Field Music on Their First World War Centenary Shows at Britain’s Imperial War Museums | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Field Music on Their First World War Centenary Shows at Britain’s Imperial War Museums

How WWI Still Lives With Us

Feb 08, 2019 Field Music Photography by Andy Martin Bookmark and Share

The venerated British indie rock band Field Music have done a lot in their 15 years of existence, its core fraternal duo David and Peter Brewis having started multiple off shoot projects on top of their main band’s six studio albums and other assorted soundtrack work. This January, however, saw perhaps their most unique project to date—a collaboration with the Imperial War Museums in London and Manchester.

Last spring, the institutions invited the Sunderland band to compose a new body of work to be part of their commemorations for the centenary of the end of the First World War. The shows saw the band premiering an entire set of new material. We spoke to David Brewis about the provenance of these shows, where they found the inspiration in the subject matter, and what the future may hold for this material. The interview was conducted just before the shows. Field Music’s most recent album was 2018’s Open Here.

Max Pilley (Under the Radar): How did these shows come about?

David Brewis: We were approached by the museum. They were looking for something to do as part of their Making a New World season—rather than commemorating the armistice, they’re looking at what happened next. So, they approached us and we thought it sounded interesting. One of the starting points for our piece, but also for the whole season, is this image which was taken from a munitions book produced by the U.S. War Department. It’s a diagram that looks a bit like a seismograph, made by a technology called sound ranging. They had microphones set up across the Front, and by timing the difference between when the sound hit one microphone to another, they could pinpoint where the enemy artillery was. It’s an incredible little document, which is out there for the public. They used oil drums for microphones, with a wire inside, and they could pick up low frequencies. Some clever soldier, knowing that the fighting was scheduled to stop at 11 a.m. on Armistice Day, set the sound ranging recorder, so we’ve got a diagram which shows the final minute of gunfire and then the next minute of relative silence. It’s an amazing artefact. That was the starting point for this.

Did they explain why they thought Field Music would be the appropriate artists to take this on?

I actually think sadly it was because Mark E. Smith died. I think they had a plan that The Fall were going to do it, and then Mark got really poorly. I’m not entirely sure why they came to us, except that we’re the kind of band that people think we can do this kind of thing. Which is good, because it means we have exactly the right kind of reputation. Have you got a mad idea that we can possibly turn into music? Yeah, we’re probably the ones to do it. Stealing Sheep seem like they do a lot of that kind of thing as well, so maybe they were also on the list.

So what exactly have you written for the shows?

We’ve written songs, mostly. What we did was we looked at events and moments in the First World War and immediately afterwards and looked at how they have affected the next 100 years, and tried to pick another moment in those next 100 years that ties back into the war. So, for instance, there were huge developments in the First World War with regard to underwater microphones which led to the first sinking of a submarine detected by sonar. Eventually, sonar developed into what we now use for ultrasound, so the technology to find a submarine somehow became the technology we now use to look at a baby before it’s born. Another one is the surgeon who was best known for pioneering skin grafts and early plastic surgery in the War was also 30 years later one of the pioneers of gender reassignment surgery. These are the kind of things that we’ve written about. Quite a few of them are technology based. These little moments from the War that have maintained an influence of the world since.

So these are all things that you’ve discovered since being approached by the museums?

Yeah, we’re not historians. We knew the first thing we had to do was to do some research. It’s very easy for a layman to do historical research these days, there is so much amazing information online. And once you find one thing out, it leads you onto other things.

How much music are we talking?

There are 18 pieces, but about two thirds of them are songs or vignettes and then some of them are instrumentals. There are some things that we can’t write a song about—we can make some music, but we can’t write lyrics, it’s too big. Mostly, we focused on relatively small stories.

There are two shows, one in London and one in Manchester, where the music will be premiered. Eventually are we looking at a full release?

Conceivably. But at the moment we’re really focusing on being able to play it at these shows. The good thing for us is that our studio functions as our rehearsal room and there’s not much difference between rehearsing and recording for us, so maybe after the shows as if we’re having a practice and I’ll just have all of the microphones set up and we’ll record it as we’ve done it and then see what we can make out of it. I’m really pleased with the music we’ve written so it would be nice if we could make something out of it. But we haven’t done it yet so I don’t want to be over-confident about our ability to make it into a record.

There must be a real sense of responsibility handling material this significant and sensitive?

We’ve tried to be respectful to the stories and not try to overstate our knowledge of it. One of the reasons that we have not written directly about the War is I don’t feel like we are the people to authentically write the story of a soldier. I don’t think we could do that. There’s one song that deals directly with the end of the War but from a position of confusion more than anything else. At least that’s a feeling I can get a hold of and make something authentic out of.

It’s getting to the stage now where the elder generation’s grandparents were those affected by the War, it’s truly starting to pass out of living memory.

Indeed. None of my own relatives who really experienced the Second World War are alive now. It was something we were wary of. It’s also one of the reasons why we decided to tell stories from a wider span of time. We wanted to explain how the First World War is still with us. A lot of the stuff around the Centenary of the Armistice was focused on remembrance, as it should be, but I also feel like that puts it a distance, as if it’s something that no longer has an effect. But that’s not really the case when you look a little bit closer. We wanted to show that the echoes of this are still really present.

What does the rest of 2019 look like for Field Music?

Peter has been working on doing a project called You Tell Me, so he is off doing that and they’re touring in March. We have these museum shows and then we’ll record that stuff, but I also have to get back to mixing some live recordings that we did last year. We recorded the album launch shows for Open Here back in February [2018] and we filmed them too, so we’ll see what we can do with that.

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