The relentless artillery barrages on the century-old MOD range on Essex's Foulness Island cease on rare days, when outsiders are allowed in. These New Puritans' singer-songwriter and Essex man Jack Barnett seized his chance to visit this near yet lost world, where 150 villagers remain despite the danger and noise, some never leaving, some speaking accents unheard elsewhere.
His band's second album, Hidden, might as well have been recorded there, so steeped is it in the mysterious, marshy landscapes of England's most abused county, and so musically cut off from their contemporaries. Drawing equally on the ominous orchestrations of East Anglian Benjamin Britten and the post-Timbaland production alchemies worked on Britney Spears, six-foot-high Japanese Taiko drums supply its beats, and cinema-style sword-fight sound-effects are its textures. Where the rest of the UK indie nation sounds enslaved by guitar-rock's past, These New Puritans simply ignore it. Domino chief Laurence Bell has signed them to the revered label outside the UK, joining fans ranging from Dior fashion designer Hedi Slimane (who commissioned the 15-minute TNP piece "Navigate Navigate" for a Paris show) to Lady Gaga's backroom team, and the reformed Suede, who they supported at the Albert Hall last month. But Jack and twin brother and TNP drummer George, 22, remain proud, fascinated Essex boys. "Secret recordings were made in the mud/ I bore a hole in the tree just to see," Jack chants on "We Want War", suggesting the strangeness he's found in his home.
"Essex is the best place in the world," he says. "Because it is probably the most misunderstood place in the entire world. We've toured Japan, and Foulness is still the strangest place I've ever been to. It's a combination of melancholy, and the completely brutal. And that's what Essex is, really. In fact someone was saying to me that our album's like Essex. It's the urban places and the marshy places – the two worlds. There's a bit in "We Want War" where it says, "and the Thames flows between the grass". That's when I was going on the train towards London. It feels like the Thames is flowing underneath the ground, because the land looks like waves, you see the water coming up, and it's not quite one or the other. A weird, liminal place."
That's These New Puritans' spot musically, too. Jack learned to write music to communicate with the Prague brass and woodwind players who supply some of Hidden's most haunting passages, and now only holds his guitar on-stage as a sort of barely touched, vestigial limb from rock's unevolved past. Still, their briefly playing at the local Southend Junk club which also spawned The Horrors, added to that Dior commission, has somehow seen them tagged as fashionistas.
"Yeah, but that's also a prejudice of the music press," George sighs. "Because they think anything to do with fashion is completely superficial and idiotic. Whereas some terrible bands strumming guitar is really beautiful, everyone can get into that. So it probably did hurt us. But it was a really good creative opportunity."
""Navigate Navigate" was the first song I'd ever written at that level," adds Jack. "Before that, it was a stretch to write three-minute songs. They always had an atomic structure – tiny little pieces put together. "Navigate" was an opportunity to be in a world where, for better or worse, making something incredibly beautiful was all that mattered. And that's our values. We don't care about bands, all we care about is making things that are really good. Indie bands are about compromise, and appearing to be a certain way..."
"Wearing Ray-Bans." sniffs George. "We've never associated with other bands, I hate it when we're lumped in with them. It's innate that we sound so different. Those bands make records that just sound like four albums, because they've drunk so much from some crap 1960s band, and Neu!, and maybe some shoegazey band too – they say that's new, but it's not. It just pleases critics who liked that stuff before."
"Even though the Americans like TNP, they're still suspicious of us because we're not enough like The Beach Boys," says Jack. "I feel we're a European band. We don't quite make sense to Americans. The reason they like us in Japan is we share a lot of values with Japanese culture, where it's restrained and stylised – ritualised, maybe."
Outside of such outposts, (Russia likes them, too), These New Puritans fit, refreshingly, nowhere. "It would be quite good to have peers," George considers. "We jar with the whole world." "It's the wrong world," his brother laughs, not unhappily. "In a way, the contemporary classical world would be better for us, but it's not, because we want to make pop music. Even though this album is stranger than the first one, it's more accessible. That's the best combination. It's like Benjamin Britten – his music doesn't fit in with any trend of the 20th century, and yet it's some of the most popular there is. I want a female voice like Neneh Cherry to sing on the next album. Because the more pop you are, the more weirdness you can away with."
When Jack was a child in the Southend outpost of Leigh-on-Sea, he'd write music in the shed or loft, valuing isolation. A commission to write a song for each of Essex's 12 islands has made him think of moving to one. He's in a lineage with working-class pop intellectuals such as Dr Feelgood's Wilko Johnson (from nearby Canvey, and a friend of their mum): a committed outsider pop desperately needs.
New single 'Attack Music' is out on Angular on April 19. TNP tour till April 20