These New Puritans’ 2008 debut album, Beat Pyramid, established the embarrassingly young foursome as radical sonic experimenters. Seasoned music analysts, however, were quick to spot the influence of idiosyncratic art rockers The Fall. Two years later, the group is back with a new album, Hidden, that’s designed to confound critics. The lads (and lass) from the English resort of Southend-on-Sea have also booked a couple of dates in Japan, a country that has had a profound influence on their creative nexus, says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jack Barnett.
“I have a lot of respect for Japanese music, like the music of noh theater,” the anorexic-looking front man tells Metropolis by phone from Heidelberg, where the band is now touring. “Noh theater is hyper-stylized—a restrained thing, really. I don’t know, but I was thinking that might be a contributing factor to why we were popular in Japan.”
Other aspects of Japanese culture that have insinuated themselves into Barnett’s polymorphous creative consciousness are the folktale Urashima Taro and, most obviously, the six-foot-high taiko drums that give the new album’s standout track “We Want War” such an unforgettable texture.
“They’re the biggest, loudest instrument I’ve ever heard,” he says, the enthusiasm of the sonic otaku poking through his otherwise laidback persona. “The tone of them is just incredible. It’s not like just hitting a big drum. It’s got a very particular character. And there are only two in England, so we hired both of them. They arrived on trucks, but they were so big they didn’t fit in the studio, so we had to record them in a warehouse that was next to the studio. It was worth it in the end.”
Anyone overcome by the hypnotic sense of dread on “We Want War” could only agree. While this track and some others—most notably “Attack Music,” with its droning synths, chanted lyrics and sword-unsheathing “schwing!” samples—maintain the percussion-driven energy and menace of Beat Pyramid, other tracks see the group striving to outgrow the categories that have been placed around them, something that is reflected in the new album’s title.
“Originally we were going to call it Attack Music, but gradually, as I was writing more and more music, it was not ‘attack music’ anymore,” Barnett recalls. “Gradually it became ‘hidden’ music. ‘Hidden’ fits for lots of reasons.”
The softer, more ambiguous name suits the Radiohead-like lament of “White Chords,” the glockenspiel-ornamented “5,” and the brass-bolstered “Hologram,” which sounds like Kate Bush circa 1982. These tracks reveal a band content to follow their musical noses wherever that may lead them. For the shows in Japan, TNP will be working with an ensemble of five classical musicians to replicate the work of the Czech musicians they called in for Hidden.
A musical magpie, Barnett is fascinated by everything from exotic instruments and odd fusions to “de-contextualized rhythms.”
“It’s funny, because even in the indie world the only danceable beat is like four-to-the-floor, like doom-kat doom-kat doom-kat, or some variation on that,” he explains. “Whereas actually I find that the most interesting rhythms come from American pop, dancehall and ragga. In their context, they’re danceable, but we like to use them out of their context.”
In addition to making TNP’s sound an ever-evolving musical puzzle, this approach also unleashes the ancient ritualistic power of music, where beats and sounds signified spiritual forces and sublime thoughts rather than booty shaking or teenage lust. In this sense, the group’s name has become uncannily apt.
But the trouble with musical magpies is that they’re also notoriously fickle. Already Barnett has moved beyond the beat of the taiko and the time-travelling turtle rescuer of Urashima Taro. His latest sonic obsession is Melanesian music.
“They have a lot of funeral songs and things like that, and it’s a really weird mix of Christian music and their original musical language, with their twist on Western harmony,” he says. “My hunch is that our next album is going to be, well, maybe not laidback, but definitely quieter.”
These New Puritans
British art rock/electronica band. June 4, 7pm, ¥5,000. Duo Music Exchange, Shibuya. Tel: Creativeman 03-3462-6969.
Metropolis is giving away two tickets to the June 4 concert! For your chance to win, sign up here.
Hidden is available on Domino/Hostess.