Best of What's Next: These New Puritans
The Southend-On-Sea, U.K.-based art-punk band These New Puritans—comprised of twin brothers Jack and George Barnett, plus Thomas Hein and Sophie Sleigh-Johnson—started making music together in 2006 and made a name for themselves in 2008 with Beat Pyramid, an urgent and quintessentially British post-punk opus. The band’s follow-up, Hidden (out now), explores new sounds—it’s a grand, sweeping epic of an album that incorporates six-foot Japanese drums, brass and woodwind sections, a full school choir and cinematic sound effects. The weighty mix creates a futuristic fusion of classical, hip hop and pop that is heady, challenging and absolutely refreshing. Paste recently caught up with vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jack Barnett in the midst of These New Puritains’ European tour (which continues through the end of April) to talk about Hidden’s trans-Atlantic production process, playing the new songs live and his sports-related career aspirations.
Paste: I feel like this album is less punk than the last one. What changed—was it different inspiration, or just what you felt like doing?
Jack Barnett: It was just what I felt like doing. Our last album was kind of the exception, really, because even before These New Puritans the music that I made when I was like 12 years old with my mates til maybe 16, that music turned out more like Hidden than Beat Pyramid. This time we could do whatever we wanted. [Making Beat Pyramid we were in a situation where, first album, you’ve never made an album before, you’ve played live, and expectations or something forces work and makes you do something kind of similar to what you play live. But this time, we didn’t have any of those pressures—it was almost as if we were [just] starting. We were just at the point where we could decide what we wanted to do.
Paste: Do you foresee more change for the next record or have you settled in to what you like with Hidden?
Barnett: I think it will change completely. Like from last time, it changed completely, and I thought I knew how it would change, but it changed in a completely different way. I mean, right now, I have no idea what it will be like. I have lots of ideas, but it will probably change from those ideas again—it’s changed already, what we want to do. At the moment, there are definitely more in-depth compositions but it’s also really really ultra-commercial. We like the idea of being ultra-commercial but more experimental than most stuff.
Paste: You worked on mixing Hidden with Dave Cooley, who was in L.A. But you weren’t in L.A., so how did you do that?
Barnett: It was quite hard. We just used software, where he could be playing something by his desk and I could be hearing live feedback of it. Yeah, it was weird, because obviously there was a time difference. It is music that’s not quite easy to mix, there’s no kind of blueprint because these aren’t instruments that usually go together, and every song is kind of different and every song has a different line-up so it took a long time. Actually the song “We Want War” took 10 days to mix, which is sort of ridiculous, really. That’s a long time.
Paste: So you were living on L.A. time in England?
Barnett: Exactly, yeah. I just was up all the night and asleep in the day.
Paste: Do you think that playing this album live may be harder, because there’s obviously more going on with woodwinds and brass and choirs?
Barnett: Yes. Well, it’s hard because we don’t play to the audience on the album. We actually played our first live thing from this album the other day, a couple days ago, and we played with a woodwind and brass section, five people, and it was really incredible and made the music sound how it should be. It’s going to be weird. Actually, tonight we are playing our first gig without the extra instrumentalists, so it’ll be just a lot of smoke and mirrors, all of us triggering things. It’ll be interesting.
Paste: You did all the arrangement and wrote all the songs, right? Are you classically trained?
Barnett: I’m not. I had to learn how to do it, really. I spent about two months just learning notation and teaching myself how to arrange for all these various instruments. I did work with a composer called Ryan Lott, who’s American as well—from New York—on three songs where we were sending things backwards and forwards, the arrangements. But I had to do most of it myself.
Paste: You have a lot of seemingly disparate influences, everything from Wu Tang Clan to dancehall. How did you get into American rap and how do those influences fit into your music?
