Amid a background noise of effervescent energy and sundry shrieking the voice of Field Music’s Peter Brewis comes down the line “Sorry for the noise, I’m currently in a soft play area!” he says with a wry chuckle which suggests even he’s aware of the slightly, ahem, unusual opening gambit to the interview. “I wasn’t meant to be here, but I somehow still am…” (he’ll later allay concerns over time with a cheery “ah, don’t worry about it – my son’s having a whale of a time on the jungle gym so I doubt I’m going anywhere any time soon”). The unorthodox nature of our encounter is arguably in keeping with Field Music’s highly individual, working methods which have resulted in over a decade’s worth of records at once soulful and wilfully clever.
The past couple of years has seen a surge in bands doing soundtrack work, with a quick recap revealing, in no particular order: British Sea Power’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond, King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love, Richard Hawley’s Love Is All, Summer Camp’s Beyond Clueless and Mogwai’s Les Revenants. Into the ring Field Music (Peter Brewis being joined by brother David, and bandmate Andy Lowther) duly thrown their hat, via an idea that began with being approached by Berwick Film Festival. Brewis recounts, “we were in the midst of the fallout from the Mercury nomination so we wouldn’t have had time to do something, or something good anyway. But afterwards we decided to have a bit of a lay-off from Field Music so it felt like the right time to be doing something like that. I think it was September 2013 that we did that first performance, so we’ve been doing it quite a while now.” With the festival keen to have something with a vaguely nautical theme, the band were presented with a number of possible options though as Brewis remembers “they’d shortlisted some Scandinavian films but they couldn’t find a projector to play them on because they were in some strange format that needed a particular projector or something”
Eventually, in their own singular style, they honed in on silent 1929 fishing documentary Drifters, in part due to the fact it “seemed to just suit what we thought we’d like to do as a band, the movement of the film, be it the machinery or fishing nets going in and out, looked great and like something we could use as a basis for tempos and riffs. Initially those rhythmic aspects stood out,” he adds, carefully mulling over his recollections of his first impressions of the film. “The more time we spent with it the more other aspects stood out, like the montages and things like that. For us at least it seemed to have a lot of depth to it, like the end sequence at the fish market where there’s a lot of flashbacks and repetition to earlier things so we in turn had to come up with harmonic and melodic things to refer back to. Not necessarily to tell a story, but in order to have some kind of narrative flow.”
Melding modern musical styles to historic footage can, in the wrong hands, end up with a jarring experience but luckily – as Brewis explains – they had, after careful consideration, managed to work out a plan of action to tackle it. “I think we wanted the overall mood to be…aggressive is probably too strong a word. I don’t know, rockin’!” he affords himself a quiet laugh at the juxtaposition between the subject matter and his choice of descriptor “we knew we didn’t want to go down the route of a folky, sea shanty thing owing to the fact that it had been done before and it’s just not what we do. Similarly, we didn’t want to go down the route of the obvious, cinematic feel with string quartets and romanticising it.” Fittingly, the timewarp nature of the film brought about, in a weird way, a degree of timewarp nostalgia for those scoring it, “we thought the best way to achieve that was to play guitar drums and keyboards like used to when we were in our late teens and early 20s.We saw it as an opportunity for the three of us to play together in a way that we hadn’t done in years. The film had a lot of movement to it, where we were able to have a lot of fun, just getting together, watching the film and just playing. Well, initially, at least” the knowing laugh returns again “then it became hard work trying to fit things together!”
The Brewis brothers have long proved to be models of artistic diligence, with not a moment seeming to go by without one of them having a new project on the go – Peter via other projects such as The Week That Was and recent collaborative album with Maximo Park’s Paul Smith, Frozen By Sight; David via School Of Language. On the surface at least, having people so used to doing things to their own standards and timescales work on something featuring someone else’s constraints. Not so, attests Peter Brewis, as he opines that “I definitely think it helped us having that sense of ‘this is what’s on the table, this is what we have to do by this date to fit in with this film’. I think it made it easier in a way compared to making an album in that because we have our own studio and we’re in it a lot we can start recording tracks without realising we’re making an album. I think it definitely helped to have that focus.”
