On his Twitter profile, David Brewis describes himself as “one half, third, or quarter of Field Music, depending on what biog you read”. But regardless of the fractions, he is definitely the only faculty member of School of Language – a project he invented in 2006, back when Field Music were blazing a trail for the north-east post-punk revival alongside Maximo Park and the Futureheads. Resurrecting the name in 2014, Brewis’ second solo album became something of an exercise in catharsis for its author when, during a lyric-writing session, he ended up blurting out his autobiography up to the night he met his wife, aged 20. Accordingly, ‘Old Fears’ is steeped in nostalgia, poignancy, a bullishness that only teenagers possess and a humble self-awareness that only arrives well afterwards. It is also, in its final moments, unrepentantly and gloriously romantic.
But this is no heads-down, serious retrospective – Brewis’ Sunderland roots wouldn’t allow such self-indulgence. Indeed, while occasionally lyrically wistful, ‘Old Fears’ is also shot through with playful, taught-wound funk, skewiff two-bar solos that never get repeated and unashamedly Chakha Khan-flecked drum programming that seems precision-engineered for dancing. “I did want to make the kind of record that my wife and I could dance to in the kitchen,” admits Brewis over an appropriately austere pot of loose-leaf tea in a Kings Cross cafe, and that figures: ‘Old Fears’ eschews the grand, proggy flourishes of Field Music – save for the record’s jaw-dropping final thirty seconds, which features some frankly rapturous sax – in favour of empty space and one-off melodies. “I make music out of lines, individual lines,” he explains of his inadvertent writing technique. “Instruments might play a particular line, and that may overlap with another instrument, but there’s very few chords happening. Even the way I play guitar is a long way from strumming chords.”
As the greatest hits of the late seventies and early eighties float over the cafe’s PA system and the topics move around, Brewis talks good albums, growing pains and, with noticeable discomfort, the concept of “groove”…
“Before I listened to Prince, I thought the definition of a good album was one that was really consistent.
“I used to think he was just a singles guy, but in a way, getting to love Prince was getting to accept that albums don’t have to be consistent. There’d be weak songs, but you just have to accept all the ridiculous things he’s trying to do: an album can work without having to be a succession of individual pop songs.
“You can get away with all sorts of things, providing it flows right and you construct it right – if you construct it in the same way you might construct a particularly weird pop song. But you need peaks and troughs, and the trouble is that way too much music at the moment is on full, all the time, and everything that isn’t on full is so massively contrived to make you ready for the next “it’s full” that I find it kind of wearing.
“But as well as peaks and troughs, a great album should be one I don’t understand straight away. In fact it’s not essential I ever really understand it. If I can understand it straight away, I just lose interest. If by the end of the second verse you can tell what the rhymes are going to be on the third and fourth line, I’m bored by that.”
“There are certain precedents to ‘Old Fears’ on previous Field Music albums, where certain tracks were specifically based around – I’m going to use a terrible word now – a ‘groove’.”
The word just makes me cringe. That’s maybe a sociological thing of my time: I associate the word “groove” with stoner mates in small towns in the north-east listening only to The Stone Roses. It just seems a bit self-indulgent. When you divorce groove from dancing it feels like the kind of thing that people at music college talk about but have no innate understanding of. It becomes very head-driven, and all about chops, about the movement of your hands.
There are a few of my songs on old Field Music records that are funky in a strange kind of way. I mean, I really like that style of technological R’n’B pop, like the first two Justin Timberlake albums, and that was in my mind a little when I went into the studio this time, although I’m pretty confident now that no matter what influences I bring in, I’m going to do them so wrong that they’re going to end up sounding like me. That happens with every aspect of influence for me – I miss by just enough that you can tell what the influence is, but it doesn’t sound like it.
“Lyrically, there are really specific things and times that I’m talking about here.”
On Field Music records we talk about personal things, but abstract them to a degree. Here there’s less abstraction.The record’s basically about my life up to and including meeting my wife when I was 20, in 2001. It’s about the way I was then, and how I’ve coped with various changes, and how certain things just aren’t an issue anymore, because – and this is going to sound ludicrous – my life now feels complete in a way that it didn’t before. Which I suppose is lovely. I mean, it’s cheesy, but it’s lovely for me!
I wrote lyrics over the space of three days: I booked myself into the studio, turned the lights off and sat in front of a blank screen and wrote 3,000 words. I’d never done lyrics like that before. Everything came out of editing these few thousand words of nonsense, free association, whatever, and now they’re set! I’ve had to get over a certain amount of embarrassment towards some of them. I mean, on ‘A Smile Cracks’ I’m basically saying, “you know when I was 19, this is the kind of thing that I did, and it was pretty cool”, and put that on record. But then again, age 19 is the time when you can get away with doing that kind of stuff. I’m glad I’m not trying to do any of that stuff now, to have got it out of my system and have got through it.
