Sunderland was the first region to declare a result in the EU referendum of 2016, giving us the first sign that the country was lurching towards Brexit. Many people see it as the first rumbling of the howl of rage that came to define the divisions in the country, cracks that only seem to have grown wider since. Anger, frustration and a sense of disenfranchisement all came bubbling to the surface.
That Sunderland became synonymous with the Brexit vote is a little harsh, indicative of the picture painted by some that working-class northerners were to blame for tipping the balance. Sunderland is, in fact, no different to dozens of towns and cities across the country who once relied on industry to power them, and have been left dealing with the consequences of privatisation ever since. All they did was count the votes the quickest.
It’s from under this cloud that Sunderland brothers Peter and David Brewis make their return, with their seventh LP as FIELD MUSIC. And on first listen to Open Here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all the Wearside doom and gloom was blown out of all proportion. It’s a joyous prog pop masterclass, replete with fleet-footed orchestral passages that elevate it beyond the level of ‘just another album’. Some critics have already been hailing it as one of the year’s best so far, and it’s hard to disagree: the sumptuous production locks together a plethora of inventive ideas from a rotating cast of musical luminaries from the group’s home base of Wearside. Echoes of Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and even Madonna abound, making for a bit of a romp – but, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that Open Here has a bruised heart.
“I’ve been down and angry about the state of everything lately,” songwriter David admits. “Our town has become infamous in that it was the first place that voted for Brexit, and that threw into really stark relief loads of fears I have about where we live. It’s been a downtrodden place for quite a long time and people look for someone to blame.”
It’s a sentiment that his brother Peter echoes, hinting that the album’s surface level brightness is a mask for something that hits an awful lot deeper. “With some things that have been happening personally to us recently – and obviously the things happening in the wider world – there’s a kind of defiance in playfulness, and that’s what we were trying to capture. It isn’t escapism, but it’s an attempt to confront those things with a deliberate sense of fun. Fun in the face of hardship. We set out to have a good time making this record, in spite of everything”.
This sense of fun plays out in the sound of the record: “We’re not the types to make ‘weighty’ music – there are too many other people trivialising music and everything else in the world by trying to be weighty,” Peter continues. “It was more like ‘bollocks to ’em; we’re going to have fun in the face of all this and have fun talking about it too'”.
The album’s stand out single, Count It Up, is a case in point: a song born out of frustration, but with a hook that marks it out as an instant classic. The thread that runs through it – a list of things that western white men take for granted – is a familiar enough musical trick, layering more and more privileges over a snaking, funky beat. It’s perhaps a bit too obvious to be subversive, but it’s still a statement that leaves its mark.
“I went through a period not long after the global financial crisis when I read a lot about economics”, David continues. “There’s a section in a book by Joseph Stiglitz called Making Globalisation Work about how those on the right hand side of the political spectrum tend to ascribe their fortunes entirely in the frame of their own talents; if somebody is poor it’s because they’re stupid, and if I’m rich it’s not because my parents gave me a great start in life, or money, or a great education, it’s because I’m talented and brilliant. I think all of that fed in to this howl of rage set to what’s basically my version of Material Girl”.
Field Music came through the indie ranks at roughly the same time as The Futureheads, and the Brewis brothers’ alt. folk/art rock amalgam has stood the test of time much better than their fellow Wearsiders. The duo’s past five albums have all been made in their own studio, a space in a riverside industrial unit that they were free to shape into their own creative environment – and a studio that has just been bulldozed. For Peter and David, shaping and playing together in that studio was a form of joyful exorcism. The space became a sanctuary away from everything political and personal, a cocoon of creativity – and the eviction notice served to them was the impetus they needed to finish Open Here, which brought together a host of musician friends and one-off collaborators.
“I suppose it [Open Here] is a kind of parting letter to the old studio, but more of a kind of letter to everyone who’s worked with us while we’ve been there,” Peter muses. “We always saw the place as a kind of music club-house where people could drop by and be part of it. We invited lots of the people we’d worked with over the past 7 years to play on the record.”
Indeed, one of the delights of Open Here is the way songs spiral off into lush waltzes of woodwind and brass. The time limitations imposed on them by the closure of their studio forced David and Peter to connect with these musicians – Sarah Hayes on flute and piccolo, Liz Corney on vocals, Pete Fraser on saxophone, Simon Dennis on trumpet and flugelhorn, a Cornshed Sisters choir and the regular string quartet of Ed Cross, Jo Montgomery, Chrissie Slater and Ele Leckie – in a different way. The co-collaborators were invited to leave their mark on the music, giving the LP a sense of scale that couldn’t be achieved between the two brothers. “We recorded most of the orchestral parts separately,” Peter informs us, “so It’s been good hearing the musicians all play together. I’m starting to think that the arrangements are pretty good”.
A collection of these musical guests, under the name the Open Here Orchestra, joined the band for two triumphant live shows at Northern Stage in Newcastle in February, and are set to hook up with them again for a date at The Barbican in May.
Parenthood has also been a touchstone for both Peter and David, with two songs on the LP directly referencing experiences relating to their young families. Aside from Father And Son, there aren’t too many songs that jump to mind that are built on the experiences of fatherhood. Share A Pillow is Peter’s ode to the bed-hopping ways of a toddler, even if it has often been mistakenly interpreted as a rant at other bed-hopping ways. And David’s powerful No King No Princess, written in response to the birth of his daughter, rails against society’s fascination with gender stereotypes, and how damaging they can be to young children (sample lyric: “You can dress up how you want/And you can do the job you want”).
“People have a sort of romanticised idea of feelings that are painful or dark, that they are more meaningful,” says Peter, “but when I’ve been through dark times, I find that there isn’t a lot of romance in that, that I function better and get more meaning out of positive experiences.”
The skill with which the Brewis brothers have spun a variety of personal experiences into this wholesome album is dazzling, tiptoeing along a line between turmoil and joy with what looks to be great ease. The fact that they’ve come out of a period of great turbulence with such an optimistic view is testament to their ability as musicians. Underestimate them at your peril.
Field Music play Arts Club on 22nd March. Open Here is out now via Memphis Industries.