It’s 6:55 on a Tuesday evening in Northampton, and a privileged Royal & Derngate theatre audience is about to witness the latest adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World, a prophetic piece of literature that has been exploding the world-views of young inquisitive minds since 1932. The press seats are good, meaning I’m in the mix, surrounded by the kind of cash-splashing regulars who look like they employ gardeners to “spruce their hedges”. A couple down the row chatter about the ornate stage curtain, which the theatre is fundraising 30 grand to refurbish; in front of me, a bearded dude bulges out of his Karl Marx T-shirt while a guy in a pinstripe suit inspects his Tinder notifications. A few seats along, staring straight ahead, is a severely pale Jack Barnett, of London band These New Puritans, who looks like he’s been dragged away from an Assassin’s Creed session by his mum.
He’s actually here to oversee the third outing of his incredible full-length score for this stage show. It’s Jack’s first serious project outside These New Puritans, the band he formed with twin brother George as a teenager, and the first where you’d call him a composer rather than a frontman. Like the book, Dawn King's adaptation is set in the World State, a future Planet Earth ruled by a single government. Its league of shady controllers has combined psychological, medical and narcotic conditioning to perfect society, fostering a species of productive, permanently happy, sex-loving drones - slaves who absolutely love their enslavement. (In the play, which modernises the book’s free-love ethos, everyone is pansexual.) Brave New World’s central moral theme hasn’t gone out of fashion, and probably never will: as science and technology advance, do we have a duty to preserve human nature?
Although Jack describes theatre as “an artform that’s completely new to me”, he’s written a grand, intrusive score that suits the stage to a tee. Even when backgrounded, Jack’s twinkling, ambient segues give the World State its sterile ambience, as if the whole place existed in a test tube from the birthing facility. In the Savage Reservation, a primitive enclosure for World State outcasts, martial beats and dancehall rhythms, straight out of These New Puritain's last record Hidden, soundtrack the savages’ religious ceremony. Some scenes play out like synchronised dance, with Jack’s meticulous compositions doing half the storytelling.
After the show I run into Jack and introduce myself, mentioning the interview we did last week. “Ah, yes,” he mutters, grinning, “Our Frost vs. Nixon.” How was the show? “Well, I saw it a couple of days ago,” he replies, trailing off. Was he nervous? “No, never. Not at all. I was relaxed.” It’s hard to imagine him being relaxed about anything, which might be the joke. Even in the flesh, he’s reassuringly inscrutable.
A week earlier Jack called me for a chat from his new studio in Berlin. During Soviet times, the studio was East Germany’s broadcast headquarters; from inside, the government would beam out radio plays, news bulletins and state propaganda. These days, it’s where Jack is writing and recording the fourth These New Puritans album. Before we spoke about that, I had a few questions about Brave New World, and whether its vision of radical promiscuity (everyone fucks everyone) and prescribed pleasure (everyone likes everything) are really as dystopian as our great-grandparents might’ve thought in the 30s.
Hello Jack. You’ve had a few soundtrack offers. Why Brave New World?
It's a work of extreme opposition: you have the World State, where pain and unhappiness has been eradicated, which is contrasted with the Savage Reservation, where people live more like us. It means I can write fast, beat-driven things and very dense things with strings. And there can be harmonically and melodically banal stuff, contrasted with really harmonically dense stuff as well.
How did you represent the different settings?
Something me and James talked about is that it shouldn't be lecturing the audience. The World State should actually be attractive. The person watching should be confronted with a genuine dilemma between a life of happiness without meaning vs. a life without happiness but with the possibility of meaning.
How did you tackle the saccharine music of the World State?
I suppose Brave New World is as much satire as it is science fiction, and he exaggerated aspects of European and American life. So that's kind of what I've done with the World State music. I've taken aspects of music now and pushed them to extremes. So there's this World State music where it's a simple beat repeating, with what sound like alerts, noises your phone would make at you. Annoying pitch-shifted sped-up voices saying the same stuff over and over again. It's almost like advertising and music have become indistinguishable. It makes you write music you wouldn't otherwise. Like, as people are travelling in a lift, what's the background music like in this imagined future? So it was a real blast in that way.
