FIELD MUSIC has always been a family affair. The band revolves around a pair of brothers, Peter and David Brewis, who take turns leading the group depending on who wrote which song. Commontime, the fifth Field Music album—not counting last year's Music for Drifters soundtrack—is the first since the brothers each became fathers. It's been called their most accessible work to date, something Peter attributes in part to his just-turned-three-year-old son's affinity for Hall and Oates.
"I travel in the van with him quite a lot, taking him to playgroups or taking him to his grandparents', and he's picked up on certain songs," Peter says. "I was quite surprised when I found out most of them were US number ones, actually. Things like some Beatles stuff, 'She Loves You,' some Bowie stuff, like 'Fame.' And 'Kiss on My List' and 'Maneater.' And he's continuing it in that fine tradition—his favorite is Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' at the moment, which he discovered at a children's party doing musical statues, so that was the first song I think he ever danced communally to, with other people. I think that kind of had an influence from the beginning of making the record—that, you know, I'd want to write some songs that my son might like."
Peter and David grew up in the city of Sunderland in Northern England, and despite Field Music earning rave reviews and having connections to well-known bands like the Futureheads and Newcastle's Maximo Park, the brothers have basically stayed put. Their modest recording space looks out on the River Wear; it was there they recorded Commontime and several Field Music records prior to that. Including a hiatus around 2008 when they each explored solo projects (Peter's the Week That Was; David's School of Language), the Brewis brothers have consistently turned out adventurous, rather brainy art-pop songs that have earned understandable if not entirely accurate comparisons to XTC, Scritti Politti, Peter Gabriel, and Talking Heads. Their rhythms are tightly coiled but rarely oppressive, their timbres veer toward '80s-vintage electric-piano patches and gated drums, their time signatures shift and turn about on each other, and their compositions subvert but never suppress their inherent tunefulness, making surprising earworms out of defiantly cerebral ideas. The Brewis brothers' skill at songwriting, arrangement, and production has made Field Music into a world-class cottage industry, responsible for some really fantastic albums that have nevertheless failed to set the international scene on fire.
Despite labels of "accessibility"—and despite the unmitigated delight of songs like "The Noisy Days Are Over" and "Disappointed"—there aren't any songs on Commontime likely to join Hall, Oates, or Swift at the top of the American charts. The 14-song album boasts a slightly broader, beefier sound than past Field Music works, and there's a funky, danceable quality that comes from an emphasis on repetition and groove, as opposed to the Brewises' past methods of exploring their songs' nooks and crannies for unusual detours.
"I think what we've done is maybe written a few more songs that have a kind of conventional structure to them, really," says Peter. "That kind of structure in music is something that people need to get a handle on things. You can use crazy melodies, crazy chords, crazy sounds, whatever, but as long as there's some kind of element of repetition and contrast that people can recognize as being a song—verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-chorus-chorus, or something like that—then people can get a handle on it and begin to kind of recognize things that are happening. I think that's partially why some people have said they thought it was more accessible, because there are a few songs with more conventional structures. There are some songs without conventional structures as well, but, you know."
Their current tour includes the first-ever Field Music show in Portland (David's project, School of Language, played at the long-departed Towne Lounge venue back in 2008). The brothers simply haven't had much opportunity to tour the States, although they did share a US/Canada jaunt with Portland's own Menomena in 2007, and made a couple of quick visits in 2010. "It's the cost and logistics, really," Peter says. "Because we're a sort of self-sustaining little business, we can't afford to tour that much, really. It just costs a lot in terms of visas, flights, accommodations, insurance—just the usual things."
Field Music's first Portland show will feature the Brewis brothers switching off on drums, guitar, and lead vocals, and they'll be joined by bassist Andrew Lowther and keyboardist/vocalist Liz Corney, who also plays in the Cornshed Sisters with Peter's wife, Jennie. While Peter and David will find it difficult to be away from their sons, the songs on Commontime—and indeed, all of Field Music's sharp, tuneful albums—deserve the exposure.
"We haven't been for ages," Peter says of the US tour. "The band that we've got at the moment is really good, and we're enjoying it—and enthusiastic about the live side of things at the moment. It's good fun."