These New Puritans Speak on Their Experimental ICA Event

On Thursday, the band will take over the Institute of Contemporary Arts with an interactive presentation, video projects and a live performance – here, they sit down with Paul Moody to discuss the event

“It’s a great way of showing people what we’re about,” says George Barnett of These New Puritans, turning his mind to the band’s much-anticipated performance at London’s ICA on Thursday, held in partnership with Another Man.

A multi-media event combining an interactive presentation by performance artist Soojin Chang, a DJ set from Graham Sutton (Bark Psychosis) and the debut of video projects the band have made in collaboration with photographer and Another Man contributor Harley Weir, filmmaker Daniel Askill and artist Hans-Henning Korb, the evening will climax with the band performing live inside a specially designed installation by textile artist Freya Don.

“The best way of describing it is like a painting taking place on stage,” says George of a “beautiful but brutal” stage set where projections of fireballs and romantic nudes will shimmer across drapes of slashed silk hung from scaffolding. “It will be like when you go to the ballet and they shine a spotlight through fabric. Everything behind it looks quite angelic. The idea is that we’re inside this prism, performing in our own little world.”

For those familiar with These New Puritans’ decade-long odyssey through sound, such a display of imagination and verve will come as no surprise. Blurring the distinction between rock, classical, electronic and experimental music since 2008 debut Beat Pyramid, they’ve earned rave reviews (Hidden was NME Album Of The Year for 2010) and praise from artists as diverse as Björk, Suede and Elton John.

Their latest album Inside The Rose, however, sees the Barnett brothers moving into even deeper artistic waters. Recorded between Berlin, London, Barking, Westcliff in Essex, and LA, it transports the listener into a nocturnal alternate reality where nothing is as it seems, kick-started by hypnotic opener Infinity Vibraphones with its vocal enticement: “Let’s go back to the underworld/Let’s go back inside.”

From the brooding Anti-Gravity – think Depeche Mode circa Some Great Reward – to the unalloyed operatic beauty of A-R-P, it pulsates with ideas, energy and jaw-dropping sonic left turns.

The sense of disorientation extends to the videos – co-directed by George – for both Anti-Gravity, featuring an image of Jack refracted in water, and the Francis Bacon-inspired visuals for haunting new single Where The Trees Are On Fire. “The idea of the Trees video is that you’re in this painterly reality where you reach this transcendent moment and then you’re spat back out again at the end,” he explains. “I’ve always liked the idea of taking a different view on everyday things. Lots of 80s music was like that. They were still commercial pop tunes, but slightly warped at the same time.”

While their music is both complex and challenging, George and Jack are anything but. Sitting in a Stoke Newington pub garden, they’re friendly and self-deprecating, and, as lifelong Arsenal fans, as happy discussing Mesut Özil as Nikolai Gogol. In short, they’re the antithesis of the chin-stroking ‘experimental’ musician. “That is as much of a convention as anything else,” says Jack. “It reminds me of spiritual mediums. The truth always just happens to lie with people who wear cheap suits and perform at the end of the pier. Musical truth just always happens to be found in people who are very serious and have beards and carry tote bags around.”

The Barnett’s no-nonsense demeanour can be traced to their working-class roots in Southend (their dad was a builder, and big reggae fan; their mum a teacher).  Having started playing music together at “seven or eight” – Jack on a massively over-sized guitar, George hitting a pair of bongos from a charity shop with drum sticks – the brothers became absorbed in both the art and mechanics of being musicians, recording songs on tape cassette and designing imaginary album covers with felt tip pens. “We’re totally self-taught,” explains Jack. “We’d learn Captain Beefheart songs together, and I would slow down Aphex Twin songs to analyse them, then create copies to learn how to make those kind of sounds.”

Since then, TNP’s sonic palette has combined everything from Japanese Taiko drums, dancehall rhythms and orchestral arrangements (2010’s Hidden) to woozy pastoral folk (2013’s Field of Reeds). In between times, their constant search for new sonic challenges has seen them produce the musical score for the first authorised theatrical production of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and collaborate with the British Council on an audiovisual composition celebrating 70 years of Indian independence (Different Trains 1947). 

Their ICA performance, however, might just be their most audacious artistic statement yet. “It’s a bit of an experiment,” says George with a grin. “We haven’t done anything like this before. In the 60s I suppose they would have called it a happening.”

Not to be missed.

These New Puritans: Inside The Rose is at the ICA, London, on March 21, 2019. Buy tickets here.