On the Townski!
Time Out, 03/08/05
What do you do when your Russian colleagues are throwing a party? If you're Time Out you send the crash, bang and artful wallop of British Sea Power. Chris Salmon joined our Live Band Of The Year to see the sights and stun the crowds.
"You want boogie nights?" asks a smart Russian, who's appeared in the dressing room. "Boogie nights," he repeats. "Vodka, cocaine and girls!"
"He means: Do you want to meet some Moscow whores?" explains another Russian. British Sea Power shuffle awkwardly.
"Some of them are very good," encourages the second Russian. British Sea Power mumble that they'd actually rather go and see RedSqaure.
"Really?" says the second Russian, puzzled. "When [famous British frontman] was here, he went with a different prostitute every night."
British Sea Power scan the room for exits.
The band are in Moscow to play two Russian shows at the invitation of Time out Moscow and Time Out St Petersburg. When the magazines decided to throw summer parties, they contacted Time Out London to ask if our Live Band Of The Year would play. That band is British Sea Power, the marvellous art-rockers who've just released their second album, "Open Season". Our people touched base with their people, push was shoved and before long BSP were flying to Moscow. And since they were travelling as ambassadors of our magazine, they asked us along. Splendid!
Moscow airport, Friday, 2pm.
"There's nothing in the index under "bribes"," shrugs BSP's guitarist Noble, consulting his Moscow guidebook. It's several hours before the offers of prostitutes and we've just arrived in Russia. Having heard scare stories from on British band's crew about their recent Russian trip, our party is approaching customs with some trepidation. A notion has spread that, to be allowed in with musical instruments, we have to (whisper it) bribe a customs officer. But nobody's sure how we'd recognise the moment to do this or how much an appropriate bung would be. Eventually, it's decided we should just act cool and cross the bribery bridge when we come to it.
Which, it transpires, we don't. Several pairs of underpants are endangered when we're stopping in Nothing To Declare and sent to the redzone, but that's only because they need to X-ray the instruments and it's where the machine is. After a brief delay, we're through. All the worrying would seem daft if the man who's here to meet us didn't jump and whoop when he sees us, relief carved across his face.
Gorky Park, Friday, 4pm.
The band are driven straight to Gorky Park (yes, of Scorpions' "Wind Of Change" fame) where they will play an open-air show to the Time Out Moscow readers. After a soundcheck and a vodka-fuelled meal, it's showtime. "What's Russian for "thanks"?" asks Yan as the band take to the stage. "Spazzybo," says keyboard player Eamon (who, oddly but truly, learnt a bit of Russian after developing an obsession with the ex-Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan).
It's intriguing to watch out Live Band Of The Year play to the a crowd who, bar an excited expat of handful, have never heard of them. At first BSP's blasts of Joy Division-tinged pastoral rock are greeted meekly. But after a few punchily delivered songs, the crowd starts to jiggle. And by the time they unleash the frazzled euphoria of "Remember Me", several hundred Muscovites are going completely "spazzybo".
As the band extend their last song into a vibrant, pulsing jam there's a typically chaotic finale, led by Noble. He hurls tomatoes, lifts a woman from the crowd then perches her on the bass drum, smashes a courgette over Yan's head and, finally, tries to stage dive, but only manages to crash into a disgruntled security man. The Moscow audience's mouths are either agog or smiling. "That was the best thing this year!" a woman tells me. They came, they played, they conquered.
A supposedly posh hotel, Saturday, 12:30am.
Having dodged the post-show prostitutes, we go to our upmarket hotel, only to find the reception crawling with hookers. "That cold, alluring look in their eyes if frightening," shudders Yan. As we check in, we're handed flyers for the hotel's strip bar where, according to the pictures, couples can eat fruit off naked women.
Red Square, Saturday, 3am.
Dumping their bags, the band escape, via a bar, on a late-night sightseeing trip to Red Square. "It's just another fucking square with some nice buildings," pouts a sozzled Yan outside the Kremlin, as a police car drives slowly behind us. "We're too drunk to appreciate it," reasons Noble, nodding towards the fantastically bulbous St Basil's Cathedral. "Let's go to bed."
Moscow airport, Saturday, 8am.
The band's hangovers are hitting hard when we reach the airport (woe betide the Brit who tries to match their Russian host's drinking). But the café's fish soup cures all and BSP arrive in St Petersburg bright-eyed and up for it. More so when they see the limo that's come to collect them.
Palace Square, St Petersburg, Saturday, 1pm.
As the locals will tell you, St Petersburg is a calmer, prettier and friendlier city than Moscow. "Why do people in Moscow never smile?" the saying goes. "Because they've got nothing to smile about." "It's like a cross between Venice and Prague," decides an impressed Eamon. "And not nearly as in-your-face as Moscow."
We visit the glorious Palace Square where a sizeable crowd has gathered for what is, we're told, Police Day. Those not sitting in a police car or clambering on a tank are watching four thirtysomething coppers on stage in full uniform making like a Russian Take That. "They're fantastic," grins Hamilton, clapping along down the front. But BSP have to drag themselves away for the 90-minute limo ride to tonight's venue.
A club called The Beach, Saturday, 4pm.
Separated from the Baltic Sea by 20 years of neatly tended sand, The Beach is one of Russia's most exclusive venues. Tonight's invite-only crowd will apparently consist of VIPs and celebrities. "I'm not sure if we've just walked into Ibiza or the set of "The OC"," says Yan, standing on the open-air stage looking at the venue's swimming pool and sunloungers.
When the guests arrive (thick-necked men in expensive suits, unfeasibly beautiful women in very little) it's immediately apparent that they're not frazzled art-rock types. "This could be the strangest gig we've ever done," signs Eamon. "I doubt anybody here wants to see us play."
A woman approaches to prove otherwise. "My friend saw you in Moscow," she smiles. "She said you were the best live band in the world! She said you were throwing tomatoes!"
But convinced that most of the crowd would rather spend the evening looking at each other than at them, the band adopt a defiant stance. As the beautiful people dance to jazzy house, BSP drink. A lot. "Let's just go for it tonight," suggests Hamilton.
Into battle, Saturday, midnight.
When BSP sway on the stage around midnight, many of the guests look aggrieved that their jazzy house has been interrupted. The fired-up band begin with a blistering instrumental attack. The crowd flinch, but their attention is grabbed.
For almost an hour, Yan prowls and howls, Noble thrashes and Hamilton stares his hardest stare. It's powerful, arresting stuff and makes for an oddly amusing stand-off between crowd and band. One or two people beg the soundman to make them stop, but the vast majority, while perhaps not enjoying it, are transfixed.
By the end several models are dancing down the front, three uniformed Time Out St Petersburg cheerleaders are on stage waving flags, Eamon is rampaging through the still largely static crowd, pounding a drum, and Yan has jumped from the stage, marched to the pool and dived in.
"We've invented a new genre," grins Noble afterwards in the elation-filled dressing-room. "It's called drunk rock!"
"It was like a human car crash,"beams a dripping Yan. "It's frightened them, but they couldn't take their eyes off."
"We were driven by complete spite and hatred towards the audience," admits Hamilton. "But I honestly think they loved it!"
That's pushing it (the relief when the jazzy house starts again is tangible), but rest assured that nobody who saw BSP in Russia, be it in Moscow or St Petersburg, will forget them in a hurry. Our ambassadors did us proud.
Interview with Noble
British Sea Power guitarist Noble takes us through the in(sides) and out(sides) of recording an album.
In 2003 British Sea Power released their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power to widespread critical praise. After a long tour that included show-stopping performances at South by Southwest and the Fuji Rock festival in Japan, they had the full attention of the music world and everyone was curious just what the future of this band may bring. After a brief, but much needed break from touring, the Brighton-based quintet reconvened and spent much of 2004 working on an album to determine just that.
"We kind of had a break after touring the first one," explains guitarist Noble about the more mellow tone of Open Season, "and then we kind of just got the band together for a month, just writing songs ... just natural playing and stuff. We were just kind of relaxing a bit." Relaxing and jamming around may not be the approach one would expect from a band whose debut made nearly everyone's best of list in 2003. But they mean it. "We didn't feel any pressure," says Noble. "There was no real pressure writing the songs; it was just choosing which ones all worked together. We didn't want to repeat ourselves ... like do another first album."
To be sure, British Sea Power were successful at not remaking their first album. If listening to The Decline of British Sea Power sounds like being stuck in murky English streets in the dead of a dull winter afternoon, than Open Season sounds more like laying in a rolling countryside beneath the stars trying to take in the entirety of a summer night.
When I talked with Noble, British Sea Power were in Chicago finishing their North American tour. Selling out nearly all of their US shows (including two nights at New York's Bowery Ballroom) had not seemed to place too much added pressure on the band. "When you initially start, you [feel more pressure]," he says of touring. "But then you realize that's just stupid and you go out and have as much fun as you can." On the last day of their US tour the band is starting to feel the effects of ten straight shows. Despite this, Noble maintains good spirits. "We always like touring -- it's good fun. Tonight is our tenth show in a row so we're a bit jaded," he jokes when asked whether it is touring or the studio the band enjoys more. "It's different for different members of the band," he says. "I think Yan actually likes writing the most."
"Generally, it's pretty much one songwriter," says Noble when disucssing the songwriting dynamic. "If it's one of Yan's songs, he'll come with a lot of it already there ... same with Hamilton. [But] some of them were written just playing together and it just develops from that. There is no set way. It's a nice surprise. That way if you catch a nice break, one day working on a few songs, you can write free pretty much there. Like 'True Adventures,' the last one recorded, we wrote that during a big storm in the daytime ... we were kind of making a recording, like trying to make this storm sound, and then that song kind of came out of that."
The songs that would ultimately end up making up Open Season were initially played and demo-ed at a barn on the South Downs in England. Once demo-ed, much of the album was recorded at Rockfield Studio in South Wales, a remote residential studio that has recorded everyone from the Stone Roses to Motorhead. Both locations are surrounded by landscapes that are vast and serene -- an environment that couldn't help but influence the tone of the songs. "Please Stand Up" and "Low Hanging Rock" especially benefited greatly from the atmosphere and spacious recording arrangements afforded the band. "We recorded them live and in the summer as well. We had the drums set up outside, and the bass and the keyboards were played outside, and we just ... just felt really good and we just played the songs over and over, and when we reached the peak we stopped."
The recording sessions (both indoor and outdoor) that yielded Open Season traded nearly all of the claustrophobic punk of the debut for a well-honed sound filled with more pop-friendly melodies. Decline does hint at these melodies. Both "Something Wicked" and "Lately" would not have seemed out of place sonically or thematically on Open Season. However, even at their most agreeable, most of the melodies from their debut are buried in seas of guitar noise. By sharp contrast, the melodies on Open Season ring through. The difference? "We got Bill Price to mix it for us and the first one we kind of mixed ourselves with another guy, but we're pretty amateurs at mixing." However, for all of Price's talent, his work on the album wasn't without some cost. When asked what it was like to work with Bill Price, jokes Noble, "It was real good ... actually we might be quite deaf now. He mixed it at pretty much full volume. We could only listen to it for about half an hour." Price -- who has worked with acts such as the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Pretenders -- brought a far more cohesive sound to the album. The guitars are clearer and both Yan's and Hamilton's vocals stand out much more vibrantly than on Decline.
The other major difference lies at that heart of the subject matter of the two albums. Where Decline was brimming with literary references and the bizarre, much of Open Season is tied together by much more personal topics. Themes of loss and things past recur throughout; however, there remains a sense of optimism that manages to pervade the album. When asked if this was a conscious decision, Noble responds: "That's personal to Yan. But, I think that it's pretty true. It kind of had to do with the time of year as well. You know, when winter's kind of dying back and you can start to look forward to the summer ... That just brings an optimistic feel with it."
Open Season may not have the swagger of Decline, but it certainly has more heart, proving that to brand this band as a one-trick pony may be more difficult than their WWI uniforms and on-stage foliage might imply. As for the future? "We enjoy songwriting," says Noble, "and we just write the songs that we want."
The Difference Between a Cow and a Sheep
Three Monkeys, 01/07/05
The horror, the horror. We fall out into Arezzo's football stadium, yet to cool from the day's intense heat. Shell-shocked and lost for words. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the British Sea Power interview experience.
It starts with the introductions, which are perhaps the most comprehensible element of the encounter. Yan, the singer, dressed with a haircut that Edward Fox would be proud of, friendly in a somewhat diffident way, sitting legs crossed, wears what appears to be an ironed and clean shirt, and, in the best tradition of Brits abroad, sports a pair of thick wooly socks to protect his Northern feet from the Italian heat. Next, brother Hamilton, the bassist and sometime singer of the band, a fraction more engaging, and cute (according to TMO's photographer), who posseses a dreamy look that may just be due to the long bus journey from Brighton to Tuscany, or not. And finally, Noble, the band's guitarist, dressed in the proud kit of Arezzo F.C (currently languishing in Serie B), and positively brimming with enthusiasm - leading one to suspect that he's been introduced to the interview process as a concession to journalists.
In fact, all three, after the introductions are made and the interview is under way, are friendly. They are, though, by no stretch of the imagination communicative. But part of that, it seems, is simply that being a 'rock band', with all the attendant duties and clichés, doesn't much interest the band. From the name, through to the songs, they are England's least conventional rock band.
The group, described once as 'militant pastoralists', was formed in Brighton by brothers Hamilton and Yan (who, as with the other members of the band, avoid mention of surnames), and childhood friend Woody (drummer), all Cumbrians by birth and possibly inclination, and Noble from Leeds. During 2001, the band developed their own typically eccentric club nights in Brighton, which rapidly gained a notoriety (on-stage shrubbery accompanied by D.I.Y cleavage tattoos were a regular occurence) and attendant record company interest. In 2003, they released the highly acclaimed album The decline of British Sea Power, and won critical acclaim and a gaggle of celebrity fans ranging from David Bowie through to Jarvis Cocker. "Even Elton John likes us," cracks Noble. "but he likes everyone now, doesn't he?"
Their lyrics are suffused with nature, to the point of writing a song for the cracked Atlantic shelf Larsen B. A sample lyric:
"Valleys drop, mountains rise
Lift your head, brave the skies
All of the forgotten names
Lakes are forming on the pockets of your brain"
Are they, then, the 'militant pastoralists' of repute? "I can tell a sheep from a cow," responds Hamilton firmly, while the other two nod sagely.
There must be a strange equation, no doubt calculated by the late Frank Zappa, that takes an inverse relationship between the quality of a band's lyrics against the willingness of the author to talk about them, producing a number on a scale between one and ten, with ten being the least likely to discuss. British Sea Power would score ten out of ten, in this interview at least, were it not for Noble's eponymous interventions. He gamely talks about the roots of Be Gone, the song with a chorus of "Oh Floreal, oh Guillotine". "Floreal was the name for one of the months of the revolutionary calendar brought in after the French Revolution," he explains. "I like the old folk songs. Silly old songs like blues songs. Those are the best songs," responds Hamilton smiling. "It's nice to get people thinking about stuff that you've read or stuff, references and the like, but it can get a bit..." he pauses. While we wait for a conclusion, that never arrives, Yan pipes up, "I'm going to go Japanese in my lyrics. Keep it simple".
Panic is starting to well up inside, as I feel any semblance of substance in the interview slipping away before my eyes. Foolishly I press on, determined to get statements that will somehow define the band. Nostalgia is a word that comes to mind when listening to them. There are subtle aural references to English rock's eccentric past, with hints of Joy Division, the Smiths, or the less eccentric (and non-English) early U2. Romantics in search of a pastoral past, is it fair to say that Nostalgia is a motivation and inspiration for much of their music? "I like Cole Porter," says Hamilton, while Yan interjects: "I just got into Tiny Tim. You can listen to all these old shows, and radio broadcasts on the internet now. There's a lot of good stuff there. Last week I heard a documentary about Tiny Tim. He did Tiptoe through the tulips, but his story was absolutely mentalist, but he just kept going. That's why I like him [laughs]. He had his ups and downs, but he kept going, you know", all of which is delivered staccato, phrase followed by pregnant pause, which does nothing to quell my nerves."He used to sing in a very high voice," Yan continues, absent-mindedly. "He was very tall. Instantly, there's a funny surprise for you. He walks on stage. Tiny Tim, you reckon he should be small". The other two at this stage, take the ball and run with it.
Noble: "There should be more names."
Hamilton: "People should adopt themselves superhero names. Like all those old blues names - Blind lemon etc."
Noble: "But they were blind, weren't they? Seeing-Eye Hamilton [all laugh]."
