FEATURE: Paul Smith and Peter Brewis – Frozen by Sight | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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In June 2013 a unique musical collaboration between Maximo Park’s Paul Smith and Field Music’s Peter Brewis produced Frozen By Sight. Performed at the inaugural Festival Of The North East, the suite of songs were inspired by Paul’s travel writing and given life by Peter’s chamber-band arrangements. This month the album gets a proper release and Paul and Peter are revisiting the live performance at the Sage Gateshead in December. We asked them to describe their inspirations behind the creation of Frozen By Sight.

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Words: Paul Smith

I write these words at my desk in the faint light of a rain-ridden Newcastle day. The regular shadows, made by the blinds, on each vertical side-wall of the window, are mere smudges compared to the days when sunlight streams through and slices up the interior of the room. Branches nod woozily in the cold air outside, their extended shapes set against the pallid sky.

How I’ve begun this article is how I began most, if not all, of the lyrics that make up my new album with Peter Brewis – by translating what I see in my immediate environment into words. I look for the most suitable words; I look for words that feel right to me; I look for similes that better explain a scene or a situation; I look for words that sit well together and create some sort of sensation in the reader. Describing something is one thing but making it interesting is another. When I write, I want to be economical, whether it’s the more emotionally-driven words in Maximo Park or the more descriptive words on the Frozen By Sight album. Putting the words to music makes you edit better because if you’re singing something that doesn’t feel right or true to what you’re doing, then it’s got to go.

My life has led me to distant places that I hadn’t counted on visiting. I try to be vigilant because I’m rarely in these places for long. I want to remember the small moments or moods that were important to me on a given day, which is something that links the different sets of words I’ve written over the years. However, that same approach applies to places closer to home, and our album starts in Newcastle and ends in Sunderland, as if to demonstrate that point. What others might overlook could be good starting places for a song. We’re surrounded by car parks, street cleaners, apartment blocks, natural beauty, the changing sky – all featured on the new album. I treat them equally as subject matter and also ask myself if a seemingly prosaic word would sound interesting when sung out loud or when combined with a certain adjective. You don’t know until you’ve tried it out.

If I’m not in the mood to use words in order to describe my environment, I turn to my sketchbook or my camera. It’s very hard to say what controls the impulse to choose one medium over another. I find drawing more meditative and you need a relatively still scene or at least a seat to capture the moment. Photography is the most instant medium of all, which is part of its appeal. I used to spend all of my spare money on Polaroid film when I was on tour but I got lazy when the stock dried up and now I save my cash for vinyl and take snaps on my phone instead. I like curating the end results of my descriptions, hence the songs on the album and the pamphlet of words and drawings that come when you pre-order the record. If I think someone else might find value in those artefacts then that’s when they get released into the wider world. It’s satisfying to share your thoughts with an imagined audience that eventually becomes real.

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Words: Peter Brewis

From the beginning I saw that my job was to try and wrap the music around the words – to let the words take centre stage. Having said that we both wanted to try working with a different kind of band and a different kind of sound. We agreed on an ensemble of string quartet, double bass, tuned percussion, piano and drums. We figured that with this sort of line-up we could have a kind of quiet-ish dynamism that could hint at pop, rock, chamber classical, jazz and so on. We thought that the music should in some way reflect the situations described – the people, the places, the movement and the humour. I really didn’t want the whole thing to be too serious. That’s not how I heard the words.

I’d never been to most of the places Paul had written about and I didn’t go out of my way to find out about them either. I wanted the words to leave the largest impressions rather than any imagined knowledge I had of a place. I wanted to get the best I could out of the ensemble too; for the band to be able to move with the dynamics of Paul’s voice; to leave either big spaces for the voice to take over or little gaps for it to peek through.

Although I’d scored out the arrangements, the music came as much from Paul as it did from me. Paul had a few songs fully written for voice and guitar which I had to just organise for the band. On the other hand, once I had a grasp of Paul’s words and the overall sound we were going for, I was able to send musical ideas over to Paul for him to fit the words to. Even then, we mostly edited the music to fit the lyrics.

Unusually for me everything was to be played live first and then recorded. It took quite a while for me to sort out and score the music for the first performance, mainly because I don’t really know what I’m doing. Still, the performance went well and I only felt the need to do minor tweaks for the recording. Since everything was prearranged, and because it was Dave [Brewis] engineering and playing drums, we were able to record in quick short bursts over the course of a year. Because of this there are a lot of performance quirks on the record. I can really hear the personality of the musicians. John Pope’s double bass playing and Paul’s guitar playing in particular. One of the tracks, Budapest, was recorded live at the Sage and, although it’s not entirely representative of the record as a whole, it is a good example of what we set out to do initially. It was the first song Paul brought to me and it set the tone for the entire thing.

Frozen By Sight by Paul Smith and Peter Brewis is released on 17th November via Memphis Industries and will be played live at the Sage Gateshead on Saturday 20th December. Paul and Peter will be ‘in conversation’ at The Exciter, Tyneside Cinema Bar Café on Wednesday 5th November.


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