March 29, 2010

On the Phone with Jack Barnett of These New Puritans

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What is the issue?

These New Puritans, pictured from left to right: Thomas Hein, Sophie Sleigh-Johnson, George Barnett, and Jack Barnett.
Alasdair McLellan
You’re not a human, you’re a weapon… It was September, harmful logic…, this is attack music.

That is the chorus of the thumping and violent new song –– “Attack Music” –– from These New Puritans, a queer quartet from Southend-on-Sea, UK.

I am on the phone with Jack Barnett, the frontman of these New Puritans, and he’s illuminating the track for me. “No, I don’t get all the fuss. The song is not about September 11, it was completely unintended. I suppose, I could be real controversial and say it is, but I’m not a very controversial person.”

Except, Jack is a controversial person, but, and this is so important, he’s not controversial for the sake of being controversial or even rebellious. He just happens to have an otherworldly MO, which often puts him at odds with the rest of us. This leads to controversy, or at the very least to misunderstanding.

These New Puritans just released their second studio album Hidden (Domino Records, Angular Records [UK]) and I want to understand its underlying narrative; but Jack just won’t spill: “I don’t want to give it away, it’s better to leave the music to cook for itself.”

I offer my typically American, typically paranoid interpretation of Hidden. ‘It’s about jihad, right? I mean, it begins with a track called We Want War, before it tumbles into the song called Three Thousand (the rounded number of deaths on 9/11). Then there are the aforementioned Attack Music and Fire-Power, the latter featuring lyrics like “I’m on fire, I’m on fire” as well as the sound of skulls being cracked open. –– So yeah, I’ve cooked it and digested it: It’s about terrorism.’

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Jack responds: “No, well, you know that’s sort of an interesting interpretation of it, but it’s not like that. The narrative is much more musical than lyrical.”

For Jack, I am learning, English is almost like a second language. His primary language is a more fluid yet deliberate sonic-speak: Music, instrumentation –– drumming, playing guitar, sampling, clapping, scoring. That is where Jack is most himself, most comfortable, most articulate. “The music is weightless and when I sing so am I” he larks on “Swords of Truth,” the single from TNP’s 2008 debut studio album Beat Pyramid.

Wanting to connect, wanting to reveal a more human side of him, I ask if he is dating someone, if there someone close to him in his life.

–– I have a girlfriend
–– Would you ever write a love song about her?
–– It’s sort of hard to write a love song, it’s the hardest subject to write about because it is the most written about subject. There are some subjects better to approach in a more indirect way, I think. “Orion” is loosely a love song.
–– I thought that song was about the death of a soldier.
–– Excuse me?
–– Never mind.
–– It’s kind of a love song, you know, the feeling of oblivion you get. It’s really quite a traditional song.
–– “My place is where we’ll go, without a doubt. I don’t think the stars are symbols, but let’s find out. Here we go! Into the stars!”
–– Right, see a love song.
–– Well, later on the track the lyrics are: “But ‘till then we’ll be hanging out on the wall.”
–– I kind of write loves sentences more than love songs.

We go on to talk about touring, and alcohol. “I have to drink before I go on stage, it’s actually a very disciplined thing, though. I have to drink enough to be motivated but can’t get pissed. I only really drink fine ales; recently I’ve been drinking a lot of red wines, no spirits though. As far as the rest of the band, Tom likes Whiskey. George more vodka. Sophie, I don’t really know about her, she doesn’t really drink.”

–– So where are you right now?
–– I am on Buckingham Palace Road, about to go to Westminster Music Library to check out the Benjamin Britten collection.
–– Cool, cool.
–– Yeah, I just left a meeting.
–– Well, I will let you go into the library.
–– Alright, write something good about us?

This should be a given. Hidden has received virtually universal critical praise. The Daily Telegraph, a prominent U.K newspaper, suggested it might be “the first masterpiece of the decade.” A reviewer at Rocksound was so floored that he remarked “it’s hard to believe this quartet even hail from earth,” while Drowned in Sound called it a “magnum opus.” And it goes on, and on, and on.

To add my own two cents: These New Puritans are so good, so complex, so much fun they’re almost sure to find an illustrious place in musical history.

Even with all this praise, or perhaps because of it, Jack constantly denies any high posturing. He says TNP make “pop music” that is not sophisticated at all. According to him, These New Puritans are just another plain ole’ band.

Except, Jack is lying. Or more accurately, only revealing one side of a multivalent truth. Because simplicity, as we all know, is the greatest sophistication. And These New Puritans make very simple music.

–– Wait, are you still there?
–– Yes?
–– Is “Attack Music” really not about 9/11?
–– Who knows? It’s a weird thing. That was not my intention at all. But, it’s funny, I’m not the one who controls the meaning of the song. TC mark

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