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Friday, May 28, 2010

Sober approach pays dividends for these puritans

British rock band's eclectic tastes earn them high praise


By SHAUN CURRAN
Special to The Japan Times

Jack Barnett, the scrawny, intense singer/songwriter with English post-art rockers These New Puritans, is stood on a rest area off a German autobahn on his way to Freiburg. This can be an unedifying business at the best of times, but the banality of the situation seems a world away from the sonic sorcery of his band's music, as well as his continued enthusiastic prognosis of Japanese culture.

News photo
Strict standards: These New Puritans — Jack Barnett, Thomas Hein, George Barnett and Sophie Sleigh-Johnson — have produced what many critics say is the album of the year. HARLEY WEIR PHOTO

"I've been to Japan a couple of times. I love the culture, I love the music, the food (and) the people. I've spent most of my time in Tokyo. I'd like to think that was representative. I'm really looking forward to Japan."

On paper, these may seem like the artificial words of a band member duty-bound to speak in glowing terms, but to think this way would be wrong: These New Puritans do not deal in the false and the desultory. Barnett's words are spoken with genuine zest and backed up with actions. Among the myriad instruments that help create his borderline- inexpressible creative vision are peculiar — 180-cm Japanese drums, which, along with other instruments, will be played by Japanese musicians during the band's tour next week.

"We've got a definite connection to Japanese music," Barnett says. "Last time we were in Japan, I saw this huge taiko (drum) and it just had such an irresistible tone; I was instantly intrigued and started having ideas for how to use it straight away.

"We'll have five extra musicians with us when we get there, playing brass and woodwind. We've done the same thing around Europe. It's funny how different nationalities interpret the same piece of written music, and the different way it comes across. The English play things more straightforward, but the Czechs, say, have a more subtle, classical style. It's great for us, it keeps things interesting."

While These New Puritans are certainly musically interesting and adventurous, they are perhaps open to accusations of solemnity. Even in conversation, Barnett gives the impression that sentiments such as joy are a foreign concept. However, his compulsive, ultraneurotic personality has helped forge what many critics are already describing as possibly the best album of 2010.

If their impressive debut, "Beat Pyramid" (2008), was slightly overindebted to the more progressive side of postpunk, then the band's second album, "Hidden," released January, has reinvented their own particular musical wheel.

Equally influenced by the dancehall genre, Steve Reich, Benjamin Britten, PiL, Miles Davis, MIA and many other diverse artistic outposts, "Hidden" is the band's genre-defying vision of the future. Packed with relentless, militant beats, its dense, claustrophobic, dissonant overtures are disconcerting yet fascinating, providing a model for 21st century rock bands.

When asked if he realizes just how enterprising "Hidden" sounds, Barnett says: "I didn't actually think it was as big a leap as people think, but I listened to 'Beat Pyramid' the other day and I realized just what a leap it was. But it felt natural. We were always going to do something like that. It was always going to happen like that. It was an unsaid thing between us all, we knew we were going to progress."

These New Puritans delight in using unconventional instruments. As well as featuring taiko, "Hidden" is notable for its almost complete absence of guitars, instead featuring brass, woodwind, a Czech orchestra, a children's choir and the frankly bizarre sound of a melon being smashed with a hammer to replicate the sound of a human skull being crushed.

"They're just interesting instruments that I had ideas for," Barnett says, slightly bemused as to why anyone would question the process. "If I'd have had ideas to suit a guitar, I'd have used more guitars. Although, everyone else uses guitars. Some people are doing good things with them, some people are doing terrible things with them. It all started because I love the sound of the bassoon; it makes such an amazing sound, and I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. The rest came naturally."

Hailing from the southern English seaside town of Southend — "It doesn't matter where you are. In Southend, there was one place to play, so we played it" — has also added texture to Barnett's outlook, particularly where lyrics are concerned. The Essex countryside where he grew up, and its relationship with the non-natural and man-made world, preoccupies his obtuse, slightly paranoid, often belligerently mysterious lyrics.

"Your surroundings obviously influence you, but lyrically I like ambiguity," he states. "That's the main thing. You don't have to state everything. In three-minute pop songs, the sentiments are often the same. The thing is, though, the lyrics are really important. Firstly, I'm a writer of music. That's what I do. Every note is planned in detail, and the lyrics come later on when we're recording.

"I love writing. That's my goal, to make good things. I like writing music; that's my primary thing. Secondary is recording, which can be really difficult, and thirdly is playing live. It took me a while to get back into playing live, I didn't quite feel right for about a month. But we're on it now."

Barnett's uncompromising, almost dictatorial approach brings pressures ("I have to get better," he says with an obsessive air), but "Hidden" has set the bar so high, it's difficult to imagine how.

Critics agree: These New Puritans are currently operating on a different plane.

"I'm not going to say I don't care what people say, because it is important," Barnett says. "This is what we do, and we want people to think its good, because what we do is incredibly important to us. So we're pleased. Although I'm expecting a backlash in a few months time," he adds, for the first time exuding the merest hint of a laugh. "If everyone starts saying something is good, people will be put off. So we've got to make sure we're as good as we can be."

These New Puritans play Tokyo's soma live house from 7 p.m. on June 3; cost ¥5,000. For more information, visit www.kyodo-osaka.co.jp/

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