Resorting to the stock questions doesn't help matters. Were they given the chance to work with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be? Without a pause, and with a straight face that is teetering on the brink of collapse, Yan responds "I'd like to work with Ken Dodd. He's got an amazing opera voice. Amazing voice. You wouldn't believe it. He's surprising. Be nice to do the vocals while he touched you with his tickle stick. He is quite funny, funny and sad."
They become slightly more conventional when the subject of Live 8 comes up. Should musicians get involved with politics? "Why not? Politicians aren't that good at it," responds Yan pensively. "If you say one stupid thing, though, to the wrong person, that's going to be your quote for the year, isn't it?" says Hamilton. "It's a dangerous game isn't it." But, I push, doesn't it say something about the nature of music today that despite an immensely unpopular war, there's next to no protest-music. Noble begs to differ: "As crude as it is, there's Green Day. Even Travis did that Beautiful Occupation. Rubbish song, but people still do it. It just seems a bit naff. It's like another style box to tick in, isn't it? Conscientious etc."
"We're very cynical people," says Yan, in a Cumbrian monotone that resolutely refuses to suggest whether that's a good or a bad thing. "Greenery," he continues. "People used to comment on the aroma of some of our early shows cause we had such good branches on stage. I don't think they'd thought of that before. Bushes smell nice."
"That's going to read very differently in print, you know", I venture.
"I know, I kind of like it though," he responds, with just a touch of demonic mirth.
And so, we finish up. Our questions exhausted, our interviewees undaunted. There's a temptation to return seconds later, to see if they're chalking up another kill on their interviewer board, but instead we head into the stadium for a well earned beer. The band are playing the annual Arezzo Wave Love Festival, a wonderfully eclectic festival, but one wonders how an Italian audience will take to these steroid enhanced levels of eccentricity.
A couple of hours later, the band trot out on stage, all now dressed in the colours of Arezzo F.C, a winning move from the start. They proceed to play a show that is nothing short of incredible. There are the obligatory tree branches on stage, but it's the personalities of the band that colour the set. While they give away little in interview, on-stage they seem driven by a desire to give the audience their money's worth. There are acrobatics, forays into the stadium audience, and tune after brilliant tune. Having survived the British Sea Power interview experience, I wasn't quite sure whether I liked the band or not. Having seen them play, I'm convinced. The world needs bands like British Sea Power. And, from the audience reaction it would seem that I'm not the only one who thinks so.
BSP Write Elegiac Stannzas For You
Pop Culture Press, 01/06/05
The subject of cloning, specifically the banning of any human cloning, is an easy target for the self-righteous politician in need of a softball issue to rail against. The sad fact is that they may be too late. Just look at popular music where human cloning has been practiced for decades in the murky depths of recording studios and record company boardrooms.
The boy band/teeny-bopper sex-bomb diva plague is certainly the most noticeable of the past several years, but this phenomenon has infiltrated music on so many levels from hip-hop to metal to indie music that the lack of originality in style, music, and personalities has lead some long-time music aficionados to feel as though they are watching re-runs cast with look-alikes. So this is why British Sea Power is so compelling in this surreal post-modern era where it seems as though time has done a u-turn, and the only new ideas are recycled bits of the past.
Though British Sea Power has drawn tangential comparisons to such artists as David Bowie and Echo and the Bunnymen, the band has a sound and persona all its own. They first rose to prominence in their home base of Brighton with their Club Sea Power nights at a local club, which attracted the attention of Geoff Travis, who signed the band to his re-energized Rough Trade label.
After earning a reputation as a daring and explosive live band who wears World War I gear on stage and plays against a backdrop of tree branches and stuffed birds, the band's stunning 2003 debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, proved that there was substance behind the unique image. The record was sprawling and ambitious stuffed with lyrical references to Dostoevsky and Macbeth and musically featured everything from jagged blasts of ferocious adrenalin rush ("Apologies to Insect Life," "Favours in the Beetroot Fields," and the stellar single "Remember Me") to sublime majestic melodies ("Carrion," "The Lonely," and the brilliant "Fear of Drowning") capped the thirteen minute epic "Lately." Despite the fact that literary, intellectualized independent rock music from the UK generally has no US commercial appeal, the record and band were just too damn good to be ignored.
But after countless shows where the band literally risked physical injury every night, they wisely retreated to a bucolic setting to write and record their second record. "We toured for two years which was amazing but physically taxing. At one point two of the members were on crutches, " explained guitarist Noble during a stop on their recently completed US tour, the band's third. "So we rented a barn in the countryside to create a relaxing mood in which to write."
The results of those days and nights in the barn can be found on Open Season, which was released in April and entered the UK album charts at #13. The record has received varied reviews (some thoroughly glowing, and some apathetic) in both the British and American press, but it stands as a fine companion to its predecessor. If listeners were looking for a repeat of Decline's power and intensity, they will be disappointed; Open Season is much more subdued both musically and emotionally. The new record is also a much more cohesive set of songs, less sprawling and more focused, and it gets better with repeated listens. Lyrically, British Sea Power may get off on obscure references and esoteric language, but they also are unafraid of exploring complex emotional territory and in that respect, evoke the massive sound and uplifting content of Big Country's first two records; hopefully they will have a happier ending to their story than that once great band did.
Open Season starts off with "It Ended On an Oily Stage," the first single (which also entered the UK charts in the top 20), and a song that ranks as one of the band's best. The song is built around a nearly perfect repeated guitar riff from Noble, who continues to be one of the most astonishingly tasteful guitar players to come along in years. Then Yan's vocals come in with the lyrics:
"Everything you said was true/ Everything you did was you/ Everything I started with her/
Ended on an oily stage where/ I wrote elegiac stanzas for you/ I hope and pray that they come true" before the song builds into a chorus both uplifting and thoroughly aching.
Track two, "Be Gone," essentially picks up where "Oily Stage" leaves off, but "How Will I Ever Find My Way Home," introduces bassist Hamilton on lead vocals. His only vocal turn on Decline, "Blackout," was arguably the weakest song on that record, but on "How Will I Ever Find My Way Home," Hamilton is much more assured as a singer, and the song provides a toe-tapping contrast to "Oily Stage" and "Be Gone." This is the first of three songs Hamilton sings on Open Season, which is evidence of his growth as a songwriter in the shadow of his brother Yan. Where his songs have previously been primarily used as B-sides, these three have prominent spots on the record; the other two being the album closers "The Land Beyond" and "True Adventures."
The five cuts at the heart of the record emphasize the peaceful, almost breezy mood that predominates Open Season. "Like A Honeycomb" is a pleasant, wistful tune with a dynamic chorus. "Please Stand Up" is the second single and reminiscent of Decline's "Carrion" with another of Noble's mammoth guitar lines leading into a subdued verse before it explodes into an almost triumphant chorus. (Incidentally, American MTV has reportedly banned the video for the song because of the lines "And then all of the sudden it's all better better/ A little excitement makes us wetter wetter." It would almost make you laugh if it wasn't so pathetic).
Next comes "North Hanging Rock," which starts off as the record's quietest moment before gradually building to a crescendo. As for the sounds of rocks crunching under foot and the birds singing in the background at the start of the song, those are real. Yan did the vocal tracks outside in the courtyard of the studio in Wales where Open Season was recorded, and the sound of crunching rocks is his footsteps as he walks to the microphone. Incidentally, a number of drum tracks were also recorded outside with a group of stabled horses as an audience. "To Go To Sleep" and "Victorian Ice" finish out the middle five. Both are written in major keys which makes them brighter affairs with "To Go To Sleep" building up into quite a rocking song before it cuts off, and "Victorian Ice" jauntily pushed along by another catchy guitar riff.
The last three songs of the record cap it off in grand style. "Oh Larsen B" finds Yan singing an ode to the Larsen B Antarctic ice shelf: "You had twelve thousand years/And now it's all over/Five hundred billion tonnes of the purest pack ice and snow/Oh Larsen B, oh won't you fall on me?/Oh Larsen B, desalinate the barren sea." The last two minutes of the song build beautifully into a dynamic ending, starting from a bass and drum breakdown that slowly gathers steam as Noble drops lovely single note harmonics on top. "The Land Beyond" features Hamilton singing a tale that could be about death or just a simple venture into unknown and uncharted territory.
The closer, "True Adventures" is Open Season's epic at just under eight minutes. It is less sweeping and subsequently less messy that "Lately," Decline's magnum opus, but it is still the record's grandest moment. According to Noble, the song came about after a heavy storm had struck the barn where they were writing, and Wood, the band's drummer, set out to recreate the sound of the storm on his drum kit. Sure enough, the song opens with a rumble of thunder before the crash of first the drums and then other instruments. Then the music settles into a lovely hushed melody and gentle lyrics that suit Hamilton's fragile, high-pitched voice perfectly before collapsing into more instrumental chaos and then back to the melody again in a pattern reminiscent of the Byrds "Eight Miles High." The song ends Open Season in a satisfied mood evocative of an emerging sunset after a powerful storm.
If The Decline of British Sea Power was a sweeping gale of record with wild swings in energy and emotion, Open Season is more grounded and earthy, which is a product of not only the environs where it was created but also in the band's refusal to do anything but follow its own path. "We wear our hearts on our sleeves," says Noble matter-of-factly, which leads you believe that the band's forays into literary themes and attempts to recreate the sounds of nature in music are not acts of pretense but genuinely sincere expressions of their artistic perspective. But fans who might mourn the loss of the band's harder-edged material need not worry. Noble says, "We wrote some spiky songs as well, but they didn't fit the mood of the record, so we may put them out on an EP or even save them for the next record."
When viewed in terms of the newest wave of the British Invasion that includes the post-punk, dance-club ready bands like Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, and others, British Sea Power doesn't really fit in. But that is just fine with the band whose rural roots (only Noble is from a major city, Leeds; Wood, Yan, and Hamilton are from rural Cumbria in the northwest of England near the Lake District, while keyboardist/percussionist Eamon is from Gloucestershire in the west) are reflected in both their music and desire to avoid the often London-centric attitudes of the British music press. "We never wanted to move to London. London bands have a reputation for being cool, but we're quite awkward and don't like to fit in with everyone else," explains Noble.
Their recent American tour included a stop at the Coachella Festival in California, where the band played to a significantly larger crowd than at their club shows, but reports from both Coachella and various smaller venues were unanimous in their effusive praise for the band's live show both in terms of energy and musicianship. Indeed a number of people who saw them in Austin and had been underwhelmed by Open Season came away with a different view of the band.
Despite their surging popularity in the UK, British Sea Power still prefers to play in smaller out-of-the-way locations and non-rock events. Noble says that the band likes it that way, "In towns with less of a musical heritage, the crowds tend to react differently. Crowds in places with more of a heritage tend to be more critical, while in places where not a lot of bands play, they are just glad to see a band and become more enthusiastic." In addition to appearances later this summer at the massive Glastonbury, Reading, and Leeds festivals, their first public appearance upon their return from their US tour was at the Chelsea Flower Show, one of the biggest gardening festivals in the world. For so many bands, this would seem to be incongruous, but with British Sea Power, it seems to work.
After two records that have set quite a standard, British Sea Power's next test will be to find new musical horizons, but there doesn't seem to be much of a chance of the band doing anything but following its singular muse. Perhaps in the meantime we'll get to see if newer bands try to clone what BSP is doing, and stages around the world will become covered in tree branches, while earnest young men write songs with dictionaries and encyclopedias at their sides. Sounds better than blow-dried boy bands, doesn't it?
Interview with Yan and Noble
There you are sitting in your room reading about some rather obscure figure in European history, say Louis-Charles Bréguet. You've got reprints of Henry Darger paintings hanging on your walls and an unreleased Fassbinder movie on the telly. Suddenly, you hear some chirping outside and reach for your camouflage binoculars and spot a Honey Buzzard, also known as Pernis apivorus. (You are very pleased that you know the Latin name and give yourself a high five as no one else is in the room.) You've got, like, a lot of plants. Your wit is drier than your martini, which is not your drink of choice because that would be too obvious. You are congested more often than not. What's on your stereo? British Sea Power, of course, a band that knows how to exercise as much restraint when it comes to fonts as interviews. We met up with them in Berlin and sweated a few answers out of these charming lads.
How are you?
Yan: Fine. We just woke up about an hour ago.
Are you enjoying Berlin?
Yan: Yea, but I've been sweating a lot, for some reason.
The new album is called 'Open Season', are you pleased with the way it turned out?
Noble: Very pleased. I think one of the things we wanted to do was get the feeling of springtime, and I think we sort of did that. It's a good effort. It's a very optimistic kind of album, about renewal, and stuff like that.
Can you tell me a bit about where the album was recorded?
Noble: It was recorded in the contrasting environments of Wales, in the countryside, and East Acton which is a dirty part of London.
Yan: We only did two tracks in Wales, and they do have a fresh feel about them, but I don't think the tracks we did in London sound much harder. We demoed and knew what we were doing. We'd spent a month in a barn rehearsing and writing, and then we just recorded it quite quickly in Acton.
From a writing perspective, did you approach this album differently than your debut 'The Decline of...'?
Yan: Well, yea. You can't really help it, because the first album was written over a period of 5 years. You've got all of these weird collection of memories from different times. The new album is much more concise, and I think it hangs together more. The emotion on the first album was kind of like a schizophrenic ride, quite an obstacle course. The new one is a smooth ride.
This is your first major tour in Europe, are you finding language to be a difficulty?
Yan: I'm realizing, that unless you're a multi-linguist, language can be quite an obstacle. But I'm realizing how a everyone, everywhere like a good melody.
Indeed, you seem to have a penchant for eastern European cities, Prague in particular, where you played several shows with Czech band 'The Ecstasy of St Teresa'. What is the big attraction?
Yan: The romance... and all the pretty girls.
Are the girls in Cumbria not quite as attractive?
Yan: No, not quite. [laughs]
Would it be fair to say that to some extent, this album was partly inspired by David Dimbleby?
Noble: [laughs] Partly, yes. The barn that we recorded in was opposite his house, and we tried to keep him awake as long as possible.
Did he ever drop in for tea?
Noble: No, but he sent a letter complaining about the noise.
Do you think that some musicians are becoming more dependent on electronics and digital technology these days?
Yan: I do think so. But I appreciate digital technology. You can get small machines with sixteen tracks that you can just have in your bedroom. On the other hand, I think there is a lot to be said for being able to stand in a room with a band, and be able to play a song and it sounds good before you record it. I think to strive after perfection is the wrong thing. Making music is about feeling. But I'm not one of these purist people who are obsessed with recording on tape. I think digital stuff can capture emotion just as much. It's just about how the technology is used.
Do you think that all this technology, like entertainment centers, huge TV and whatnot, do they mean that people are spending less and less time outdoors? Are people neglecting fresh air?
Noble: I've got this guy who lives upstairs and hr raps and he's a fitness fanatic. So he pumps his body up and then he raps. And I think 'what kind of life is that?'. Physical fitness is not a bad thing...rapping can be good too.
So do you spend a lot of time looking after your physical fitness?
Noble: No, but I'm trying to.
Yan: That's probably why I'm sweating so much.
How do you prefer to listen to your music? Do you listen to vinyl or have you gone over to MP3s?
Yan: My favorite method is vinyl, but then, I've recorded most of my vinyl onto my laptop. The only problem with vinyl is that you have to get up and turn the record over. Which is not ideal if you're being romantic. Modern technology solves that problem.
Noble: I haven't got a record player, but I've been collecting records for years. I'll get one soon. Computers are good because you can put all your songs in and then it can play the whole day.
I've heard that there are some members of the group who are very into making videos with 8mm film. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Yan: That's Hamilton, my brother, who's into that. We've always made our own videos, except one, which was 'Remember Me' where we got a professional in. We used to make films before we were in a band, just for fun. Comical, stupid videos. It's a good excuse to go off somewhere for a bit of adventure, and film it. Get paid.
The live shows have become the thing of cult legend. Will you be doing anything different on this upcoming tour than in the past?
Noble: Hopefully not injuring ourselves! Oh, and I've got a new pair of trainers.
Yan: We lose everything at concerts. We seem to attract collectors and people will steal anything. They take away braches with leaves on after the gig, and you think 'well, you've walked past so many bushes on the way here, yet you didn't take a branch from them. But this one, that's been trampled on, you want to take away with you?'. They'll steal your guitar pedal, your leads. I had my socks stolen off my feet whilst playing a song!
Noble: Someone tried to pull my trousers down and take them. I was holding onto the rafters and they were pulling my trousers down. And I didn't want to let go, because I thought I'd hurt myself. I was holding on with one hand, and pulling my trousers up with the other.
