Their debut could be the Da Vinci Code of albums, but These New Puritans love being inscrutable. Jack Barnett tells Jim Carroll why the band from the deepest swamps of Southend like leaving listeners scratching their heads.
LONG before they took up their instruments in anger, These New Puritans knew just what kind of a band they were going to be. The Barnett brothers, Jack and George, had already talked, dreamed, critiqued and mythologised their band many times over while growing up in Southend.
"We had been making music together since we were young, but we never played in other bands," says TNP singer Jack. "For as long as I can remember, me and George have been making imaginary music together. We had all the ideas, so we imagined what our band could be like. TNP were the first such band to become real."
Their big dreams paid off. Beat Pyramid, These New Puritans' debut album, is one of the season's most exciting new releases. Angular post-punk glitches, inscrutable, coded lyrical conspiracies and an obsessive aspiration to create something different come gloriously to fruition on the album. No wonder so many talent tipsters see 2008 as a Puritanical year.
It's their lyrical notions more than anything else that mark TNP out as the odd ones in the pack. Too many years spent putting up with acts where the sneer has become a substitute for substance means we've become a little inured to how dire the modern rock discourse can be. At first you don't know how to react when confronted with songs about medieval numerology (Numbers) and terrorist cells kidnapping journalists (Swords of Truth).
"I've found that people are afraid of ideas and seem to regard having ideas as being pretentious in some way," says Barnett. "But surely just being in a band in the first place is pretentious? Getting together and making up a name for yourselves is the most pretentious thing you can do. So, if you're in a band, you should take it to the next level and not be afraid of ideas.
"People accuse us of being 'intellectual'. We're always surprised at that charge and even the fact that there is a charge. It goes back to that thing about a fear of ideas. I suppose we're well-informed, as opposed to well-read, and the ideas we like to use as themes for our music don't necessarily belong together."
Jack Barnett has previously cited Staten Island hip-hoppers Wu-Tang Clan (an act who can also toe a mean line in theories and mythology themselves) as an influence. "What I like about them is that their music has so much friction in it. They're also very direct and we definitely took that idea from them."
He's also happy to point to how much TNP took from "diverse stuff like dancehall and industrial and '90s electronica," and fondly recalls seeing Captain Beefheart on TV when Jack was nine years old. ("I saw him and I was hooked. I didn't know what to make of him.")
Still, in terms of his peers, Barnett adheres to the logic that if you've nothing good to say, say nothing. "I don't want to say other bands are crap because people will think we're being arrogant. OK, we are a bit arrogant because we ignore everyone else and concentrate on what we do."
He feels that Southend has had a lot to do with how his band sound and operate. The London exurb, a one-time centre for British pub-rock, didn't see many bands come calling when the Barnetts were growing up.
"Southend is in the shadow of London and is a bit of a refuge from London," Jack says. "No bands would come to town, so that was another reason why we had to invent stuff for ourselves.
"The town has a bit of a strange atmosphere to it because it used to be marshland and was apparently infested with malaria. There's a tale that the average man in Southend a hundred years ago used to have 20 wives, and they just had to import more and more women."
The singer calls Southend "a murky place" and firmly believes it's had a similar effect on their music. "That sense of mystery you find in our music is a product of what we're like because of where we're from. It's not intentional because there's a big gap between what we do and how we explain it. Too many bands get caught up in trying to explain what they do and the science behind it all. We prefer to let it be seen as a magic trick."
That explanation for their art is becoming tougher to pass off with every round of interviews.
"Interviews are hard because I don't deliberately set out to deceive people," he says. "It's just what we've done has been so instinctive that trying to explain it often seems like deciphering a code. Some bands go on about how it's just about the music but, with us, I think there's something else which we can't get at that makes us the band we are." He pauses. "I'm sure that makes us sound even more pretentious than before."
from here: http://www.ireland.com/theticket/article
Story Kevin Soar
Photo Ivor Prickett
George Barnett is the fresh-faced drummer of UK post-punk band These New Puritans, who, quiet as it’s kept, is just as handy with the tailor’s needle as he is with a drum kit. Suffice to say he sharpened his style skills with the best—a chance meeting with designer Hedi Slimane in 2006 had Barnett whisked off from his homestead, the seaside town of Southend, Essex to an apprenticeship at Dior Homme HQ, Paris. He’s walked a runway or two in his time, and along with the rest of the band (his twin brother Jack is the group’s lead singer) wrote an epic 17-minute track to accompany the fall ’07 show, for what would be Slimane’s last collection for Dior Homme. Back on home turf we talked to Barnett about the TNP sartorial bent.
