In Conversation with George Barnett of These New Puritans
These New Puritans are probably Britain’s most forward-thinking band since Radiohead. It’s the project of fraternal twins Jack and George Barnett, and a rotating cast of friends and collaborators. Driven by a love of art that spans the canons of punk, classical, and electronic music, the band’s sound, superficially at least, has evolved startlingly over the last decade, while retaining an unmistakable, ineffable personality. Their fourth album, the astonishing Inside the Rose,is released this Friday. Recorded over the past four years in Berlin, the album finds the duo drawing on all their strengths and influence to create something compelling, dramatic, and utterly unique.
Their teenage debut Beat Pyramid(2008) was guitar-heavy and standoffish, with finger-snapping rhythms that recalled Wire, The Fall, and Gang of Four. And even though the second-album reinvention is hardly a novelty nowadays, the shift in their sound on Hidden(2010) is astounding. The guitars all but disappeared, replaced by precision-engineered synths, fugues of baroque woodwind, brass and choirs, and the beguiling sound effects of Foley artists – mimicking swinging swords, smashed skulls, and hawks taking flight. It would be easy to get lost in among all that novelty, to descend into something interesting but muddled. But every sonic colour is used for a purpose, with Jack and George deftly deploying them to create rich, dramatic music. Field of Reeds (2013) was more ethereal and abstract. But Inside the Rose takes aims straight for pleasure centres, overawing you with the scale of its compositions, that often have underlying structures redolent of classical music though they use cutting-edge sounds and technology. For all that it can be described as experimental though, it is highly digestible music, overwhelming and tantalising the senses rather than prodding at them. It’s almost in a world of its own to the extent that this music seems to have been written with no agenda other than self-expression, paying no heed to prevailing styles, and showing no desire to be simply consumed – Inside the Roseis music for immersing yourself in.
There’s a dearth of successful experimental music in the UK right now, particularly from working class voices like Jack and George. So These New Puritans know they’re onto something good, and aren’t afraid to be forthcoming about it. And rightly so. Before I spoke to George about the album, he said this: “We seem to be quite high-risk for people these days. High-risk in terms of people writing about things that are very safe, very beige. It’s really nice to see Inside the Rosebeing talked about and ‘living’.” Here’s what else he had to say:
You’re playing a really special show for at the ICA theatre in London on March 21st, what can you tell us about that?
Yeah it’s gonna be mad. I’ve been working on it for months. I want some of it to be a surprise. But it’s our imagining of the album on stage at the ICA. It was gonna be one of those wanky things like ‘If you’re on the guestlist you can come in’, but we wanted to make it more for people who wanted to see us, more like an actual gig. It’s been me working with my friend Freya Don who did the installations on the ‘Inside the Rose’ video. I think Freya is an artist who’s really going to be recognised in the years to come. I’ve made this stage set with her and, it’s not that grandiose cause were not U2, but there’s projections of things I’ve been working on for ages with three other artists. It blends the brutal and industrial with the beautiful. Then there’s also this performance artist called Soojin Chang who’s the star of the ‘Inside the Rose’ video. Multimedia sounds so wanky but it’s the best way of describing it – there’s loads of things going on and we’ve made something we really wanna make – something a bit extra. It’s gonna be great but we can only afford to do it once haha. But we’re trying to do something similar with all the gigs really.
So your tour in April is going to be extra too?
Yeah, it’s gonna be so good for that and the music is so good. It’s so dynamic, it moves really fast, it’s very percussive. We’ve got a vibraphone on stage, electronics…it’s pretty mega actually. We’re taking the full band out.
That worked really well when you toured with an orchestra for Hidden
Yeah though we didn’t do that at first, to begin with just kinda jumped in. Then we realised “Oh yeah, we could actually do that”. Jack obviously learned to notate for that and to arrange too – it required a lot skills to put together.
You’ve said you didn’t want to make a ‘Berlin’ album, but Jack’s pose on the front cover seems a bit like Bowie on the cover of “Heroes”
Yeah he does a bit, but I think he mainly looks like Jack. The era I like most of Bowie is ‘90s Bowie, Buddha of Suburbia…mid-to-late Bowie. The artwork’s actually pretty banging for this album. There’s some hidden stuff. The back of the vinyl is like that too. We’ve tried to create our own little world on this album though.
Yeah it’s definitely within its own sonic world – internally consistent but so different from anyone else. But I was surprised by how quintessentially These New Puritans it sounded
What else would it sound like?
Well your previous albums have all been so different from each other.
I don’t think we ever have been different, it always sounds like These New Puritans, just playing with different things.
