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These New Puritans: Dreaming forwards

© Oscar Eckle

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Though they’d struggle to tell you precisely where it began, These New Puritans agree they owe much of their fourth studio album to a former GDR broadcasting facility in East Berlin’s industrial borderlands. Jack Barnett (30) started writing there shortly after relocating to the city from his home in Southend-on-Sea, and was soon joined by his twin brother and musical partner George (yes, also 30), who made regular trips from the UK to work on the new record.

The surrounding neighbourhood comprised of little more than a coal power plant, a cement factory and a training centre for attack dogs, the latter of which provided the distant ambience of violent barks. It was an unsettling and extraordinary place to work; a setting, for them, with “no memory or history of anything,” as George puts it. Jack recalls boarding the tram with factory workers every morning, leaving the city’s established artistic quarters behind him. “It’s quite nice,” he says, “to be going in the opposite direction to everyone else.”

These New Puritans have built a reputation on the opposite direction. As they prepare to release their first record in six years, Inside the Rose, the desire to divert expectation never feels far away.

© Oscar Eckle

First rising to prominence in 2008 with the release of their debut album Beat Pyramid, it’s fair to say the Essex band were misunderstood. The Southend of their upbringing was at that time the centre of an indie micro-scene, built around now-closed venue Junkclub where the band played many of their early gigs. It’s a moment the music media sought to trap them in, hurriedly grouping them in with a roster of guitar-led indie bands, a limiting label they decisively shook with the release of 2010’s Hidden, a bold, statement record celebrated for its use of taiko drums and dancehall horns. 2013’s follow-up, Field of Reeds – a fuggy, orchestral record smaller in scale but arguably larger in craft – cemented their reputation.

Given the stark differences between their records, and the sizeable gap since their last, it’s easy to imagine the pair calculating each musical diversion. In fact, they say, each step has felt like a natural development. “We don’t start the writing process,” George explains, sitting opposite his brother. “We’re constantly writing.”

“It’s just that at some point you have to decide what to record,” Jack adds.

© Oscar Eckle

“There is no one as focused as Jack is when he's doing his thing”

Inside the Rose is without doubt their most direct album to date. Following the move to Berlin to work on the record, it became clear they both wanted to produce something sharper. Songs were vocal-led, melodies rose to the surface, and lyrics came to the fore in a way they hadn’t previously. The process saw George write lyrics for one of their albums for the first time. The result is the most romantic, coherent music they’ve ever produced. “I think our instincts about it were the same,” Jack says. “We didn’t even need to discuss it, it was really obvious.”

Inside the Rose also sees the band return to the family unit, following the departure of long-time band-member Tom Hein who has left to study computational neuroscience. “It takes a certain amount of focus, tinkering around with brains,” Jack concedes. The brothers have a good handle on the balance that makes their partnership work. George explains that “there is no one as focused as [Jack] is when he’s doing his thing.” That he lives in amongst the music, obsessing over details and generating ideas. George, on the other hand, has an eye for the big picture. He takes responsibility for album artwork, music videos and their currently-in-progress live show. Jack credits him with shaping the direction of their music as a whole. For making things happen.

Take, for instance, Where the Trees Are on Fire, a highlight from the new album that Jack says came to him fully-formed in a dream. He had dreamt music before. A few years ago it would happen so often he took to keeping a dictaphone beside his bed. Most of the time he’d wake to “terrible synth-pop 80s tunes” or unappealing murmurs, but on this occasion the tune and the words were all there. “I was superstitious about writing the chords,” he remembers. “I had this melody but no idea about the harmonic structure underneath it, so it was stuck in limbo.” It took George to press him to finish the song ahead of the band’s landmark show at the Barbican in 2014. “I thought it was great,” his brother beams.

The pair are earnest about making art. It’s something they take seriously. At various points during our interview they praise a variety of creatives: David Tibet of Current 93 who guests on the album, “the best lyricist working today”; an unnamed “performance artist, qigong master, and raconteur” who introduced them to the post-Soviet studio; Hans-Henning Korb, the fine artist who taught himself classical composition as a teenager and will play vibraphone on their next tour. They celebrate Berlin too, as a city where art is taken seriously, unlike England where being serious about what you do is the “ultimate sin”.

“There are two ideas of what art should do. One that it should reflect and be a mirror to its age, and another that it should go beyond it. I always prefer stuff that sits in the latter category”

They make a distinction about self-importance, though. When asked what he was reading during the production of the album, George tells me his favourite writers are Michel Houellebecq and Sue Townsend. When I ask Jack which part of the album they found the most challenging to achieve, he dismisses the idea of struggling out of hand. “There are so many more burdensome things. If you really find music, writing, poetry whatever it might be, a real burden, then I wouldn’t add to the load. Do something else.” The trick, they say, is to take the music seriously but not yourself.

In many respects These New Puritans are returning to a musical landscape that suits them better. Lines they were praised for blurring in 2010 are now barely distinct. Their version of alternative music sits far more comfortably alongside Arca or Yves Tumor than it does the four-piece guitar bands of the early 10s. Yet in other ways their priorities still feel unique. They are uninterested in responding to the immediate world; an ethos at odds with a popular culture that feeds off social commentary. Jack compares petty Twitter disputes to religious wars of the Middle Ages – thousands of people killing each other over minor differences of theology – much to George’s amusement.

“I think there are two ideas of what art should do,” Jack concludes. “One that it should reflect and be a mirror to its age, and another that it should go beyond it. I always prefer stuff that sits in the latter category.”

“That’s why our artwork has shifted towards what I define as beauty,” George chimes in. “It’s not about the shape-shifting technologies of today, with some watered-down image and a little bit of spicy aluminium through it. I think it’s good to get back to a romantic idea–” He interrupts himself to inhale tightly through his teeth. “Sorry, I’ve got a bit of metal stuck in my thumb.” He’s spent most of our interview negotiating with it: a large splinter, the result of drilling holes in big metal blocks that will be played during their live show. Jack leans over but quickly looks away, horrified by the sight of the grey shard moving under the skin. “I’m with you,” George winces. “I’ve nearly got it out.” There are plenty of available metaphors but above all it’s a neat nod to their dedication to making music. The art of giving nothing less than yourself.

Photography: Oscar Eckle

Inside the Rose is due 22 March via Infectious Music

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