To coincide with this profile, These New Puritans also created our latest Dazed Mix – listen to that here.
Forty miles from London, where the Thames wends its way into the North Sea, Leigh-on-Sea looks on to a brooding expanse of tidal flats. On the horizon, sky and river seem to mingle freely, “welded together without a joint”, as Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness, struck by the eerie beauty of the scene.
It’s here, amid the marshy wilds of the Essex coastline, that brothers Jack and George Barnett began making music together as These New Puritans. And, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to this part of the world, you’ll know that their sound makes an instinctive kind of sense. Apocalyptic imagery runs riot in their work; what’s striking is how enamoured they sound with the whole idea.
On Inside the Rose, These New Puritans’ fourth album to date, the band stage a fiery reckoning with “beauty, transcendence, desire, oblivion, ecstasy, eyes and angels”. The record’s centrepiece is “Where the Trees Are on Fire”, a haunting, waltz-time lullaby that might be a vision of impending ecological collapse, a spiritual awakening, or both. It was adapted from a dream Jack had about Two Tree Island, a tiny reclaimed spit of alluvial land a hundred yards from the seafront in Leigh.
In the dream, Jack was walking with his brother, George, and a friend from school near the Barnetts’ family home. “It’s where we once saw those people dogging, remember?” Jack tells George, setting the scene. “I looked over towards Two Tree Island and my friend said, ‘Oh, can you see those trees over there? They’re on fire.’ And then the music started up, just like a musical.”
Two Tree Island was dredged from the estuary sometime in the 18th century; over the years, it’s been host to a landfill site and a sewage works. More recently, it’s been left to grow wild, an image of nature superseding mankind that’s stalked These New Puritans’ output since Hidden. Clearly, there’s something about the place that seems to live in odd corners of the band’s collective psyche. Still, though: a song that came to him in a dream? Doesn’t that sound a bit, well... made-up?
“I know how it sounds!” says George, the drummer in the band, over drinks in the kind of east London dive where the dirt seems to have settled into geological strata. “It sounds wanky, but that’s the difference with Jack. I’ve met all these songwritery types who say that kind of thing, your Nick Caves or whoever, and I just find a lot of it self-prophesising bullshit; it’s very conscious of itself.”
“Nick Cave has written some fantastic songs, though,” says Jack, gently steering the conversation back on track. “The thing is, a lot of the music I dream will be shit. I’ll wake up and think it’s amazing, but then it’s like a bad synth-pop song or something.” He pauses, a sneaky look coming over his face. “But if you’ve got your dreams working for you then you’re maximising your productivity, aren’t you?”
Inside the Rose is beautiful and brutal, a cosmic open-top bus ride through heaven and hell and everything in-between, blazing with the visionary heat of a Van Gogh starscape (Jack cites the painter as an influence). Following keyboardist Thomas Hein’s departure from the group in 2016, the record is the band’s first to be recorded as a duo, returning the band to their roots as a family affair – a musical Two Tree Island of the brothers’ own making.
“We were always madly determined to plough our own furrow,” says Jack, an arch perfectionist who sings of an “addiction to the impossible” on the album’s first track, “Infinity Vibraphones”. “Actually, this record is much closer to how we used to work when we were kids, making music together on an old tape machine.” As if to prove the point, George recently uploaded snatches of their pre-teen oeuvre to the band’s website, recorded under the name Mick the Asbestos. These brief musical snippets reveal the young Barnetts to be keen students of Autechre and Aphex Twin, closer in their exploratory spirit if not in sound to the band behind Hidden and Field of Reeds than the precocious punks of their 2008 debut Beat Pyramid.
The latter announced These New Puritans as one of the more intellectually curious acts to emerge from the UK’s post-punk revival scene – a scene not noted, it has to be said, for its intellectual curiosity. But it was 2010’s Hidden, an absurdly ambitious, dystopian concept album inspired by Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, that established them as a band out of time, backing up Jack’s assertion that the record sounded “very 1970, but also quite 1610, 1950, 1979, 1989, 2005 and 2070”.