But there were definitely thoughts that I wanted to be on the album, and subconsciously they made their way in during the three-day splurge. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the things that I’m scared of – the fears that motivate lots of what I’ve done, or do, and try and confront them a little bit. Most of those fears were at their apex at age 18, 19, 20, at university, feeling ridiculous and lost and a bit floaty.
“A lot of the sax’s bad rep is entirely justified…”
…because it generally feels like it’s been done for the musician’s benefit than the listener’s benefit. It’s over-used, over-emotive, like a symbol for something rather than the thing itself, but there’s something quite comforting about something so overblown. I didn’t intend to use the sax that way though. The idea for it on ‘Old Fears’ came more from – and this is going to sound annoying, sorry – kind of ecstatic free jazz, where it was more about having this little emotive explosion rather than more melodic stuff. I’m a big John Coltrane fan – his records are quite mellowed out and then the bells will start ringing and a screaming, painful sax will just blow itself out from that. His albums quite often had these explosive moments, as if there was too much saxophone to be contained within the rest of the music.
Then again, if it comes out sounding like ‘Careless Whisper’, I’m okay with that as well. Some records like that – even incredibly simple records – can have a depth that keeps me going. I’m still hearing new things: yesterday, my brother [Peter from Field Music] wanted to talk about the chords to ‘Careless Whisper’. ‘You know, it’s such a great song, Dave, you really have to get into this,’ he said, and still I don’t get the chord changes in it, so it must’ve stood the test of time.
“I have a huge emotional attachment to my parents’ record collection of the mid and late eighties.”
That’s the first music that I had interest in whatsoever, just the most popular music of the day. I think my mam had ‘Popped In Souled Out’ by Wet Wet Wet, and I still have a weird fondness for it. It’s not a good record, but I have a weird fondness for it. It’s an associative, sociological fondness, but I think that all music is heavily dependent on that anyway: like, weirdly, listening to something like ‘Back In The High Life Again’ by Steve Winwood, I can hear that all over ‘Old Fears’! And while I was writing the album, I had a huge obsession with the Shalamaar song ‘Night To Remember’, which is a fantastic record, for its use of space and how none of the individual parts takes over at any point.
A lot of these ’80s records were when people were really discovering drum machines and sticking these really complicated rhythms over everything, but it was so precise that it didn’t get in the way, and worked okay. Like on Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel For You’, there are two electronic drum kits going on all the time, blasting away, but it’s done so you almost feel that it makes more space. So there was definitely a sense that that was the kind of sound I’d like to have.
“I don’t think about money when I’m making records, other than that I’m not going to spend any.”
Everything that we’ve done with regard to how we work in a business sense is done in order that we don’t have to think about it when it comes to making music. We’re not that organised with money – we just don’t spend money we don’t have. The music industry doesn’t really work on that basis, though. The music industry works on who’s going to lend you whatever money to tour or to make a record, and we just try and avoid that. It means that we can get by and have our own studio, and if we want outside influence we can have it – and if we don’t, we don’t.
How we go about our finances is reflective of our personalities, in that we’re our dad’s sons, essentially. He’s an incredibly sensible guy, and I think we’re incredibly sensible about most things too. That does seem to be something that we’re often characterised as, but it doesn’t really annoy me because I know that I can go home and put on silly voices to amuse my wife, and be excessively cute with the cat. I’m a fairly silly person a lot of time. I take certain things very seriously – music, maybe money – and the rest not seriously at all. So when I get characterised as being overly sensible, it’s always just that they don’t know about the silly side, and I can cope with that.
“Sunderland and Newcastle are very different”
In Newcastle there’s some sort of musical infrastructure – there are venues and there’s always been bands and there’s always been recording studios. But Sunderland hasn’t had any of those things, so we’ve had to create our own ramshackle infrastructure, and that’s allowed us to be freer – it fosters independence. There’s never an aim of, ‘oh, once we’re good, we can go and play this venue, or support this band’ – it’s more like, ‘we want to play, so where do we play? So let’s book that room and borrow this PA and let’s put on a happening and it’s going to be exciting and different and we’ll have other bands on we like.’ There wasn’t a clear sense in Sunderland of how you became a band or played the music industry game.
I mean, the accepted sound of Sunderland is still Oasis covers bands, essentially – and being somewhere like that does guard against pretentiousness, even if that’s what we’re sometimes accused of. I mean, if you ever go on a Sunderland Football Club fan forum where they’re talking about music, we get as much of a slagging as much as we get praise for being those arty, vegetarian, sandal wearing slangs, and it keeps you in check.
The culture in Sunderland is football, with a mining and shipbuilding heritage, and that heritage indirectly spills into the music, I think, in that there’s a definite feeling that it would be embarrassing not to work hard, and that self-satisfaction should derive from a job well done rather than doing anything particularly flash. And that’s how I feel, too: I was brought up with a feeling that to not try your hardest was a waste – and that’s the worst thing you could do. It’s okay to get things wrong. It’s even okay to do the kind of thing that pretty much makes you an outcast in your own town, as long as you work really hard at it.