A 40-minute high-speed train ride away from London is Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, the place that the four members of These New Puritans call home. Today, twin brothers Jack and George Barnett, Thomas Hein and Sophie Sleigh Johnson bound and stumble on the grass-padded patches of marshland that rise out of the mud-flats. Distinct in uniform black against dull greys, greens and browns, they walk without talking, as a violent, biting wind terrorises them, animating Sophie’s hair into a frenzy, the Thames flowing calmly behind.
Leigh-on-Sea is a commuter dreamscape, a pleasant mix of suburban stillness, gorgeous landscape and real history (the town was listed in the Domesday Book). Around the turn of the millennium, Leigh became the unofficial home of the hairdresser – coiffeurs Lee Stafford and Adee Phelan ended up on docusoaps and the town, in a way, followed suit, as bars, restaurants, and fitted kitchens were transformed into hives of gossip.
The 22-year-old Barnetts went to a Catholic boys’ comprehensive school, where they met bandmate Hein. Jack had already learned guitar and cello and he put his brother George to work on drums, and taught Hein the bass. He began to imagine bands in his head, and gave them various names. “University Trashcans was the first one we actually formed,” remembers George. “I don’t know why I came up with that name,” Jack adds. “I didn’t know what a university was.” Other projects followed – China Pig, Mexico City, then finally, These New Puritans.
For TNP, Jack wrote songs that attacked the ersatz and tapped into his passion for psychogeography, magick and symbolism. The Barnetts’ cousin Sleigh-Johnson was installed on keyboards and the band slowly graduated from local pub function rooms to the London cicuit. Soon enough, they were commissioned to soundtrack Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme spring/summer catwalk show in Paris 2007, kickstarting George’s sideline career as a high-end male model. The band quickly signed a shared deal with two of the most respected labels in the UK, Domino and Angular. Did they think they had made it? “I just remember hating the venues, and hating everything about playing,” recalls Jack. “I don’t know why we even carried on. Probably because we wanted to record something that is really good, which has only really happened now.”
The band’s new album, Hidden, is a defining LP for a new decade – a purge and a renewal that embodies the spirit of inquiry of great British artists past, contorting stolen forms to convey a unique aesthetic. Co-produced by Graham Sutton of post-rock project Bark Psychosis, and mixed by Stones Throw’s Dave Cooley, it features vocals by Heather Marlatt of US wyrd-pop makers Salem, the massive
sound of Japanese Taiko drums, a 13-piece brass and woodwind ensemble from Prague, and a school children’s choir from London.
Their 2008 debut Beat Pyramid was packaged as a puzzle, and brought together Jack’s disparate passions, such as numerology and J Dilla’s hip hop production. It worked well, but the more you listened the more you began to wonder whether the enigma was enhanced by the fact that it was a disjointed document in a lot of ways – a fusing together of the different styles that Jack had assigned to the band.
A label marked “pretentious” was routinely slapped on to them, which unending editorials that described the band in terms such as “fiercely intellectual”, as well as the incorrect accusation that the band all went to public school, did much to promote. Yet, while at times deserved – this is, after all, a group whose singer claimed he liked to fall asleep on stage during gigs for 30 minutes at a time – such a label essentially lionises mediocrity and punishes ambition, safeguarding tame, ironic consensus-culture in the process. It did not sit well with the band and, this time around, they believe that they have made music that people can engage with. “I think this album will have much wider appeal because it is more interesting emotionally,” says Barnett. “Before, we had really pinned down themes – infinity, secularity, that kind of thing – and one kind of tone. This time, there is a lot more scope for people to get involved.” But don’t mistake it for a new-found sophistication. “Maturity to me is the same thing as being boring. There are ridiculously immature things on this album, like a full children’s choir singing, ‘This is Attack Music!’ I think immaturity is the most important thing in music.”
Hidden began with a plan to merge the violence of dancehall artists such as Vybz Kartel with Steve Reich, and underpin it with melancholic 16th-century British renaissance composers such as William Byrd. But an obsession was forming in Barnett, with two unlikely bedfellows – English composer Benjamin Britten and Britney Spears. “I had this fantasy of wanting to combine the post-Timbaland pop sound of Blackout – one of the great classics of our time – with Benjamin Britten,” he says. “To make music that has the complexity of a Britten opera but that sounds like Britney Spears. And that is kind of what we ended up with.”
Barnett recognises much of Britten’s ideals in the way he wants to work. “He deliberately rejected the European avant-garde,” he explains. “He said it was the same as a totalitarian dictatorship and by doing that, his music was more interesting.” Britten found inspiration in his home of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast when composing the tragic 1945 opera about a fisherman put on trial for abusing his young male assistants, Peter Grimes. Barnett has moved back to Leigh on Sea recently from east London, and the album reflects the part of the Thames Estuary where it was written. Single “We Want War” best displays this new found romanticism for their home. Lyrics such as “And that the Thames flows beneath the grass... sea breeze, sea breeze...” explore the grim and the celestial in the sometimes bleak, sometimes beauty-filled landscape. A shimmering, ecstatic choir reflects the silver of the sea. It is underpinned by a deep-rooted directness that might be traced back to savage local bluesmen Dr Feelgood. Being a seven-minute fusion of operatic brass and grim dancehall beats it is, potentially, commercial suicide. Yet it is also breathtaking.
Barnett’s next project might be a Britten-style song cycle inspired by the 12 islands of Essex. He is thinking of living on one of them – Foulness, just north of Leigh and Southend. For nearly a century it has been used by the MOD, who blast an arsenal of weaponry into mud-flats, the boom audible for miles around. Despite the controlled warzone that surrounds them, around 150 people live in the village. There are rarely any visitors, the yearly bike race is your only chance to get on the island. Last year, Barnett entered.“It was so funny,” he relays. “I was just slowly going along, taking pictures of everything. You can walk right up to the guns. It’s crazy. You are in this tiny village when suddenly, looming over you, there’s this sign that reads STATE OF HIGH ALERT.”
A move to Foulness would be a kind of homecoming – the Barnett brothers’ grandfather used to play organ on the island. It is an outpost, a dreamworld, where Jack can be alone to create. Yet it is not the outside world that is the problem. “I am the most stoical person in the world away from music,” he says. “Nothing bothers me that I can’t change. But when you are making music, you can change everything. It’s terrifying.”
First published in the February 2010 edition of Dazed & Confused magazine. Photography by Leonie Purchas