Field Music

Barclaycard Mercury Prize
Julien Bourgeois
Barclaycard Mercury Prize
Barclaycard Mercury Prize

Field Music are musical magpies who dazzle with their playful and eclectic approach to music, yet distil it into crafted and memorable guitar-pop. They swap vocals, instruments, and songwriting, and produce their own tracks from their Sunderland studio. They’ve been nominated for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize for their fourth album Plumb, and the nomination has thrilled fans and fellow musicians alike. There’s now a special Mercury edition of the album with extra live tracks. We talked to Peter and David Brewis, who are the core of Field Music, along with Kevin Dosdale and Andrew Lowther who plays with them live. They told us about crafting the album, their much-loved kit and their guilty pleasures, plus their take on ‘the loudness wars’.

Memphis Industries

Making Plumb

David and Peter found a new way of working when they were recording Plumb, and the result was a sparkling, exciting and acclaimed album.

One of the principal ideas for the new album was to let the material dictate the kind of form and the structure of the music rather than trying to stretch bits of music into what would be conventional song forms. We decided that we didn’t really need to do that, that we have our own studio and the label let us get away with murder really. Which was kind of in opposition to the last album that we made. The last album, Measure, was a double album, much longer songs, you know, basically normal-length songs. This time we decided we didn’t really need to do that, and that’s why it’s more concise. And more segueways.

Being on the Mercury shortlist shows the decision was a good one, and they are delighted to have been nominated.

It’s one of the few kind of musical events which tries to reward the creative outcomes rather than the commercial outcomes. Although I’m sure that’s a very difficult thing to do in a pure way. It’s nice to be recognized in the context of this event, which rewards the creative endeavour rather than the commercial impact of something. And to be honest, the chances of us ever being awarded for the commercial impact of anything is negligible. There’s a panel of judges and people who care deeply about music, and it’s lovely to think that they’ve listened to all of these albums across the year and they’ve thought that our album deserved to be on this quite exclusive list. And hopefully what it means for us is that a few more people will hear the record.

Peter Brewis

Plumb was recorded in Field Music’s new studio and it required some sonic exploration.

We were finding our feet in terms of sound and what sort of things we could do with the space. If anything, that’s something that we’ve done since day one, recording things. We don’t try and tame the space, you know, we try and use the sound of the space that we’re in, so we had to get used to and find out about the rooms that we had, and how the instruments were going to sound in them and how we could use the microphones to capture the instrument in the space.

Having their own space even made a big difference to what instruments went into the album.

We had the added bonus this time round of not sharing the studio space. When I say studio, it was just a room that we rented in, not a community centre but similar to that. We’d been there for ten years and we shared it with our friends in The Futureheads. But it always meant having to compromise with how you use the space because they have it as a practice room and we were using it primarily as a studio.

In the new space, it’s ours all the time and therefore if we want to leave every single keyboard that we own set up ready to record at all times, we can. And that did mean that we probably played around with keyboard sounds a little bit more on this record than we had in the past. The album before that, Measure, was probably as close as we’ve got to making like a guitar rock album. And this time round we let the keyboards fly.

Songwriting is something the brothers tend to embark on separately. David says:

To be honest I struggle to write anything if I’m not on my own in quiet places. And it tends to be either, you know, a little snippet of lyrics come to mind, or if I’m sitting playing… I mean for me it’s generally the guitar. A snippet of music which just captures your imagination, just for that moment. And then you have to find what the song is which goes with this snippet. Again I suppose that ties in with how we made the album, in that we found we had lots of little snippets which just really wanted to remain snippets and we allowed that to happen. Yeah, for me it involves a lot of thinking time. A lot of time to kind of let something percolate in mind.

Peter agrees, though he prefers to begin songs on the piano.

I think the initial sort of inspiration if you want to call it that, for writing songs or music is generally a small musical or lyrical, like little problem, and trying to find a little solution to it. And then after that you have to try and somehow capture that physical moment, that feeling you got when you first came up with this thing. Because that’s the Eureka moment in a small way.

So how do they work out who does what when they share roles and even instruments?

The reason why we end up sharing roles within either the band or in the studio, is generally because when we write, it’s separate, and then we come into the studio and the other person has to be the problem-solver and the person to do all of the other jobs that the other person can’t, or can’t do at the same time as doing the other jobs. So we have to just be flexible with our roles in Field Music. And the same when we do the band live, we have Kev and Andrew, and they have lots of jobs to do, it’s not just like Andrew’s the bass player and Kev’s the guitar player, it’s more complicated than that. So we have to just, in the studio and live, figure out a way of complementing the song, or the music, as opposed to, right, I’m the drummer or I’m the singer in the band so that is my role in the band. We’re not like that, we can’t be like that.

They put a lot of effort into their lyric writing as well, and regard lyrics as equally important as the music.

In terms of lyrics we’ve got better at being able to express our ideas through lyrics as well as just music. I mean, we probably come up with more musical ideas than we do lyrical. I think we realised we need to put as much work into lyrics as we do into the music, you know, that which is a big editorial process. I’ll try and write as much nonsense down as I can, as many ideas down as I can and then it needs to be edited into something coherent. In terms of how they come across on the record we generally try and make everything sound quite clear. I suppose we spend quite a long time making the records, so it’s a little bit meticulous, and you know, we’ve got Northern accents, so we really need to enunciate, otherwise people might not have a clue what we were talking about!

Field Music have strong views on the ‘loudness wars’ when it comes to recording, and are doing things their way to make what they see as the most of current technology. Less is more, says David.

Both me and Peter had been getting a little bit frustrated at the obsession towards louder and louder records at the expense of dynamics and clarity. We read a book called Perfecting Sound Forever and it made us more determined not to succumb to the loudness wars - it seems absurd that CDs are capable of such amazing dynamic range and lack of noise and all we do as recordists is try to squash as much volume as possible in. We’re probably the only band around whose records have gotten progressively quieter!

Their influences and inspirations are a surprising mix, from Roxy Music to John Bonham, and not that much Indie according to David.

I mean the only thing I could say clearly about my record collection is there’s not an awful lot of what you would term Indie music in it. But you know, everything from 30s blues or 40s big band jazz or weird, avant-garde 20th century classical music, through girl groups and Motown and Stax and the Beatles.

Peter’s take is more rock, via a bit of hip-hop. Yes that’s right!

I don’t really listen to that much contemporary indie or guitar music any more really. I don’t. Maybe it’s because I’m so close to it I kind of feel like I’m involved in it. I kind of don’t want to hear what else is out there. However, all of our influences, musical or otherwise, are essentially filtered through the lens of rock. Because that’s what we initially started doing, you know, so those are the skills that we’ve got.

Barclaycard Mercury Prize

We might think, oh we’ll play a drumbeat and it’ll sound like Timbaland, but really it has more John Bonham in there than it will ever have sort of Timbaland. And probably the same with guitar. You know I’m going to nick one of those Stravinsky riffs and I’m going to turn it round and I’m going to do something different to it, but it really just sounds like Jimmy Page or Clapton or something like that.

It’s putting things in a big melting pot that’s important, adds David.

Probably a lot of the pop and rock music that we do love most is pop and rock music which is really voracious. You know, the Beatles didn’t listen to other beat groups, they were taking stuff from music hall, Motown, and all things and places, the same with something like Roxy Music or David Bowie. They were just like sucking in influences from all over the place, it didn’t matter where it was. The fact that it was them, and their performances, and their songs sticks it in a genre, not what they were being influenced by.