What you say is your favorite Bob Dylan song?
Yan: Ohh, I do have one... what's it called. It's on 'Nashville Skyline'. Hang on, I'll play the first four chords [get his guitar out and starts playing 'Girl of the North Country']. Anyway, that's my favorite.
Interview with Noble and Hamilton
A lot can be inferred from a band's battle plan, as it were. Ambition, for instance: the reedy lads behind UK post-punk outfit British Sea Power migrated all the way south from their Yorkshire and Lake District homes, before establishing a base in the resort city of Brighton, from which to set forth and conquer nicer shores.
You see, England, like beer, is rather bitter. The food is mush; the streets are narrow; the beaches, even, are composed of pebbles, not sand. Northerners suspect the Southerners are soft, while Southerners insist the Northerners are simple. Trust it to a band like British Sea Power to invert both stereotypes, and unite the United Kingdom in critical adoration. Their newly streamlined sound is at once gorgeous, shivering, and dangerous, like white water rapids, or an attractive addict. In January '04 they won the Time Out Best Live Band in Britain award; more recently, UK daily The Guardian dubbed their sophomore album Open Season both "marvelous" and "triumphant."
The band's widespread acclaim in their native land is not without reason: Open Season reigns in the nervier excesses of 2002's The Decline of British Sea Power in favor of unabashed arena-pop majesty. Echoes of Echo & the Bunnymen, Lloyd Cole, and Joy Division abound, but once again British Sea Power anchor their sound with demented unity all their own. In a better world, there would be an award for Most Compelling Literary References in a Pop Album.
Before the band's May 16th show at the Cambridge's Middle East Downstairs, ace guitarist Martin Noble and vocalist / bassist Neil Hamilton dropped by WERS, to share a few book recommendations and idiosyncratic cover versions.
You sold out your two Bowery Ballroom shows this weekend in New York. How did the shows go?
Martin Noble: The first one was better than the second one. Sunday service, I guess. It was only half an hour, really. Had a shit gig.
I got a Monty Python vibe from the live show. Any influence there?
Neil Hamilton: They're English and we're English. They're funny guys. I like funny guys. Charlie Chaplin's more of an influence, isn't he?
I understand you're from the Lake District...
NH: I'm from the Lake District; he's from Yorkshire. We went via two shitty cities. He went via Reading as well.
Was it calculated that the band name references Brighton's biggest tourist attraction, the sea?
MN: We named the band before we moved to Brighton.
Was it strictly for the amusing puns?
NH: No, it was totally serious. ::laughs:: I never lived by the sea before we moved to Brighton.
How would you say the American beaches compare to those in Brighton?
NH: Bit sunnier.
MN: More varied.
NH: More sand. It's mostly pebbles, over there.
NH: You haven't got the sparrows here flying around every night. Two thousand sparrows every night.
NH: Starlings, every night.
Will they crop up in the album artwork soon? Your covers feature a lot of silhouettes of small animals.
NH: They're in one of the videos we made. Wonders of the world.
MN: The coasts are very nice in Cornwall. They're really just lovely.
NH: Rocky and stormy.
MN: San Francisco is quite good. The beach.
NH: Yeah. It's just bigger.
Everything is bigger in America, you'll find.
NH: Better women.
You think so?
NH: It's just because they've got less clothes.
A sunny day in England and you immediately get all sorts of pasty English thighs exposed.
NH: We're skinny English white boys.
What is the worst injury you've sustained during a live show?
NH: Mental, really.
MN: I got one. ::shows leg:: It's not actually bruised at the moment. It got better.
NH: I broke my little finger once. That's about as bad as it's got.
Your stage show famously involves branches and bird calls...
MN: No branches anymore.
Problems with the forestry commission?
I heard there was an incident where someone was chased out of Central Park...
MN: It's our manager. It was like a private garden and we didn't know. This crazy guy got hold of the pruning shears and tried to stop him.
NH: One of Eamon's [British Sea Power keyboardist / percussionist] friends - they were on a walk in the South Downs. They were off their heads on mushrooms, climbing trees, and she fell out and broke her leg. That was the end of the trees. It's a warning.
I also heard something about someone sawing through the branch they were on...
NH: Yeah, me. ::laughs:: The branch snapped...
So, most of the injuries are involved with the preparation for the live show, rather than the show itself?
NH: All self-inflicted.
MN: It's a lack of respect [for the trees]. We respect them a little more now.
Who was it who chose the Bohumil Hrabal quote in the inside cover of the new album?
NH: I don't know how you say his name either. He's a good writer. He's just like a character. A drunk. He'd just sit around in bars, listening to people talking. He'd take everyday stuff and make it magical. He had a weird mind. Something about Czech people. I Served the King is a good one. I don't know where the quote's from. I don't have a good memory for details.
They say that Hrabal had a hard drive for a brain. Apparently all his work was autobiographical and he simply rearranged things for his novels. Would you say you work in a similar fashion?
MN: We don't have hard drives. [We've got] Jelly.
NH: You just pick things up here and there.
So no one "found God in a parking lot"? [from "It Ended On an Oily Stage," the opening track of Open Season]
MN: In someone's kitchen once. I found something.
NH: Eamon was talking to angels on New Year's Eve.
What was the most religious experience you've had lately?
MN: Walking down the seafront. In Brighton. The sun was glistening on the sea. Don't know if that's a religious experience. We'll take what we can get.
Any other favorite authors?
MN: Don't know. Anything that evokes that feeling of awe. When you're just blown away.
NH: There's one book, one song on the album's almost about him. This guy called John Wyatt. He just wrote an autobiography about when he lived in the Lake District as a kind of woodsman. He'd describe about how he'd be walking for miles and he'd come up upon a clearing and a little deer would run up. Just those magical moments in the Lake District. He calls them "shining levels." We almost called the album that.
MN: There's a really good book by Iris Murdoch, called The Sea, The Sea that I'm reading. This one's really vivid. It's about this guy who retires from the theatre business and lives in a little hut by the sea in Scotland. And he's just on his own, he hasn't got any heating or anything. And he has a few flashbacks from taking acid. And he just writes everyday - sometimes it's just a few lines; sometimes it's a couple of pages. Just describing what he does. Like he buys a little bit of rope and he ties it around a rock, because there's no beach where he lives. And he just jumps in and he has to climb out with his little bit of rope, and he scratches his legs.
So you seem to be into the Thoreau / Walden way of life. How did you spend last night in New York?
MN: Went to a bar with the guy from Interpol.
NH: I rode around on a scooter.
MN: Yeah, you didn't end up getting to the bar, did you?
NH: No, just rode around on a scooter. This girl gave me a lift on a scooter. I hadn't been on a scooter for years. Used to have one when I lived in the Lake District.
MN: Daniel Kessler from Interpol, he took us to this bar near his house. Black and White. It's not got any signs on it.
NH: Six foot lesbians kissing.
MN: There was, wasn't there?
There's some imagery for the next album.
NH: Don't get carried away...
Soundscape UK: British Sea Power
British Council Magazine, 01/07/04
Since moving from the Lake District to south coast hotspot Brighton, post-punk indie rock four-piece British Sea Power have built a reputation as one of Britain's top live acts. As they prepared for this year's Fuji Rock Festival, we spoke to vocalist Yan about William Turner, Dostoevsky and Dizzee Rascal.
Let's start with that name...
It came from a naval history book. I guess we wanted a name that wasn't ordinary because we didn't want to be an ordinary band.
Are you a concept band?
We're a band that occasionally has concepts. When we did our first album we tried to make it sound like a William Turner seascape.
And does it?
I think it was at least partly successful.
What inspires your lyrics?
It's quite varied really. There's one called Apologies to Insect Life which is really a retelling of a story by - it sounds a bit stupid, but - Dostoevsky. He's someone who people mention if they're trying to sound intellectual, but it was a good story and the only book of his I've read. Mostly I just try to describe what life's like on this strange little island.
This year's Fuji Rock line-up is loaded with Brits, is there a renaissance right now?
There kind of is, yeah. It reminds me almost of the early days of Britpop.
Who are the Blur and Oasis this time around?
I guess it's the Libertines - they rocketed through. And then The Streets and Dizzee Rascal with their new, London, sort of, English hip-hop.
A lot of people accuse you of being pretentious.
I think we probably are pretentious, but hopefully in a good way. We wanted to expand the definition of what being in a band might mean.
Well, pop music is the most accessible and the most modern art form at the moment - and you've got to make your money somehow don't you? But it probably boils down to the boring 'love of music'.
London, Manchester and Liverpool are famous for their music scenes; what goes on in Brighton besides Fatboy Slim?
I'm not such a believer in scenes; they normally don't amount to much, but I think Brighton is quite an exciting and stimulating place. It suddenly became incredibly trendy about three years ago. I think London became too expensive for pop stars to live in. But now, it's become so expensive in Brighton that it probaby won't last much longer.
I'll Tape it Now
The men of UK five-piece British Sea Power burn their dream Smiths/Morrisseycompilation.
1. Half A Person - From 'The World Won't Listen'
Lyrics like "16, clumsy and shy" showed Morrissey knew his audience pretty well. Someone said The Smiths were for people who masturbated, while The Stranglers were for people who "shagged". Makes the former sound like a better idea than ever.
2. November Spawned A Monster - From 'Bona Drag'
Perhaps Morrissey's bravest lyric of all. These days, pop performers are very keen on labelling themselves "freaks". But it's difficult to imagine The Vines writing a song about the kind of disability that means, rather than not being able to get up in the morning, you can't get up at all.
3. I Want The One I Can't Have - From 'Meat Is Murder'
It's funny how things are when you're young. How many people would really say that their mentality caught up with their biology the moment they heard this song? Also, Johnny Marr's occasional African-influenced guitar style makes a welcome return on this song.
4. Alsatian Cousin - From 'Viva Hate'
"A buck-toothed girl from Luxembourg", "Please the press in Belgium" - Morrissey is keen on his Benelux territories. Here he gambols under canvas with a chum from the historically-troubled region of Alsace-Lorraine. Is this Morrissey's own Battle of the Bulge?
5. Why Don't You Find Out For Yourself - From 'Vauxhall & I'
One of the rare songs where Morrissey drops his eyebrow a little and takes his tongue from his cheek. A really lovely song from his best solo album and maybe his best album full stop.
6. Everyday Is Like Sunday - From 'Viva Hate'
At British Sea Power we are pretty keen on Sir John Betjeman, a terrible snob, but also a terribly funny one. Here, Morrissey relocates Betjy's Slough to the English seaside. A masterclass in that bittersweet feeling that you get when the local ramraid enthusiasts nick your chips.
7. This Night Has Opened My Eyes - From 'Hatful of Hollow'
Morrissey and Marr were of course keen students of the song form. With this song they tackle another genre; the murder ballad. This is an unnerving tale of a mother ridding herself of an unwanted child, and Marr's backing is superbly sympathetic.
8. Ammunition - From 'Maladjusted'
Superb, beautifully measured stuff from the underrated 'Maladjusted' album. Morrissey reclines blissfully into his disaffection like a wise old man sinking into his favourite armchair: "Each chev-e-ron enticing me on.. Veering cliff-ward."
9. Handsome Devil - B-side, 'Hand In Glove'
The Smiths' debut single came with a man's bum on the sleeve and this on the B-side; "A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand... Who will swallow whom?" The lyrics here don't really back up claims of celibacy, do they? Astounding nonetheless.
10. Stretch Out And Wait - From 'The World Won't Listen'
"Amid concrete and clay, and general decay, nature must still find a way." Morrissey makes his tales of urban romance sound like a couple of stray dogs working out how to use their sexual organs for the first time.
11. The National Front Disco - From 'Your Arsenal'
Outrageously brave or outrageously ill-advised? The sad thing is that it is possible to imagine some far-right dullard playing this at an actual National Front disco. Even so, a daring slice of empathy for someone who's life is so deeply thwarted that they want to join the racists.
12. Death Of A Disco Dancer - From 'Strangeways, Here We Come'
Ghostly piano and scratchy guitar form an atmospherically perfect backdrop on this moving song about the death of a raver. Interesting how Morrissey's occasional interest in dance culture is reborn with the totally baggy beats on his 'You Are The Quarry'.
13. The Boy With A Thorn In His Side - From 'The Queen Is Dead'
Great Alpine funk, this one. Morrissey does some spectacular yodelling at the end. Andy Rourke played funk bass before The Smiths. Here he uses his training well.
14. Ouija Board, Ouija Board - From 'Bona Drag'
Morrissey has a go at the Death Disc, the pop genre where the dead commune with the living. The Death Disc reached its heights with the 1961 Number 1 hit Johnny Remember Me, written by the late Geoff Goddard. BSP know for a fact that Morrissey held a seance trying to book Geoff for his Meltdown shows.
15. Rusholme Ruffians - From 'Meat Is Murder'
Most people go to the fair hoping to enjoy a toffee apple. Morrissey seemed more interested in the fun to be had getting ruffed up and robbed. The band are in fine skiffle form.
16. Last Of The International Playboys - From 'Bona Drag'
The real reason Morrissey hates those judges is not because they made him give some money to Mike Joyce. It's because they didn't send him to jail where he could hang out with the Krays.
17. Asleep - From 'The World Won't Listen'
When BSP guitarist Noble was a teen he got smacked in the face outside a pub on his birthday for wearing black eyeliner. When he got back to the party, he put Asleep on again and again and cried - until someone replaced it with Russ Abbott's Atmosphere.
18. Now My Heart Is Full - From 'Vauxhall & I'
Morrissey portrays himself alongside Brighton Rock boy-thug Pinkie - like a man wanting to have his glasses knocked off, glamorously, by cosh boys on the dole. Gorgeously wistful music though.
Marching into Europe
Daily Telegraph, 22/04/04
Driven by the spirit of the Smiths and Joy Division, British Sea Power have brought wit and grandeur back to pop. Andrew Perry joins them in Prague.
Most British rock music, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones onwards, has looked towards America for its inspiration. But last summer saw the arrival of a young band from Brighton whose very name, British Sea Power, implied a staunch adherence to indigenous influence.
Their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, was a wonderfully vibrant collection of songs and images, a declaration that rock music has become lazy and one-tracked, that it can be more than a routine celebration of American values.
Its title quite hilariously cut against the culture of hyperbolic self-promotion into which groups habitually pitch themselves these days, while also implying an almost illicit interest in militarism and history.
The band make music of wit and grandeur, regularly compared to such lofty alternative Brit-rockers as the Smiths, Joy Division and, thanks to singer Yan's gravelly yearning, the Psychedelic Furs.
I join them on their first trip to Prague. The former Eastern Bloc is another of their interests, it transpires, one celebrated in a new single called A Lovely Day Tomorrow, which they've recorded in both English and Czech.
The latter version is sung by Katerina Winterova, the Bjork-esque vocalist from Prague-based group the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, who are to support BSP at their concert in the city.
When I arrive at check-in at Heathrow, I am handed a large plastic owl to carry - one of the many bizarre props familiar from the band's stage set.
On the plane, I sit next to guitarist Noble (all the members go by a single assumed name). Between reading up about potential tourist attractions and gulps of premium-strength Czech beer, he points out that Wesley, credited on the new single, is his dog. "I had to get him in a headlock to make him bark," he says.
"It's funny that you end up doing something like this, just because someone read a book," Yan tells me, when we arrive in the city centre. The book in question was The Good Soldier Schweik, the First World War comic odyssey by Jaroslav Hasek, which was duly passed around for all members to digest.
Their reading list would soon incorporate The Bad Bohemian, Sir Cecil Parrott's biography of Hasek, plus the works of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka.
According to bassist Hamilton, who wrote the song, A Lovely Day Tomorrow had a rather scrappy genesis.
He wrote most of the music and lyrics, which lay around for a while, until he saw a documentary about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's chief lieutenant in the SS, by Czech resistance fighters, who were trained in Leamington Spa and parachuted back into Czechoslovakia by the British Army.
"It's a classic story of good and evil," says Hamilton, "heroes triumphing over the human version of the Devil. They ended up holed up in a church, and shot themselves.
"Afterwards, Hitler retaliated by massacring thousands of Czech Jews. So it's hard to say whether it was a good thing or not, but that's why it's interesting."
If this hardly seems the stuff of frothy chart pop, British Sea Power have effectively killed their chances of having a hit by releasing the single in a limited edition of 1,942 copies (commemorating the year of the above events), to be sold only in the Czech Republic and on the band's current UK tour.
