooner song. I dreamt most of that song. I used to dream music a lot! I don’t so much any more. That melody and most of the lyrics I dreamt when I was living in Westcliffe, before I moved to Berlin. There was me and a couple of my childhood friends walking along, and we saw these trees on fire, and this music started playing. I used to have a dictaphone by my bed, to sing into. I sang the melody and the words into that, and the next morning wrote most of the chords to it, and the lyrics. I think it turned out well. A lot of music I dreamt would be terrible. It would be second rate pub rock, or 80s synth pop. The moment you dream, you think, ‘Wow, this is incredible’, but by the time you’ve woken up, you’ve completely lost it.

How do you and your brother write, together or separately?
Me mostly write separately. We did some lyric writing together. George writes more by playing. It’s a funny thing being brothers in a band. There are definitely elements of the Bros documentary there.

Were you cringing when you watched that!?
Cringing, but also nodding with familiarity. But working with brothers, it’s great to have that mutual understanding, and that mutual aesthetic, and sensibility that’s built up over years. And you’re absolutely in tune with each other. But, at the same time, there are no niceties, we’ll say anything to each other. And that in itself can create problems, and cause a tension. But, I think it works out in the end. We are definitely better working together. George’s blind spot I see really clearly, and my blind spot he sees very clearly.

And he lets you know about it, I take it!
Yeah, we let each other know about it. That’s just being brothers, isn’t it.

What’s your favourite song on the album?
Probably A-R-P. I do think it’s a pretty unique piece of music, whether you like it or not. It really rings true emotionally, to me. It was originally an orchestral song, but George was insisting that it ended with drums. I couldn’t understand why, or how. It was really difficult to make it happen, but actually now I couldn’t see it any other way.

It was originally called fast arpeggios plus sub. That was the idea of the song, musically. Somehow George interpreted arpeggios as A-R-P.

Jeff Hemmings