So where did your interest in tailoring come from? Was it an interest you picked up when you moved to London?
Well the way I see it, if you can understand tailoring then that’s the hardest part of construction, so you can then construct anything else with that knowledge.
It was a good thing you met Hedi then.
I met Hedi through a mutual friend, in a London pub called the Griffin. I didn’t know who he was at first but we got talking and it led to a discussion on music and stuff. It was apparent that we agreed on certain things, namely fashion and music ideas. From that it led really organically to working with him. It was never something that was sorted out for us or me it was more of a happening.
When creating the soundtrack to the Dior Homme fall collection were Jack and yourself influenced by the collection and fashion in general?
I don’t think we were really influenced by the clothing so much as we were just thinking about having to actually write a 15-minute song. While I was out there [the band’s debut EP] Now Pluvial was released and that was just three-minute songs—something we were used to writing. To be given the task of writing a 15-minute song really turned everything upside down. Especially having to do it in such a short space of time. We recorded, produced, wrote, mixed the song in only about four days.
So did Hedi give you free reign?
We had pretty much free reign. We didn’t reference anything. I think the mood of These New Puritans kind of went with the collection anyway. There was no pressure on us, and we didn’t feel pressured. We didn’t really know it was such a big deal.
Do you believe there is a relationship between drumming and tailoring?
I suppose it’s all about the monotony of repeating a stitch, the repetition of that task is just the same as hitting a drum in time. Tailoring and fashion is definitely something I will turn to after pursuing music, depending, of course, on what happens with the band.
Do you sometimes wish fashion and music weren’t related at all, so you could get on with both without all the associations and pressure the other may bring?
In general, it’s good that fashion and music cross over, actually. They are both creative industries and they obviously go together. That’s what makes Hedi Slimane good because he is always crossing over art, music and subcultures. His earlier artwork is more what I’m interested in. He recreated this French labyrinth in a warehouse built out of panes of glass and mirrors. Incredible.
These New Puritans are four gaunt, well-spoken 19-year-olds who’ve been clumped into the imaginary “Southend Scene” (one club night is not a scene) with bands like The Horrors and Wretched Replica (who have now split up) but sound nothing like either of those. Taking their name from a song by The Fall, they’ve been likened to the Manchester band on a number of occasions but this comparison doesn’t really tell you a whole lot. Quite simply they’re a bunch of kids in a post-punk band who are a bit more well read than their peers.
Vice: So can you guys read?
Tomas: Yes, of course we can read—very well, in fact.
Cool. What type of books do you like to read?
George: We all like the author Michel Houellebecq.
Sophie: I recently started reading Rebel Ice. It’s a sort of 16th century French satire about two giants. I like the way it’s written.
George: Books are beautiful things.
They are indeed. Which books did you read at school?
Sophie: I liked Alice in Wonderland. I dressed up as her and won a prize at the school fair.
George: It was a big school as well, a fucking big school, so…
Yeah. That is some achievement. What did you win?
Tomas: Not even a Curly Wurly?
They didn’t even give you a badge?
Sophie: No, just the knowledge that I was the best at dressing up like Alice in Wonderland.
What if books were never invented? How would you cope?
George: I’m sure there would be some other way of writing things down.
No. You can’t have any form of writing. That’s not allowed.
Sophie: If books weren’t invented, then I’d invent them.
Were you a good reader at school?
George: I was like the best reader in the world at school. Without doubt.
So you weren’t held back or anything?
George: No, but I did have to read through polythene sheets for a while at school. They didn’t understand me as a child. When I first went to school, they would ask me to do work and I’d say, “No thank you.” So then they thought: Why don’t we give him coloured sheets to make him more interested in the page.
They thought you had problems. They thought, if we give him colour, it will be fine, because everyone loves colour.
George: No, I just didn’t really fancy it. They thought the colour would make the page jump out, but it didn’t. I took as many coloured sheets as I possibly could and I’d always ask for a new colour. I built up quite a collection.
