Sunderland is a gritty, blue-collar city of 290,000 on the Northeastern
coast of England. It's one of the Motherland's least glamorous burgs, and
hardly the sort of place where you'd expect to find a band like Field Music,
one of the most subtly nuanced and delicately beautiful pop groups to emerge
on the British music scene in years.
Although they admit they have mixed
feelings about Sunderland, multi-instrumentalist songwriting brothers Peter
and David Brewis and keyboardist Andrew Moore sing a lot about home and the
longing for all that implies on their second album, "Tones of Town," and the
same theme ran through their self-titled 2005 debut.
"I think that came from the fact that while we were recording our first
album, we all had full-time jobs, and we were doing those while recording
and trying find gigs, along with moving house and things like that, all of
which contributed to us not spending enough time with our loved ones," Peter
Brewis says by phone from the U.K. "It was a very stressful time, and it's
not a coincidence that me and Dave wrote a lot of songs about the nature of
home and how we spend time and make compromises.
"Sunderland is ... well,
it's not that we have a complicated relationship with it; it's the usual
love-hate small-town thing. At some point, you have to make a decision
whether that is going to be your home or not. Part of you feels like a
traitor to the place if you decide to leave, instead of sticking around and
trying to make things better."
At this point, almost as if on cue, a shatteringly loud siren interrupts
our conversation, and we have to pause for 15 or 20 seconds until it's out
of range. "See what I mean?" Brewis says, laughing.
Field Music formed about three years ago after Peter Brewis decided to
stretch out from his role as drummer for the Futureheads. The new group was
conceived primarily as a home-recording, studio-only side project. "We never
intended to be a band; we just wanted to make a record, really. There are
only three of us in the band, and initially, we had no intention of
representing that music live. I don't go to many gigs. I'm always
disappointed by live music; I always think the sound isn't as good as on the
album, and it's hard to get that atmosphere.
"Most bands, when they play live, end up trying to perform in kind of
tight 'rock' way, which isn't really that creative. Everything just gets
rocked out, and you lose all of the dynamics."
Dynamics are key to songs such as "Give It Lose It Take It," "House is
Not a Home" and "Working to Work," which incorporate a wide palette of
sounds (marimba, sawing strings, layered harmonies) and a broad range of
influences, from the expected pop inspirations -- Beatles, Kinks, Belle and
Sebastian -- to more surprising names such as Queen, Elton John and ... Yes.
Brewis doesn't deny the latter, and when he starts to talk about the
importance of virtuosity, the connections between Field Music and
progressive rock become evident.
"The thing that inspires me to sit down and write a song is a strong
feeling -- an abstract, personal feeling. Music is the only thing I can do
with any proficiency. I enjoy watching films, but I can't make a movie; I'm
not gonna write a book, because I can't even speak the Queen's English all
that well. The only way I'm going to make sense of things I experience is to
make music from them, and I want to do that with as much proficiency as I
"As a result, making this album was fun to begin with, but then ...
things always get really intense. Me and David especially are very critical
of each other and ourselves -- it always has to be good, it has to be
interesting and there have to be no boring bits. When we start rehearsing
and recording, we're usually like, 'This is gonna be great!' And then it
gets to a point where we're like, 'Well, it's really not good enough.' We're
always trying hard to come up with these complexities to impress ourselves.
It's a silly thing to do, really, but we figure that if we're constantly
trying to surprise ourselves, we might surprise an audience as well."
Despite their many complaints about playing live -- "Another problem is
you never get to see any of the bloody places you're playing when you tour,"
Brewis adds -- Field Music is crossing the United States on a jaunt that
brings them to Chicago next week, though the band's leader cautions fans
about what to expect. "It's hard for the three of us to pull this off live,
but we've worked out a way of doing it, I think. But it's a different entity
to the band that makes the record: We're like our own cover band."
REASONS FOR LIVING
Though many rock bands subsist on a diet of cigarettes and beer, a few make
an effort to sample the cuisine indigenous to the places they visit. To that
end, Scottish guitarist and vocalist Alex Kapranos has written a
witty new book chronicling his culinary/musical adventures, Sound Bites:
Eating on Tour with Franz Ferdinand (Penguin, $13).
The memoir is as much
an account of life on the road as it is a "foodie" tome, but breakfast,
lunch and dinner offer as good an excuse as any for a boy from Glasgow to
frame his observations of cities halfway around the world that he's seeing
for the first time. Writing about a visit to Nye's Polonaise Room in
Minneapolis, where senior citizen pianist Lou Snider serenades diners with
standards and polkas (I know -- I've been there), Kapranos notes, "I don't
pay enough attention when I order my main course and choose a medium-sized
rib. Medium size is 24 ounce. That's a pound and a half of cow hanging off a
bone. It looks like the ribs that tip over Fred Flintstone's Stone Age buggy
in the title sequence."
Kapranos vainly tries to clear his plate before finally admitting defeat.
"It's too much. It doesn't feel like food any more. I give up. ... Snider
starts 'Making Whoopee.' "
That passage says as much about the Midwest as any travelogue could. The
only disappointment: The author doesn't tell us where he ate in Chicago.