By Simon Shoulders, Rock At Night London
Setting out to create a concept album must be daunting for any artist, but setting out to create an album about the aftereffects of World War One must take “daunt” to a whole new level. Yet this is exactly the task that brothers Peter and David Brewis, the core of Sunderland band, Field Music, set themselves when they undertook a project with the Imperial War Museum (IWM) as part of their “Making a New World” season which explores the effect of the First World War on society through exhibitions, immersive live music performances and public debates.
Field Music were commissioned to create a sound and light show inspired by an image from the IWM archives that shows a visualisation of the vibration caused by gunfire during the exact moment at 11am on 11 November 1918 that the armistice went in to effect and the guns fell silent. The image, captured on photographic film, was the output a technique called sound ranging that was used to work out the position of enemy armaments. It captures just two minutes of sound, the smallest fragment of four years of brutal war. Before 11am the intense vibrations caused by the big guns firing are clear, but in the minute following the armistice there is almost perfect silence.
In an interview on undertaking the project for the IWM, David Brewis said: “…Realising that to try and tell a big story in very broad strokes is not something that pop music does very well. So even when we’ve been writing in our own songs, when we want to make a point, we focus on a smaller story and in a way, that approach worked perfectly for this. We can’t tell the story of the first world war, we certainly can’t tell the story of a century after the first world war, but we can pick little stories and find ways that maybe they can express something much bigger.”
So the task Peter and David set themselves was to explore some of the stories of how the guns falling silent has echoed down the events of the following century. No easy task, and the brothers Brewis didn’t exactly choose the easiest of vignettes to illustrate. Everything from housing estates, to influenza, the birth of the first synthesiser, and even the invention of the modern sanitary towel become the subject for songs on field Music’s 7th album “Making a New World”. As David said, the stories told are often of small, but nevertheless incredibly important events and Field Music tell these stories from some unusual and very personal angles such as the clerk signing off the last repayment for Germany’s reparations on “Money is a Memory”; or the first gender reassignment surgery made possible by pioneering skin graft surgery initially used to treat wounded soldiers in “Change of Heir” or the pilot wondering how the first ground to air radio communication is going to change how they experience the freedom of flight on “Do you Read Me?”.
It all makes for a somewhat off kilter but fantastically rich musical tapestry that begs for you to explore the stories behind the songs in a little more depth. So, when I spotted that Field Music were going to be playing tracks from “Making a New World” at RoughTrade East I thought I’d pop along and see how this intriguing concept transferred to a small stage at a back of an iconic record store in London’s east end.
Rough Trade have created a bit of a winning formula that’s oh so very “Rock at Night”. They put on sets from bands touring or promoting new albums at 7pm in the back of their Brick Lane store. It’s a genius idea allowing music nerds (such as me!), time to bail from the daily grind of the office, get across town, grab a pint, watch a band, get the album signed, get home before 9:30 and still be able to (mostly) function in work the next day. Discovering this means that weeknights are filled with opportunity, and as I catch snippets of conversation around me as I lurk at the front of the crowd all patiently waiting for Field Music to take to the stage, it’s abundantly clear I’m not the only one to realise this…
When Field Music performed “Making a New World” at the IWM, the songs were performed back-to-back with visuals projected on to a screen behind the band which explain some of the background behind the songs, so standing up in front of a crowd to introduce these songs resulted in plenty of banter and laughter between the crowd and the band. If you’ve seen Field Music before then you’ll know that there is tremendous chemistry within the band and watching how Peter and Dave switch between drumming and lead guitarist duties only illustrates the depth of their musical talent. Intra-track discussions ranged from threatening to introduce each other’s songs, a quiz asking the audience to name other bands from Sunderland, and turbo-shandies, to realising that there’s no easy way to introduce a song about Sanitary Towels… (and to be fair, as Peter puts it to the almost entirely male crowd, the song is partly about challenging the taboos associated with an important and perfectly normal human process!). Describing this as an intimate performance does not really do it, by the third song it somehow it feels more like we’re all friends sitting in someone’s living room watching Field Music jam.
For this set, Field Music chose to mix in songs from Making a New World with some tracks from older albums and other side projects. The harmonies on “Do You Read Me?” were awesome. The infectious joy and smiles the band shared as they performed “The Noisy Days are Over” from their classic 2016 album “Commontime” had the crowd bouncing and singing along. Describing and then illustrating how the tempo of “Nobody Knows” (with lyrics derived from some fantastic quotes from the current US president) is exactly the same as the theme tune to the iconic and long-running British comedy series “Only Fools and Horses” raised plenty of laughter. As Field music finished the main body of the set with “Only in a Man’s World” and “Money is a Memory” they were clearly on top form delivering a fantastic rendition of two tracks that really illustrate the echos of the impact of those guns falling silent just over 100 years ago.
Of course Field Music were never going to be able to leave the stage straight away and as the crowd roared for more, the band got the thumbs up to play one more song, which of course was “Disappointed” from “Commontime” a brilliant song, and other one of these little stories, carefully observed form a viewpoint of shared personal experience and told with a wry realism and humour that Field Music are so good at.
- Best Kept Garden
- Change of Heir
- Do You Read Me?
- The Noisy Days Are Over (from Commontime)
- Nobody Knows (from 45 by School of Language))
- Beyond that of Courtesy
- Shot to the Arm
- Checking on a Message (from Open Here)
- Only in a Man’s World
- Money is a Memory
- Disappointed (from Commontime)