"I used to get night terrors," says These New Puritans' singer/guitarist Jack Barnett, backstage before a show in South London. "I once saw a ghost -- a glowing blue cat in my room -- and these purple and yellow orb things. It was really scary."
Welcome to the weird post-post-punk world of England's latest art-rock buzz band, a place where glowing globes mingle with references to 16th-century occultists and numerology. Synthesizer player Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, 19, chooses to write notes on a small pad rather than answer questions verbally, while bassist Thomas Hein, 21, simply walks away when approached. The two who do talk, frontman Jack, 20, and his twin brother, George (drums), reveal some curious inspirations. "Making music is like casting spells," George offers. "Musician and magician are similar words. It's better to take a small idea, like numerology, and make it mean something, rather than to take something like death or love and make it meaningless."
From the age of seven, the twins have been conjuring up imaginary bands and recording on a four-track in their parents' shed in the small seaside town of Southend -- a "cultural wasteland," according to Jack. Since they formed a proper band, their rise has been swift. They signed a record deal after their very first gig, in July 2005. Two years later, they were handpicked by designer/photographer Hedi Slimane to record a 15-minute track ("Navigate, Navigate") for last year's Dior Homme fashion show. "People got the wrong impression from that," says George testily. "We don't give a crap what we look like. We're not one of those bands that has blow-dryers backstage."
- "We've said we're like the Oasis brothers as a joke," says Jack. "We've since been hounded by Oasis fans telling us we're not like them."
- Beat Pyramid was produced by Gareth Jones, who's also worked with Liars and Wire.
- Hein was studying to be a botanist before joining the band.
FORM SPIN MAGAZINE
Belligerently snappy upstarts These New Puritans are one of the finest new bands of 2006, a spark of intelligence in a scene dominated by big hair, tight trousers and tiny attention spans. Niall O'Keefe met them to talk literature, discipline, ... and to find out, are they actually Nazis?
"We don't really practice," shrugs These New Puritans' 19-year-old singer Jack Barnett. "It's more talking about the songs. More like trying to refine the content, trying to keep it quite conceptually tight."
One thing you can say with certainty about Southend's These New Puritans: they've thought it through. When you enter their world, whether by listening to their debut EP 'Now Pluvial' or by attending one of their hypnotic live shows, you meet with a controlled chaos of ideas. At a time when the term is used as a synonym for "uncomfortably tight trousers", These New Puritans are an 'art-rock' band in the truest sense. They write songs about Tudor numerologists, after all.
Another thing you can say about These New Puritans: they take influence from The Fall. It's there in Jack Barnett's mesmerising confidence and hectoring vocal style. It's equally present in the music's clipped, severe character. "Yeah, they're good," concedes Jack when we ask him about Mark E Smith's mercurial mob. "But I don't really listen to a lot of that era of music. People assume we do. We don't, really. It's not our taste."
This is Jack all over: he keeps his cards close to his chest. PlayLouder is sitting with the band in the bar of the Old Blue Last in Shoreditch. Later, upstairs, they'll play a characteristically brutal, militaristic show to a swarming throng of fashionistas. In this setting, the sneering lyric of their best song 'Elvis' ("We're being watched by experts") couldn't sound more apposite. But what's 'Elvis' about? Jack's saying nothing, except that it used to be called 'Hairdressers Are the New Gods'.
As we've seen, Jack's reluctant to enumerate musical influences. But under heavy interrogation he'll admit to liking My Bloody Valentine: "Childhood hero, Kevin Shields." He also tips his hat to Lars Horntveth's "Scandinavian electronic-y jazz music" and, maybe surprisingly, Nigerian hip-hop. Citing the 'Lagos Stori Plenti' compilation, he says: "That nasal vocal style is something I've taken onboard." Meantime Fela Kuti and Captain Beefheart are name-checked by Jack's drumming twin brother George, who combines offstage cheerfulness with onstage menace, as does bassist Tomas Hein, who likes Liars. Keyboardist Sophie Sleigh-Johnson is in the only band she likes.
Sophie and the band seem altogether more comfortable discussing literary influences. Her recommendation of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker is endorsed by Jack: "A lot of our lyrics are influenced by that, definitely. That kind of free mythic idea." Jack's also a fan of 13th century Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti, while a mention of French novelist Michel Houellebecq prompts this: "I like Houellebecq because he leaves you without any heroes. Nothing to rely on. We take that maxim."
