Field Music have made a concept album exploring the ways in which ripples from the First World War played out through the 20th century and even beyond. Jonathan Wright hears exactly why and how they did it…
The guns on the Western Front fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. The First World War, a conflict of mechanised barbarism that claimed the lives of 20 million combatants and civilians, and perhaps even more, was finally over.
It’s a moment in time captured in the most poignant fashion in a document from the archives of the Imperial War Museums (IWM), a 1919 publication on the subject of munitions by the US War Department. It shows a graph that represents a sound-ranging image based on readings from transducers spread out across the front. The idea was that, by looking at the time difference between a boom hitting each transducer – essentially a glorified oil drum – it was possible to work out where enemy guns were located.
“Incredibly, someone had set their sound-ranging machine away a minute before the Armistice, so you had this image of a minute of the guns going from 10.59 on the 11th of November, and then a minute afterwards where it’s relative silence,” explains David Brewis, guitarist, songwriter and one half of the brotherly duo who are the musical mainstays of Field Music.
As to how David and brother Peter, drummer and fellow songwriter, encountered this image, it was because IWM approached the duo to get involved in events to commemorate the aftermath of the First World War.
“For us, we thought, ‘Well the sound-ranging image looks like a seismograph in a way’,” explains David. “It has six lines, which would have been from the six different transducers. And we thought about, ‘OK, well if these vibrating lines stretched out across the next hundred years, what vibrations from the war would they pick up?’”
The result was Field Music’s seventh studio LP Making A New World, a 19-track song cycle first performed in early 2019 at the IWC sites in Salford and London – a commissioned piece that, now it’s been recorded for release, is also Field Music’s first concept album, although it wasn’t initially intended to be quite so ambitious. “In my mind, we were going to do some sort of freeform performance, to do some music and improvise,” recalls Peter. “And then Dave wrote a song. And we were coming across all these stories, and we thought, ‘We should really write a few songs’.”
This represented a very different approach for the brothers. Rather than writing, in Peter’s words, “about ourselves and our immediate thoughts and circumstances surrounding where we live and the time we live in”, the project required stories. As Peter puts it, rather than coming up with the kinds of songs John Lennon wrote, songs about how he felt, the duo needed to look to Paul McCartney and the way he is adept at writing songs about characters – think Eleanor Rigby or Paperback Writer.
“What was important was whose point of view were you telling the story from?” adds David. “And then it becomes personal. It’s not us doing a history lecture, it’s us trying to imagine a person’s point of view, how might someone have felt about it? And when you personalise it like that, I feel like you are just making that opportunity for an emotional connection into the songs.”
How does this work in practice? What kinds of subjects does New World tackle? To give just one example, the plaintive ballad A Change Of Heir takes as its starting point the work of plastic surgeon Dr Harold Gillies, who developed skin-graft techniques to perform facial repairs on injured servicemen. Later, Gillies became a pioneer in gender-reassignment surgery, performing one of the first male-to-female procedures in 1951, on the racing driver and Spitfire pilot Roberta Cowell. To look at that another way, the lines from the sound-ranging graph spread out in the most surprising ways. Another song, Only In A Man’s World, tackles the development of sanitary towels.
These were stories the brothers pieced together via “a little bit of background knowledge, a little bit of luck and a lot of scouting round on the internet” allied, says David, to Peter’s fondness for Radio 4 documentaries. But there was no room for slacking because the songs had to be fact-checked by IWM. “We got told off a couple of times, but did OK mostly. I think we probably got a B-minus,” jokes David.
Which made a change from his schooldays, when history wasn’t David’s best subject. “I didn’t have the patience for it,” he says. “I tried to write my GCSE project work from watching the Richard Attenborough film about Gandhi rather than reading any books. So I feel like my old history teacher, Mr Liddle, might finally forgive me for my lack of effort.”
Considering the complexities here, it’s surprising to learn just how quickly the project came together, with the duo only beginning work in earnest in September 2018, four months ahead of playing the songs live for the first time. There were further complications. The duo wanted the songs to respond to the site of IWM North, which in Peter’s words, is a space “like a shattered world, a sphere that’s been totally disjointed”.
In addition, as with forthcoming dates in February, the first performances of New World featured a strong visual element. The band used a percussive track to make sure they didn’t miss any cues so that the images on screens behind them, created by guitarist Kevin Dosdale, and the music stayed in sync. As Peter notes wryly of the forthcoming dates: “Once we press the button and go, that’s it. We’ve just got to keep playing.”
In short, this was a project built around specifics: a specific deadline, a live performance at specific locations incorporating specific images and text, and a specific subject. Which in itself presented a conundrum for a duo who could be likened to a kind of Mackem Steely Dan for building up songs in the studio: how best to capture these songs for an album?
The answer was for Field Music the live band, David, Peter, Dosdale, Liz Corney on keyboards and Andrew Lowther on bass, to assemble in the duo’s new studio (their previous space having been demolished in 2018) and run through the songs, twice, in a single day. Later, the brothers and Corney added overdubs, but in key respects New World is a live LP, for all that, in David’s words, it’s a “dense” piece of work in that there’s “lots of detail in the songs”.
This begs an important question: for all this is essentially a one-off project, will the process have a dramatic effect on how Field Music develop in the future? It may already have done so. “I feel like the possibilities of what we can write songs about has really broadened,” observes David.
“Immediately after recording this, Peter went off on tour for a collaborative album released in January [the eponymous You Tell Me, which saw him working with Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes] and I wrote a concept album about Donald Trump (School Of Language’s 45). And put that out. So wow, I can really write about anything in my mind. Yeah, I can write a song from Rex Tillerson’s perspective, of course I can.”
Is he sure he wants to be spending time in the mindset of Trump’s former secretary of state? “The song’s only three minutes long and then I move out, but that bravery of what can turn into a song is something I really hope will stay with us.”
He expects politics to reoccur in future songs. “The kind of political crises that are going on in Britain and the US at the moment, and elsewhere, have coincided with us having kids, which has probably changed our perspective on all of that,” he says. “Can we be so blasé about it because this is the world we’re bringing our children into? It just seems impossible not to write about it, or at least to try to find a way to write about it. And even though Making A New World is about the First World War, it’s also in a way about politics now.”
But don’t expect things to get too serious. Perhaps in part as a reaction to their recent work, there’s also a sense that Field Music want to have some fun. The duo have, reveals Peter, returned to their parents’ LP collection for inspiration, a collection dominated by “rock guitar bands. Free, Zeppelin, The Beatles, 10cc and Roxy Music”. Field Music want to make an album that, to use an apposite word, riffs off the music they heard as kids. It’s an exercise, Peter admits, that has some obvious pitfalls in that “you can’t just do a song and make it sound like All Right Now without falling into pastiche.
“Mine and Dave’s idea is, and we’ve always had this idea lurking in the background somewhere, how do you take the idea of Free and how do you apply it to our musical language, or somebody else’s musical language even? Or how do you look at the musical language of an early 20th-century composer or something like that? How can you make that into a simple, catchy rock song, but that doesn’t have those same bluesy tropes, how do you do that?”
Put that way, it sounds quite radical. “Well, we’ll see,” he says, “we always come up with these daft concepts and it ends up sounding like us.”