"There's often been a lot more to the rock vocabulary than is used nowadays," says Yan. "What we're doing is an alternative to singing about your girlfriend leaving you. It gets a bit boring, that."
"The biggest acts in our country are Coldplay and Dido," adds Noble. "What they do is just a general moaning, without any content. They've got nothing to say. If you look to be a great band, then you want to sing about great things, like Charles Lindbergh flying over the Atlantic, or the Heydrich story."
Yan points towards a new crop of British originals, including the Libertines, the Streets and Dizzee Rascal. "They're trying to be less general, talking about specific things rather than trying to appeal to everybody on this bland universal theme."
Yan and Hamilton, who are brothers, and drummer Wood all grew up in Cumbria. The band was formed when Yan met Noble, who hails from the other side of the Pennines in West Yorkshire, at Reading University. When their studies concluded, the group convened in Brighton.
That was four years ago, but they still have the slightly inscrutable air of smalltown country folk.
As they gather for photographs by Charles Bridge, they stop to watch three pigeons mating atop a wall - not guffawing drunkenly, but observing with keen ornithological interest. When half of them walk off and get lost in the tourist throng, their recently joined keyboard player and percussionist, Eamon, summons them back by clasping his hands together and making an elaborate owl call.
Continuing this rustic thread, at the splendidly seedy ex-cinema where the band are to perform, the Roxy, the stage is bedecked with all manner of boughs, branches and sprigs, procured locally by their manager. And there, I'm pleased to see, is my plastic owl.
As their version of the Czech folk song Fakir blares from the PA to palpable confusion in the crowd, I wonder if British Sea Power's peculiar sensibilities might get lost in translation here.
During Apologies to Insect Life (only the second song), Eamon, clad in infantryman's fatigues and Somme-era tin helmet, rampages through the audience banging a marching drum. Such inclusive tactics rarely fail to erode the language barrier.
Something Wicked, Remember Me and Carrion, beefed up to near-anthemic proportions on the live stage, provoke a feverish response. At the end, they're joined by Katerina Winterova, plus their own viola player, Abigail, for a moving rendition of A Lovely Day.
Eamon once again goes a-roving, this time held aloft on the shoulders of a game local.
With the Czech Republic set to join the EU on May 1, it's good to see Anglo-Czech relations, culturally at least, on such a firm footing.
British Sea Power Sing about Heydrich
BBC Czech, 08/04/04
Critics hail British group BSP as one of the island's most interesting rock groups of the moment. BSP gave an interview in Prague for the Czech office of the BBC.
The five-member group from the south English town of Brighton exhibit a curious interest in Czech history and culture.
Proof can be found in one of their songs, whose lyrics deal with the assassination of Reich Protectorate Heydrich. BSP recorded the song with Czech group EoST in both Czech and English, the single will be available from April 12th.
Guitarist Martin Noble explained what attracted the group's attention to a small central European country:
"We're interested in the Czech Republic, we've travelled a little in eastern Europe. People mostly sing about everyday things, so we thought it would be better to sing about heroism, about important, albeit relatively sad, events."
When a British rock band sings about events, about which Czech children have to study in school, what's all that about?
"It's about painting an atmosphere, how these two men arrive from England over Czech - I don't know how dark the night was then - but when they parachuted down, they don't know where they are and then they have this special mission to accomplish" explained the author of the song, bassist Neil Hamilton.
"We didn't set out to recount the story, it's more about the atmosphere. If people are attracted to the story, that's good. But if they just enjoy the music for itself alone, that's also fine" he added.
Manager Roy Wilkinson also explained that we shouldn't expect a history lesson from BSP:
"No, the song shouldn't be taken as a history lesson, the text is really just a little dark. The main thing is the thought to honour some kind of spirit which can be found in the Czech people. It's our way to make music from the romantic notions we have about Czechs."
Even though the British rockers exhibit an unusual interest in the Heydrich affair, Roy Wilkinson admits that, with the exception of Ivan Kral, they don't know much about the Czech rock scene.
"We know about Ivan kral, because he played with Iggy Pop, but otherwise we don't know many Czech groups. Of course I can't forget EoST though, their vocalist sings so beautifully on our song A Lovely Day Tomorrow."
Translated from Czech to English by A.W.O.L.
'You Are Going to End Up Geting Injured'
Free Williamsburg, 01/04/04
Another great band at this year's Noise Pop was British Sea Power. They are an exciting quintet from Brighton, England. We only know them by their first names: Hamilton, Noble, Yan, Eamon and Woody. The band was formed in 2000. Their shows are famous for their use of military outfits and trees and statues of animals. Geoff Travis (of Rough Trade) came down to one of their clubs, called Club Sea Power, and was shocked immediately, and signed them on the spot. After some shows in Europe with Interpol, Flaming Lips and Pulp, their fanbase grew. They made an impression on all the jaded industry deadbeats at SXSW in 2003. Then in June 2003 we had the release of their first album: The Decline of British Sea Power.
On their website they talk about their experiences on tour and some plans for a second album: "All of which, we can tell you, is stirring the members of British Sea Power into an implacable determination to write a song with 159 verses. (Or to record a second album). To travel to within 79 kilometers of Geneva. (Or play some concerts in Holland). To see a new face depicted on the coins of 36 countries. (Not their own, of course, but maybe the likeness of the increasingly respected actress Denise Van Outen, possibly disgraced ice queen Tonya Harding, or, best of all, the resplendent singing star Jamelia)."
I met them at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, where I had previously met other people like Irvine Welsh, Mogwai, and Roni Size. It tends to be a hotspot for bands. I got to talk to a few members of the band before their two big shows at Noise Pop. Afterwards Hamilton and Eamon jumped into the nearby pool in their underwear. Eamon was sporting a pair of boxing shorts at the end of its life. Their show that night at Bottom of The Hill was one of the highlights of that week. We hope to see them play more on this side of the pond.
How long have you guys been playing together?
Yan: It's been about three or four years. Hamilton is my brother. Woody over there who plays drums: we all went to school together in Kendal. We met Woody when he was about eleven years old. I am a year older than those two. We met the others at Reading University.
Did you play music back then?
Yan: I wasn't into it. Those two were in all sorts of bands. Woody was like the town drummer. I saw him play at a little local club. Woody was playing in six local bands in one evening.
Are you shooting some Super 8mm film?
Hamilton: Yeah. I am shooting things that happen to us. I am making a video.
This will be in the next video?
Eamon: Is that what you are doing? (laughter)
What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Yan: I used to listen to a lot of rare music because I had a brother who was ten years older. He was a real music buff. He started off liking Echo and The Bunnymen and then he expanded. He had about five hundred quality albums like Sonic Youth, Pixies, Julian Cope, and Pere Ubu. Loads of alternative stuff.
Did you ever get to play with any of those bands that you listened to?
Yan: Pulp was one band that I grew up liking. I was a big fan of theirs. We got to play with them on their last tour when they played all those shows in the forest. We played with The Fall. There is a chance we might play with The Pixies in London. I have never seen them. I was too young the first time around. There's a chance that they might be good.
How did you write the songs on the first album?
Hamilton: Yan wrote most of the songs on the first album. Then we wrote some of them all together. I wrote a few songs. We had most of the songs around for a while. The songs developed over time.
Do you have material ready for a second album?
Yan: We have just starting preparing for it, really. It will be a total group effort.
Eamon: We hired a barn out in the countryside. It's in Sussex. There's a lot of snow and mushrooms. There are some chickens.
That sounds ideal. Where is that?
Yan: It's in the South. There is a guy named David Dimbleby. He produces a talk show on BBC television. He lives opposite us. We are doing some demos there. Our first album came out in June 2003 in the UK.
I heard that Interpol had a lot to do with getting you guys on tour and eventually signed?
Yan: I have a lot of respect for those guys.
Eamon: We spent six weeks with them. That was the first major tour we did. We went through all the major countries in Europe.
Interpol were playing big festivals in France before anyone had heard of them in America.
Yan: I think that Europe accepted Interpol with open arms. Americans are too worried about being cool.
Does British Sea Power play into that?
Noble: Can't help being cool. (laughter)
Yan: It's an exotic thing. With America and Europe there is a mystique. I think that works the opposite way for us.
Have you moved to London?
Yan: I am not a big fan of London. It's a bit too grim and dirty. We are an hour away. We like to stay away from any industry. It's better being at home by the sea. It's more peaceful.
You are missing out on all those Soho parties and Award shows.
Eamon: I am too busy trying to start a relationship with Carrie Von Bondie. She just fell of the stage in London I heard.
Has the band had any accidents?
Yan: We have had a lot of accidents. It's not that much really.
Eamon: I have scabby knees.
Woody is over there on the other side of the pool ignoring us. He is reading a book. Have any of you been reading any good books recently?
Yan: I am reading one of those USA Travel books. I am reading a guide to twentieth century philosophy.
Where is the after party tonight?
Yan: We were making too much noise last night. Eamon was jumping off the roof. We were thinking about coming back here to The Phoenix and have a party. Someone broke into the bar and stole drinks. We have already checked out. We might go see Super Furry Animals tonight. We don't usually have after parties. We are more likely to end up in the forest or halfway up a mountain. I like campfires.
How long is this tour?
Yan: It's been about a month. We started in New York and it's ending in Texas at SXSW.
Eamon: SXSW is the best festival. We played at it last year. It's like one street with forty venues.
When people come to see British Sea Power what should they expect?
Yan: They should expect not to be bored.
How do you deal with hecklers?
Yan: I quiet them down. The worse thing is when everyone looks blank. You think that maybe they are enjoying it or maybe they wish that they were home shagging their girlfriends. You can never understand what anyone is saying. I think that someone was offering us "Free Monkeys" at the last gig. I was confused.
What is your set like now?
Yan: The majority of it is the album. Then there are some favorites that never made the album and are b-sides. We have one or two new songs creeping in. It's a slow process bringing in new songs.
Are there any other contemporary bands that you like?
Noble: We like The Cooper Family. They have been playing for two hundred years. They have tour America. They have played at the White House. We played with them a few times.
Yan: They are good beer drinkers. We also had a good time with The Flaming Lips for a week. It was their last tour in England. They were good guys.
Did you jump up there onstage with a animal costume?
Yan: I got to be a rabbit for a little while.
Hamilton: We were helping out people in the back because it was very hot. They were roasting in those suits. So we were spraying them with water.
You called him Uncle Wayne?
Yan: He put a curse on us accidentally. Hamilton kept on falling off the stage. Wayne Coyne came over like a concerned uncle and said "We like what you boys are doing, but you have to look after yourselves. You are going to end up getting injured." So a few weeks later when we went on our own tour, that was when a couple of us busted our ankles. We ended up on crutches. Wayne told us that we would end up like that Superman dude in the wheelchair. We almost did.
Hamilton: I think that we have broken out of the curse now.
The Flaming Lips used to set cymbals on fire.
Eamon: They know danger.
Noble: I set my guitar on fire once. It snapped in half.
When will the second record come out?
Yan: If all goes well it will come out in September 2004, or a few months later. We are pretty busy. Everything is going to have to go perfectly.
Did you win any music awards this year?
Eamon: Not really. I think our record was number 15 on the combined "Best Of" list. We did win an award from Time Out Magazine as best live band.
What is your favorite part of music?
Hamilton: Writing a good song is nice.
Have you seen any movies recently?
Yan: We just watched The Last Waltz by Martin Scorcese. We watched it on the bus the other night. I have read about it. I couldn't believe that I haven't seen it before. It was amazing.
It was filmed at The Fillmore which isn't too far from here.
Yan: The way they set up the stage was interesting. The performances themselves were amazing. It's proper film quality.
Have you seen any other films?
Hamilton: We saw Lost In Translation on the plane.
Eamon: Do you know what Bill Murray said to her at the end?
I don't know. Maybe he said, "I am a homosexual." I don't think you are supposed to know.
Noble: "Have you ever seen Caddyshack?"
You have been playing a lot of shows with the band Kaito. What do you think of them?
Noble: They are good. I think that enjoy them more the more I drink. I don't know why. I like all the strange noises that Nikki makes when she is singing.
Do you play with those sorts of bands that have no commercial interest?
Yan: Have you heard of The 80s Matchbox B-line Disaster?
Yeah. They haven't played over here yet. The guy from Cooper Temple Clause liked them too.
Yan: We played one of our first shows with them in Brighton. I don't know where they are at now. I know that they are absolutely fucking crazy. They started out sounding like some shambolic group like The Fall, but they get faster and heavier every time I see them.
Eamon: They are the only band at the moment who make me want to pogo dance.
What is the hardest thing about being in a band?
Yan: Staying mentally functional. We have been getting bus psychosis.
Does anyone have any hobbies?
Yan: I did a lot of painting before the band. Painting for me is something you have to do every day to get anything out of it.
Did anyone in your family have a musical background?
Noble: My granddad used to play the piano. He played a church organ during the war.
Yan: My background is perfectly unmusical.
What do your parents think of the band?
Yan: They love it now. It's probably their main interest in life now. My dad is about eighty years old now. The last five years he has really been getting interested in music. He has been getting into us and The Butthole Surfers, and Nirvana. He has good taste for an eighty year old.
He'll probably be buying some Ministry this week. Does your parents come to shows?
Yan: Yeah. I think that parents either hate the fact that you are wasting your life in a rock band or they become fanatical.
Who does your website?
Hamilton: Woody does it. He doesn't talk very much.
If he was over here talking to me, what would he say?
Yan: I don't know. He could get quite paranoid. We do it all ourselves. It started off really good but it has become lame because we haven't had time to do it. We do all our own videos and album covers.
What are some of the conspiracy theories on the message board?
Eamon: They were wondering how old we are. They were saying that we are really old.
Yan: There was that and who is the sexiest member of British Sea Power. You want to know? It was you, Eamon. They like your matureness. There are a cult group of people who come to a lot of shows. They used to talk about us. Now they just talk about what they got up to. How drunk they got. All about their stupid activities. It's like a self-help group for the mentally challenged.
What does your average British Sea Power fan look like?
Noble: Like a dwarf.
Yan: It is all country related. In Japan, they are all girls. Screaming girls. In England, there used to be a lot of men in overcoats. That is changing. This guy who was in The Goodies has been coming to our shows.
Do you think that the government would use your music for a commercial about the Royal Navy?
Yan: Like "Don't go in!"
Interview with Noble
Fused Mag, 01/04/04
Displaying the tenacity and youthful exuberance of Enid Blyton's 'famous five', a group of handsome fellows from Cumbria moved to Brighton and decided to form a band that would change the face of British rock music forever. Whilst simultaneously embracing a love of nature, first world-war memorabilia and taxidermy.
That band was and is British Sea Power. In my wisdom, I devised a fiendish list of questions to stimulate and challenge their intellect. The mysteriously monikered 'Noble the guitarist' rose to the challenge.
Elaborate, theatrical live displays; Czech writers; family shows on Scillonian island; owls; an album that refuses to be categorised even after repeated listens- I'm frightened, confused and elated. What should I do?
Run and hide, covering your head with your hands. Then stare up at the sky while drooling and looking befuddled. Finally, jump up and down while laughing and shouting made-up words at passing schoolgirls. These three behaviour patterns will adequately communicate fright, confusing and discovery of strange joy.
My sources tell me you are currently touring the United States of America. How is the campaign going?
We are now back from North America. It was all gravy. We got to holler in the canyons in Zion national park in Utah and go to a fish and chip shop in Atlanta where you could have whiting, trout, catfish or croaker. Ringo's sistrer-in-law came to see us in LA and bought three copies of our album, including one for Mr. Starr. We also had two of the girl actresses from 'Sex and the City' at our New York show, but I'm not sure which ones. The audiences were great, but they tended to bring us less presents than people do in Europe. On our last Continental dates we got cakes, books, glassware, paintings and hats. In Norway someone bought us a horse. It was a little horse, a bit like a Shetland pony, but we couldn't get it on the tour bus. We think it's only a matter of time before American audiences start bringing us presents too.
An interesting thought occurred to me: with all the on-stage detritus, uniforms and stage names, are you perhaps kindred spirits with Slipknot? Who are more dangerous to the youth of today?
Good point. Don't slipknot have a dead crow in a jar? There you go. We have an interest in birds also. I'm not sure who's most dangerous, but Slipknot do make a Powerful sound. However, they only dress as monsters. We have a real life Orc in our band. He's called Eamon and he plays keyboards and bangs a drum.
With such noted luminaries as Jarvis Cocker, Jeremy Vine and Douglas Coupland amongst your admirers, do you ever fear the arrival of Sadie Frost and Kate Moss at future BSP shows?
