INTERVIEW: School of Language | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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School of Language’s delightfully unexpected new album, 45, is a concept album which deals with the bizarre, unhinged spectacle of American politics since Donald Trump’s inauguration. It’s a groove-heavy funk rock album, perhaps reminiscent of Luke Haines’ Baader Meinhof LP in its juxtaposition of George Clinton and James Brown-indebted music, with detached meditations and narratives on a unique societal or political situation. Rex Tillerson, Hilary Clinton and Steve Bannon rear their heads in David Brewis’ revolving cast on the record, delivering their soliloquys. That isn’t to say the album is academic; Lock Her Up (a ballad from the perspective of Clinton) makes very specific detail universal, and is a beautiful conduit for the emotional weight of a woman reflecting on the very grim situation that has developed around her.

For a project so ambitious in its narrative scope, Brewis is still pondering on the triggers and the motivation for making the record. “I’m still trying to figure it out myself to be honest. I suppose at the most simple level you write about what’s on your mind. I’m obsessed with American politics anyway; it’s so fascinating to me and it’s playing out in a way that is so Shakespearian. I guess I have the privilege of distance from it too, unlike Brexit, for example, which is just too emotive for me. I didn’t want to make a really direct record about how I felt about Trump or Cambridge Analytica either. I don’t suppose voicing my opinions that way would be very interesting.”

With the most recent Field Music project a research-heavy commission about the end of the First World War, David was in a different creative mind-set to his usual approach, which turned out to be the perfect conduit for 45. “The last Field Music project we were commissioned to do involved doing research through the Imperial War Museum, and that was a really liberating process. It’s a really exciting way to write, I didn’t have to write about how I was feeling directly. I think that process really inspired this record.”

The subject is seemingly a very rich vein, as David explains. “What’s nice about this type of writing is that the stories are right there in front of you. The songs could have been twice as long because there is so much to draw from these situations, and it was a really cathartic way to cope with my frustrations around it.”

I think it’s kind of appropriate to write a love letter to black American artists when you’re dealing with this spectacle of having a white supremacist in the White House!

Musically, the record is very much indebted to the great American songbook of funk and soul, with the aforementioned Brown, Clinton and perennial favourite Prince making their presences felt. David is incredibly successful in his use of this musical vocabulary and the record sounds raw and primal, vibrating with energy. “I was trying to make a James Brown record, musically; in the way those records were made – laid down quickly. I did this in a lot of downtime really. If you’ve got an hour to record drums in the studio before someone else comes in it’s a good motivation to do it really well. You’re not overthinking things either, you are not beholden to ideas if you don’t have the time to ruminate on decisions you’ve made. It’s been in my mind to make a straight up funk and soul record for a while and I think it’s kind of appropriate to write a love letter to black American artists when you’re dealing with this spectacle of having a white supremacist in the White House!”

On Trump, David reflects: “I don’t think he has a particularly coherent political position. I suppose the things he does are broadly Republican and he’s obsessed with trade, but I think most of the time he does what he thinks will get the reaction he is after. It’s so bizarre. That coupled with this idea of everybody being out to get him, it allows him to construct this idea of still representing an anti-establishment position, when that really couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a real eroding of norms happening.”

David adopts the idiolect of his subject gracefully, making the incisive point “if you’re going to write a song from the perspective of Donald Trump it’s going to be ranting and raving.” On I’ve Got The Numbers, things are pushed into sinister territory with the omniscient voice of Cambridge Analytica taking centre stage; A Beautiful Wall is from the perspective of Trump’s advisors, Steve Bannon or Stephen Miller; while Adult In The Room (which features absolutely scintillating guitar playing, reminiscent of Robert Fripp on Scary Monsters) is sung from the perspective of someone like former staff secretary Rob Porter or Gary Cohn who was Trump’s chief economic advisor (“it could just as easily be any of his Chiefs of Staff – he’s had a few!”) as they frantically decide how to take the heat off one of Trump’s tantrums, ruminating on resignations and the ensuing chaos (“Can someone take his phone/so the staffers can go home?”)

David is naturally keeping up with the progress being made in the run up to the 2020 elections, but remains cautious. “I look at the Democratic candidates and I think there’s a really strong cohort there with some really clear, coherent ideas, but I still wonder how feasible it all is – would America vote for a female presidential candidate? I’m not convinced. I know who I would vote for, but…I sometimes despair at the whole process a little.”

We can hope that in the future 45 is a period piece of an unusual political time rather than a premonition of the future of American politics, but in 2019 it’s a compelling, infectious musical account of the curious and unpredictable nature of American politics.

45 is released digitally via Memphis Industries on 30th May as a presage to Trump’s state visit to the UK in early June. A physical release will follow on 27th July.

 

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