Barnett: Well, our first album was more influenced by that, really. I once said that in an interview and I think someone put it on Wikipedia and ever since then almost every interview I do I’m asked about Wu Tang Clan, it’s weird. It’s like some person at Wikipedia won’t allow it to be removed from the page, some lunatic. Yeah, I think more lyrically though, that’s how they do it for me—more just in the the conceptual side of their music. And the dancehall, I just like the production of dance hall music. I like the rhythms, the kind of rhythms they use.
Paste: Is that the kind of music you listen to for fun? What do you personally like to listen to?
Barnett: Various things. Not for fun, I don’t know if fun is the right word, but music for myself. Stuff like that, yeah, more-so… I don’t know, what was I just listening to now, just right before in the van? Benjamin Britten, a bit of Reform, Wilhelm, singers and composers. Jay Z and T.I. and Peter Hammill, the singer. All different things, really.
Paste: Your work can be polarizing, like a “love it or hate it” thing. How do you feel about that?
Barnett: I can’t really say if that’s a good thing. I suppose it’s better if everyone loves it and it really reaches them, but I suppose it is good, really. Actually, I was looking today at Amazon and we got six 5-star reviews and two 1-star reviews. It’s quite telling, maybe. I don’t know, it’s probably a good thing.
Paste: Is that something you set out to do, to make challenging music, or do you just make music you enjoy? Like is it more about self-expression or playing to the listeners?
Barnett: Oh, yes. I have never thought about the listener when I’m making music. I can’t understand how I could write music and think of what the listener would think of it—it would just paralyze me. I think quite a lot of music that’s made just for everyone to like is quite good—like Michael Jackson or stuff like that. It’s really good. And the Beach Boys and Britney Spears and stuff like that, it’s actually good. So I wouldn’t say that’s always a bad thing when everyone likes it, as far as thinking of it as polarizing. But yeah, we definitely don’t ever think about the audience, but I think that’s a good thing because we’re making something real, you know, we’re not pandering to anyone.
Paste: Do you start with music or lyrics? Do you start with a small piece of the song?
Barnett: I don’t really have any pattern, or formula, which in one way almost makes it more all-consuming, writing music, but at the same time, also makes it better because all the songs sound different. I don’t know, I start with different things, not really the lyrics—I’m really more of a writer of music than a writer of words, I think. But I could start with a rhythm. I might hear a rhythm on a pop song or something and try to translate that into different instrumentation, or it might start with just a melodic idea on a piano, or it might just start with fooling around with a sequencer or with software, or with just instruments, trying out different things, or it might start just playing a piano. Many, many different ways, basically. It’s like, eventually I’ll start piecing together all the different ideas gradually.
Paste: So is the inspiration more just about the music and not necessarily something in your life that happens, or seeing something on the street that inspires a song?
Barnett: No no, it’s a completely kind of enclosed little world kind of thing I can go to. It’s not generally something directly from life. It’s kind of just distant—just a kind of volition or energy.
Paste: Is it a solo process, with you telling the other band members what to play, or do they ever collaborate?
Barnett: Well, it’s sometimes like that. George especially—his style in interpreting what I give him is really important. But, musically, I do most of it. When it comes to other things, like… George does all the art work and also he’s like the editor. I do all this stuff and he’s really good at stepping back and saying what’s good and what’s bad and what direction it should go in and things like that. But most of the writing is me, yeah.
Paste: What would you be doing if not music?
Barnett: I don’t know, maybe a football coach. Catch up my coaching badges in football. I’d like to work my way up and manage a team, and the best way is to become a coach.
Paste: So are you going to the World Cup this summer?
Barnett: I wish. No, we’ll probably be playing. Probably be watching it, though. Honestly, though, that’s the closest I can get to what I might be doing.
Paste: In a year, or three years, or five years, what’s the best thing you can imagine for These New Puritans?
Barnett: To be performing with a huge ensemble of musicians—a brass and woodwind section, like a huge percussion section—and us just being able to do whatever we want, like doing music for a film maybe. It sounds corny, but I would really like to do that. Maybe that’s not ambitious enough, but that’s it.