But enough of the cosy chat: PlayLouder has a thorny subject to broach with These New Puritans. Bluntly, we're worried they might be Nazis. It's not just the buttoned-up shirts or Jack's onstage habit of raising his arm that concerns us; it's the Myspace photo of Tomas wearing an armband with a lightning strike on it and those past quotes about the benefits of dictatorship. "We're all at least one-eighth German," muses Tom when the subject first comes up. "I like Islam, it's a good religion," says Jack. "That's as close to political as I get really."
Pressed, Tom claims the armband in the photo was handed to him by a friend before he took the stage at Southend's Junk Club, and therefore worn unthinkingly. Jack insists that the buttoned-up shirts signal only fondness for "a neat kind of look". PlayLouder wonders aloud if what looks like fascism might in fact be an anti-hippy thing, and Jack cautiously agrees. "We're not close to hippies. Actually some hippies stole some of our band equipment." Tom pipes up: "They were new-age hippies! They were even worse!"
Later, when the subject of fascism arises again, Tom drops a bombshell: "You know the way the Nazis, at the end of the war, migrated to South America? My dad's parents did that." PlayLouder is aghast: why, in the context, would he flirt with the imagery? "It's just playful fun. It's just playful banter." Um, you're not a Nazi are you? "God no!" Do you like the BNP? "No!" interjects Sophie. "They're worse than Nazis, actually," muses Jack. By now, Tom is keen to offer a definitive final word on the subject: "We're not Nazis and we don't do it on purpose."
We move on. PlayLouder asks about These New Puritans' newly trendy hometown, Southend. "It's the least culturally developed place in England," says Jack, with relish. "It's great in a way, it's inspiring. It's free. If you live in London, you can just rest on the collective history of the place, whereas if you live in Southend, what is there? In Canvey, there's Dr Feelgood. That's it really. There's no history, just the future." Reluctantly, Jack's moving to London soon to attend Chelsea College of Art & Design, but he'll stay involved with the Southend scene through the Experimental Circle club night. Here, he'll soundtrack visuals generated by Discordo, a graphic design agency run by band favourite Ciaran O'Shea.
Geography's a real obsession with These New Puritans, as evidenced by George's artwork for the 'Now Pluvial' EP. "On the back of the cover, for each song, there's a photograph and a little area of map," explains Jack. "If you plot that onto an Ordnance Survey map, it forms equilateral triangles between the places. Each song has an area of Southend. And each one has a Rorschach test that corresponds to the nature of the song." To remind you: These New Puritans have thought it through. "'Now Pluvial' isn't just an EP," says Jack. "It's the stuff on the website too. It's period of time rather than an object."
They'll soon be taking the message to the masses on their first tour. "I'm looking forward to going to Scotland," says Jack. "I think it will be a good context for our music to exist in. Rain is a theme that runs through our music. And it's quite a puritanical place." So, how literally should we take the name? Are you puritans? Jack: "I think it's definitely important, to keep it simple, not to elaborate. I mean, we hate 90 per cent of things, so in that sense we are." Sophie: "I think discipline is quite important."
It's easy to assume that Jack rules These New Puritans with an iron fist, but seemingly only his twin thinks so. "The friction within the group is generally drums being thrown at me," says Jack. Might there be fistfights during the tour? "If that's what it takes to get him to play new songs! We're going to do a new song tonight, one that we've only played once before ['Numbers']. We were going to do another one but he didn't want to. You just know he's going to sabotage it on purpose. That's the level of his spite."
George does, however, retain a grudging respect for a brother who's been writing songs since he was seven: "He could write Abba-type pop. He could write musicals." Instead Jack's committed to happy accidents and spontaneous creativity. It's with real glee that he explains that "at the end of 'En Papier', if you listen carefully, there's a note that Sophie accidentally pressed and that's the end of the EP: this glaring mistake".
But be very clear that These New Puritans know what they want. Uber-producer James Ford was originally slated to produce the EP, but the band rejected his work. "I don't think it sounded like us that much," recalls Jack. "It was a nice sound, a pleasant sound... Not really what we sound like."
With Jack back at the control, you can say with certainty that the future's uncertain. "We could write any song," he shrugs. "We want to be everything."