No, all are welcome. Apart from Donald Rumsefeldt and Anthea Turner.
'Brish Sea Power's classic the decline of British Sea Power': nearly a year on from its release, can you offer any insight into the contradictory self love ('Classic') and self deprecation ('decline') of this musical opus your subsequent success?
We believe you can sometimes do more than one thing at once. Eat an apple while walking, read while having a bath. Some of our songs even contain words AND music. Every good band should both brilliant and ridiculous, on the rise and in decline. You know what they say, there's harmony and dischord and world in between. Who would want to be anywhere else except in between?
Can you please give a few details as to the nature and estimated time of arrival for your next musical venture?
Our next release is out Czech record which is out in april and has us, plus vocals from the great Katerina Winterova of the Czech band the ecstasy of saint Theresa. You'll have to move fast though- only 1, 942 copies in the whole wide world. We are also working toward our second album right now; It'll deal with Trewsbury Mead and the particular joy of American tan tights in a tiger moth. It'll sound like the exact mid point between Sigur Ros and John Betjeman. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of forgery.
The idea of individual music 'scenes' is surely an evil tool of modern journalism to pigeonhole types of music, yet two years ago you were one of a number of bands to endorse "the official Brighton and hove 2002 contemporary music scene." Please explain the nature of this bohemian outfit. Is it still going strong two years on?
We love a pigeonhole, especially if it contains a pair of cooing collared doves. The 'OB&H2002CMC' is still going from strength to strength. The Hives, Sleepy Jackson and Helen Mirren have all recently joined.
SXSW Spotlight: British Sea Power
Austin Chronicle, 19/03/04
The sun hasn't yet set on the British Empire. It's just that the grab for new subjects is taking a sneakier, more pleasant form, at least where the five Cumbrian lads of British Sea Power are concerned.
Cumbria is in the northwestern part of England, called the Lake District, near Manchester and Lancashire. Think Wuthering Heights, ancient stone circles, and druidic mysticism.
"All bands don't come from London," says Noble, BSP's painfully polite guitarist. "It's a place where poets like Wordsworth come from; it's a really pastoral place."
This alone should help distinguish the group from its peers, but they've decided to take their otherness to more fragrant levels.
"We started a club night [Club Sea Power] in Brighton," explains Noble. "We wanted to make it special, and we got the idea of filling the whole place with branches - it really smelled lovely in there."
Not long after, the stuffed birds joined the mise-en-scene, and a trademark (or gimmick) was born. Rough Trade kingpin Geoff Travis took in a gig at Sea in 2001 and presented the lads with a contract that very night. That's when another, more strange British invasion began, culminating in BSP's debut full-length, The Decline of British Sea Power, last fall. The group has since garnered comparisons to Joy Division, only with chunkier riffs and brighter faces.
"We wanted to make songs that are kind of human, sort of melancholy, and rockers - the whole scope in between," explains Noble. "We didn't want to be a band with one sound that stays the same every album."
One thing Noble claims won't be the same is BSP's behavior at SXSW 04.
"I think we'll be a bit more relaxed this time, instead of guitars and chairs being thrown around."
The British are coming - by land, this time - so get ready.
British Sea Power is Branching Out
New York Daily News, 12/03/04
If you happen to see a young man in a British Sea Scout uniform pruning the trees on Delancy St. tomorrow, he asks that you please not attack him, which is what happened the last time British Sea Power went looking for stage props in New York City.
Clipping public foliage might not seem like typical behavior for a band recently voted the best live act in Britain.
But British Sea Power - which plays the Bowery Ballroom tomorrow night - is a group defined by its quirky interests.
Chief among them is the group's obsession with curios taken from nature. The group always shares the stage with a coterie of plastic owls, herons and falcons, as well as leafy trimmings taken from the local surroundings.
"They're kind of symbols that we use in our lyrics that remind us of where we grew up and things that are important," says BSP singer Yan, who spent his youth in England's pastoral Lake District.
"They're also useful for defending yourself if the crowd turns nasty. And the foliage is good for hiding if there's a lot of them."
Idiosyncratic humor and esoteric references abound on the group's debut album, "The Decline of British Sea Power." A shaggy blend of Joy Division, the Pixes and Teardrop Explodes, the band synthesizes three decades of underground rock into a fervently regional sound that evokes the group's current adopted city of Brighton.
"We all live in this Victorian seaside town, and you can hear that in the music," Yan says.
"I have a theory that it has to do with the iodine in the water that gives you a dreamy, imaginative feeling."
The band has drawn on the historical quaintness of their environment to create an alternate universe where plastic birds and old scouting uniforms seem normal.
Those go hand in hand with claims that band members are "quick of foot and unafraid in their movements" when "placed upon the concert stage."
"People pick up on a sort of old-fashionedness," Yan says. "But I think that's us just trying to be timeless."
An Oddball Broadside from Britain
Only two members of British Sea Power had ever been in bands before, singer-guitarist Yan says -- bassist Hamilton and drummer Woody, in Kendall, near the band's hometown of Bristol, England.
"Woody was in like six or seven bands in one night," Yan says. "Because, I think, he was the only talented drummer in the whole town."
It's no surprise that there's not much experience in the band -- the quirks haven't been ironed out, thank goodness.
The hard-rock bands can have the girls and cars; the grunge bands can have the angst. British Sea Power is more likely to sing about Charles Lindbergh, an old Czechoslovakian murder case or Casio electric pianos.
The Decline of British Sea Power begins with a choral interlude, then blasts into "Apologies to Insect Life," with guitarist-singer Yan yelping over fuzzed-out guitars and hardcore tempos: "Apologies to insect life . . . Apologies to everyone".
After spending the first three songs making sure you can't take anything for granted, the group eventually settles into gorgeously melancholy mid-tempo pop, occasionally reminiscent of The Chills, with anthemic guitar parts and orchestral keyboard and vocal touches and enough pure noise to keep you on your toes.
Yan's voice is a rough cross of David Bowie and Radiohead's Thom Yorke, with its own weathered charm, especially when singing of the sea, as he often does. ("The heavy water, how it enfolds/ The salt, the spray, the gorgeous undertow," from the single "Carrion").
The lyrical content is hard to work out, and unusual when it can be deciphered. Yan's use of uncommon words ("increment by increment" in "Remember Me") gives the ear something fresh to focus on.
"A Lovely Day Tomorrow," written and sung by Hamilton and not on the album, is about an assassination in Czechoslovakia. A new version is coming out in Czechoslovakia, a collaboration with the Czech band The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. And British Sea Power is going to Prague later this year to play it.
"When you go outside the normal things of what bands are meant to write about, these are the good things that can happen -- you get to go to Prague."
THE BAND'S visual hallmark is the use of flora and taxidermy on stage.
"Someone'll go out and climb a tree and prune a few shrubs. . . .
"On the one hand, if you set it out right, it's beautiful and creates an atmosphere. It's surprising how many people comment on the smells of it. I don't know; if a crowd turned nasty, it could turn into a weapon, or somewhere to hide.
"And it's quite interesting, just because it actually gets you out there to look for it, and you realize how fascinating various forms of plant life are. We had, I think in Los Angeles, some bulrushes, and these things must have been just ready to seed, because every time they got hit, or Woody smashed his cymbals and they banged into them, all these little seeds would fly up into the air and catch the light. I thought it was lovely."
AFTER THIS U.S. TOUR is over, British Sea Power will record a new single, and shortly thereafter, a new album.
"If all goes well, it'll come out in the fall," Yan says, "but if it doesn't, then it could be any time.
"It's quite hard to describe [the new songs] at the moment. [But] our last album had some kind of infatuation with the coast and the sea, and kind of big, open expanses of horizon, and that kind of feeling. This one may reflect more of a kind of inland, enclosed, friendly-forest feel.
"I think if you've done something, you should try and find something else to do, basically. But all this could be complete bollocks, because this is all very new stuff. Especially lyrically, it's really not very progressed yet."
British Sea Power is a Vessel for Many Sounds
Boston Globe, 11/03/04
British Sea Power can be a confusing band. To begin with, the indie quintet's music ranges all over the stylistic map. The band draws on varicolored influences -- early Pixies, midcareer David Bowie, the Smiths -- but in large part chooses to invoke those influences one at a time. As a result, British Sea Power's sound can swing dramatically from one song to the next.
Then there's the fact that members go by one-word stage names -- Yan, Noble, Hamilton, Wood, and Eamon -- but don't say why.
And although members of the English band acknowledge that some of the things they do during performances are intended to attract attention, they insist there's no element of showmanship in other aspects of their concerts.
No one denies, for example, that the life-size, movie-prop brown bear that accompanies the band onstage at shows in the United Kingdom is a visually captivating oddity intended to be part of the show. The tree branches and shrubbery are also there to create an intriguing picture.
"We're really not a dancing kind of band," guitarist Noble explained, speaking by phone from a hotel in Los Angeles. "People generally just like to watch. So there has to be something to look at."
But ask Noble about the World War I-era British Navy jackets the band used to wear onstage, and he says they were just affordable stagewear. Ask him about the guitar and chairs he hurled into an audience at last year's South by Southwest music conference in Austin, and he insists he was just having a bad day.
"That was our first big US show, and we wanted it to go really well," Noble said. "We didn't feel it was going well. And I guess I got frustrated."
Marc Hawthorne doesn't quite buy that explanation. Hawthorne, the editor of underground music magazine DIW, said the band played a private party earlier that day, and the group's antics there suggested something bigger would happen at the night concert: "I didn't take it at all as an act of anger."
It's hard to explain what makes British Sea Power good. The band can't even be said to have its own sound. Its debut CD, "The Decline of British Sea Power," moves among tracks that could have been torn from the Pixies songbook, tracks that owe everything to Bowie (a bit of "Station to Station," a bit of "Let's Dance"), and tracks that have a theatrical vocal style that recalls Morrissey's work with the Smiths. And, as if to drive the point home, there's the album closer, "Heavenly Waters," which finds the group playing the part of shoegazer revivalists, with a sound that falls somewhere between the pretty, ethereal Slowdive and the trippy, clamorous My Bloody Valentine.
Still, British Sea Power carries it off. Its stylistic shifts can be jarring, but they're never off-putting. Perhaps that's because the band so ably carries off all of its various sounds. Or it may be, as Noble said, that while the sound changes, the band's mind-set is singular.
"It's not really a shift," he said. "You're in a mental state that you exist in through the whole show. You're having fun playing together. That's what we enjoy doing."
And as long as everything from stage antics to sonic exploration proceeds from band members' having fun, he said, British Sea Power is confident its audiences will come along for the ride. No matter how confusing that ride may be.
Swallowing Sea Men
Phoenix New Times, 04/03/04
It's a bitch trying to get a giant stuffed grizzly across international borders these days.
"We have a big bear. He's been coming onstage with us lately," Hamilton explains in a British accent thicker than a London phone book. "We'd like to bring our bear, but he's not allowed through customs, apparently."
Hamilton is the bassist for British Sea Power, a five-piece that is all the rage around the indie campfire these days. The bear is one of the concert props that reflect BSP's slightly skewed humor, to say nothing of the group's penchant for taxidermy.
"It's a shame he can't come," Hamilton laments. "He's a big fella -- I guess there's no room for him."
Fortunately, customs officials have yet to put the hammer down on the rest of BSP's stage decor, which includes several smaller animals and a collection of trees and shrubs that make up a full-blown forest competing for space with the usual array of amps, drums and pedal boards. But when you spend most of your nights in dingy dives and seedy taverns, it's nice to spruce up the joint every once in a while.
"It's good to make a bit of effort," Hamilton says. "It just came out of nowhere, really, I don't know how. We just want to put on a special night and create a world that we feel happy in. We've always liked trees and forests, so it's a nice thing to be associated with."
BSP couldn't see the forest for the trees when it got its start in early 2000 playing tiny clubs in front of minuscule audiences in and around Brighton, on the southeastern coast of England. The band's break was ripped from the pages of a B-movie script. Geoff Travis, head of the Rough Trade record label, happened upon one of those throwaway gigs and was immediately struck by BSP's military uniforms and predilection for spouting classic British poetry. And the impressive array of stuffed owls littering the stage didn't hurt, either. Travis offered the group a contract on the spot.
"We were never that greatly involved in the music scene," Hamilton explains. "There were other bands around, but we've never been a joiner of things like that. Some of those bands should probably be forcibly replaced. But there's a few all right ones, as well. They're quite colorful, even if they're a bit unbelievable. Lively but unsatisfying."
BSP's sound is precisely the opposite. The quintet's debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, is a shape-shifting glam-rock rumination that's about as wet and foggy as the English Channel. The center of gravity is guitarist Noble, who mixes oceanic waves of six-string slashing as vocalist Yan's tortured yelp soars over the top.
At times, Decline is wildly pretentious ("Lately" clocks in just shy of 14 minutes) but also utterly original. The album quickly caught the ear of the international music press as Rolling Stone, NME and even the New York Times weighed in with positive reviews and comparisons galore (Joy Division and the Psychedelic Furs were cited regularly). Perhaps the most prescient commentary came from Elle magazine, which hailed Decline as "the record Radiohead might make if they didn't still fear the power of cataclysmic guitars."
But the band has had some difficulty translating the sound of BSP on record to BSP onstage. To re-create what they've accomplished in the recording studio, the players recruited Eamon last year to handle keyboards and percussion.
"We drafted him in for a tour 'cause we needed someone to fill out the sounds we put on the record," Hamilton recalls. "We met him on the streets of Brighton. He was living out of a big sack that he carried on his back. He kind of had nowhere to go, so we gave him a home, and he just kind of stuck around."
The question remains whether the other members of BSP will stick around as well or slip back into the cracks of the indie underground. Only their taxidermist knows for sure, but they seem determined to keep their music as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
The band recently spent three weeks holed up in an old church in the British countryside, crafting new material for its next release. The downtime was a welcome relief after having spent much of the past year on the road. But while BSP has become one of the U.K.'s top draws, it has yet to break big on American shores. To date, its biggest U.S. show was a seminal performance at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin.
Back home, BSP has opened for a slew of heavyweights, sharing the stage with such notables as the Flaming Lips, Interpol, and the Strokes.
"That was kind of a weird one," Hamilton says of the Strokes outing. "It was the end of our long tour, the last thing we did, so we were all a bit confused about the whole thing. And they were such big places that we had never played before. So it was kind of a whirlwind, but we seemed to get through it all right. They all seem like nice fellas. They took us to the casino in Dublin and gave us money to bet, so they must be okay."
So did their gambling pay off?
"No, we spent it on drink."
Best Band in Britain
The blokes of British Sea Power are having the maritime of their lives
The gurgling guitars and aching melodies that simmer below the surface of British Sea Power's buzz-heavy debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, are indicative of the band's game plan. At first glance, they look like a Joy Division-inspired group of highly literate, nautically obsessed schoolboys. But beneath the froth and layers of introspection is a band that likes to plug in, turn it up, and rattle the cages of convention. "The album is about landscape and memory and mortality," says guitarist Noble, who, like his four mates, goes by only a single name. "We're about stuff like that."
The British Sea Power saga starts in coastal Brighton, England, where inspiration sprang from sources both likely (Iggy Pop) and unlikely (Charles Lindbergh). And they're well-read lads: The album references Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek and 19th-century philosopher/art critic John Ruskin. "We bring as many ideas as we can into our music," Noble says. "And it's not just the music. It's the artwork [on record covers] and the videos that we make."
The band ties the musical knot between modern epic-guitar wankers the Doves and retro gloomy-romantics Echo & the Bunnymen. Moods vary among songs - sometimes within songs - and the record plays out like one of the grand pieces of art the band so freely associates with. "We wanted to make an album, rather than just a collection of songs," Noble says. "And we had a kind of concept behind it as well. We wanted to make it like a William Turner seascape. It's a bit of a silly ambition, but it's something we all agreed on."
Back home, the usual media hyperbole has followed the group. London's Sunday Times declared British Sea Power "the best band in Britain." The Decline of British Sea Power topped many of the country's year-end critics' polls, and its pre-album singles were hits with indie-minded kids. The CD is dark, droning, epochal, and just a little caught up in its own myth. But its vision - whether taking on Patrick O'Brian-style sea tales or wailing viciously through cranked-up amplifiers - is stimulating. Look no further than the art-school kids who show up at every gig. "There's this one girl who's been following us around," Noble explains. "She quit her job, and she's going to get a house with her boyfriend in the country, and she's just going to start writing. That's great to see."
