Music from left field lets songs dictate the way

Peter and Dave Brewis have switched from pop to experimental, to a concept album that has only one copy, says Ed Power

“The album had been pressed onto vinyl,” he says. “So there was a single copy. That was the only version in the entire world”

They retreated ... and put out a challenging second record ... Critics loved it. The public didn’t and airplay dried up

MONTHS ago, Field Music’s Peter Brewis recorded an album of new material — then stayed up all night erasing it from his hard drive. Peter wasn’t unhappy with his work. He was making a point about our relationship with music in the digital age.

“The album had been pressed onto vinyl,” he says. “So there was a single copy. That was the only version in the entire world. If you destroyed that, it would be gone forever. We live in an era when music exists as an infinity of digital ones and zeroes. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be unique to create a piece of music that didn’t exist anywhere else’?” The precious 12-inch record was sealed in a turntable and put on exhibit at an art gallery in Manchester under the title One Copy.

People assumed Field Music were criticising the proliferation of file-sharing and its impact on the recording industry. Rather than waving a placard, says Peter, the band were starting a debate.

“We aren’t trying to force a particular opinion or viewpoint on anyone,” he says. “It is supposed to be an exploration of our relationship with music. We wanted to get people thinking.”

Field Music emerged from the north east of England in 2004. Their songs were clever but not annoyingly so. Somewhere between early Pink Floyd, late Beach Boys and cerebral post-punk outfits such as XTC, they enjoyed a surge of media hype and looked set for a long reign in the charts.

Peter and younger brother David weren’t comfortable in the mainstream. The pressure to release hit after hit jarred. They retreated into their shell and put out a challenging second record, Tones of Town. Critics loved it. The public wasn’t so enthusiastic and the airplay dried up. I suspect this didn’t trigger undue heartache.

In early 2010, the duo released their opus, a two-record sprawl called Measure. It received rapturous write-ups and saw Field Music regain some of that early momentum. For all its success, the project left the brothers with a conundrum. How do you follow up the most important album you’ve made? “We thought there was no point trying to repeat ourselves,’ says Peter. “Measure was a huge undertaking. As a way of reacting against that, we decided it would be nice to do something concise.”

Recorded side-by-side with One Copy, the brothers are about to put out their latest studio LP. Plumb is a 32-minute collection of arty pop tunes, not all of which observe verse-chorus-verse orthodoxy. Songs start and finish abruptly. There are sudden lurches in tempo. Just when you think you’ve got the record pinned down, it throws another curve-ball.

“One thing we didn’t want was to impose some overall vision on the material,” says Peter. “The idea was to work in a completely distinct way from Measure. If a track felt completed to us, we left it at that. If that means it ends all of a sudden, so be it. We were determined not to require anything to adhere to the conventions of a three-minute pop song. That is a route we have been down already. It was time to try something new. The songs dictated to us, instead of the other way around.”

Shortly before they started recording Plumb, Peter and David relocated to a new studio. Operating in a different environment had a major effect on the project, Peter says. At the risk of sounding cliched, it forced the pair out of their comfort zone.

“We’d been in our last studio for so long that I think we’d started to become a bit lazy,” he says. “Not that you can hear it on Measure. However, all of the songs on that record feel consistent. Whereas, this time out, I think there’s a bit less coherence. Which is a good thing, in a way. We are experimenting. We’ve always let the environment influence the songs and it has made for a more varied result.”

At first whiff of success, groups from England’s north east usually leg it to London. Peter Brewis, though, cannot envisage abandoning his home town. Sunderland continues to inspire his songwriting and it would be a wrench to be anywhere else.

“There’s a big connection between who we are as people and where we live. The north east is my window on the world, really. It informs what I write. I don’t think I would ever leave. Unless me and Dave have a big falling out — which is unlikely — I think we will continue doing this for as long as we can,” he says.

Plumb is released tomorrow.

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