The history of sibling rivalries and the history of popular music are closely intertwined. The earliest known example is recounted in the Biblical story of proto-rock band The Sons of Adam, in which primary song-writer and lead guitarist Cain sacrifices his younger brother Abel, partly to appease an angry and vengeful God, and partly because Abel, jealous of his brother’s greater recognition, kept trying to sing the choruses that were meant to be Cain’s. In recent times, as if in sinful parody of their Biblical forebears, Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks have fallen out over a cake, and everyone’s favourite shaved-chimps-in-parkas duo the Gallagher brothers famously disbanded The Oasis after a 12-year-long disagreement over the most creative way to call Damon Albarn a pleb ended acrimoniously.
It seems that in the history of musical siblings, the Brewis brothers of Field Music could legitimately claim to have been the only pair to ever take a formal break from their band due to genuine “creative differences” when, in 2007, they put Field Music on hiatus and made a solo album each, David’s School of Language and Peter’s The Week That Was. Perhaps even more rarely, they are a band that positively thrives on creative differences. Following on from 2010’s Field Music (Measure), a behemoth of a double album, the band’s forthcoming fourth album Plumb finds the brothers turning to each other as creative inspiration like never before; more ideas are bounced around and thrown away within a single track than many bands manage across an album.
I recently got the opportunity to question David Brewis on he and his brother’s intra-familial tensions. I put it to him that while Measure sounded like the brothers’ two different styles operating in harmony, Plumb feels like a clash between the artier, more awkward approach of the School of Language and the bombastic pop of The Week That Was, like an album struggling to go off in different directions. Plumb never lets the listener settle, it threatens to go one way and then launches off in an entirely unexpected direction.
“Well, [Peter and myself] don’t really write together. We tend to bring in a song when most of the ideas are already in place and we help each other turn those ideas into a record. We’re both quite strong-willed and tend to have a very clear mental image of where we want a song to go, so there’s inevitably a bit of push and pull,” explains David. “Sometimes, our tastes and ideas converge for a while and sometimes they diverge. It’s probably an over-simplication but you might say across Measure we were converging and across Plumb we were diverging a bit. There’s also a very friendly competitive edge to our songwriting – we’re always hoping to come up with something which will surprise the other.”
The last time the brothers “converged”, we were met with that rarest of things – a wholly coherent and consistent double album, which somehow managed to be the most accessible record the band have yet put out. Plumb, at roughly the length of one of Measure’s discs, sometimes feels like a conscious rejection of Measure and it’s straight-up pop sensibilities.
“I think we always feel the need to pull away from whatever we did last, especially when we do something as extreme as making a 70 minute-long album.” But this isn’t just a band evolving, surely? The sweeping baroque instrumentation has largely been dropped, the hooks are buried deep, and there’s barely a verse-chorus structure on the record. This is about a band in revolution, rejecting its immediate past. David swiftly disagrees with me on this point. “It’s funny, I’d say this album has even more varied orchestration than Measure, which to me seemed quite straight-up rock, and there was certainly no desire to dispense with hooks – we just didn’t want to rely on repetition so much and let sections of music flow from one to the next without outstaying their welcome. We’re quite restless when it comes to music-making.”
Certainly, nothing on Plumb outstays its welcome. Only one track even approaches the four-minute mark, and the album itself ends just after half an hour with the cryptic first single, ‘(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing’, a phrase which could have formed the mantra for this stage of Field Music’s career, a phrase you can imagine them having pinned up in their recording studio.
In a previous interview with The Line of Best Fit, Peter Brewis described Measure as being “a farewell to the archaic.” Does this mean Plumb is being viewed as a new chapter in the Field Music story? “I think the ‘archaic’ reference was specifically about formats,” David says. “To be honest, given how personally attached we are to the album format, I don’t think we’ll be giving that up for a while.” While it is always a relief to hear a great band declare their allegiance to the album format, there is surely more to it than that. Measure sounded instantly like a lost classic, its touchstones were Led Zeppelin and Pentangle, it could have been made in 1970 rather than 2010. Conversely, Plumb is a much more contemporary record which plays against its influences as much as it subsumes them. Once again, mine is an opinion which differs to that of David Brewis.
“I think a lot of the perception of us as a ‘retro’ band comes from the fact that there’s so little of certain influences in what we do,” he argues. “Specifically, the song writing styles of indie music in the 80s and early 90s – Smiths, Stone Roses, Britpop – are pretty much absent from our musical thinking and also more-recent trends in indie and rock record production – shiny, compressed, pro-tooled, with ‘ambience’ all over the place – aren’t really in our tool cabinet either. Without those reference points, it’s easier to make sense of why we’d be tagged as sounding 60s/70s/80s. There are so many things in our music which couldn’t really have been done at any time other than now. So I’d say Plumb is mostly just a continuation.”