Whether U.S. fans will follow suit during the group's Stateside tour depends on the number of listeners willing to chuck it all and tap into a band that favors plenty of obscure quotes, chords, and allusions from Europe's coastal culture. Though there probably won't be many, give the guys points for aspiration. "There isn't much imagination [in music] these days," Noble says. "Well, there are a lot of bands with good imaginations and ambition, but they're incredibly dull. They don't know what they're doing with their lives."
Chicago Tribune, 03/03/04
Buzz Band British Sea Power Wages War on Stinky Clubs
Trees are strewn across the stage, hunting decoys dangle from the ceiling and the lead singer weaves references to Shakespeare and Charles Lindbergh into his lyrics. This is a typical show for British Sea Power, a band whose melancholy tinged music is starting to leave a mark outside of the band's Brighton, England, home.
Over the last two years, they've toured with Interpol, The Flaming Lips and Bright Eyes, all the while recording and releasing a slew of seven-inch singles for the revived Rough Trade record label (the original indie home of The Smiths and The Feelies). The singles have been put together into one nice big package that doubles as the band's debut LP, "The Decline of British Sea Power."
It's an album that grows on you with each listen, and it's as much New Wave-era black nail polish, asymmetrical haircuts and Cure tapestries as it is five lads from England making music as if they were stranded at sea and missed the last 20 years of pop culture. Maybe that's why they sound so good.
We caught up with the group's bassist, Hamilton (no one in the group uses a last name).
What's with the Lindbergh references?
He managed to do something that nobody else could do in a way that no one thought would be possible. He managed to fly across the Atlantic with nothing but a box of sandwiches and a compass. It's just an amazing story.
You've been on the road for more than a year now, so you must have developed some road habits.
Noble (lead guitar) really likes to have a lot of bananas on hand, Woody (drums) stays pretty quiet and reads a lot, Eamon (keyboards) likes booze and I stopped wearing shoes for some reason. It was never a problem until I went to go into Amoeba Records in Berkeley and the big fella at the door wouldn't let me in. We ended up playing there for an in-store, so he had no choice.
How did the foliage on stage start?
Most clubs are pretty stinky, so we thought if we had some fresh pine trees up there it would help out. And the idea was we could create our own little world up on stage. We sneak around service stations and go into the woods, find a nice [plant] and prune it a bit. Or sometimes we just come across them, like in San Francisco-- someone was chopping down palm trees by the hotel so we asked if we could have one.
What are your plans for getting trees into Chicago's concrete jungle this week?
There's something like four trees [in Chicago], right? So we best leave them alone. I guess we'll chop up the sidewalks and litter the rocks all around the stage. I guess that means I'll have to wear some shoes.
Cleveland Free Times, 03/03/04
For British Sea Power, the praise still hasn't sunk in
For a band that's been mentioned in the same breath as the Smiths, Joy Division and the Cure, the members of British Sea Power are incredibly humble.
"We've gotten used to it," says Yan, the band's frontman, via telephone from the U.K. "I think they're all great bands. We'd much rather be compared to the Smiths and Joy Division than to other modern rock acts. It's a compliment, really."
Bands from the U.K. are so often likened to those three legendary acts that they rarely stand a chance of living up to the hype. British Sea Power's 2003 debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, issued on Rough Trade Records, proves the comparisons to the holy trinity are totally accurate.
There's a sense of wisdom amidst the loneliness that encompasses the songs on The Decline of British Sea Power and a classic element that separates the band from its contemporaries. British Sea Power's sound is best described by Yan, who says "if rock music had been invented before 1930, then it might sound like us." But what some have perceived as arrogance and pretension on the part of British Sea Power is really unflappable confidence in its musical ability.
"I get monthly press packets that I quite enjoy," Yan says, almost laughing about the amount of praise heaped upon his young band. "There was an end-of-year poll of all the music publications in the U.K., and we finished with the seventeenth most favorite album. It doesn't really go to our head, though."
The quintet from Brighton, England, has cultivated an intellectual image to coincide with its above-average musical talents.
"It's European as much as British, and I think that gets lost in the name as much as anything," Yan says. "We're trying to find some qualities that aren't often brought up, like reading."
From record sleeves that look like book jackets, to lyrics that reference Charles Lindbergh, you'd almost expect to see the members of British Sea Power in a library before you saw them onstage at a rock club. A Precocious Autobiography - a book about Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko - is Yan's latest literary acquisition. His chief reason for buying this obscure book was because the cover picture "looks a bit like Hamilton [British Sea Power's bassist and Yan's brother]."
British Sea Power has already opened for the Flaming Lips, Interpol, Clinic and the Strokes in its homeland. It's one of many bands from the U.K. currently trying to achieve success here. The recent accomplishments of U.K. acts such as Radiohead, Coldplay and the Darkness in the U.S., might make you think we're in the middle of another British invasion. When asked about the importance of British bands breaking in the States, Yan claims that "if you're gonna do it, you get more respect. It's sort of hit-or-miss, really. There's always been scores of bands that have been huge over here but never made it in the U.S."
British Sea Power already has a firm foothold here, thanks to a successful East Coast tour in August of 2003 (before the album was even released in this country) and a full U.S. tour in October and November.
"We were quite surprised by the warm reception we received in America," Yan says.
The Grog Shop date will be the band's first visit to Cleveland. Expect to hear plenty of tracks from The Decline of British Sea Power , as well as newly recorded songs. The band recently spent time recording at a studio in the English countryside. "We're kind of demoing the second record," Yan says. "We're excited about the new material."
In keeping with the associations of its name, the band is accustomed to decorating the stage with taxidermy specimens and local flora, and often dresses in World War II-like military garb. Critics of it seemingly pay more attention to the image than the music, but Yan could care less.
"I've been happy with everything we do," he says. "It's more for the people who do get it than those who don't."
The Rise of British Sea Power
Entertainment Today, 27/02/04
The men of British Sea Power are not men of ceilings and cities. Nor, despite their name, are they men of military or industry. Instead, their press kit is filled with fond mentions of geography, solitary achievement and assorted beasts and birds. A half-hour, transcontinental conversation with Hamilton, the group's affable bassist/co-songwriter, repeatedly returns to men attempting to spend some QT with Mother Nature.
In a 2003 interview with MOJO magazine, frontman Yan (the band goes without surnames) imagined embarking on a fantasy coastline tour of England. They would sail from beach to beach, putting down anchor long enough to play a gig for whoever sauntered down by the seaside to check them out. In other words, just like L. Ron Hubbard and his seafaring Scientologists during their fugitive "band on the run" era, only with much better music and presumably less folly.
It may be a while until British Sea Power is playing harbor gigs in Long Beach. In the meantime, they are booked for Spaceland (Feb. 27) and The Echo (Feb. 28). If they can't bring the gigs to nature, then they'll be content bringing some nature to the gigs.
"You have to make all of them what you can," Hamilton explains. "That's basically why we bring in a little bit of foliage... to negate the typical bay of blackness, the rock 'n' roll hole."
The "foliage" he speaks of-a word that has perhaps never come up in all the band interviews I've done-is a carryover from Club Sea Power, a night in Brighton where the band used to organize and play alongside some of their hand-picked favorite peers. To spruce things up a bit, British Sea Power decorated the stage with branches and foliage and plastic birds. The subsequent atmosphere turned out to be a special one, so it's been boxed up and taken on the road.
For all the band's eccentric leanings, then, it would figure that they would be an electronic or avant-garde group of some sort. Instead, last year's The Decline of British Sea Power was full of giant guitars and tightrope vocals, inspired by the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, David Bowie and the Pixies. Singles "Remember Me" and "Carrion" gave audiences a glimpse of the band at their most grand and unabashed. Like David Byrne before him, Yan is capable of infusing high drama into even the most cryptic of lyrics. Rather unlike Byrne, though, Yan also has a penchant for brash proclamations ("I will not walk half-deceased/I believe bravery exists"). Sometimes it's hard to know how seriously the band takes themselves, but it's clear that they never pander to the wink-wink sort of retro irony that is pervasive in today's rock 'n' roll.
"We call it 'two-car garage,'" Hamilton says of the garage rock redux that still has the majors and MTV swooning. "Julian Cope used to call his band a two-car garage band, but he meant it in a good way. We adapted it into a designation for the lesser manifestation of this revival. The original garage rock was kids in America trying to do the Rolling Stones or the Beatles and failing in a brilliant way." Whereas the new edition, he continues, is simply the posh pretending to be something they're not.
That's not to say, though, that Hamilton doesn't see some kindred spirits out in the musical mainstream. "The White Stripes are impressive. He's just talented, Jack White. He's like a soccer player who can just beat people at will."
Other bands have made more of a direct impression on British Sea Power, who have already had the opportunity to tour with the likes of Interpol, Pulp and the Flaming Lips. The latter-who perhaps are authoring the modern book on how to create a captivating live environment-seemed to make a definite impact.
"We've been incredibly fortunate to play with bands that we actually think are good," Hamilton says. "And they're bands that have all been extremely interesting and friendly characters. It was a real pleasure to tour with (the Flaming Lips) in many ways. They were incredibly pleasant. After the second show we played with them, we turned up at sound check to find them sound checking by playing an instrumental of ours called 'Heavenly Waters.'
"Wayne Coyne was very keen to give us kind of farcical or avuncular advice," he continues. "I actually fell off the stage a couple times and he was advising me, 'You can't carry on like that, man, or you'll end up like that Christopher Reeve dude.' So that was solid advice: don't fall off the stage."
Even if Hamilton and his bandmates manage to keep themselves confined to the stages of Spaceland and the Echo, fans can still expect high-energy shows in the hour-long range. The set list will be focused primarily on tracks from The Decline of British Sea Power, which was the 17th best album of 2003 according to HMV Records' "Poll of Polls," which calculates a mathematical average of every end-of-year list published in Britain. The Sunday Times, meanwhile, called them "the best band in Britain." This will be the band's third trip to North American soil, but their most comprehensive tour here to date.
While Hamilton says there hasn't been a discernible difference between the reception from European and North American crowds, he notes that the band does have some unquenchably faithful fans back in Britain.
"In Britain, we do have some particularly keen audience members who go to great lengths just to see us. It quite astonishes me how far they will travel to see us. They'll travel to America or to Japan from Britain, which is quite bewildering to me. It's quite an honor."
As the band's reputation continues to grow, they will surely continue to strike a chord in the hearts of rock lovers, non-conformists and intelligent misfits everywhere. The band's "Spirit of St. Louis" is a joint tribute to Charles Lindbergh and James Osterberg (Iggy Pop). Osterberg has influenced countless musicians, of course, but the famed aviator is a stranger inspiration. Hamilton talks admiringly about Lindbergh's stubborn single-mindedness; piloting a plane that came partly from his imagination, defying the odds with little to keep him company beyond a sack of sandwiches.
"He also had some unfortunate enthusiasms for the Third Reich," Hamilton adds dryly. "We like his aviation, but not some of his enthusiasms."
The name "British Sea Power" is capable of conjuring up some rather disturbing visions of imperialism on its own. But that, of course, is precisely the point.
"It's a name that's meant to be both ridiculous and magnificent at the same time," Hamilton says. "British Sea Power is kind of a historical term, so naming yourself after 500 years of history is a silly thing to do - and a good thing to do, we would argue." He cites Franz Ferdinand as a band employing a similar tactic. "That's a name we feel kin to. Franz Ferdinand, the archduke, was assassinated in Sarajevo, which started the First World War. It's the same thing. They named themselves that because it's a ridiculous idea that in 10 years time no one will think of Archduke Ferdinand. They'll think of a pop group."
Conceptually, the songs on The Decline of British Sea Power-begun by either Hamilton or Yan and then fleshed out with the entire band -are modeled loosely on the mood of landscape artist J.M.W. Turner's body of work. It's a "heroically daft" idea, says Hamilton, and it's not a parallel that many listeners would notice on their own. Once sent down that direction, though, the resemblances emerge. Turner's landscapes allowed the artist's romantic abstractions to seep into the facts of the geography. He was drawn to seascapes and shipwrecks, storms and natural disasters, and eventually ended up as a recluse.
Turner's dying words were purportedly, "it is through these eyes, closed forever at the bottom of the tomb, that generations as yet unborn will see nature." At the beginning of this year, British Sea Power gathered at a house in (appropriately) the middle of the woods to start work on a follow-up album. They made an impact on 2003, but whether they will make an impact on unborn generations remains to be seen. In any case, such lofty sources of inspiration should be an asset to the band's developing craft.
But just as important as knowing where you want to go is knowing where you want to avoid. After discussing some more kindred spirits of British Sea Power-from Franz Ferdinand to Electric Soft Parade to the Cooper Family-the conversation is briefly turned toward bands on the other end of the spectrum.
"Nickelback - they're a band of a peculiar kind, aren't they?" Hamilton asks. "They do what they do. We played a show with them in Germany - they had a lot of fireworks. They actually had a drum roadie playing secret drums behind the stage on certain songs to make a bigger snare sound. They're real throwbacks, aren't they? I wouldn't even particularly criticize them because what they do is so far removed from what we think about. It was really quite fascinating. They had a lot of guitars, too. I think they had 20 guitars."
Q+A with British Sea Power
Since England is the last nation that still supports our oil hungry meddling, you should consider it your civic duty to embrace and celebrate British Sea Power. Although their grasp of United States Geography is tenuous at best (they kept asking how close Lawrence is to Kansas), these single-named chaps are riding the waves on a worldwide hype battleship. HMV Records called them the 17th Best Band in the World, and Time Out London Magazine says they're the Best Live Band. Ever? In London? We don't know, but listening to them is a personal freedom that you should enjoy before it goes the way of the right to privacy. Lawrence.com spoke with Hamilton at 11am Central Standard Time/5pm Greenwich Mean Time, about shrubbery, the Bay City Rollers, and those damned French.
Your new record, "The Decline of British Sea Power" is receiving universal praise. I'm looking at the HMV Records "Poll of Polls 2003," which named you the "17th Best Band Ever to Walk the Planet" or something (17th Best Band of the Year, actually). Is that right?
British Sea Power: Pretty much so. Perhaps not quite.
"The 17th Best Band..."
(interrupts)...to look like they're half awake" I think.
Outkast was voted No. 1 in that poll. Can you explain the popularity of Outkast. 'Cause I don't get it.
I quite like Outkast actually. Particularly I like one record on their album of the two, The Love Below, quite a bit.
That's the one B.B. King likes too.
That kind of makes sense. I guess it's a bit more "B.B. King" than the other one.
British Sea Power's live presentation is becoming the stuff of legend with the shrubbery and taxidermy so forth. Do you worry about wildfires breaking out onstage?
Yeah. Perhaps a nice bushfire could only add to the proceedings; keep you warm if it was on a cold night. We carefully select nothing too dry and tinder-like. I guess we have to watch ourselves in America. What was the name of that heavy metal band who had the terrible problem with the fireworks?
Great White, who were more white than great.
Yeah. We've sort of wondered how long we'd have the trees onstage now, and maybe there will come a day when we have something else. It was something that we just started doing at a place in Brighton. It's obviously incredibly cheap and easy to carefully prune a few branches on the way to a show. It just looks, and sometimes smells, quite nice. People seem to like it.
That'll be welcome at the Bottleneck.
Are there many trees around Kansas? I've never been to the midwest of America before.
There are many trees.
So we'll be all right.
But British people aren't allowed to cut them down, I'm afraid.
We'll have to bring them across the state border, then.
Or find a Texan to cut them down for you. We'll let Texans do anything in this country. So you live in Brighton. There's a Stray Cats song that states, "There ain't a goddamn thing that the cops can do, there's a rumble in Brighton tonight." Is this sort of disregard for law enforcement typical of the U.K. citizenry?
Well, the Stray Cats would know. You can take their word as gospel. Brighton. It's not a rough town in general. It's known for being quite mellow and slightly bohemian perhaps.
And loaded with retirees, I'm told.
... The English always like to go to the sea at the end of the day, which is, of course, what we've done, prematurely, getting in there early. We've got our lawn chairs set up already.
Besides the accents and lederhosen, how do European audiences differ from audiences in the U.S.?
To be honest I wouldn't say there's a vast difference. Fan audiences have quite take to things most places. People who don't like us, I think, are the French, which is maybe understandable because they're not keen on British things, or indeed, American things, in general at the moment. So we haven't done fantastically well in France to date. But next year it's the anniversary of the Battle of the Trafalgar, Nelson's great victory over the French Navy in 1805, so we might have to impose our will on the country if they aren't going to take to us by other means. But audiences in America have always been good, and across Europe they've been pretty good. The only time we've toured Europe with any depth at all is when we did about five weeks there with Interpol. That was generally pretty good.
