These New Puritans Quiet Insight

These New Puritans Quiet Insight
Photo: Willy Vanderperre
Jack Barnett may look shy and speak in shy sentences, but don't let that fool you: he really is shy. The singer has an uncanny ability to say barely anything with very few words. Another way to put this would be to say that he takes care to reveal what he means, and nothing more. Although we talk over the phone, it's not hard to imagine his intense gesticulating as ideas hatch into sentences. He stops, starts, clarifies; at one point he mentions his recent, oft-cited self-education in musical notation — necessary to enforce certain orchestral ideas — then swiftly backpedals: "I don't wanna go on about learning notation, actually, so maybe don't stress that. It's gone up a bit of a blind alley and it's a bit of a red herring. This isn't classical music."

Perhaps not, but it's closer than much else in its field. 2010's Hidden saw These New Puritans graduate from antsy math-rock students to post-pop pioneers. The result, and response, was staggering: Hidden became the finest British album in recent memory, an enormous critical success to restore faith in popular indie label Domino, which, after six years and a mysterious legal wrangle, lost the group to Infectious. Grandly bucolic follow-up Field of Reeds, though reportedly a personal album, once more confounds expectations: its summer UK release gently balanced the scales between bafflement and of-the-decade celebration, the epic winding structures outlasting some attention spans, despite its invariably breathtaking climaxes. We caught the reticent singer before his recent show in Frankfurt and together grasped for something hidden beneath the music's surface.

There's a lot of contrast on the record — loud and quiet, minimal and maximal, traditional- and synthetic-sounding instruments.
I'm always led by whatever music demands. So I'll be writing something and not thinking too much about it, and having fun. I keep saying "having fun," it sounds like something Brian Wilson would say. But you're just in the moment. A sound will occur to me and I'm just following that.

Listening back, do you hear things emerge that weren't intended?
Oh yeah, all the time. I'll listen to certain bits and think, "Yeah, I actually got at something there." Something like the end of "Organ Eternal." But I didn't mean to do it — I don't even know what it is I got at. But I got at something, there's something there, something in it. That feeling of, "Yes," that is how it feels sometimes.

Can you hazard a guess at what you'd elucidated?
Good feelings, at the end of "Organ Eternal," I suppose.

What's the song about?
The first part is about missing someone. [Long period of indistinct mumbling.] Yeah, that's really what it's about. Yeah, the end of it... just seems to work with that. [Long pause] I'm not trying to be elusive, it's just difficult stuff to get into.

How do you get your ideas out in the studio? Are you prone to light bulb moments?
Those kind of things happen when I'm sat writing the music, or in daily life. On a flight the other day, when we were going to Russia, I thought of a song as I was going to sleep and quickly wrote it down. I thought up a bit of a song the other night. When I'm going to sleep I always have a Dictaphone. Those are when moments happen, or just sat at the piano. In the studio it's like doing a film or something — you have a script that you work to, and then you can always have little moments of freedom within it.

The whole process of getting someone in, playing some music and then refining the performance — it's complete chaos, and it's a great feeling when you're coming up with a new idea that you think's a bit good. But also later, down the line, I'll be arranging that idea, and sometimes it'll be deadly boring. You know how in comedy duos, you've got the straight man, then you've got the funny guy? I think a lot of people prefer to be the funny guy, and they let the producer be the straight-faced person. But I tend to kind of flick between the two. At certain times I'll be the detached person, at certain times I'll be the person creating the chaos.

There are ideas on the record that are so perfectly captured, and so vast in scope, that they invite hugely disparate theories and interpretations. I have a feeling that's partly down to the nature of music writing — it's very flawed.
Yeah, you're right, you're right. Carry on.

It's a challenge: when a record enchants in ways you'll never understand, a description of the sound won't suffice. You can convey how it makes you feel, which is hard and quite risky. But another, safer method is to have an intellectual response, to draw connections and attach some kind of symbolism to the thing. And I think those reviews are about how music can induce a higher spiritual alertness, if that doesn't sound too creepy.
Yeah, it makes sense. There's that quote about writing about music, "You may as well tap-dance about architecture." I don't envy the task. But it's flattering as well, that people listen to the album that much.

Still, is that kind of analysis exasperating?
I find it funny when someone will write a review or something, and they'll have an interpretation of the record that, to me, seems very eccentric or particular. And they'll say it as if it's a gospel interpretation. It kind of annoys me. Because it's quite unusual music to some extent, people think, "Ah, it has to mean something else, there has to be something there." I just think, "Can't you enjoy it as simply something musical, and not a theory?" I suppose I'm just a craftsman trying to make good music. And sometimes that makes people think I don't want to answer certain questions. It's more that I don't necessarily always have an answer.

Having said that, it's obviously a good thing that it's occupying people. We've had some funny ones. I remember I got a letter from somebody, a French molecular biologist, who had all these theories about how the album was something to do with the crucifixion. It was interesting that he took the time — it's funny.

Isn't there something apocalyptic in Hidden and Field of Reeds?
Maybe — apocalypse is a revealing, isn't it, that's what that means. [Via Old French and ecclesiastical Latin, "apocalypse" derives from the Greek for "reveal."] So in a stretched sense, I like it when it feels like, at the end of songs, they'll make a little twist and jump into a slightly different world. The end of "Fragment Two" is like that, or the end of "Organ Eternal." Or even the way that, at the beginning of "V," you suddenly snap into this different world halfway through it. It's just a little thing that I like doing when I'm writing music.

How did you want the vocals to sound, emotionally?
I keep saying it's a personal record, but you know, what the hell does that mean? But yeah, I mean this music a lot, I mean every word, every note that's written. So I had to sing it in a way that's natural. So I tend to talk quietly, and I don't enunciate every word, so that's how the vocals came out like that, in the most natural way. There's no act — I mean every part of it.

Are there any particular aspects of yourself that the music reflects?
When I was first writing songs I was seven or eight, on my guitar, when I got home from school. And it was just for fun, for no other reason than to make some music. And this felt like that again. It felt like a traditional thing. I think people sometimes don't believe me when I say that, because they associate [traditional] music with fingerpicking, songwriter type stuff. But a lot of that, I really like — Neil Young, things like that. I'm always surprised when people say [our music] is really imposing, like it's harsh or something. It's got light and dark, which is how life is — so fairly natural, I suppose.

What are you focussing on now?
We're focussing on the live show. We have something else in the works but we can't discuss it. We're gonna start to do some new music very soon. It's not going to be a traditional release, I don't think — we're kind of working on something else, to shake things up in the way we work.

Are you still thinking about doing soundtrack work?
Yeah, in fact I'm talking to someone right now about potentially doing something. After this album, which I was very invested in, I'd love to do something that's not all bound up with myself.