The brothers Brewis, Peter and David, have been operating under the Field Music moniker for a decade and a half, producing a string of acclaimed art-pop works, all on the independent Memphis Industries label, including 2012’s Plumb, which was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
One of the few bands to outlast the indie guitar band explosion of the mid-2000s, Field Music’s un-selfconscious, anti-fashion stance has seen them compared to the likes of Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and XTC. They may not have achieved much in the way of commercial success, but for the last 15 years they have been pouring their hearts and souls into Field Music, as well as a number of side projects including Peter’s You Tell Me band – also featuring Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes – and David’s School of Language project, whose third album, 45, was released last summer, a satirical take on the 45th Presidency, Donald Trump.
As Field Music they are about to release a new album, Making A New World, a work inspired by the aftermath and repercussions of World War I. Originally conceived thanks to a commission from the Imperial War Museum, the Brewis Brothers were intent on producing a live performance only, with no thought of an actual album. But one thing led to another… “We were approached by the Imperial War Museum, the Manchester side of it, to do a commission to do a performance inside the museum,” explains David. “It was all based around looking at the aftermath of WWI. It really grew out of this really strange artefact, a 1919 publication on munitions by the US War Department, which they had found quite by chance, and which gave a graphic representation of the sound at the end of the war. They had this technology called ‘sound ranging’, where they’d place microphones (in effect oil drums with a wire inside) spread out across the front, and by measuring the distance between a wave form of an explosion, the sound of an explosion hitting these microphones, it could pinpoint where any guns were. Some clever person had set this machine away, knowing that the armistice (a formal agreement to stop fighting) was going to kick in at 11am, on 18th November, 1918. So, you’ve got one minute of guns and noise, and then one minute of near silence, represented by these six parallel wave forms, these vibrations displayed on a graph, where the distances between peaks on different lines could be used to pinpoint the location of enemy armaments. We imagined the lines from that image continuing across the next hundred years, and we looked for stories which tied back to specific events from the war or the immediate aftermath. In writing these songs, we felt we were pulling the war towards us, out of remembrance and into the everyday, and into the now.
“So we started working on this commission, which was going to be a performance. Initially we thought we would be doing some moody instrumental music, with maybe a song to top and tail it. But when we came up with our concept, which was that we were going to try and find stories from across the next hundred years, which we could tie directly back to something that happened in the war, we ended up writing loads of songs because the stories were so interesting. And it turned into something bigger and more interesting. By the time we had written the songs we felt they were as good as normal Field Music songs. And if we record it right this has to be an album, even though it wasn’t part of the initial intention.
“I actually think sadly it was because Mark E. Smith died,” says David about the commission. “I think they had a plan that The Fall were going to do it, and then Mark got really poorly. I’m not entirely sure why they came to us, except that we’re the kind of band that people think we can do this kind of thing. Which is good, because it means we have exactly the right kind of reputation. ‘Have you got a mad idea that we can possibly turn into music?’ Yeah, we’re probably the ones to do it.”
The result is Making A New World, a 19 track song cycle about the after-effects of the First World War. It’s not an album about war per se, and it is not, in any traditional sense, an album about remembrance. There are songs here about air traffic control and gender reassignment surgery. There are songs about Tiananmen Square and about ultrasound. There are more songs about Becontree Housing Estate, about the final WWI reparation, and sanitary towels!
“We got the ball rolling with the commission. We started doing our research in September 2018, and started putting together little snippets of music, which we thought might become songs. We finished those songs, and recorded demo versions of them, and rehearsed them with the band. We then put together some visuals, which Kev (Dosdale) from the band took charge of, with little stories interwoven into the visuals, all ready for these two performances, right at the end of January 2019. And the next week we came into the studio, and ran through the whole 45 minute performance, twice. And that’s the basis for 80 per cent of what’s on the record.”
What about the other 20 per cent, I ask? “We replaced some of the acoustic piano bits, altered some of the arrangements slightly, to give it more variation, and improve the flow, and we did the vocals, which we hadn’t done when we recorded it. Especially for me, playing the drums and singing meant that I wasn’t necessarily doing both of them as well as I could.
It sounds like Making A New World is an apt title for the different working method you employed this time around!? “It’s a lot quicker than how we usually record. Usually, me and Peter will do a lot of recording where the two of us are playing together, so that we can have the feel of playing the song. It’s usually just the two of us until very late in the process, where we might get Liz Corney in, who plays keys, and can do some extra singing. Or we’ll get Andy Lowther, the original keyboard player in the band, on bass. All that happens right at the end. This is the first time we’ve captured the sound of the band. We don’t usually start learning to play the songs until we are about to go on tour. So, it was very strange to have already played all the songs live before we recorded.”