I think our two countries have to stick together at this point. On a scale of one to, say, 14, how odd are you guys?
I'd say, well, not particularly odd on a scale of the way bands should probably behave, really. The idea that we're eccentric-we don't mind that. We don't think of ourselves as eccentric. We don't walk around wearing frock coats in day to day life or anything. It just seems if you make a little effort it goes a long way and people think it's-even in the year 2004, the idea of putting a few trees onstage, or branches-people take it to be a great avant-garde gesture. ... It's just making a slight effort, really. One thing, the owls are just plastic decoy owls, which makes it kind of even less remarkable, but they look quite imposing onstage. We like having a-we've just got an owl and a peregrine falcon is what we generally have, which is kind of the king of birds, really.
So no former pets or band members propped up onstage with you?
No, but it's one for the future, perhaps. Our guitarist has-not wishing to tempt fate-our guitarist has got a dog called Wesley. It's just a terrier which is getting on a bit. So perhaps-It's got to come to us all-so perhaps Wesley can serve after his sad demise, but we hope that's years off yet.
I'm waging a one man war against the term indie-rock, since so-called indie-rock bands simply do not, and cannot, rock.
We're not ones to take great offense if we're called indie-rock. Although it's a kind of nebulous and underwhelming thing to be called. We realize that we must have utility in this world, and for your average dear old lady navigating Wal-mart perhaps-if she were to know we were indie-rock, we'd kind of feel flattered that she knew that much about us. But it's a bit of a mealy-mouthed term, isn't it? It's not the sort of thing you can run to the ramparts, saying, "We are the paragons of indie-rock."
I'm considering "Bunny Music" as a replacement.
We'll try and do similar. We like to think that we can be reasonably forceful.
Your drummer-Is his name Wood or Woody?
He's called Wood, which is his surname, but he's generally known as Woody.
Is he the same guy that was in the Bay City Rollers?
Which one was Woody? The blonde one?
No, that was Derek.
Woody was the very very small one. But he's not in your band? It's not the same guy?
Well, he's kept it quiet. They're all child molesters, aren't they, the Bay City Rollers? They're always in the news over here. Various members are being investigated for, you know, "bad things."
Yeah. But Woody's a good name for a drummer. It's quite literal-minded. It's what he holds in his hands.
I've heard his drumming style is indeed sort of wooden, except for his arms.
Right. He has a very sort of fixed posture. He's kind of slightly distracting, in a good way, the way he's very intent.
Your nautical interest seems pretty consuming.
Some of us more than the others. In Britain, you're never far from the sea. It's a difficult thing to avoid, really.
So when the Labor Party had battleships in Bournemouth Harbor, were you tempted to set up and play a show there?
Were they real battleships or was it the game?
I think it was actual ships.
Oh, now I'm with you. Not strictly battleships, perhaps-a smaller craft of some kind. A destroyer, perhaps. ... The battleship's a bit bigger. That rings a bell. Security measures, in the case of some sort of suicide rowing boat forcing its way in.
They seem to take their naval responsibilities more seriously in Bournemouth than Brighton. Any thoughts of relocation?
There's no dockyard or anything in Brighton. It's very much pleasure crafts and weekend sailors, no proper seadogs around there really. We have been approached by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which we found quite pleasing. ... They're having a big thing, which is "Year of the Sea," which is sort of the 200 years since the Battle of Trafalgar, basically. We've been approached to be the musical element of this celebration, which will obviously endear us to the French even more.
Your music seems wildly inappropriate for such an occasion.
They were talking about attracting a younger audience. The National Maritime Museum is not that frosty. They've got a lot of artwork there. Some of it's been done recently. It's not all old portraits and things. ... They're talking about letting us do a brief tour by ship around the coastline, stopping off to do a concert then getting back on the craft to go to the next town.
Let's hope it's not just a barge. Maybe it'll have a roof. That would be good. And electric power.
That way we don't have to row.
Young Men and the Sea
When foreign bands face the notion of hitting the American highways for a tour, they look at the obvious concerns: Transporting instruments through international travel, dealing with culture shock and the potential for homesickness and the grim reality of trying to blip on the pop-cultural radar of a country with millions of people scattered across most of a continent. It's a pretty daunting affair by anyone's standards.
British Sea Power stares down those conventional worries as well as a list of unconventional trials when the Brighton, England, outfit returns to America next month for its first coast-to-coast tour of the Land of The Free. They'll have to locate bushes from which branches are clipped and brought on stage. They'll have to manage traveling with a wardrobe that includes scarves, boy-scout style sashes, pieces of discarded naval uniforms and, of course, the most talked-about pith helmet in rock'n'roll history. Worst of all, the five-piece will keep its trademark stuffed-and-mounted bird in a closet in the homeland.
"We won't bring our bird to America, unfortunately. I don't think he can get through. They'll think he's a terrorist," deadpans bassist Hamilton.
The notion of get-ups that seem scrounged from Paul Revere and the Raiders and General Pershing's yard sales, a stage littered with shrubberies and, for lucky fans in the United Kingdom, a perfect taxidermy bird, may sound like British Sea Power (BSP to the initiated) is an act that relies on gimmicks like Halliburton relies on Oval Office favoritism. If so, you obviously haven't crossed paths with the band's formidable debut, The Decline of British Sea Power (2003, Rough Trade). The one-name band members (singer/guitarist Yan, guitarist Noble, bassist Hamilton, drummer Wood and keyboardist Eamon) tear through a concoction that draws on everything from Joy Division's ice-age desolation and The Smiths' pouty guitar figures to the scorched-earth rock revivalism of The Strokes and Vue. Sometimes the mix is as volatile as a meth lab, with roaring guitars and punching dynamics that dismiss the notion of easygoing British rockers ("Apologies to Insect Life"); others, it's a slow, almost morbid jaunt through a sinking feeling of gray-skies clinical depression ("Fear of Drowning").
Amid the squall of guitars and roller-coaster rush of fast-again-slow-again pacing, The Decline of British Sea Power also features literate lyrics and sharp themes that prove there's more to the band than its idiosyncratic style and stage presence. Songs check everything from Fyodor Dostoevsky's tomes and the Trojan War to claustrophobic mini-psychoses. Most amazingly, the hit on the the non-awkward use of the phrase "Brilliantine mortality" as a chorus in "Carrion." By all means, BSP's career encompasses worlds more than just oddball wardrobes and a stage setup that could be sponsored by the National Geographic Society, but listeners latch onto the obvious: There's sure to be some murmurs about the absent bird onstage when the act hits the States. Hamilton isn't worried that the act's taxidermy sidekicks will overshadow his band's music, though.
"We have him up there for a reason, so people are bound to talk about them," he says. "I think they create worlds, atmosphere for the shows."
In fact, creating worlds may be BSP's modus operandi more so than anything to do with its outfit choices, its nearly rabid stage show (the act's known for throwing guitars and letting Eamon whip out a military-style marching drum and prance madly about the stage) or even its feathered stage companions. Most every other act in the world meets its audience midway with an easily decipherable look, sound and attitude all learned from carefully studying 50 years' lessons in rock history. Worse still, many more succumb to lowest-common-denominator stupidity and (yawn) follow formulas to a T. British Sea Power, however, doesn't mess around with any of that: Either you get it, or you don't.
Although you can't throw a pith helmet at The Decline of British Sea Power without hitting an allusion to Joy Division or The Smiths, BSP is more than a gang of revisionist new-wave rockers a la Interpol or The Rapture. Unlike most modern acts, British Sea Power comes out of left field with a concept that extends far beyond its songwriting. Using its musical heritage as building blocks, BSP combines its beguiling stage presence and bookworm mentality to craft a monolithic image, a notion of a band that's entrenched in a way of life like The Clash was to unemployed squatters or Nirvana was for flannel-clad Hessian-punks from the Pacific Northwest. Only this time around, BSP takes the Ziggy Stardust route and becomes musical epic heroes of a lifestyle that exists only in its members' heads.
"It's just the way we portray it, and it helps. It can be quite confusing because it's five people all with different worlds," Hamilton laughs. "It's good when people have the same ideas and it comes together. We just go about it in a basic way, just getting together and seeing what comes out."
Every pearl of fantastic whimsy has a grain of reality that seeded it, however, and BSP builds its idiosyncratic persona from the countryside that surrounds its South Lakeland and Yorkshire stomping grounds. Days spent tromping around the outdoors, shooting short films and, eventually, making music in the verdant lands around their homes soaked into the band's artistic process. Like the Brighton countryside, a mysterious, almost primeval atmosphere permeates the band's music and image.
"The place we grew up was an awe-inspiring place. I guess that kind of did something to us," Hamilton gushes. "School wasn't too much there, so we'd just walk around the countryside. I don't know how to explain it, really. It's just the way you grew up. It's a really nice place."
Of course, the universal inspiration - boredom - also played heavily in British Sea Power's formation. After all, there's only so much outdoorsy strolling a fellow can do before you've got to find a creative outlet for your time.
"We didn't really have much else to do at the time," Hamilton admits. "We were living together and first we started making films and messing around. Then we built a little studio and it just sort of carried on then, hoping to get better. We kind of learned from each other. We all liked different stuff, but we really wanted to try something new. It makes life lively."
Beyond the band's upbringing, its ties to Britain's legacy of gray-skies rock is the other worldly influence upon its sound. While BSP borrows some of the icy-heart intensity of the best Joy Division tracks and lurks in shadowy corridors built by The Cure and The Smiths, it's clear the band isn't just revisiting its record collection, but taking it into the future. One spin of The Decline of British Sea Power ought to make that obvious for anyone who isn't looking to bag a cheap and easy comparison.
Of course, cheap and easy is where it's at for many listeners, so the Joy Division analogies dominate much of the coverage devoted to the band that isn't wound up about its unusual appearance. Those tendencies toward revivalist comparisons end up puzzling the act more than the hubbub over its stage togs.
"We're still young, so maybe it's just the way we were brought up on it," Hamilton says. "I find it a bit strange. I see us as making something new, really; otherwise we wouldn't be bothered to do it. I think people like to look at the past, like to think it's coming back again. They enjoyed that time or whatever. It's fair enough.
"I guess they first see a band and compare it something they've seen before. It's impossible not to. It's good when they see a bit of new life and other people are just enjoying it for what it is."
Nonetheless, for many it comes down to the unknown pleasures of a stuffed bird. As large of a shadow that Ian Curtis' gravestone unfairly casts over BSP's music or the focus on stage props rather than the vision they represent can be a problem, the British boys aren't too worried about an image problem, as they're all parts of the band's expansive persona.
"It's all the same. It gets people interested in us," Hamilton explains. "If they are interested in them, they'll look into the other side."
The Power and the Passion
Heavily Hyped British Sea Men Dazzle With Decline
Let's hope the members of British Sea Power don't let a bit of good press go to their heads. The Brighton, Englandbased art-rock band has certainly received its share of glowing notices for its cheekily titled debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power. The Guardian called the disc "startlingly audacious", while New Musical Express praised it as "an intriguing and frequently dazzling debut record". Sunday Times critic Dan Cairns went so far as to declare British Sea Power "the best band in Britain".
Eamon sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On whether or not the Pixies reunion excites him:
"Oh yeah, yeah, completely. I just read today that they're playing over here, but I rang up for tickets and they've all sold out. The Pixies were the first band I ever saw. The first big band. It was their Doolittle tour, I think. I was 13. I went with my older brother. He'd seen them on their first tour, so he piled me into the Doolittle tour gig. That's when rock 'n' roll first took me, seeing the Pixies."
On Club Sea Power, the offbeat variety nights of rock 'n' roll, bagpiping, 18th-century hosiery, and quirky theatricality the band hosts occasionally in Brighton:
"Rather than just seeing who's the new cool band and what leather jackets they're wearing this week, we decided to make it a night where you could go and have a completely different experience to what you'd expect from an indie band."
On putting on a full-spectrum show:
"We feel like people go to gigs with ears and eyes and noses, and so it should be a sensory experience rather than just watching some people play music. We feel like a gig should stimulate you, really."
Not everyone has been so kind. Thanks in part to its eccentric image--the quintet dresses up in Royal Navy uniforms circa 1917--and singer-lyricist Yan's penchant for literary allusion, British Sea Power is often pegged as difficult, impenetrable, and hopelessly pretentious.
"We had loads of bad reviews at the start," admits keyboardist Eamon, reached at his Brighton home, where he's just popped in from the local pub. "People really hated us. So the good reviews that we've had subsequently have been kind of weighed up. We don't really take it that seriously. Anyway, it's pretty flattering to get good reviews. It's pretty nice. But it's kind of flattering to get really awful reviews as well. It's been kind of odd, our relationship with critics. They hated us to begin with, then they liked us, so they're obviously going to hate us again."
Critics haven't been the only haters. The band relishes the memory of a record-label talent scout who, in marked contrast to Cairns's opinion, called BSP "the worst fucking band in the country". Fortunately, Geoff Travis didn't think so. The Rough Trade records boss, mostly known in recent years as the bloke who discovered the Strokes, was sufficiently excited by British Sea Power to sign the band to the label that launched such acts as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian.
Not a bad turn of events for a weedy lot of mono-monikered lads from the middle of nowhere. Eamon, in fact, is a Canadian by birth. He was born in the mining town of Stewart, B.C.; his father is from Nelson and his mother is from Salmo. Yan and his bass-playing brother Hamilton grew up, along with drummer Wood, in England's rural Lake District. The band formed while those three were living in Reading in 1999, when guitarist Noble came onboard. To hear Eamon tell it, there isn't really much of a music scene--or any other kind of scene--in Reading, so the four original members of BSP did what any aspiring young musicians would do if they found themselves mired in a no-fun city: they left. "It started to germinate in Reading, but when everyone moved to Brighton, that's where it really kicked off," the keyboardist says. "Brighton's got quite a good structure of places to play and bands to sort of spark off. So it was in Brighton that it really sort of jelled."
Eamon was the last to be drafted. In fact, he didn't sign up until after The Decline of British Sea Power was completed, but he shares his bandmates' musical passions. "We all listen to the same stuff: Sonic Youth, the Pixies, the Fall, Julian Cope," he says. "And we've just been turned on by a band called Broken Social Scene. They're from Toronto, and we're awestruck by them. They're an amazing band."
Perhaps we'll hear traces of Canada's favourite indie-pop supergroup next time BSP enters the studio. This time around, however, the group has synthesized its formative influences in a most convincing fashion. The indelible imprint of the aforementioned Pixies is evident on "Apologies to Insect Life" and "Favours in the Beetroot Fields", which find the band chugging along with guitars set on Annihilate while Yan howls like Black Francis caught in a leghold trap. Elsewhere, British Sea Power effortlessly conjures up the fever-dream melodrama of Echo and the Bunnymen, another English band that favoured surplus-store fatigues and combat boots.
Unlike the Bunnymen, British Sea Power doesn't drape its gear in camouflage netting when it plays live. Then again, it has been known to dress the stage in full woodland drag, complete with tree limbs and stuffed birds. When he's not fixing the audience with a brand of thousand-yard stare not seen since Ian Curtis walked among us, Yan has been reported to break into manic gymnastics routines during songs. For his part, Eamon won't speculate as to what might transpire when BSP plays its first Vancouver show on Monday (February 23).
"I'm not sure. We never know what's going to happen at the end of a gig. That's what keeps us going, really, because each gig's been quite different to the previous ones. That makes us happy, at least. Hopefully there should be some twigs, some local foliage on the stage," he says with a soft chuckle. "That's about all you can expect."
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Filter Mag, 17/02/04
I first met British Sea Power slouched over cheap pints of ale, smoking roll-up cigarettes in a chain-brewery pub whose clientele was predominantly dread-locked travellers, Goths and aged rockers. It was the launch night of a local, non-profit promotions company, and I'd been told British Sea Power were a bit special. They were incredible. Spindly and energetic, they scuttled manically around the stage, playing angular rock and psychedelic folk.
My next experience was a few months later at a monthly night BSP put on, Club Sea Power. It hosted a fine array of local talent and a ritualistic performance by the band themselves. That night was always full of people in sailor outfits, indie kids and middle-aged men with pipes; again I was blown away by their explosive performance and Yan, the lead singer's laser guided stare. Only a few months later they were signed to Rough Trade.
