It’s Friday afternoon in Manchester and upstairs at Northern Quarter venue Soup Kitchen, Field Music are finishing up a meal ahead of our interview. The majority of Field Music anyway – live guitarist Kevin Dosdale is elsewhere, whilst Peter Brewis is nowhere to be found. His brother David suggests he’s snubbed the food on offer at the venue in favour of chips around the corner (Peter would later refer to mushy peas as the “British dahl”, a depressing prediction for post Brexit Britain…)
It turns out that Peter is merely downstairs, sound checking drums all by himself ahead of their early stage time. That evening they would play their second ‘in-store’ of the week for a number of lucky punters, having played at Phase One in Liverpool the night before. Liverpool may have had them a day early, but their latest release ‘Making A New World’ came out good and proper whilst they were in Manchester, reliably produced on wax by their devoted label Memphis Industries.
The release date also tied in nicely with the 100 year anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles becoming effective, the very Treaty that ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers.
“Timed to perfection.” Says David with a smile when we finally get sat. The past 12 months and beyond have been First World War centric for the Brewis Brothers (save for mid-year when David looked at current events with his School of Language album ‘45’, themed around the presidency of he who shall not be named), given ‘Making A New World’ explores themes surrounding the after-effects of WWI across its 19 tracks.
“I think mostly people seemed to have got what we were going for, which we weren’t sure would be the case.” Says David of how it’s been received.
“I think the reception seems to have been better than our own reception” Adds Peter, creasing up David in the process. “It was kind of different for us to do this sort of thing. I think we were a bit sort of like – what do we even make of this? What do other people make of it?” He continues. “Quite often we’ll go from making an album, you know, reviews will come out and I basically don’t care what anyone says about it. I think it’s good, it’s what I intended to do. I couldn’t give… You know, it’s better when they are nice reviews. So this one, I was very much ready to get some bad reviews…”
David chuckles again as Peter ponders their decision. “…and to say – yeah, you’re probably right. It probably is a bit all over the shop. We probably have bitten off more than we could chew. Writing songs kind of about the end of the First World War and the hundred years afterwards, that’s probably quite a touchy subject for a lot of people…”
“We tried to be true to the kind of things that we could tackle.” Says David. “It would not have made sense for us to have made an album about the horrors of war, ‘cus we have no experiences that could possibly be a parallel to that. It would’ve been trite and it probably would’ve been bullshit. We try to avoid that if we can.”
Peel off the cellophane from the new record and you’ll no doubt relish in its double gatefold glory. Colour coded song titles on the back cover and its overall presentation confirm that – yes, it’s officially a ‘concept album’. Having been accused of being a prog band for the longest time, is now the time for Field Music to officially embrace prog and concept albums?
“It’s absolutely a concept album. There is a concept.” Adds David with a laugh.
“…It’s kind of funny that we’ve done one now. There’s no getting away from it.” Adds Peter. “I think once we realised we were gonna do it, in my mind it was like – yeah, let’s have a gatefold sleeve with the explanations of all the songs. Let’s do colour coordination…”
Work on the album began when Field Music were commissioned for two special performances at both Imperial War Museum locations in Salford and London, closing out their First World War Centenary programming. The ‘Making a New World’ season explored how the First World War changed and continues to shape society, with Field Music originally asked for a performance rather than to create a new batch of songs. Once work began however, the brothers Brewis soon realised they were onto a winner with the production of new music set around the theme.
“…We realised – actually, these songs are good, these songs are as good as normal Field Music songs – maybe this should be a record.” Says David. “I don’t think we were ready to start writing a normal Field Music album. I don’t think we were ready to write songs about ourselves at that point.”
“Nar. Would’ve been too dark…” Deadpans Peter.
Bringing audiences ‘a night of sound, song and animation set against the dramatic backdrop of galleries representing over a century of human conflict’, the event at Imperial War Museum North did just that – a unique environment for a gig, allowing one to observe giant tanks one minute and a live musical performance the next, with projections playing behind the band and surrounding the audience.
“It was a really perfect setting in Salford.” Says David. “We wanted to do something which was gonna fit in that space and I think that worked. I think it became a proper audio, visual, sensory experience. In London it was a little bit more like a gig in an unusual setting, but yeah – playing right underneath the nose of a Harrier Jump Jet, it still has that aura. It was quite strange.”