Concept albums are much maligned, aren’t they? Would you describe Making A New World as a concept album? “It is a concept album about the aftermath of WWI. There’s just no way of getting round it,” laughs David. They have a dirty name… “They still do in my head! There is something about them that is so ingrained within me and Peter that we can never escape it. But, because of the way we researched these stories, rather than tell one story in a dense and convoluted way, we’ve been able to tell stories that have been really spread out. I hope we have done something where you can enjoy it on one level, just the sound and the melodies, but that you can keep digging down into it if you wish, and maybe start to tie all the bits together. There’s text in the artwork, which relates to each of the songs. I didn’t want it to be something where you had to do the research to enjoy it, but if you want to do the research, it’s rewarding. We didn’t sit around and think, ‘let’s make this more like War of the Worlds’, although that was something we grew up with.”
That’s one of the few I really enjoy, I say. “It’s got a lot of big tunes! But, it’s more of a musical, isn’t it? The other one Peter and I like, because we see or imagine humour in it, is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, by Genesis. It does that thing of telling one story, in an incredibly convoluted and dense way, which obscures a lot of the good things about it. We’ve tried to avoid that.
Let’s dig down into some of the songs. Like ‘Money Is A Memory’, perhaps the most explicit example of the consequences of the war. “It is about Germany’s war reparations and is written from the perspective of an office worker in the German Treasury preparing documents for the final instalment on reparation debts, a payment made in 2010, 91 years after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The reason why the final repayment wasn’t made until 2010 was partly because Hitler stopped the payments, which didn’t start again until Germany was reunified,” explains David. “The initial premise is a bit comical – the admin assistant going through their bureaucratic duties – but buried away inside those papers you can imagine the echoes of millions of lives being turned upside down.”
And the sanitary pads? “I found myself researching the development of sanitary pads – not a statement I’ve ever imagined myself making – and was surprised at how little the advertising material has changed in a hundred years. It’s still, ‘Hey Ladies! Let’s not mention it too loudly but here is the perfect product to keep you feeling normal WHILE THE DISGUSTING, DIRTY THING HAPPENS.’ And you realize that it’s a kind of madness that a monthly occurrence for billions of women – something absolutely necessary for the survival of humanity – is seen as shameful or dirty – and is taxed more than razor blades! At every stage of making this song, I had to ask myself, am I allowed to do this? Is it okay to do this? And I cringed in the next room when I first showed it to my wife. But I think confronting my own embarrassment is a pretty fundamental part of what the song is about.”
The songs are in a kind of chronological order, starting with the end of the war itself; the uncertainty of heading home in a profoundly altered world (‘Coffee or Wine’). Later we hear a song about the work of Dr Harold Gillies (the shimmering ballad, ‘A Change of Heir’), whose pioneering work on skin grafts for injured servicemen led him, in the 1940s, to perform some of the very first gender reassignment surgeries. And we also see how the horrors of the war led to the Dada movement and how that artistic reaction was echoed in the extreme performance art of the 60s and 70s (the mathematical head-spin of ‘A Shot To The Arm’).
“There were groups of artists who fled to Switzerland, and started Cabaret Voltaire,” and their response to the horror of the war was to say, ‘this is absurd’, and ‘we are going to display all these absurdities’.. That was the start of the Dada movement. That’s the starting point for a lot of conceptual art in the 20th century. Peter found a story of an artist called Chris Burden who was inspired in a similar way with what was happening with the Vietnam War, and images that were coming back on the television, which he felt were desensitising people to real violence. He asked his friend, in the name of art, to shoot him in the arm,” David laughs. “I think the plan was for it to be just a graze, but his friend wasn’t that good of a shot, and he ended up with a really horrific wound. But that was exactly what he was wanting to do. When the police came, he didn’t tell him it was art, but that it was an accident. It got Peter off on this thing, writing about how desensitisation to violence infiltrates society, and he’s written a song about kids bringing toy guns into school. That all ties in with what Chris Burden was trying to do.
“Each song has two dates associated with it,” says David. When we did the live performance we wanted it to have this steady flow across the century, to the point where you end with Donald Trump deciding he is going to move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, and how that sits too neatly with some of the awful decisions that were made by the allies in the Middle East, during the war. There, essentially behind the backs of the people who lived there, they decided how they were going to divvy things up, without paying any more than lip service really, to what the people there wanted. Basically, it’s a record about consequences, and unforeseen consequences, and how they still infiltrate what happens now. The museum were really pleased with it, because often that’s what they are trying to do. Not to try and set these events back in the past, as if they’re fairy stories, but make you understand their presence today.