Can being a musician, writing pop songs and gigging around the country, ever be considered a ‘proper job’? Most musicians might not delve too deeply into the true dynamics of what they do to make a living, but it’s definitely something that occupies thoughts of David Brewis. As one half of Sunderland art-rockers Field Music alongside his brother Peter, he’s created a stream of thoughtful, propulsive records. But does he see it as real work?
‘We do struggle with the idea of “is what we do worthwhile?”’ Brewis admits. ‘Is there something better we could do? How do we make what we do useful beyond a chin-stroking exercise? I think we’ve always had a bit of that, because we’ve never really considered music as being a real job.’
Obviously, with their new release Plumb, the fourth to appear under the Field Music moniker (read our 9/10 review here) the Brewis brothers are a bit too far down the path of a music career to dismiss it as a hobby. However, you can hear the brothers grapple with their roles and the frustrations of modern life throughout the new LP.
‘I maybe characterize it as a northern, post-industrial kind of thing,’ Brewis suggests. ‘That sense that you’re not working hard enough, or that you’re not doing ‘real work’, it’s very present in what we do. There’s a very strong anti-intellectualism where we’re from, or an aversion to anything arty-farty or pretentious, even using the work pretentious marks you out in some ways! ‘
This tension and desire to make an artistic statement can be heard throughout Plumb, which marries sharp, concise angular pop with some state-of the nation questioning. Talking to Brewis about the background in which the record was made, it’s clearly something he feels passionate about.
‘I think it’s incredibly prevalent, and anyone from a working-class background has to grapple with it in some way,’ he states. ‘You either ignore it and say “well, I’m middle class now” or you disguise it, which is actually what most musicians from working-class backgrounds do, and what really fucks me off. That whole “we don’t think about what we do, we just do it, man,” that really pisses me off. You have to put in quite a lot of work to make a record, you definitely must think about it, so why lie?’
Brewis has certainly put a lot of work into Plumb, an album that seems to condense all the work the brothers have done previously into a succinct, accessible burst. A sharp contrast to their previous album, the sprawling double LP Measure, Plumb turns sharply from one idea to the next, tracks spilling into each other and changing pace at the shortest notice. The two records do come from a similar place however.
‘We’ve both always had a stock with hundreds of fragments of music,’ David explains. ‘This time around, given that the last album was largely made of songs that were conventionally structured, we thought that this time we’d try to find ways to use those fragments, and maybe leave them as fragments, if it suited the music. It worked out quite fortuitously that we set out to make a short record, and that’s the kind of thing that embraces this fragmentary approach.’
Inspiration, admits David, came from an unexpected place. ‘One thing we referred back to a few times was the soundtrack to Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory,’ he states. ‘Peter also really got into the music from West Side Story. I also rediscovered Bad by Michael Jackson, which is probably one of the first records I ever heard. There are a couple of things on the record where I think I’ve totally stolen them from Bad. I think again, that idea of thinking of structure in different ways, so like on a film soundtrack you’d have refrains that pop up throughout, but not necessarily in a regular three minute format, there’s a lot of that in there.’
Musicals and Michael Jackson mixed with a particular work ethic and a questioning attitude might not seem like the most likely combination for a hit record, but it seems to have done the trick for Field Music. Originally seen as part of the angular indie-pop renaissance in the north-east alongside The Futureheads and Maximo Park, Field Music have since developed into something more expansive and thoughtful.
One thing that strikes you about Plumb is that it’s built to be listened to as a whole - tracks flow into one another, while themes and motifs reoccur throughout. A deliberate tactic, David admits: ‘Albums as complete records is just what we love, to be honest. That’s what we grew up with, we didn’t have many singles in the house and we didn’t really listen to the radio, it was all about albums.
‘I know that’s an incredibly anachronistic situation to commit yourself to nowadays, but it’s still something that appeals to me hugely. Part of it is that ability to lose yourself a little bit in a record, give yourself over to somebody else’s world. One of the things about iPod Shuffle, compilation culture is using other people’s work to construct your own world. Well, I’d rather delve into somebody else’s’.
The recording of Plumb coincided with the Brewis brothers building their own studio in Sunderland, another sign of how Field Music stand out from some other groups. ‘We’re in an industry that’s set up for people to do one, two, at the most three albums,’ David argues, ‘but we’ve been incredibly lucky in missing out on that, and partly we’ve been quite canny I suppose, in recognising that’s not what we want to do.
‘I really hope that I’m going to write better songs than the ones I’ve already written and improve, so everything we’ve done has been about becoming sustainable without having to sell a load of records. We’re realistic enough to know that we’re never going to be famous and sell loads of records, but that shouldn’t stop us from being able to get on with what we want to do.’
Speaking to the band, you can see that their lyrical inspiration stems from the same place as their hard-working idealism. Lead off track ‘(I Keep Thinking) About A New Thing’ encapsulates it all over a killer riff as it asks just what can you do to change anything around you. Plumb is a political record, without a direct political message. It’s a record born of frustration: with the world, with yourself, and of wondering what you can do about it. It’s a record that could only have been made by people who care about something, and want to do something about it, only they’re not sure what.
‘Throughout this record, and perhaps throughout all of our records, I do think back to how it was for our parents, what their aspirations where,’ David explains. ‘It definitely wasn’t having Sky or a big telly. I think it was definitely more about me and Peter using what we had as best we could. I think that’s dissipated a bit, or it’s been superseded by shiny consumerism. I don’t want to tell anyone what to do, and our way of trying to confront all of this anger and frustration is to criticise ourselves. It makes me even more determined to do something, even if it’s only the tiniest thing.’
Listening to Plumb, you can see that the Brewis brothers have achieved something. By asking these questions within the framework of short, sharp pop, Field Music have made probably their best record, and an early contender for 2012’s finest. With David Brewis admitting during our interview that this is probably their last release under the Field Music name for quite some time, we should enjoy Plumb while we can.
Plumb is out now on Memphis Industries.
Field Music playing the following live dates:
10 Feb - Newcastle, Cluny SOLD OUT
12 Feb - Newcastle, Cluny
18 Feb - Glasgow, Stereo *
19 Feb - Manchester, The Deaf Institute * SOLD OUT
20 Feb - Leeds, The Brudenell Social Club *
22 Feb - Nottingham, The Bodega Social Club *
23 Feb - Bristol, The Fleece *
24 Feb - London, Kings College *
- Stealing Sheep support