The music itself took influence from a rare document in the Imperial War Museum collection – a 1919 publication on munitions by the US War Department, which captures the end of WWI when “the guns fell silent“. The pair have previously noted that their own research into these matters was fairly amateurish, with more fruitful findings to be had if one had more time and experience. Due to time constraints, whilst a wealth of information was available to them via museum archives and online resources, most fact-finding missions started with good old Wikipedia and Google.
“It was like doing A Level history.” Adds Peter.
‘Only In A Man’s World’ is, in short, a song about sanitary pads, particularly in how little has changed in the past hundred years when it comes to marketing. Research developed with the discovery that the highly-absorbent material used in sanitary towels was originally intended for use as surgical dressing on the battlefield. American company Kimberley-Clark realised that nurses at the frontline were also using these materials for personal hygiene reasons and developed the first modern sanitary towel, branded ‘Kotex’ (for ‘cotton texture’).
Elsewhere stories deal in the uncertainty of returning home following the perils of war (‘Coffee or Wine’), ‘Best Kept Garden’ competitions and the Dada movement and extreme performance art of the 60s and 70s (‘A Shot To The Arm’). Advancements in medicine were prominent during the war, revolutionising practises at the time to reflect the demands of the wounded. Throughout their research, David and Peter encountered numerous tales of interest stemming from these advancements, most notable that of Dr Harold Gillies and his pioneering work on skin grafts for injured servicemen. This work led to Dr Gillies performing the first female to male gender reassignment procedure on British physician Michael Dillon in the 40’s.
“The story of Michael Dillon is really interesting,” Says David. “–That was the person who went from female to male and in doing so, arguably legally became the heir to his family’s inheritance.”
“As a woman, he wasn’t entitled to the inheritance…” Adds Peter, whose research led him to discover a newspaper article that gave them the song’s title ‘A Change of Heir’, on how Michael Dillon was soon entitled to this fortune following lots of legal ramifications and scandal.
“That’s an amazing story and to have that very, very clear link to the First World War, because the surgery was performed by Harold Gillies.” Adds David. “The thing about reparations as well. The final debt repayment on reparations was made in 2010. As soon as you see that, you think – what? Why? How? Again, it obviously has an absolutely direct link to the First World War, but it’s right now. It’s fascinating to think of all the repercussions of that.”
“Well, the Second World War being one of them.” Says Peter, with David quick to agree.
“Yeah – Hitler’s rise to power, absolutely predicated on the injustice of those reparations and what it did to the German economy, already kind of destroyed after the First World War.”
The mind-boggling reveal of the final debt repayment and the lack of advancements in marketing sanitary towels brings it home that whilst things have moved on dramatically since the First World War, some things don’t seem too different. Speaking of the album previously, Field Music have stated it’s about consequences and how the consequences of the war remain with us. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between events unfolding back then and the hardships being experienced today by those quick to forget.
“I’ve tried not to think explicitly about the parallels with current events.” Says David. “I was trying to write stories within the constraints we’d already done, but I just think it was impossible for those parallels not to be there. I think that’s how our opinions have gone into the record. It’s like the choice of things we’ve written about. You write about a new housing estate and it has that immediate parallel to the current housing crisis in the UK. You write about gender reassignment surgery because we’re now at a point where society is having to confront transgender rights. You write about Tiananmen Square because of the oppression that is still happening in the Far East, in Hong Kong, across that region. You write about sanitary towels because it was just a year before where the tampon tax was being blamed on the EU…”
He laughs. “It wasn’t explicit to do that, but I think that’s how our own personal interests and concerns made there way into the record, even though we weren’t writing about ourselves for the most part.”
It likely won’t shock you that the Brewis brothers have priors for this type of thing. In 2016 they helped commemorate the Battle of the Somme by producing the soundtrack for the Esther Johnson film ‘Asunder‘. Whilst the film was soundtracked by Field Music, the pair tell me that the project itself was a bigger collaboration with many contributors and as such, they don’t feel much ownership of the music.
“It doesn’t sound like Field Music to me, for lots of reasons,” Admits Peter. “Whereas this – we weren’t going to make an album out of it until we’d done the second gig. We know how to play this now, so what’s everyone doing next weekend?” He laughs. “What was it, a Friday?”
“Our usual Friday rehearsal slot.” Beams David in response.
“At our usual Friday rehearsal slot, Dave set up all the microphones. We’d not done that much recording in the new studio and we basically just pressed record and went through the whole thing twice.” Confirms Peter. “Twice?”