“Everyone’s striving for the mediocre, but we’re striving for something that’s bigger than that. Inevitably you fail, but it’s worth trying” – Jack Barnett, These New Puritans
That record’s rattled sabres and thumping, taiko drums were eclipsed by a quieter, more pastoral vision in 2013’s Field of Reeds, another stunning achievement that took These New Puritans further from mainstream shores than ever before. Increasingly, the band were taking their cues from the likes of Talk Talk, Robert Wyatt, Nurse With Wound, and industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle’s many cult offshoots – musical outliers whose work traced the leylines of a looking-glass Britain. Graham Sutton, ex-of genius Essex post-rockers Bark Psychosis, became the group’s long-standing producer.
On Inside the Rose, the band find a way to pair the muscular thwack of Hidden with the more insular qualities of its successor. “We wanted to make something that (embraces) the extremes of our music and then takes them further,” says Jack. ”So the stuff that’s pop is more accessible and the stuff that’s more strange or experimental is even more like that, but they coexist at the same time.” Showing off some racy artwork for the new record he produced with his friend, photographer Harley Weir, George opines that it’s “a much sexier record. It’s all about being completely open: no wet, weak bullshit, everything is 100 per cent meaning.”
If all this sounds intense, it’s worth noting that These New Puritans are nowhere near as furrowed-of-brow as their reputation suggests. When George walks back his earlier comments about Nick Cave, Jack teases him: “You do hate Nick Cave. You picket his gigs!” And the boys recall an incident involving Sutton, who they once dispatched to Hamley’s to record wind-up mechanical toy sounds for their music. The producer, it transpired, had come down with a touch of the old norovirus. “So he was in Hamley’s projectile-vomiting on to all the toys, with the mothers looking on horrified,” says Jack. “Don’t look at the nasty man!”
Still, the story says a lot about the band’s capital-‘C’ commitment to their craft, a commitment that occasionally shows itself in grandstanding statements about the merits of their music versus, well, everyone else’s. “Everyone’s striving for the mediocre, but we’re striving for something that’s bigger than that,” says Jack. “Inevitably you fail, but it’s worth trying.”
More often than not, that striving takes on an apocalyptic fervour: “Let this music be a paradise, a kind of nightmare, and a kind of I-don’t-care,” Jack sings on “A––R––P”, a highlight from the new album. “It’s like (Andrei) Tarkovsky’s vision of the future being virtually the same, it’s not that much of a leap,” says Jack, musing on the odd slippage between heaven and hell in their work. Now, more than ever, it’s easy to imagine the seeds of our destruction contained within the present. But the urgency of the moment has only strengthened our escapist impulse, according to Jack: “What’s striking is that the more we have the means to destroy ourselves, the more saccharine and silly the culture becomes.”
The word apocalypse derives from the Ancient Greek apokálypsis, meaning ‘uncovering’. It’s a sense that’s also present in These New Puritans’ music, which has flirted with arcane fields of knowledge – alchemy and astrology, among others – in pursuit of truths that are hidden. Do the band strive to achieve a kind of mystical communion with their songs? “I suppose it’s as close as you can get to things like that, isn’t it?” says Jack, guardedly. “Making music. You always want to make something that is without irony, something that (deals) with extremes of your experience in life, and in a way that’s risky, because you expose yourself more. But that’s the art I like; art that gets to the heart of things.”
Conversely, looking at the popular music sphere of today, the band see a culture of distraction shaped by the creeping influence of the algorithm. “These days people write music according to what gets Spotify streams,” says Jack. “There’s a whole list of (rules to get on streaming platform playlists). It can’t be longer than ten seconds before the vocal comes in, for example. There’s so much data about which kinds of songs get played that you can kind of analyse it.” The result, he explains, is a culture that “takes advantage of our weaknesses and our biases, and also makes stuff more and more the same”.
Ultimately, says George, the way to fight all that is “to be more human and more primitive. Just going back to what you naturally do.” After all, as the band’s work seems to remind us, every end has a beginning. Even the end of the world.