Field Music, brothers Peter and David Brewis, hail from Sunderland in the Northeast of England. The band’s music draws on influences as wide-ranging as Stravinsky, Stax R&B, Fleetwood Mac, Serge Gainsbourg, Thelonious Monk and Kate Bush. Field Music’s sound is like all of the pop music you’ve ever heard but with a distinctly British — and Northeastern, tinge. They’ve become known for a deconstructionist approach to songwriting, playfully twisting compositions into new and odd shapes, with a refreshing disregard for convention and cliche.
I was born 40 years ago, to Tony and Linda Brewis, in the maternity unit at Sunderland Hospital. My brother, Peter, was nearly three when I came along. Our house was only a couple of hundred yards from the hospital. In fact, I’ve never lived more than four miles away from the place where I was born. My wife was born there too, just a few months before me. Sunderland is that kind of town.
30 years ago, on my 10th birthday, my brother gave me a guitar songbook. I already had the guitar. We’d been on a family holiday to what was then Yugoslavia. I had diligently saved my pocket money for the trip and was fully prepared to spend the lot on Adriatic exotica. As it happened, the Yugoslav currency was devalued while we were there. We scribbled extra noughts onto our notes, but the confusion dampened my desire to splurge. My savings came home with me and for £21, I bought an Encore nylon string from Argos — for non-UK readers, it’s like a store where you do mail order. It’s a British institution, I promise.
Peter had already been playing drums for a few months — a brown Premier Club, bought from a guy in a barn for £80 the previous Christmas. And now I was ready to join the band! Except, of course, I couldn’t play. At all. My fingers could barely press the strings down. And I had no idea how to tune the damn thing. Fortunately, as well as including the chords for “From Me To You” and “Amazing Grace,” my birthday songbook came with a flexi disc which patiently sounded out E – A – D… Pete and I both learned to play on that guitar. I still have it, and it sounds pretty good.
The year 2000 had its ups and downs. Mostly downs if I remember correctly. However, we did record our very first release that year. In fact, we recorded it twice and stumbled upon our modus operandi in doing so. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize this at the time and spent the next four years flailing around trying to figure out what we should be doing. In 1999, almost despite ourselves, we’d made a minor splash in the world of British unsigned bands, due to some demos and an anarchic performance at a music industry conference in Liverpool. It felt like we were on the cusp of something. This was not quite the case.
We were very, very sure of what we didn’t want to do. We were significantly less sure of what we did want to do. And we had next to no idea of how to do either. We committed to making an EP for a small label, recently set up by a band called Union Kid. Working on the reasonable assumption that our own recording expertise was, at best, a mildly charming joke, we headed off to Essex to record in the Union Kid studio. Sean, moonlighting from his day job as the frontman of the band to be both our studio engineer and label boss gently guided us and we recorded four songs for the EP. Then we took them home and realized, to our confusion and dismay, that they just weren’t quite right. We were distraught. Were we about to throw away our one chance to actually make a record? We pulled ourselves together and re-recorded the lot over a couple of days in our parent’s spare bedroom. This pattern continued for a long time. We kept discovering that we could learn (enough of) a skill more quickly than we could adequately explain to someone else what we were trying to do. And that’s how we came to record all of the Field Music records ourselves at our own studio. And write our own string arrangements. And mix the records. And eventually master them too.
10 years ago, I married the love of my life. We got married just a few weeks after she was finally discharged from hospital following years of ill health. The third Field Music album was also released 10 years ago: Field Music (Measure). We’d had three years of self-imposed exile, which we’d spent figuring out if and how we could function as a band, and this was our “comeback.” The first two Field Music albums hadn’t been without their complications. For a start, we didn’t quite know how to deal with Peter and I disagreeing about things. We didn’t quite know how to translate our rather intricate studio constructions to the stage. We didn’t know how to sell ourselves and sell our records without feeling like we were bathing in bullshit. We didn’t know how to cope with sharing festivals bills with bands with whom we had absolutely nothing in common. We were also broke and we were tired.
While our hiatus was in full swing, Peter and I both released solo albums — my School of Language album, Sea From Shore, and his album as The Week That Was. We toured in different ways and in different places. We started to make a niche for ourselves. There was a new world where maybe we didn’t have to apologize for not sounding like… well, everything else. And that gave us the confidence to make Measure.
We were determined not be embarrassed. We wanted to embrace ALL of the things which made up our musical DNA, even if that meant the working title for one song was “Kravtiz.” We had a wild idea to make it a double album; an album that was deliberately, provocatively, too long. We even imagined we would loosen up a bit and let a bit of repetition creep in after two albums of brutal curtailments. Having recently re-listened to the album, I can assure you that this particular idea stayed mostly in our imaginations — every verse in every song still has some novel parade of musical details and every track has umpteen structural turnarounds.
But incredibly, it seemed to make sense to people. The subtle found-sound symphonies and the juddering, discordant blues made sense. The stereo ping-ponging and acoustic pitter-pattering made sense. Even the hiatus started to make sense.
And though we wore ourselves out from touring — around 90 shows, including three trips to the US and a nerve-shredding Scandinavian run so eventful it would need its own novel — and our Glastonbury show was a bit of a disaster — the monitor engineer having turned off the mixing desk a few seconds into our first song — we toured here, there and everywhere, and playing live started to make sense for us too.
And now it’s 2020. Field Music have just released a new album, where we trawl 100 years of history for stories relating to the First World War. It might be the first time we’ve thought of ourselves as songwriters or lyricists, rather than people who make records. In between touring for the album, we’re recording new songs, worrying about the future and chasing manic children around, while they sing Darth Vader’s Imperial March at the top of their lungs. Our studio is about a mile and half from the spot where we were born. Sunderland is that kind of town.
— David Brewis