One of the things which marks Plumb out so clearly as a continuation of the Field Music canon is the furthered sense of geographic location, the Brewis’s devotion to, and self-consciousness about, their Sunderland origins (see the album’s artwork: bleak, grey, post-industrial, but with a knowing cartoonish playfulness). “We’re quite principled people and those principles primarily come from where and how we were brought up,” David tells me. A lyric like “them that do nothing / make no mistakes”, from Measure’s song of the same name at once demonstrates those principles, its colloquial grammar playing joyously on my northern ear. Having been raised just over the other side of the North York Moors to where the Brewis brothers grew up, such a phrase doesn’t sound stagey, but an honest and authentic replication of the voices of the region. “One of the things we’ve tried to do is strip away some of the mythology of being in a band” says Brewis. “I find it both hilarious and disheartening that the music industry has become so adept at playing various versions of the ‘authenticity’ card to the point where authenticity has become like another meaningless genre classification.”
The by turns graceful and brusque Wearside accents are perhaps the defining watermark of a Field Music song, and can also seem to be part of that same drive toward authenticity. “In the course of trying to find a better way to be honest, it just seemed necessary that we needed to stop singing in the bizarre faux-american accents we had as teenagers,” Brewis says. Brewis’ honesty shines through in person as well as on record, particularly in one instance when he describes Write Your Own History, a collection of b-sides and early recordings Field Music put out shortly after their debut album, as being “a little bit too much like showing somebody a video compilation of your ten most embarrassing teenage moments.”
The fact of Field Music’s geographic origins was perhaps tempered by the scene that emerged from the North East at around the time of their debut. Field Music was frequently swapping members with the Futureheads and Maximo Park, bands who had huge instant success with early singles like ‘Hounds of Love’ and ‘Graffiti’. Though Field Music were always markedly apart from those two acts stylistically, Brewis feels that their commercial breakthroughs helped the region as a whole. “[The emergence of that scene] helped us a great deal that when our first album came out, there was a reason for people to take notice and write about us,” he says. “I think it also helped us and the ‘Heads and Maximo that we were part of quite a strong music community in the north-east and we were all trying to spur each other on – around the same time, Pete Gofton was releasing records as J Xaverre and The Golden Virgins’ album came out so it was quite a productive period [for the region].”
Plumb‘s lyrics are perhaps the strangest yet committed to a Brewis brothers record, certainly outside of the deliberately difficult and oblique imagery of David’s School of Language. The words of Plumb initially feel clear and transparent, but the more I listen, the further away the real meaning seems to get. Subjective understanding and interpretation, for me, is as important to the Field Music experience as anything else, so I ask David if he has any concern that the way his listeners understand a lyric might differ wildly from the way he intended it. “Most if not all of the lyrics are very personal indeed but I think I’d spend a lot of time being pretty disappointed if I expected listeners to interpret them in exactly the way they were intended,” he says. “I’d like there to be layers to the lyrics in the same way there is with the music. Some things you’ll take in straight away – the chorus for ‘Choosing Sides’ is about as direct a lyric as I’ve ever written – and some things might take a lot longer or their meaning might change for you over time, in the way they do for us when we’ve sung them over a few years.”
Brewis is particularly attached to the changing nature of his work over time. While Field Music have always drawn upon a write range of instrumentation, they have traditionally toured with a simple four or five-piece band, playing only a handful of shows with full orchestral support because, Brewis explains, he likes the changing, improvisational nature of playing with a small, intimate group of musicians. “It can be great to do shows with the extra instrumentation every now and again,” Brewis tells me. “However, a lot of the fun of live music for me is the unpredictability; responding to what the other lads play and the atmosphere at the gig and then trying to find ways to surprise yourself in that moment. When you’re playing with musicians who are more dependent on a score, that becomes more difficult and you lose some of the elasticity.”
As for the future, Brewis can’t say much, other than that they’re touring behind Plumb for the foreseeable and, teasingly, that they’re “unlikely to go straight into another Field Music pop record,” possibly leaving the door open for further solo work. As fans, all we can do is look at the history of brotherly creativity, and pray and hope that Peter and David follow in the footsteps of pop’s amicable sibling relationships -Luke and Matt Goss, Jedward – and don’t stray too near to the tempestuous fires lit by so many of their predecessors.
Plumb is available now via Memphis Industries, and you can catch Field Music at the following dates in support of the album’s release:
Feb 18, Glasgow, Stereo
Feb 19, Manchester, Deaf Institute
Feb 20, Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
Feb 22, Nottingham, Bodega
Feb 23, Bristol, The Fleece
Feb 24, Kings College, London