True, though this album really seems to have distilled down the core of your sound, whatever that is.
It’s just us making music, as simple as that really.
You dropped down to a duo for this album, and you’ve also said you were looking to create something “clear and pristine” – are those two things linked?
Well Jack normally writes the majority of the music [anyway], though I’ve written more lyrics and quite a lot of music on this one. Tom [Hein] leaving isn’t like a sadstate of affairs, he’s becoming a doctor, doing research and we were like “Do that, it sounds amazing”. Meanwhile we’ve made the record in his absence. You realise you miss him when you’re back in rehearsal without him.
You’ve also been saying you wanted to ‘dream forward’ while you were making this record, what did you mean by that?
Just looking forward, into a dream – sounds wanky again – but doing something that’s pure direct and meaningful. 100% putting yourself into it. That’s how I feel about it anyway. It’s a good [record] I think – quite good for your car. When we were mixing ‘A—R—P’ we were driving around in this Mercedes listening to it very loudly, it was very fun. We should have shared that experience on social media but sadly we didn’t.
Yeah ‘A—R—P’ has a phenomenal sound.
Yeah what I think is great it that it’s really direct and then it gets to the chorus and suddenly we take it really wide and you’re somewhere new.
Did anything of the Berlin techno scene bleed into this record? There’s something of the language of techno in your treatment of programmed drums and the way you hold back and then release the bass frequencies.
Yeah I always did think that some techno is profound and amazing, but the vast majority is absolute dirge. Not anything new. I think Jack was going out a lot, he was there more than me. So yeah it is, but that’s more through Jack. It’s one of his babies. ‘Inside the Rose’ is meant to be really sexual though, that’s not something that’s really been picked up on.
Yeah it’s a very enigmatic image, going inside the rose, so that’s a sexual metaphor?
Haha let your mind wander. The video is a really good portrayal of what we were trying to do. It’s really amazing that it so clearly represents what we were trying to get to with the song.
How do you see Beat Pyramidnowadays?
It’s a great record! It stands out so much compared to what was going on at the time. It’s a great time for doing electronic music now. If we were starting off today I think we’d have gone straight into doing something more electronic. But at the time the only way you could get into live music was to go to your local pub and see if you could play a gig. We were doing an electronic thing called Mick the Asbestos. Then we started playing live and got signed quite rapidly, and we were into the studio doing demos really quickly. There’s a track on that record that I really like called ‘MK33’. There’s also ‘Doppelganger’ – in the early days we’d play for 20 minutes and go offstage and get told we need to play for longer so we’d go back and do a 20-minute version of ‘Doppelganger’
So using guitars as your medium at the beginning was just the ‘done thing’ rather than an artistic decision?
Yeah it was the only avenue for live music, for us. Hidden has some guitars though, a few. but it really drops off after that. I feel like ‘White Chords’ has a bit of guitar *
Your drumming is a thread that runs through that’s very constant though.
That’s true, that’s good. I’ll be using that. I’ll tell that to Jack tomorrow haha.
Yeah definitely, rhythmically it’s very distinctive, with a lot of double-time.
Yeah I’d say its counter-intuitive. That’s actually some material we recorded for this album with really interesting drums, very loud, that we might put out at some point, stuff that doesn’t repeat.
You’ve spoken about Aphex Twin being an influence and that seems to bleed into your drumming. It sounds like you’re going for an organic version of the crazy drums he programs.
He’s amazing, I think he’s great. That’s a real compliment, thanks very much. I feel more like I can play bad David Bowie ‘Outsiders’ to get myself started at rehearsals, and I could try to do the same for Aphex but it would be much worse. Jack will arrange the drums and then I’ll learn to play it – obviously in that processes it changes quite a lot. I really like the drums on this album. It’s really clear if its sampled or real, I like that. That’s the other thing about ‘Dream forwards’ – it’s about almost trying to do the impossible – but everything’s possible in the studio, that’s the magic of the studio.
Yeah and previously you’ve used Foley artists, saying “What can’t we make this sound?”
Yeah it’s great fun.
Lastly, we recently lost Mark Hollis of Talk Talk who was a big influence for These New Puritans. Jack wrote a piece in the Guardian about him, I wondered if you wanted to add anything?
Yeah Jack wrote that but I contributed some thoughts as well. It’s just tremendously sad, he seemed like such a lovely guy. I’m basically just repeating what we wrote though. He was a great powerful musician and really nice. I really like, and Jack likes too, the early Talk Talk. Everyone lauds their later stuff but their early pop was great too.
(*) the only discernible guitar lines on Hidden are actually on ‘Attack Music’