Analogue Music | These New Puritans

These New Puritans

By Matt Conner

Jack and George Barnett set out to be more direct.

When the time came for the Barnetts to write and record the newest album by These New Puritans, Inside the Rose, the goal was clarity—albeit through the lens of the British art-rockers. “This is our most direct, melodic music yet” said George when the album was released in March. “I like music that goes straight to your nervous system, not abstract, wanky, gap-year stuff.”

Inside The Rose is These New Puritans at their most straightforward, but that's not to say they've gone commercial. Rather, the Barnetts have learned to trim the fat, to peel back the layers, to allow space and restraint to mark their work as much as their genre-bending compositions. They're still the same band tasked with playing a David Lynch-curated section of Manchester International Festival this summer. Not to worry.

We recently caught up with Jack Barnett during a stretch of downtime as the now-duo decide how to approach their next few creative steps. The conversation takes a few turns toward the power of art and the ability to dream in music before settling into figuring out just how experimental the band really wants to be.

Analogue: I know you wrapped quite a few tour dates. Are you getting some good down time now?

Jack Barnett: We've had a couple days off and now we're determining what's going to happen for the rest of the year. We've got a few events we'll announce and we're making plans for new music. But we're collecting our thoughts for a bit because we've been working non-stop for about six months, really. Essentially we do everything ourselves. Although we do these things that to the outside might seem high production—like videos or gigs with lots of musicians or participants—it's all quite DIY. It's me and George putting together almost everything. It's quite intense in that way, so it's nice to have a couple days off.

Analogue: Is that by necessity to have that level of control or input or is that by design?

Jack: I don't know, really. It's probably a little bit of both. I think it's a good thing. Control is not the right word; it's more doing the things you want to do and then bringing in other people for very specific cameos into our world and giving them freedom to pursue their vision. At the same time it would be unthinkable for us to not have anything to do with the artwork. That's crazy. I'm pretty sure it's different for other bands, but that's mad. The artwork and the music has to cohere into one constellation.

Tnp Album Art
Tnp Album Art

Analogue: Is that due to having a bigger picture in mind—that it's not just about the music for you but a holistic presentation?

Jack: Maybe. It's about doing things with conviction. If things like artwork are just a superficial reflection of the music, where someone's been brought in from the outside and you're just trying to make an image to sell this music or fit this music in a superficial way, it just doesn't do it for me. It doesn't give me what I need from the music or creativity. I want something where everything's working together with conviction.

I guess it's also because essentially I'm the boss of the music and George is the boss of anyting visual or presentation or that whole other world. It's not so much about being a boss as it is when I'm doing music, he's more like my assistant and when he's doing that stuff, I'm more of his assistant. It's just a happy coincidence that we can work together like that as brothers.

Analogue: So that's true of the art that you appreciate most, that the artist has that level of conviction?

Jack: I like music and art that really get you to a higher level of intensity, that amplifies your whole nervous system, that makes you feel differently about the whole world. That's the stuff I like. In some ways and certain areas, it's kind of frowned upon to have those kind of convictions. It's almost old-fashioned to think art can do those things, that art can transform your life with an overwhelming experience and rewire you. But that's what I want. As a kid, I grew up and admired stuff like that, whether that's Captain Beefheart or Aphex Twin or Francis Bacon.

Analogue: What makes you perceive that in the rearview mirror?

Jack: Certainly in the mainstream it's old-fashioned. I think there's a lot of stuff that's more like a player's style. It's mix and match. I'm gonna sound very condescending or like I have all the answers, which I don't really think, but there's a lot of nostalgic music about. There's a lot that, to me, is playful and ironic, but it doesn't get to the heart of things. I think there's also a kickback against that. I think there's stuff now that really is starting to demand something different.

Analogue: What sort of demands?

Jack: Just what I said before really. It's art that can change your world, can overwhelm you. I can't think of anything more specific to say there. It's getting to the heart of things and dreams in reorder yourself—in order to define what's real to you.

Analogue: Is music a guide for that or a mood setter for that?

Jack: Music is a whole part of that process. I haven't formulated it any further than that. [Laughs] I just want stuff to get to the heart of things.

Analogue: You mentioned the word "dreams" earlier and I wanted to ask about something I read for the new album—namely that some of the music literally came from your dreams?

Jack: There's one song in particular called "Where The Trees Are On Fire." Probably 80 percent of the lyrics and the melody that runs through the song was dreamt. It's not normal for me. I went through a period a couple years ago of dreaming lots of music. I'm quite a bad sleeper, so I always wake up and I'll be half awake, half asleep. I started to dream of music and most of the time it was awful—it was awful '80s ballads or bad rock and roll songs.

