Field Music score classic Scottish silent film

Field Music. Picture: Contributed
Field Music. Picture: Contributed
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IT takes a rare challenge, like making film music for a silent classic, to enthuse art-pop duo Field Music.

SCOTLAND’S John Grierson was the founding father of the documentary who wanted the world to see the importance of hard graft and the dignity of the working man. It’s ironic then that his landmark film Drifters should get a new soundtrack from two musicians who’ve come to the project through an innate flair for skiving.

David Brewis of Field Music, the band-of-brothers practitioners of clever, proggy art-pop, admits he hates the album-tour-album rigmarole. You do seem too brainy for it, I say. “Too lazy, more like,” he says. “But neither Peter nor I have ever been brilliant tourers. Going out and playing pretty much the same show 70 or 80 times a year removes a lot of the fun of being in a band. So we’re always looking for new and interesting things which keep us engaged.”

Scoring a 1929 silent black-and-white movie about North Sea herring fishing certainly comes into this category. Field Music, formed in the Brewis boys’ native Sunderland nine years ago, received the commission from the Berwick Film Festival. The world premiere is this Friday and Peter reckons Grierson, who died in 1972, would have hated what they’ve done to his film.

“It’s rock music – and improvised rock music at that. Most people’s idea of a silent film score is a bloke playing a piano really fast to signify an oncoming train, damsel tied to the tracks. We can’t worry about upsetting the purists. Everything is out there to be messed about with and Drifters has been around for quite a while. We don’t want to get too precious about this.”

Grierson was born in the Stirlingshire village of Deanston and raised a good Calvinist by his schoolmaster father and suffragette mother. He went about film-making with the utmost austerity – “I look on cinemas as a pulpit,” he once said. Dismissive of Hollywood and its frivolous fantasies and preferring “the drama that resides in the living fact”, he believed the popular arts would replace the church and schools as the main sources of information, and film had a duty to educate and inform – and it was he who coined the term “documentary”.

But even docs could be frivolous, like the one by a film-maker Grierson otherwise admired who’d left America to study the Inuits of Canada. “Beware the ends of the earth and the exotic,” he cautioned. “The drama is on your doorstep wherever there are slums.” Hence Drifters, which he filmed at Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, in the middle of the churning North Sea – and at Hamnavoe in Shetland.

The Brewis brothers confess they knew nothing about the movie or the man when the commission was offered to them. “The festival were keen to work with us, and us with them, and originally we looked at some Scandinavian films,” says Peter, 35, the elder by three years. Maybe they were guilty, too, of not seeing the drama on their doorstep. In any event, they couldn’t locate prints of the Scandi features and so had to settle down for their first view of a Soviet-influenced Scottish classic which begins with the solemn harbour march of the boat crews, pieces tucked under arms.

I’m speaking to the brothers separately, Peter at home with his new-born baby and David on a romantic weekend with his wife in Glasgow. They differ on musical likes – Peter’s currently grooving to big-band jazz, David to vintage-era disco – and temperamentally, too. “Peter’s my favourite musician,” says David. “But he’s very gregarious and likes to be in charge, whereas I’m not so sociable and prefer working on my own more than he does.” There was immediate agreement on Drifters, though. What an amazing film and how or earth were they going to score it?

“We always knew we were never going to get in the strings and other film-music clichés,” says Peter.

David adds: “But in any case, the film doesn’t lend itself to those John Williamsesque soaring melodies – it’s got so much motion.”

Peter again: “There are oscillations going on everywhere: the waves, the swishing of the nets, the pistons of the boat engines, the shoals of fish darting about. The film is constantly pumping in a muscular, aggressive way and we needed to match its tempo.”

Did they consider adding vocals? “Not lyrics as such,” adds Peter, “but we thought about oohs and aahs until deciding that would personalise the soundtrack, make it too much about us. In any case, how can you sing along to a shoal of herring being hunted down by conger eels and dogfish?” The underwater scenes were actually shot in an aquarium, which earned Drifters criticism at the time, proving that charges of “faking” in documentaries are nothing new. David says this is mere nit-picking as technically the film is a masterpiece. “What a heroic effort it must have been to shoot on boats and in storms using cumbersome tripods.”

The story might be slight – crews go to sea, catch fish, come back – but the Brewis boys got a terrific amount out of the film’s captions. “With the slip made fast to the end of the line, the nets go drifting through the darkness… Out in the waste of waters the men are called to the labour of hauling… And the sound of the sea and the people of the sea are lost in the chatter and chaffer of a market for the world.” So could they have done that job, fishing for herring? “No way – Dave and I are both vegetarian,” says Peter. “Maybe in those days we wouldn’t have had a choice although I’m a short-arse so would probably have been sent down the pits.”

What’s next for Field Music? Peter again: “There will be another album and another tour but only when these seem like the most exciting things to do.”

David adds with a chuckle: “We’re big fans of Brian Eno, not least for his desire to have the word ‘pretentious’ turned into a compliment.” n

• Drifters is at Berwick Film Festival on Friday.

Twitter: @aidansmith07