This article originally appeared in The Skinny
On a light industrial estate in Sunderland, Field Music have spent nearly seven years crafting their art. Their time spent at the unit is now at an end. The area is being demolished, driving Peter and David Brewis out of the creative space they’d crafted for themselves. The band have been forced to face a period of flux and uncertainty. And so has the wider world.
It’s unsurprising then that the personal and the political collide on the band’s new album, Open Here. Reflecting on the thematic scale of the record compared to their 2016 LP Commontime, Peter Brewis says that “the new one’s more about how we deal with the things that have been going on in the world and things that have been difficult in our personal lives too.” As its title might suggest, Field Music cast their net more widely on the album, looking out on to some of the world’s most pressing issues. As Brewis puts it: “it’s the obvious things: Trump, Brexit…” These topics cast a long shadow across the record, but Field Music try to find ways to humanise and personalise the subjects, examining them through an often relatable lens.
So, for many, news of both the Brexit vote and the later American election may have reached them via the medium of social media, and this was no different for Brewis. “I went to bed thinking, ‘yeah, it’s gonna be fine, of course it’s gonna be fine’ and then it wasn’t! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe the messages I was getting and I thought to myself that it was me being stupid and that’s the problem,” he says. The experience helped inform Checking On a Message, a track that mixes this experience with wider commentary on social media. “It happens all the time on Twitter and Facebook: it’s where you get the information you do and don’t want to know about, but you can’t really ignore it.”
Social media doesn’t just force us to face and confront truths that are unexpected though; it’s also another contemporary outlet for exposing us to some of the horrors of the world, not least the ongoing conflict in Syria. As Brewis himself notes, Cameraman is about someone documenting these harsh times, while album closer Find a Way to Keep Me is “about a child potentially being separated from his or her parents.” For him, being a parent further heightens the emotions surrounding the conflict. “I would have thought it was horrible even if I hadn’t been a parent, but now I also think that that could have been my son if I didn’t live in a country which was not at war, being privileged to live in a place that’s free from that kind of thing,” he explains. “It’s not perfect at all by any means, but it’s not a day to day dangerous place and you’re not trying to escape it.”
It’s that sense of feeling privileged that helps inform the album’s lead single, Count It Up, which asks the listener to reflect on their own situation (‘If you can go through day to day without the fear of violence / Count that up’). According to Peter, David also includes the band in that checking of privilege. “We are essentially white, male, in a decent socio-economic group and we have all the power in the world to do something. We’re the privileged minority,” he says. “We need to realise that and then not just be thankful for it, but do something positive with it.”
In their own way, that’s exactly what they do on Open Here. In spite of all the issues that inspired it, there’s a sense of defiance surrounding the album. It’s a record that’s thematically dark, but a desire to create something positive and upbeat becomes the driving force behind the LP. “Despite everything that was going on in the world, we were determined to have fun making the record,” Brewis says. “The point really is to face these horrible things and use music as a joyous thing and as an incantation to face these feelings and to fight it.” He doesn’t deny or diminish the feelings of anger, despair and sheer frustration that recent world events may stir in someone (“that’s not to say that that’s not how I’ve felt, because it is bleak and it is dark”) but notes that “there is a tendency not to fight it and to wallow in it, to find the romance in being in the darkness.” Field Music wanted to find a different way of tackling these emotions: “I’m well capable of doing that, but I decided not to do that.”
The result is possibly one of Field Music’s most stylistically diverse, big and bold records to date. It literally opens up their sound, moving away from the more distilled, compartmentalised approach of Commontime to something far grander in scale. On top of tight rhythms, funk-inflected melodies and hooks, it packs in a wealth of additional instrumentation at every possible turn, from sweeping string quartets and blasts of saxophone to strident synths, flourishes of flute and even some flugelhorn. Count It Up was even written on David’s son’s toy keyboard, while No King No Princess is a supremely exuberant cut challenging conventional gender stereotypes by enthusiastically telling children that ‘You can dress up how you want / And you can do the job you want.’ For the most part, musically it fights despair with joy, isolationism with expansiveness, anger with unbridled release. Brewis puts it best: “we’ve gone all out.”
The knowledge of their impending eviction from the studio played some part in this direction: “we knew we had to finish recording before we got kicked out.” The ever-looming deadline simply spurred them on in the recording process, creating something looser, freer and more uninhibited. “I think we let the performances kind of run and we let some, almost, mistakes creep in. There doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of mistakes in there though!” Brewis laughs.
At a time when people seem to be increasingly fragmented, Field Music also sought to create their own tight-knit community of musicians to contribute to the LP. “I think because it was the last thing we were doing in the studio, we got more people in to work with us,” Brewis says. “We wanted to include as many people as possible.” Their cast of contributors includes their regular string quartet of Ed Cross, Jo Montgomery, Chrissie Slater and Ele Leckie, as well as the Cornshed Sisters, but they also welcomed saxophonist Pete Fraser, flautist and piccolo player Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow), backing vocals from Liz Corney, and Simon Dennis on trumpet and flugelhorn.
While the Brewis brothers did have an idea of how they wanted each element to sound, often writing out each part for their collaborators to play, there was scope for each contributor to bring their own unique touches to the record, giving it an even greater dynamic. “Quite often people would say, ‘well we can add this to that’ or ‘we need a bit here’ or ‘we need you to do something we can’t even imagine’!” Brewis says, “Everyone got involved in that as well, so there’s some flute and saxophone things that I would never have thought of.”
Field Music are taking those positive vibes and shared experience on tour with them, bringing along Hayes and Fraser for most of their upcoming dates. But before that, they’re having to say goodbye to the studio they’ve called home for over half a decade. Much like the album though, it’s a task they’ve taken on in high spirits. “We had a little get together and it was the first time in seven years we’d ever spilt a beer in the studio! It was unlike us!” Brewis laughs. “So yeah, we gave the place a send-off and we’re going to have to shift all the stuff out now!”
Luckily, the brothers may already have found a new space to turn once again into their own studio. “I think we possibly have, in Sunderland again. But we haven’t signed the lease yet though!” he explains. Looking ahead, he feels confident that, wherever they may reside, it’ll have a positive effect on the band’s next steps. “It’s always the case that a new space should affect the sound and utilise the space that you’ve got to give the sound a certain character.” It’s difficult to predict where the world may be headed, but Field Music will undoubtedly be ready to face whatever comes next.