I wrote this feature to a brief when I worked at NME, some time around the end of February. For various reasons, it never ran. So here it is:
“It’s always been the age of austerity for us,” deadpans David Brewis, drawing the tatty paisley curtains in the cold industrial unit that constitutes Field Music’s Wearside studio. “It’s just now that everyone’s catching up. Or catching down.”
Owning your own recording and rehearsal space might sound pretty luxurious – and David and his elder brother Peter, who formed Field Music in 2004, are acutely aware of the privilege, even if the plasterboard walls tremble behind flanks of old synths and the distended grunts of beefcakes pumping iron in the gym next door. The Brewis brothers moved to their new location in December 2010 in order to start writing what would become their fourth album as a band, the superb ‘Plumb’. It’s an incredible record, built around poppy, baroque prog bombast that springs and slinks through vignettes on situations which equate emotional abandonment with political neglect. It’s a record for these times, tirelessly inventive in the face of ascetic surroundings. Prior to this, they shared studio space with their pals The Futureheads at a local community development centre, which was closed due to a lack of funding.
“Being here means that our albums cost practically nothing to make,” Peter says chirpily, entering the studio’s side-room with the pleasing rattle of a biscuit-laden tea tray. “We might even make money on each copy sold!” A couple of weeks after we meet, The Observer publishes an interview with the band where they joke that they make £5k per year. To their dismay, the journalist ran with it, making it the focus of the piece. Whilst they’re not quite living below the breadline, David says, “We make the equivalent to a part-time minimum wage salary.”
“We have a comfortable existence. Some people’s ideas of that are different. David’s got a telly. I don’t need one, all me Only Fools and Horses episodes are up here!” Peter taps his head and grins.
The only sign of decadence in the studio is a double-necked Danelectro guitar posing on the sofa. Peter blushes and leans it face-in against the wall. “I don’t want it controlling the room! I had a single-necked one, but me wife left it in the back of a cab, so I got this to replace it. Though I have been told that I won’t be married any more if I play it on stage…”
The very idea of either Brewis indulging in such flagrant cock-rockery is faintly preposterous. Where certain bands adopt council block backgrounds as a grab at ‘voice of the people’ authenticity, Field Music are more likely to be found leading sociologists on tours of local estates, as they did with Observer journalist and Estates: An Intimate History author Lynsey Hanley. The brothers’ parents grew up in the notorious Pennywell, one of the country’s most sprawling post-war social housing schemes.
Their music may be artfully, idiosyncratically flamboyant (the Danelectro crops up “once or twice” on the new album) but Field Music function as a model of restraint and principle, taking control of their entire world and rejoicing in the potential for collaboration that their location offers them. Field Music have long been cited as the epicentre of the local scene. “The position we’re in is because of what we believe in,” exclaims Peter. “People can make better decisions by the choices they make, by how they lead their lives, how they treat people, how they view themselves in society. Be involved, y’know. We’re involved with everything: the bank account, the studio, the bills, the music. I’d encourage other people to do the same.”
“It’s odd,” says David. “When you start making music you don’t think, ‘I can’t wait, I’m gonna play my guitar, then do the VAT returns!’”
This DIY approach marks them as outsiders in a notoriously excessive industry, and both informs and is a product of their ‘personal is political’ approach. Peter was chairman of the board at the centre where they used to record. He’s also on the management committee at The Bunker, the other local music community organisation, where The Futureheads met. He and David used to teach there, and later this spring, they’ll be playing a benefit gig to raise money for a new roof. “If it smells nicer, maybe people will be a bit more careful about where they leave their half-eaten sandwiches,” jokes David. “It gets managed very well, but bands are dirty, you can’t deny it!” Existing in the relatively remote, deprived Sunderland (David has never lived more than 2.5 miles from the city centre; Peter studied in Newcastle and Bangor) makes them even more aware of how vital it is to encourage creativity among a frequently disaffected youth population. Field Music are possessed of a rare sense of engagement that goes far beyond rock’s usual version of community where bands convene around a pub.
Later on, we walk up the bitter coast to Roker Lighthouse. On the way, David points out the neighbourhood where he pounded the pavements campaigning for Labour last summer. “Like a lot of people, I joined the party after the disastrous 2010 election hoping there would be a groundswell,” he explains. “Then I became branch secretary. A lot of people slam the door in your face when you’re campaigning, saying, ‘You’re all the same’. It doesn’t make me very popular in the party, but to a certain extent, I agree. People are more focused on the party than the policy, policy and motive have become divorced. Some young people here didn’t even know that there was an election on in 2010, that’s the level of disenfranchisement here.”
“CHANGE!” David exclaims grandly, back in the studio, flinging both hands out in front of him before sinking his head into them in response to a question about one of ‘Plumb’’s prevailing themes. Change looms large on ‘It’s Okay To Change’, ‘A New Town’ being “good for us”, and ‘Choosing Sides’ demanding, “I want a different idea of what better can be”. “Change has become such a charged word, people want it to mean so much. ‘It’s Okay To Change’ is about how you don’t have to change. But you don’t have to stay the same – don’t feel attached to how you think you’re supposed to be, and you also don’t need to be perfect. The idea is given mystical properties. I think Cameron said, ‘It’s time for a change’.”
“Couldn’t agree with you more, mate,” says Peter.
If you can ascribe political leanings to ‘Plumb’, they’re very much rooted in the experience of living in a town like Sunderland rather than anything partisan, says David. “I was thinking specifically about different ideas of aspiration, how that’s changed from our parents’ generation to ours, especially their aspirations for us.”
The album represents a period of adaption for Field Music – at the start of which the brothers weren’t even sure if they would make another record. They notoriously went on hiatus two weeks after releasing second LP, 2007’s ‘Tones Of Town’, turning down a huge support slot with Snow Patrol around that time because they didn’t feel comfortable entertaining such massive crowds. The two solo albums – Peter as The Week That Was and David as School Of Language – followed in 2008, before they reunited in 2010 for double album, ‘Measure’.
“We’re really determined that we should never be beholden to the band,” says David.
“That’s a question we’ll probably end up raising next time we come to make new music,” continues Peter, quietly aware of the band’s growing popularity. “We’ll ask who’s in charge of what Field Music sounds like, whether we have to worry what other people think.”
As many bands’ opinions of themselves inflate with the plaudits that follow each album, Field Music stay true to one basic band mantra: “No bullshit!” laughs Peter, shaking his head.
“Or if there’s gonna be any, we have to accept it and take the piss out of ourselves,” adds David. Both admit to being chastised for ordering espressos in town. “‘You do know it’s only little, love?’ they say,” he laughs. “What we should accept is that there’s nothing heroic about being in a band! That doesn’t make it less worthwhile, it doesn’t make it less fun. I hope we can at least be an example of another way of doing things.”
“Shall we have another cup of tea?” asks Peter, swirling the empty yellow pot.
“Aye, I think we can stretch to that,” says David.