Nonetheless he concedes that in terms of processes their voyage into the world of soundtracks became something of a leap into the unknown, “It was totally different, especially compared to something like Plumb which for us at least felt more lyric-driven whereas this was all instrumental so we had to think of other things musically that would make it interesting. We’d never done anything entirely instrumental before, so that in itself was a bit of a worry. There’s lots of instrumental music around, but that’s not to say we can play saxophone like Charlie Parker…”, a situation perhaps not entirely helped by the fact – out of design or happenstance – they hadn’t seen any other similar works (including the obvious parallel between their work and British Sea Power’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond, which goes as far as to feature brief passages of footage from Drifters). Nonetheless, Brewis is quick to say, with more than a little sibling pride, that he believes “I do think that Dave and Andy really came on leaps and bounds during this record as instrumentalists”
But having solved the initial score, they barely had time to rest on their laurels before having to play live dates in situ alongside screenings of the accompanying film, a development which Brewis will candidly admit was initially “really difficult, though that was way back in 2013. It was fine in itself, but we were all on the edge of our seats unsure as to what was going to happen. When we first started playing it was largely improvised as well, and as we’ve played it again and again these things become less improvised as you play the same thing again and again and figure out what works and what doesn’t.” The improvisation element of the project was/is clearly something which Peter Brewis at least felt hugely passionately about, as he reasons that “ By the time we played the last show in Swansea, very little of it was improvised because we’d made the record and played it so many times before. It was straightforward, we knew the music inside out. I think in that regard it’s a good time to end it, because what started as an improvised thing is no longer an improvised thing.”
We wanted something that pushed us and scared us a bit, it’s something we want to carry on with when we next do something as Field Music.
But if the lack of improvisation has led to the project’s imminent retirement, its legacy will live on in the future working methods of the Brewis brothers and whoever else they rope in on future Field Music albums, as Peter explains as he says that “it can get slightly boring as a performer to be doing the exact same thing night after night after night and to know exactly what you’re going to do. I know as an audience member I always find it more exciting to not be entirely sure what’s going to happen next and having almost a sense of fear for the performer – “I’m not sure if this guy’s going to make the end of this bit” or whatever. We wanted something that pushed us and scared us a bit, it’s something we want to carry on with when we next do something as Field Music. As a live band we want to do something more exciting and not really knowing what it is you’re meant to be doing.”
The curtain call for their latest great adventure comes via the physical release of the soundtrack but, owing to licensing wrangles, not the film. With such a lengthy project having been based around the two elements coming together, was it strange to be releasing one half of the equation without the other? “Initially I felt really odd about it,” admits Brewis “but I think the album works really well as an instrumental rock record without the film. It’s good music played well, I think. It’s always going to be something of a minority sport, those records, but I think it stands up well on its own and in part it’s maybe better without the film – there’ll always be a bit of tension between a soundtrack and a film and it was a bit of an experiment. On its own, the record stands up just fine and you have to take it for what it is, which is a 40-minute instrumental rock record. Which, I’m sure, won’t be to everybody’s tastes!”
He speaks with a tone of pride, seemingly both for the end product and the manner which they tackled something which had, until that point, been totally alien to them. It’s something which continues as he takes one final holistic look over the experience as a whole. “I did worry what people would think and ask why we were involved in a project centred around a 1929 silent documentary about fishing,” he ponders “and why we were playing these obviously out of kilter rock instrumentals.”
“Those two things just shouldn’t go together but I hope shines through is us trying to communicate the movement of the film in a way in which we know best – the way which we could best give some kind of aural meaning to the film was by doing those things. I’m glad we didn’t go down the folky or cinematic or knowingly soundscape-y route because I think the one we took was perhaps the best way that we could have done it.”