Old home ties

March 16, 2007


Sunderland is a gritty, blue-collar city of 290,000 on the Northeastern coast of England. It's one of the Motherland's least glamorous burgs, and hardly the sort of place where you'd expect to find a band like Field Music, one of the most subtly nuanced and delicately beautiful pop groups to emerge on the British music scene in years.

Although they admit they have mixed feelings about Sunderland, multi-instrumentalist songwriting brothers Peter and David Brewis and keyboardist Andrew Moore sing a lot about home and the longing for all that implies on their second album, "Tones of Town," and the same theme ran through their self-titled 2005 debut.


"I think that came from the fact that while we were recording our first album, we all had full-time jobs, and we were doing those while recording and trying find gigs, along with moving house and things like that, all of which contributed to us not spending enough time with our loved ones," Peter Brewis says by phone from the U.K. "It was a very stressful time, and it's not a coincidence that me and Dave wrote a lot of songs about the nature of home and how we spend time and make compromises.

"Sunderland is ... well, it's not that we have a complicated relationship with it; it's the usual love-hate small-town thing. At some point, you have to make a decision whether that is going to be your home or not. Part of you feels like a traitor to the place if you decide to leave, instead of sticking around and trying to make things better."

At this point, almost as if on cue, a shatteringly loud siren interrupts our conversation, and we have to pause for 15 or 20 seconds until it's out of range. "See what I mean?" Brewis says, laughing.

Field Music formed about three years ago after Peter Brewis decided to stretch out from his role as drummer for the Futureheads. The new group was conceived primarily as a home-recording, studio-only side project. "We never intended to be a band; we just wanted to make a record, really. There are only three of us in the band, and initially, we had no intention of representing that music live. I don't go to many gigs. I'm always disappointed by live music; I always think the sound isn't as good as on the album, and it's hard to get that atmosphere.

"Most bands, when they play live, end up trying to perform in kind of tight 'rock' way, which isn't really that creative. Everything just gets rocked out, and you lose all of the dynamics."

Dynamics are key to songs such as "Give It Lose It Take It," "House is Not a Home" and "Working to Work," which incorporate a wide palette of sounds (marimba, sawing strings, layered harmonies) and a broad range of influences, from the expected pop inspirations -- Beatles, Kinks, Belle and Sebastian -- to more surprising names such as Queen, Elton John and ... Yes. Brewis doesn't deny the latter, and when he starts to talk about the importance of virtuosity, the connections between Field Music and progressive rock become evident.

"The thing that inspires me to sit down and write a song is a strong feeling -- an abstract, personal feeling. Music is the only thing I can do with any proficiency. I enjoy watching films, but I can't make a movie; I'm not gonna write a book, because I can't even speak the Queen's English all that well. The only way I'm going to make sense of things I experience is to make music from them, and I want to do that with as much proficiency as I can.

"As a result, making this album was fun to begin with, but then ... things always get really intense. Me and David especially are very critical of each other and ourselves -- it always has to be good, it has to be interesting and there have to be no boring bits. When we start rehearsing and recording, we're usually like, 'This is gonna be great!' And then it gets to a point where we're like, 'Well, it's really not good enough.' We're always trying hard to come up with these complexities to impress ourselves. It's a silly thing to do, really, but we figure that if we're constantly trying to surprise ourselves, we might surprise an audience as well."

Despite their many complaints about playing live -- "Another problem is you never get to see any of the bloody places you're playing when you tour," Brewis adds -- Field Music is crossing the United States on a jaunt that brings them to Chicago next week, though the band's leader cautions fans about what to expect. "It's hard for the three of us to pull this off live, but we've worked out a way of doing it, I think. But it's a different entity to the band that makes the record: We're like our own cover band."

Though many rock bands subsist on a diet of cigarettes and beer, a few make an effort to sample the cuisine indigenous to the places they visit. To that end, Scottish guitarist and vocalist Alex Kapranos has written a witty new book chronicling his culinary/musical adventures, Sound Bites: Eating on Tour with Franz Ferdinand (Penguin, $13).

The memoir is as much an account of life on the road as it is a "foodie" tome, but breakfast, lunch and dinner offer as good an excuse as any for a boy from Glasgow to frame his observations of cities halfway around the world that he's seeing for the first time. Writing about a visit to Nye's Polonaise Room in Minneapolis, where senior citizen pianist Lou Snider serenades diners with standards and polkas (I know -- I've been there), Kapranos notes, "I don't pay enough attention when I order my main course and choose a medium-sized rib. Medium size is 24 ounce. That's a pound and a half of cow hanging off a bone. It looks like the ribs that tip over Fred Flintstone's Stone Age buggy in the title sequence."

Kapranos vainly tries to clear his plate before finally admitting defeat. "It's too much. It doesn't feel like food any more. I give up. ... Snider starts 'Making Whoopee.' "

That passage says as much about the Midwest as any travelogue could. The only disappointment: The author doesn't tell us where he ate in Chicago.