These New Puritans
'We used a lot of knives'
Interview Karley Sciortino
Photography David Ellison
These New Puritans make music that is breathtaking, challenging, brutal and precise. Music that is at once somber and uplifting, new and old and with the power to perplex and enlighten in harmony. Not a bad combo, really. There aren’t too many bands around these days citing both Steve Reich and Britney Spears as influences, but These New Puritans’ sophomore album, Hidden (Angular/Domino, 2010), does just that. Erudite and eager, these four young musicians are sonic hijackers for a permissive generation.
Hailing from near Southend-On-Sea, UK, These New Puritans – Jack Barnett (vocals), twin brother George (drums), Thomas Hein (bass/drums) and Sophie Sleigh-Johnson (keyboards) – began playing together in 2006. Their debut album, Beat Pyramid, was released on London’s Angular Records in 2008. Produced by Barnett, the heavily percussive, driving album was an enchanting marriage of post-punk and dancehall, and its ambition and clarity of vision established TNP as one of that year’s most exciting new bands.
This January saw the release the band’s second LP, the rhythmic, hypnotic, and scarily beautiful Hidden. A sonic landscape of dancehall, classical and modern U.S. pop, Hidden is a delightful peek into the inspired mind of songwriter/composer Barnett. Though they are very much a gang, at the heart of TNP is Barnett, sole songwriter and silent man in charge. Hidden in every inch his vision, his music, his heart. Produced by Barnett and Graham Sutton (Bark Psychosis, Boymerang), the album was released to rave reviews, hailed as both intelligent and accessible, and with some outspoken journalists claiming it one of the top albums of 2010 merely one month into the year.
It’s not all positive, however. These New Puritans do get the occasional bad rap, having been labeled both ‘pretentious’ and a ‘fashion band’. One can see why; they’ve been photographed by designer Hedi Slimane, recorded the soundtrack for the 2007 Dior Homme runway show, and drummer George currently moonlights as a fashion model. However, if you look beneath the surface, you’ll find four skinny, pale, unwittingly beautiful kids have little interest in any fashion comparison. In the end, These New Puritans is Jack Barnett, and for this shy, gawky frontman, it’s clearly only about the music.
Meticulous, visionary and acutely considered, Hidden sets These New Puritans apart from many of their indie contemporaries.
What were the initial ideas behind Hidden?
Jack: With Beat Pyramid we were recording our entire history. As well as writing new music, we also had to do justice to the music we’d been writing for the past five years. But with this record we had a blank slate. We could do whatever we wanted. I’d been writing music for a bassoon quintet, and I’d also been writing more beat-driven, quite fast music. Then it just hit me one day I could start combining the two. Prior to that I’d always sort of sectioned off some of the music I wrote from These New Puritans. There was the music I wrote for the band and then there was my personal stuff. But Hidden was really the genesis of when I started putting all my ideas into These New Puritans.
The combination of the two genres seems very organic, unlike some horrible indie hybrid.
Jack: Yeah, it’s not as formulated as that. This is music with two fundamental elements. It’s not just indie with some other stuff sprinkled on top. You can always tell when bands make an album they think critics will like. They mix together loads of influences and the record just ends up sounding like four albums in one.
How do you write? It doesn’t exactly seem like the type of music that gets written by sitting down with a guitar.
Jack: It’s the complete opposite of that. That’s the most conservative way of making music I think – sitting down with a guitar, jamming. I generally write with a computer and manuscript paper. It’s all very composed. There’s no improvisation.
How much time do you generally spend on each song?
Jack: It’s always different which makes it harder, but also better. We don’t really have a pattern when it comes to writing songs; some take five minutes, some take ages. Usually I write the parts really quickly, but figuring out which bits slot together have taken up to three years. One bit of music on Hidden I wrote during A-Level music one day when I was bored. I almost didn’t even take it with me when I left, but last minute I put it on a floppy disc and now it’s the last song on the album. The song “Fire” is also quite old.
On Beat Pyramid there were a lot of reoccurring lyrical themes – things like the colors, numbers, circularity. Does that same continuity exist on Hidden?
