When the guns stopped: rock band Field Music on performing at the Imperial War Museum

David Brewis of Sunderland rock band Field Music explains to Isabeau van Halm how WW1 battlefield techniques inspired their performance at IWM London

As the Imperial War Museums’ (IWM) First World War Centenary programming comes to an end, band Field Music takes to the stage to bring the moment the First World War ended to life. After a show at IWM North last week, January 31st marks the occasion of the band’s live performance in London.

The performance is influenced by a rare document from the IWM’s collection, a graphic record that captured the end of the war and the moment the guns fell silent.

“We were looking for musicians to respond to what happened when the guns stopped and the new world – a world of jazz, freedom and new ideas – emerged,” the IWM’s Assistant Director Susie Thornberry explained.

They found those musicians in the Sunderland-based brothers Peter and David Brewis. Formed in 2004, the band released critically acclaimed albums such as Commontime (2016) and Plumb (2012). Their British art-rock music with classic influences promises an intriguing performance, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Imperial War Museum.

We spoke to David Brewis about the show and the fascinating stories that inspired their new songs.

Have you ever done something like this collaboration with the Imperial War Museum before?

We’ve done commissions before and we’ve done some sound tracking for film, including a collaboration where we put together music for a documentary about the First World War (called Asunder) but nothing where the research and song writing were so entwined. Usually with a commission the end product is not something with sounds like a Field Music album but I feel that this one does.

© IWM Field Music viewing a document from IWM’s collections. The document depicts a graphic record that shows the moment that the First World War ended

What can people expect to hear and see?

Stories and vignettes and ruminations set to Field Music music, with an animation and archive photographs tying the stories in the songs to the stories which inspired them.

Can you tell me something about the influence for the compositions, the graphic record?

For us, the graphic record was just a starting point for the concept. That artefact shows the final moments of the war through a technique called Sound Ranging, where microphones on the front were used to pick up vibrations from enemy guns and could then be used to pinpoint their location. We imagined the six lines from that picture stretching out across time and turning into a kind of graphic score where we’d be looking for vibrations from the war echoing in the next decades.

© IWM Field Music listen to audio at IWM London that re-imagines what the end of the First World War may have sounded like

Were there any other inspirations?

We looked for moments in the war and immediately after which continued to have an impact in the century that followed. So there’s everything from a song about post-war housing to a song about Tiananmen Square, songs about sanitary towels and ultrasound and the development of digital synthesis.

How did you interpret these inspirations into the performance?

In some instances we’ve written songs and some of the pieces are instrumentals. For the songs the challenge was usually to find which angle the song was coming from. For the song about the tanks on Tiananmen Square, Peter wrote from the point of view of the photographer who took the very famous picture of the student standing in front of a line of tanks. For the song about reparations, I imagined someone in a back office at the German treasury going through the paperwork to pay the final instalment of debt due from those reparations. That last instalment was only paid in 2010.

Andy Martin:Mercury  Prize nominated Field Music

Is there any story in particular that stood out to you?

Honestly, I found it all fascinating. We found links to those events in all sorts of places and with more time we probably could have written ten more songs before we got to the point where we were struggling for material.

Despite the peppy vibes, your last album Open Here carries political and social messages. Is there a certain message that you want to express in this show?

I think our choice of stories is probably indicative of our personal politics but we weren’t trying to show the war through our own moral filter. With the centenary commemorations, last November, the focus was on remembrance but sometimes the language and imagery around that pushes the war into the distance. With this project we wanted to show that the impact of the war is absolutely still with us.

Field Music performs at IWM London on 31 January 2019. For more information about the event and to book tickets, visit the website here

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