I think a lot of people will have this happen where you wake up and you can't recall waht you dreamed so there's a sense of loss. I decided to have a dictaphone beside my bed so I could wake up and sing them. That's how that song came about. It was the hit among many misses. I'm fully aware it sounds like something people make up but it's not. Also I haven't dreamt up any music for a long time now. Maybe I've jinxed it by recording that song.

Analogue: If the music comes that easily for one song, was there another song that required the most work?

Jack: Usually the very bit is melody, progression, rhythm. That comes really quickly—generally 80 percent comes really quickly. Then you have a momentum and everything works. It's the last 20 percent which is the hardest bit and really hard work. You just work at it and try thousands of different things and eventually you get there. A song like "Beyond Black Suns" was one that was quite hard work off of the first idea. There were a lot of iterations of that—different melodies, different lyrics. So it was a mixture.

Also weirdly, about the dreaming of music, I think it was coming because I was working with music so much during the day and you always end up dreaming about what you've been doing, some way or another. [Laughs] That part of your brain continues on when you sleep.

Analogue: You had the chance to score a stage production of Brave New World. Did that experience inform the new album in any way, by being able to create for a different medium?

Jack: That came in the middle of the whole process. It was really useful because I think it loosened us up. We were writing for someone else, so it was essentially someone else's problem. We could just do a lot of music very quickly and then hand it over. It really frees you up. You don't feel like every note you write is going to be hung around your neck for the next 30 years. [Laughs] So there's less pressure, basically. That gave us a nice injection of energy and we carried that into the next album sessions.

"We had the feeling that no matter how unorthodox the idea, we wanted it to be as sharp and clear as possible. I always like music that's direct but inexplicable—really, any kind of art."

Analogue: Were you having any difficulty before that?

Jack: Not really. I don't know. From the outside, it looks like a long time since the last album. I feel like we were doing lots of stuff all the time during that time, but when I look back at it objectively, it's absolutely insane the amount of time we spent. Actually we just wrote lots and lots of music and we were picky about what we wanted to record. I don't really believe in problems in music. It's a privilege to be a musicians. You don't really have problems. You just get on with it.

Analogue: When you say you were picky, were there filters in place that you're referring to or an overaching vision? Or when you say it, do you just mean whether you like it or not?

Jack: Yeah, really it's just whether we like it or not. It's a now or never kind of feeling that me and George shared. We wanted to just get it right, even if it took a long time. We wanted to make something simultaenously direct and unorthodox. That's just the stuff I like and gives me a high when I'm writing.

Also, we had the feeling that no matter how unorthodox the idea, we wanted it to be as sharp and clear as possible. I always like music that's direct but inexplicable—really, any kind of art. That's the stuff I really want. So that was more or less the guiding principle, but it was all instincts. We were a long way into it before we actually decided to talk about that.

Analogue: The quotes that came with the album from you said the same thing, about wanting this to be so direct. Is that in response to what you've made in the past? Do you feel you were confusing or foggy before?

Jack: There is that aspect that you want to escape from what you've done previously. That's just instinct and I think most musicians have that. George and I have that. I don't know though. It's just a conviction and I don't know where it came from. We just both knew what we wanted to do.

I think, at the moment, the experimental and the mainstream are splitting apart. There are loads of reasons for that, but I have this love of music that's really weird and pop at the same time—not pop as something edgy or not, but pop as in the fact that we don't want to be elitist. We don't want to be self-consciously experimental. I think a lot of experimental music has just as many conventions and as much complacency as the cheesiest, most insincere pop song. At the same time, a lot of my favorite songs are amazing, mysterious pop songs. That's just my taste, I guess, and it somewhat intensified on this album.

Analogue: This is your shortest album, right?

Jack: Is it? Maybe it is.

Analogue: I thought it was. As you were talking, it made me curious if even the length was a response to the instincts you're describing?

Jack: I think there are very few albums over 40 minutes that couldn't do with cutting something out. A lot of my favorite albums are on the short side.

Analogue: By the way, is that hard for you or are you pretty good as a self-editor?

Jack: We took so long on this album time-wise that the actual decision of the track list was such an intensely pressured one for me, personally. With every decision, the pressure mounts for just a little bit. It's not about what people will like, but I just don't want to cock up what I've been doing at the last second. In fact, it was very, very close to having another song on it, which I really like, but I think we made the right decision to lose it. There's enough information there and I think it's balanced as it is.

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