Saturday 23 September 2017

The indie band on the outside

Ed Power

Ed Power

A dapper chap with expressive eyes and a photogenic pout, at first inspection These New Puritans' George Barnett makes for a rather unconvincing tortured artist. He earns a tidy living modelling in London, stomping Zoolander-style down catwalks (his 'Blue Steel' is something to behold) and sucking in his very nice cheekbones for glossy fashion spreads. A leap of the imagination is required to visualise him as a moochy avant-garde type, mucking inscrutably about with keyboards and guitar.

"Modelling pays my way," shrugs the 24-year-old. "Essentially I take the money and run. I invest all the cash in the music. We were able to pay for a video with my earnings. I dislike a lot in the industry. To be honest, it is completely vacuous."

He isn't the first from the fashion world to have a parallel career in rock. The catwalk and the recording studio share a long , tangled history. Alternative pin-up de jour Claire Boucher (who records as Grimes) was championed by Vogue magazine when pop journalists were scarcely aware of her existence; troubled chanteuse Chan 'Cat Power' Marshall briefly served as a face of Chanel. And, of course, a parade of perma-frowning clothes horses – from Kate Moss to Naomi Campbell to Agyness Deyn – have had a tilt at the pop charts, rarely with encouraging results.

Barnett, however, is different and not simply because of the depth of his contempt for the business to which he owes an income. Together with his twin Jack and guitarist Thomas Hein, as These New Puritans he creates soundscapes that are weird and woozy, dystopian and aggressively anti-commercial. Inevitably, there are moments of indulgence. At their best, such as on new album Field of Reeds, the trio, from the grim English seaside town of Southend achieve a strikingly fragile beauty.

"People in fashion say to me 'oh you're in a band?'" sighs George. "As if they expect me to be in one of those indie groups where they are always playing jangly guitars. I don't necessarily have a problem with that kind of stuff. It's just that it is getting quite repetitive. It's been going on for roughly 50 years now."

As it turns out, if one thing irritates Barnett more than vacuous fashion heads it is vacuous indie outfits. Standing consciously outside the mainstream of British rock, These New Puritans are openly sniffy towards hitmakers such as Snow Patrol and Kaiser Chiefs (we bet they don't like chart-topping Dubliners Kodaline either). Why create music to fit in when you could create music that sets you apart?

"We don't understand why musicians are reluctant to go past three chords," says Barnett. "Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if life wouldn't be easier if we thought the same way they do. I look at all those artists out there and think 'oh, that would be alright – four to the floor drumming, having the audience sing 'hey hey' back at you'. That is not what we are about. We have chosen to be different."

On paper, These New Puritans could be regarded as a caricature of a tortured art rock band. Nominated for Britain's prestigious Mercury Award for album of the year, 2010's Hidden featured medieval Japanese drumming, a children's choir, a vandalised piano and, to simulate the deadening crack of a human skull smashed open, recordings of a hammer striking a melon lined with cream crackers.

For Field of Reeds, the trio sample a harrier hawk, rope in a Portuguese 'fado' vocalist and invite the man with the lowest bass voice in the UK to croon a tune. They make Radiohead sound like a chuckle-a-minute Robbie Williams covers act.

"People think we are very solemn," says Barnett. "Actually we are funny. We laugh at ourselves. In some ways we are terribly serious in what we do. In some ways it is humorous. As individuals we do not take ourselves seriously."

Nevertheless, he appreciates why the public would file These New Puritans under 'moody and difficult'. Tellingly, the prospect of being written off as curmudgeonly and arty does not exactly fill him with horror. At least nobody can accuse them of wanting to be Coldplay.

"It's not the sort of music you'd switch on in an elevator," he nods.

"You wouldn't put it on in your trendy loft apartment or hear it at a hotel bar. We are trying to achieve an effect that is quite sincere.

"The songs are about hope, despair, love – all of those emotions that are personal and important. We are not in the business of writing disposable songs."

Field of Reeds is out now.

Irish Independent

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