Once and two halves in actual fact, given a computer glitch halfway through the second take required a halt to proceedings. All parts combined capture the “sound of the Field Music band”, with their new album being the first since 2007’s ‘Tones of Town’ to not be produced entirely by Peter and David. Whilst the pair normally produce all the instrumentation themselves (with finishing touches added by a supporting cast), this time around they enlisted the help of their live band – Liz Corney (keyboards), Kevin Dosdale (guitar) and Andrew Lowther (bass).
“It was nice to start rehearsing the songs before we’d finished the arrangements.” Says David. “Again, usually we finish the record, then we learn how to play it as a band. With this it was like – I’m nearly finished, these are the chords, that’s the tune, probably some backing vocals there? Right let’s play it, ‘cus we’ve got a gig in like six weeks time!”
Guitarist Dosdale also had a hand in the visual production of the album concept, weaving together the audio with accompanying visuals projected on the night. The visuals were a nod to the 1919 publication on munitions and how it was made using ‘sound ranging’, a technique utilising an array of transducers to capture the vibrations of gunfire at the frontline. These vibrations were then displayed on a graph (similar to a seismograph), where the distances between peaks on different lines could be used to pinpoint the location of enemy armaments.
As highlighted in promotional videos and our review at the time (“the six strands bounced into life, individually twanging like the strings of a guitar on each beat, moving continuously throughout the performance”), these visuals were something the band wouldn’t have with them during the run of ‘in-stores’. They were also without the backing track that helped form a vital part of the two performances back in January 2019.
“We’ve had to learn how to play them without that stuff, which has been strange.” Says David, commenting that once this initial run has finished, the follow up tour beginning in February will require the band to learn how to play the album in full, in order (“Slightly slower…”)
Peter winces at the thought of relearning in time with the backing track and its clicks and clacks, but soon chirps up considering Liverpool the night before. “We were sort of all over the place. For us we were quite loose, but I had a good laugh, mainly at my own expense.” He laughs.
“Proved to ourselves we can play these songs…” Says David with a smile, one which his brother doesn’t share.
“Really? Is that what you thought?”
“I’ve seen documentary evidence of us playing one of the hardest songs quite well.” Counters David, which Peter puts down to “Fake news.”
Outside of new material, Field Music recently took to Twitter to compile a list of highlights from the past decade. Other than the many references to Ian Black of Slug (“Pfft, too much” – Peter), one of the many stand out highlights came down to their 2012 Mercury Prize nomination. Whilst they didn’t end up grabbing the top spot on the night (“Came joint last” – Peter), it did give them a number of tales, particularly the £400 seating option should they have wanted to attend the gala event with guests.
“It’s ludicrous isn’t it?” Says Peter. “Here’s me trying to save money by not buying a soup upstairs…”
Whilst there’s no doubt ‘Making A New World’ might still have a chance to join the short-list for the 2020 Mercury’s, David is not so sure. “I have a horrible feeling we’re never gonna get on that list again and quite often it seems like our public pronouncements make it even less likely we’ll ever get on that list again.” He says. “But you know, I hope we keep making good records people appreciate – whether they’re in the Mercury judging panel or not”.
The Mercury nod came following the release of ‘Plumb’, the fourth studio album from the duo. Seven years prior to that Field Music released their self-titled debut album, recorded in 8 Music, a studio built into an old building on what used to be Monkwearmouth Colliery in Sunderland. Part of an arts cooperative, it also paved the way for Tyne and Wear bands like The Futureheads and Maxïmo Park.
Community and collaboration runs deep through Field Music, the pair even recently joining up with Manchester based music charity Brighter Sounds for a five-day studio residency, collaborating with 10 emerging musicians and writers (including friend of BCFB, Dan Wild-Beesley of Cleft). Closer to home, there’s of course the likes of Slug and The Cornshed Sisters who have had fruitful partnerships with Field Music.
“Even though we’re quite control freak-y in a way, it’s good to see that other people have been involved and done other things off the back of being a part of Field Music.” Says Peter.
“It is kind of like a genuine cottage industry type thing, whereby doing what we’ve done, we’ve been able to help other people we think are good do what they need to do, who have in turn done the same again.” Adds David. “I think that’s what we always hoped for, for music in the North East. Sometimes it felt like we haven’t done it very well, but looking back across that period – this year it’s fifteen years since our first album – across that period us and lots of people we know or have worked with have done a lot of stuff. It feels worthwhile, as far as making indie-rock records can be.”
“Indie-rock? What band are you in, like?” Asks Peter, pulling a face. “Prog-funk. Post-everything. Post-nowt.”