Interview: Jack Barnett, These New Puritans

The Noiseniks and Taiko Fetishists Don't Really Want War

These New Puritans 2008 debut album Beat Pyramid established the embarrassingly young foursome from the English seaside resort of Southend-on-Sea as radical and innovative sonic experimenters. Seasoned music analysts, however, were quick to spot the influence of idiosyncratic art rockers The Fall. Two years later they are back with a new album Hidden, designed to confound critics, and a couple of dates in Japan, a country that has apparently had a profound influence on the band's creative nexus, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jack Barnett.

"I have a lot of respect for Japanese music, like the music of Noh theatre," the anorexic-looking front man tells Metropolis by phone from Heidelberg, Germany, where the band is touring prior to coming to Japan. "Noh theatre is hyper stylized–a restrained thing, really. I don’t know, but I was thinking that might be a contributing factor to why we were popular in Japan."

Other aspects of Japanese culture that have insinuated themselves into the musician's polymorphous creative consciousness is the folk tale Urashima Taro, which has inspired some of his song writing, and, most obviously, the six-foot-high Taiko drums that give the new album's standout track We Want War such an unforgettable texture.

"They're the biggest, loudest instrument I've ever heard," Barnett says, the enthusiasm of the sonic otaku poking through his otherwise laid-back persona. "The tone of them is just incredible. They've got a really good character. It's not like just hitting a big drum. It's got a very particular character. And there are only two in England, so we hired both of them. They arrived on trucks but they were so big they didn't fit in the studio so we had to record them in a warehouse that was next to the studio. It’s been worth it in the end."

Anybody listening to the hypnotic sense of dread created on that track could only agree. While this track and some others –most notably Attack Music with its droning synths, chanted lyrics, and sword "schwing!" samples –maintain the percussion-driven energy and menace of their debut, other tracks see them striving to outgrow the categories that have already been placed around them, something that is reflected in the new album's title.

"Originally we were going to call it Attack Music, but gradually, as I was writing more and more music, it was not 'attack music' anymore," Barnett recalls. "Gradually it became 'hidden' music. Hidden fits for lots of reasons."

The softer, more ambiguous album title suits the Radiohead-like lament White Chords, the glockenspiel ornamented 5, and the brass-bolstered Hologram, which sounds like something Kate Bush left off her 1982 album The Dreaming. These tracks reveal a band content to follow their musical noses wherever that may lead them. For the shows in Japan, TNP will also be working with an ensemble of five classical musicians to replicate the work of the Czech musicians called in for Hidden.

A musical magpie, Barnett is fascinated by everything from exotic instruments and odd fusions to "de-contextualized rhythms."

"It's funny because even in the Indie world the only danceable beat is like four to the floor, like doom kat doom kat doom kat, or some variation on that," he explains. "Whereas actually I find that the most interesting rhythms come from American pop, dancehall, and raga. In their context they're danceable, but we like to use them out of their context."

As well as making their sound an ever-evolving musical puzzle, this approach also unleashes the ancient ritualistic power of music, where beats and sounds signified spiritual forces and sublime thoughts rather than booty shaking or teenage lust. In this sense the group’s name has become uncannily apt.

But to return to the influence of Japan on the group, the trouble with musical magpies is that they’re also notoriously fickle. Already Barnett has moved beyond the beat of the Taiko and time-travelling turtle rescuers. His latest sonic obsession is Melanesian music.

"They have a lot of funeral songs and things like that, and it's a really weird mix of Christian music and their original musical language, with their twist on Western harmony," he says. "My hunch is that our next album is going to be, well, maybe not laid back, but definitely quieter."

Colin Liddell
20th May, 2010
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