Jack: A little bit, but this time it’s more musical than lyrical. There are loads of musical elements that reoccur from song to song. It’s sort of like a musical story.
What was the lyrical inspiration on this album?
Jack: The lyrics came at the very end. I just wanted there to be words on the album, because I like the way words sound on music, but that was really all I thought at first.
Does that mean that lyrics aren’t as important to you as other elements?
Jack: Possibly, but in the end the lyrics did all come together quite well. They’re really just another musical element in some ways.
George: Especially on this album, because the way Jack’s singing is really dynamic. He’s singing really quietly with the microphone right up against his face, so you get all the texture and details of the voice. You hear all the noises.
Some of the lyrics on this album are almost rapped, rather than sung.
Jack: Yeah, there’s some of that. I also do some actual singing on this record, whereas the last album was mainly just shouting.
Do you ever feel self-conscious about having to sing live?
Jack: Yeah sometimes, because you have to make your voice not sound completely ridiculous. I mostly get nervous when we play in London because we know people there, and that’s a bit weird to me.
Where do you feel most at home: writing, recording or playing live?
Jack: Definitely writing music.
This record has loads of musical elements – brass, strings, samples. How do you play it all live?
Jack: Well we obviously can’t have things like the brass and strings played live, because we just don’t have the money. We have a different way of playing it, with a lot of samples and triggers and stuff, although we’re not using a backing track. It sounds completely different, but I think the way it transfers is really good. It’s like the same music played in a different way.
If you could live in any time musically, where would you choose?
Jack: Probably a cross between 16th century and now. Ideally I’d want to have all the production techniques and the sound of music now, but live in the 16th century. That would be really good.
Jack: Yeah, I really like the sound of that! Everyone hates it but we like it. We actually have Auto-Tune on the record. Our “We Want War” voice is totally Auto-Tuned. It’s totally “Womanizer”.
Hidden features six-foot Japanese Taiko drums, a 13-piece brass and woodwind ensemble and a children’s choir. Was recording it fun, strange and exciting?
Jack: It was a lot of fun, yeah. The recording process was really short compared to most other bands. The whole thing lasted just three weeks, partly because we didn’t have the money to be in the studio for any longer, but also because it was all so composed that most of the work was essentially done beforehand. Also we had a lot of other musicians in playing stuff, so there were some days where we just got to come in and watch other people perform.
There were lots of different instruments used on the album, right?
Jack: Yeah, hundreds.
What was the weirdest instrument you used?
Jack: I don’t know, maybe the contrabassoon. It’s basically this really deep sounding horn made of a human thigh bone. It’s a Buddhist instrument. We used a lot of knives. We spent ages trying to get all the different sounds a knife could make. It’s actually quite a good musical instrument.
On Hidden, you worked alongside producer Graham Sutton, where previously you always did all your own production. How was it working with someone else?
George: He was really great to work with. It was good working with him because of the way he records. He’s so positive, and sometimes Jack is quite negative, so together they made a good balance (laughs). I think we learned a lot from him.
How involved are you in your artwork and music videos, and how important do you feel it is for an artist nowadays to be involved in that side of things?
George: We do almost all of it. I did the album artwork, and with music videos we work with other people, but we’re always really involved in talking about ideas and concepts. I think it’s really important to have an idea of the image you want to project. It’s just as important as the music really. Although that’s not to say we’re styled or anything horrible like that.
Jack: Although I also think it’s fair enough if bands don’t want to be involved in that side of things. If they don’t care about it then they can get someone else to do it, and that’s fine. But for us we always want thing to be a certain way.
Has your relationship with music changed over the past four years?
Jack: I think we’re more excited now. I guess in a way, making music has become more like a job, but I quite like it being a job really. It means we’re doing more than just chasing some rock ‘n’ roll dream. This is us and this is what we do. This is the way we work. Essentially we want to survive and to make music. Those are our only two objectives really.
What’s the most important thing to you when making music?
Jack: I think it’s important for music to sound new. I’m into simple, strong, pure ideas. That’s not to say our music is necessarily simple. I like simple stuff and I like complicated stuff, and hopefully our music lands somewhere in between.