What was your relationship with the book before?
I'd read it when I was 17 or 18, maybe younger. I like Aldous Huxley as a character. What makes him stand out is, [whereas] in 1984 we're enslaved by coercion and violence, in Brave New World it's our own fallibility and weakness and desires. That's where he was proven to be correct, I suppose. When it comes down to it, I can't really imagine writing music for a romcom, but I can kind of imagine writing music for a piece of science fiction. I once went for a meeting with a Hollywood guy and he told me that I should write music for a dramedy, which I'd never heard of before. It’s a combination of drama and comedy. I think I just smiled and pretended I agreed. I had heatstroke at the time.
Huxley went to America before writing Brave New World and basically freaked out about consumerism, advertising and entertainment. Do you think about that stuff?
I think he's right.
He was essentially frustrated by ‘lowbrow’ stuff, though. He was a bit of a snob. If any popular music right now is highbrow, it's probably yours, so I'm wondering how you feel about it.
It's so easy to sound like a complete twat, but I do wanna make the thing that's the most beautiful, powerful thing I can make. And I don't really understand the culture of irony and game-playing that’s involved in a lot of music.
I guess it's like, when I meet people, intelligent human beings, and they think Drake is really good. And I don't know whether they really like it, or it's just some… I dunno, it just frustrates me.
What's wrong with Drake?
I don't wanna just be moaning about other music, because actually it's not something I give that much thought to. But I'm on the side of music that makes you feel ecstatic or gives you an incredible experience. And there is a bit of a culture of being afraid of that. In Germany, politicians can go to the opera… I don't wanna say opera, but politicians can be interested in art and music, whereas in England, if any politician had any interest in anything that wasn’t… I guess it's a slightly infantile culture. But having said that, there's all kinds of positive things about English irreverence. I don't want an article that's got a load of opinions that I don't actually believe.
Isn’t that how we learn about people like you, though? What we know about, like, Nick Cave is just a load of stupid opinions he probably hated after he said them.
Yeah. But he loves talking about himself.
True, but this relates to the book so maybe we can talk about it. The World State’s society basically consists of total pleasure and comfort at the expense of love and creativity. Would we be more willing now to switch to that, as a society?
If you look at what a hunter-gathered in 10,000 BC had, that would be a very painful life relative to a rich Western person now. But whether that's a continuing trend or reversible, I don't know. But I hate it when some idiot musician thinks they can comment on the trajectory of human history.
At the same time, you are just a musician. It's not that important what you say.
But it's getting printed. Maybe as a companion piece you can go interview some bloke off the street, the first person you see. About the meaning of what it is to be human.
You used the word infantile about our culture, which is a word John the Savage (from the book) uses to describe the populace. Are you with him?
I can see where you're going. I'd just rather you said it than I did.
Because you don't want to seem like a snob?
It's because I'm not in the interview mode, that's the thing. I haven't given this any thought.
Are you ever in the interview mode?
Err. Not really, no.
Are you going to write a sick memoir where we learn everything about you?
There's nothing to know!
Did you listen to "Black Skinhead” for the first time and think it sounded like These New Puritans being produced by Timbaland?
Lots of people have said it sounds like us. I thought it'd sound more like us than it did from what people said. What's Timbaland up to these days?
I think he's working on a posthumous Aaliyah album.
Oh, is he?
D’you listen to much current stuff?
I listen to bits and pieces. I really like that Rabit guy. Actually, I feel a lot more in common with a lot of music that's happening now than when we started. Now is a really good moment for electronic music.
What’s happening with new These New Puritans?
We're kind of in the stage where there's a lot of different music and we're in a position of choosing what direction to take it in. There's quite a lot written, so from that, you could make a few different kinds of albums. Someone said to me that the whole [of Field of Reeds] just sounds like a random jumble of sounds. To be honest, I'm not in the mindset of being able to talk about this music. It's such a separate thing to me, writing music and then trying to explain it. It's nice just doing and not thinking.
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