So will British Sea Power change the world? Will they be one of those cult bands that future generations cite as influences and providers of epiphanies? Their obsessive travelling fan base, "The Third Battalion," would argue fervently that they already have. In 2003, they played three sold out US tours, a sold out UK tour and The Decline Of British Sea Power - bombastic pop drenched in poetic lyricism and menacing guitar lines - made every British music journalist's top 20 albums of the year.
But the band remains silent. For every "Remember Me" that assaults the senses and suggests the band are confident rattlers of the rock 'n' roll genre, there's a "Blackout" that paints a truer depiction of the band - quiet, contemplative, reclusive. And they're a band in transition. Currently locked away in the tiny village of Polegate, within the heart of the Sussex downs; they're renting a large barn-house to record material for the next album. As my cab winds through the endless country roads into unnerving darkness, only the steam rising off the fields remains visible; it's the perfect introduction, a "Welcome to British Sea Power Country." It's silent, still, and infinitely dark.
The prospect of talking to them is bizarre, I've never read an interview with the band, never seen them on MTV2 mid-festival season, yet I've heard other media types talk of them endlessly. "They sound like Joy Division." "They sound like David Bowie." "They're oh so English." It seems they're the music press' favourite unknown entity, but I got the chance to see what Noble (lead guitar), Hamilton (bass) and Eamon (keyboards) actually think about themselves and their music.
If you don't mind me starting right at the beginning, do you think you could talk about the first band, or song, that provoked an interest in music?
Noble: Salt 'N' Peppa, "Push It." That was the first record I bought. I thought it was a pretty good song.
Eamon: Tracey Ulman's "They Don't Know About Us," that was class.
Noble: My granddad was a big influence on me. He used to play the piano. He can't play anymore as he has really bad arthritis, but he used to be a really good piano player and entertained the troops during the [Second World] War. As a kid I'd hum him a tune, like the A-Team or the Muppets, and he'd play is straight off... he was pitch perfect. His hero was Charlie Kunz. This is what my Granddad sounded like [he jumps up and puts a Charlie Kunz album on, turning the interview atmosphere into a cabaret].
Hamilton: Guitars were my first influence. Collectively, Yan and me used to love all types of amps. We'd go down to jumble[yard] sales to buy tape decks and try and turn them into amps. We liked buying machines and making noises with them, and then trying to record those noises.
You toured the U.S. quite a bit last year, how were you received? Did the experience teach you anything?
Hamilton: I got the impression they thought we were quite cool. In England people like us, but they don't think we're cool.
Noble: The sexual make up of the gigs was really different as well, playing gigs in England the audience is about 60 to 70 percent male. In America it's at least half and half. In Japan the audience was about 80 percent female.
Hamilton: Generally the experience was great, though talking to the fans was a bit hard at times, but you're always gonna get the super freaks who know everything you've ever done, every chord of every song and cite endless different musical references at you in an attempt to secure a kind of confirmation that they're right about you.
Noble: There was a musical distributor who literally thought we were the second coming, and in Seattle a doorman said we sounded like a rehash of a load of '80s bands. So to be honest, the diversity of reaction was really nice.
Hamilton: I think Americans take things a bit more seriously, not that that has anything to do with our popularity, that's just the way things are over there.
Were The Shows Successful?
Noble: The shows went surprisingly well. Our first U.K. tour had us playing to audiences of about 50 to 70 people, so we thought it would be as shit out there, but we played some sold out shows, we even played to 350 people in Seattle.
Hamilton: Yeah, we were generally received really well. We were supported some really cool local bands.
Eamon: The Ordinary Citizens were great.
Noble: They're gonna' play with us in San Francisco at the Noise Pop festival.
Hamilton: San Francisco is a lovely city. But there was a record shop that wouldn't let me in just because I wasn't wearing shoes. It's my choice not to wear shoes so it's not as if I can sue them...
Noble: Yeah but sueing people is big business out there if you know how.
Hamilton: Well I just had to wait outside, so it wasn't a completely perfect experience.
What about geographically? Did you see much of America itself?
Hamilton: We saw the Niagra falls, but that was a bit of a let down. I mean it was a pretty impressive amount of water...
Eamon: It's not that tall though.
Hamilton: In terms of size, it was lacking.
Noble: It was a really misty day as well, so we couldn't see it's full splendour. And we spent so much time in service stations.
Hamilton: When your whole time is spent on the road, a couple of weeks is too long and so all the service stations look the same.
Noble: And somehow the service stations there are worse than the English ones... everything's Roy Rodgers liquid cheese and hot dogs.
Hamilton: You can't just buy a normal cheese sandwich. What's worse though is that it's normal to them, so service stations are filled with truckers and fat folk. We thought we were in some Twin Peaks hell when our bus broke down and we had to spend two whole days at a service station. They had some good magazines though.
[Before the interview started, BSP played some new material, including a song called "Fat Factory," featuring Yan singing in a high Southern voice" "My mum's fat, my dad's fat, my bro's fat, my sister's fat. Fat factory, the state of the nation." It seems the impressive waistlines obviously had a profound effect on the boys during their travels. "Don't worry," Noble comforts "this isn't our song, it's for our [fictitious] side project Bobby Cunt And The Magic Formulas").
So how did it compare with Tokyo, which you flew to almost instantly after coming back from America?
Hamilton: They're completely different.
Noble: They're so fashionable out there, fashionable to the extent that they look exactly the same. For example we met these two couples, both the guys were dressed identically, even with the same haircuts, and so were the girls.
Hamilton: All the women dressed liked schoolgirls and had really short skirts.
Noble: That's the fashion out there; it's a sexual fantasy.
Hamilton: There's this magazine where all the girls are dressed like that.
Noble: It's called Sweet Dreams.
Hamilton: There's something really wrong with that if you ask me. There's a lot of prostitution out there because the girls get used to buying nice new gadgets and new things but they haven't got enough money to sustain their spending, so they prostitute themselves so they can continue buying nice things. But it's seen as entirely normal, it's not really talked about.
Noble: It's not as fucked as England though, there's little crime, and the shows were really good. There's even a tape of one show as clips were used on national television. The album's doing really well out there as well.
So how's the new material coming along? Is renting this rather remote little barn house conducive to writing good material?
Noble: This house is great. When we practiced at my house back in town we could only rehearse from 5 'til 10 in the evening, but here we can rehearse and record whenever we like here.
Hamilton: No one bothers you out here, or tells you to turn it down.
Noble: You can go with your mood as well. If you're feeling lazy you don't have to do anything, which would be impossible if you were hiring a recording studio.
Hamilton: Plus we've got more of an idea as to how to record properly. We're spending more time listening to the songs to make sure we like them. Not that the first album was thrown together, but that was always going to be the steepest learning curve.
Noble: Now we know how we sound, and we know more about sound, period. On the last album I didn't even realize what each guitar pickup did so I just kept it in the middle. Now I'm a professional.
Hamilton: I think the way we approached the last album was quite naïve. We just built the songs up, starting with drums and bass, then adding guitar, keyboards and vocals on top. But now we're recording a lot of the songs completely live.
Noble: I think what we're trying to do now is sound fresh and timeless, we're trying to avoid all the comparisons with '80s bands, as it seems a bit contrary. As far as I can see we only get compared to '80s bands because our music's a bit dark and a bit serious.
Hamilton: We'd rather sound like a '40s band.
Noble: I think the next album will sound more like a soul record.
Hamilton: We want to record an album with danceable, repeated bass lines.
Noble: An album you can put on and listen to all the way through in one go, but if you want to listen to it more carefully, there would be a lot to reward the listener.
Hamilton: Now we're just recording whatever, listening back you hear certain takes that have something nice about them, something magical. So we're developing on those moments, playing them and building on those moments where it all works for a few seconds, and hopefully by the end we'll have an album.
Five Questions to Yan
Hi Yan, where are you right now and how are you doing?
I am currently sat at the feet of the Long Man of Wilmington, recording answers for you on my antiquated dictaphone which I also use to record the sounds of weather and animals in the style of Eric Simms. Like a pig in mud.
Can you tell us shortly when and how did the band get started?
Spring 2000 AD. A mutual love of over trouser mountain socks led first to explorations of the local countryside and then to each others record collections.
When people talk about BSP they name Bowie, the Pixies, Joy Division. Who is your biggest influence?
A little known song writer called Geoff Goddard who worked with legendary producer Joe Meek. I was fortunate to share the task of scrubbing pots and pans with Geoff on many an afternoon several years ago.
It seems like there is a concept behind your beautiful record covers, whose idea/concept is it?
The designs are all appropriated book sleeves. Mostly decades old it seemed to big a shame to let these beautifully modern designs fade into history. I guess it was mostly my idea.
Your last tour was excellent, from the music to the visuals, what shall we expect next?
My personal top tip would be to check us out on a full moon and you may see parts of the official fleet reserve even his mother doesnt see nowadays. Rumours of a lesser spotted Grizzly bear are also abound so be prepared to take your life in your hands.
Wessex Scene, 16/11/03
The Edge enlists with British Sea Power to discover the roles of moths and Jamelia's bottom in their charm offensive
For those of you who think that national treasures exist only in stately homes and various museums around this great country of ours, British Sea Power will prove otherwise. For those of you who consider owls, herons and foliage to be the last untainted bastion of Bill Oddie-like Nature freaks, British Sea Power will make you think again.
They are a group not afraid of dressing in submariners' uniforms and singing about 'brilliantine mortaliy' with plastic owls perched poetically on their amplifiers. In a few hours the band will take the stage in front of a packed house*, but first there's the small matter of the interview. In a box room. In the dark. With Star Trek on the TV. It gets weirder, I assure you. Unfortunately as we begin it becomes clear that both Yan (lead singer, guitars, thousand yard stare) and Hamilton (bass, crown of leaves) have both been puffing on the old magic dragon, and will play very little coherent part in the proceedings. Noble (lead guitars, bird-watcher), on the other hand, seems surprisingly normal and willing to talk. So, Hamilton, tell us about playing on Jools Holland...
"Well, Michael Stipe did salute our bass drummer!" Now there's something you don't hear every day. What did it feel like to see your bandmate take a salute from the daddy of MOR rock? "It felt good. I'm not really into REM though. In the jam at the beginning we played with [legendary blues artist] Buddy Guy and Jamelia." What the hell did Jamelia do? "She just wiggled her arse. Not very musical, I suppose."
Quite. As the day's failing light trickles limply through the room's one tiny window, there is a communal sense that we might be trapped in this dingy interview hellhole for quite some time. A light-hearted question, it seems. is in order. So what kind of a person comes to a BSP show? "Everyone from rugger boys to, um, men with one leg." There's an uneasy pause as the band stare at me with hollowed-out eyes, daring me to laugh. I crack up and so do they, explaining that they seem to attract a hugely diverse audience. It's not surprising, seeing as both their music and their live shows have the reputation of being unpredictable, loud and incredibly odd, more of which later. "At one show in Cambridge", chips in Noble, "this old woman who looked like she'd been locked away for a while turned up with an old cake in a bucket. It was stale and all the icing had fallen off. We didn't eat it."
I should explain before we go on a little bit about British Sea Power. Even if you've never seen them live you will probably know that their onstage set includes an owl, a plastic heron and a shed load of trees and leaves. Ground Force, however, this ain't, and there's certainly no room for Charlie Dimmock's pendulous assets or Alan Titchmarsh when you realise just how bloody brilliant this band really are. Purveyors of some of the most original and intelligent rock music around at the moment, BSP draw on influences ranging from Joy Division to The Cure via The Smiths and, um, John Betjeman. In short they're Brighton-based oddballs doing something away from the mainstream that actually has the potential to influence it. Just don't mention society.
"Society is strange" decides Noble, with an odd smile. "I don't see why people always flock to cities. Everyone wants to look like someone else. That seems strange." So do they feel part of all that? Playing songs about Liberace and moths onstage each night whilst wearing Edwardian tennis gear and WW2 winter camouflage must give them some sense of a degree of separation, surely? "Yeah, but you're always a part of it, aren't you?" decides Hamilton, his dilated pupils darting up at me momentarily before returning to stare into some distant space. "You can never escape society." But, it would seem, you can get away from it for a while. I remind the band that they kicked off a recent tour by playing The Scillonian Club on The Scilly Isles. Played in what is possibly one of the most inaccessible venues on the British toilet circuit, this show has gone down in musical folklore, with subsequent reports evoking a locals only, League Of Gentlemen style atmosphere. "A few fans did actually make it, to be fair" defends Noble, "and it was a hell of a gig."
Bassist Hamilton has the unnerving habit of staring at the centre of my forehead whilst slurring his answers, and Yan seems more preoccupied with the arm of the sofa than the minor distraction of being interviewed. Noble, on the other hand, is a veritable chatterbox and seems eager to provide us with information on birds of various descriptions, their respective breeding grounds and nesting habits. It has been widely reported in nearly all of the articles written about them that British Sea Power enjoy nothing more than a communal nature walk through the New Forest, supping on ginger beer and singing sea shanties, and to a certain extent the band play up to this. They are, however, keen to tell me that only Noble could hold any real conversation about birds - a confession subsequently proven when, in a moment of desperation, I decide to put him to the test against my fellow interviewer's keen ornithological knowledge. Myself, Yan and Hamilton can only stare at each other blankly throughout the subsequent conversation as the finer points of marsh warbler flight patterns (probably) are discussed in depth. Eventually we can continue.
I ask whether they favour personal experience as an inspiration for songwriting, or if it is just as easy and valid to write about inanimate objects? "I think radiators and chairs can be emotional objects as well, don't you? It's better if it's closer to home, though. Writing is completely a group experience that comes with a lot of thought. We've only ever written one song just before we went into the studio, and that was Apologies To Insect Life." The track Noble refers to is the punky, to-the-point crowd pleaser on debut album The Decline Of British Sea Power, and coming straight after a minute- long recording of synthesised male voices singing in perfect harmony it hits you pretty hard. From these two tracks alone the diversity and intelligence of BSP's debut is clear, and what follows is an even more intense musical journey through raging seas, dark and brooding coastlines, hovering hawk moths and wooden horses. So how do they intend to follow it up? "Well, come next year we're getting rid of all the trees and stuff on stage," reveals Noble, and the band nod in agreement.
This seems to be a popular decision, and it would appear that the band are wary of being typecast into a minority niche. Indeed, whilst they jokily profess to wanting to replace the trees with traffic cones and hard hats (Village People Power, anyone?), a stripped-down, rawer live show is a tantalising prospect. Noble sums it up well: "We'll have to see how it goes, I think.
The next record should be an interesting one, because whilst we're not going to abandon what we're doing now, we've got to move it all up a gear somehow and add something extra. Getting rid of the trees is part of that progression.'" So there you have it. A difficult and at times awkward interview, but what more could I expect from such a band? Whilst unwilling to shift up to the next gear when talking to me, they relish the prospect of updating their live performances and recorded material. As Yan and Hamilton shuffle barefooted away, only Noble remains. The tape stopped, he walks us downstairs to the Wedgewood Rooms where final preparations are being put to the trees and lighting on stage. We talk about George Orwell and his unnerving habit of asking women in bars to marry him, the fact that Yan and Hamilton aren't always as stoned as they were today, and the Rough Trade 25th anniversary party in London later on that night.
If tonight's interview proves anything, it's that British Sea Power are as diverse, confusing and unique in conversation as they are in music. Noble and the rest of his compatriots are a band with a strong identity that will undoubtedly translate well as time goes on, and whilst many find them difficult, a little time and effort goes a long way. Like the interview today, they might make you work hard, and at times frustrate the hell out of you, but ultimately it is in their genetic makeup to entertain and bemuse in equal measures. British Sea Power - we salute you.
Where The Stars Are At
2-4-7 Music, 06/10/03
James Berry asks British Sea Power, 'Where's Your Head At?'
They're purported to have a real interest in Czech poetry and Eastern European architecture. They share their stage with an owl, a heron and a hawk (or something nearby, we're no experts). They've been supported by a family called The Cooper Family, who are really a family called Cooper. They could have just met journalists in neglected, damp North London boozers for interviews like everyone else does, instead they chose to issue Ordinance Survey co-ordinates and rendezvous with their interrogator at a site of environmental or historical interest. They're no hippies though. There's not quite enough love in their eyes. You may have heard some or all of these things mentioned before, but some things are worth stressing. And woe you if you disregard all you've heard before you've actually experienced them. I mean, their press releases makes the hairs stand up on the back on our neck, ferchristsake! That's how special they are. They also have an album called 'The Decline of British Sea Power' which is as deep as it is wide and beautiful and is released on June 2. Noble, guitars, (and possibly others) engaged with some technology during their May tour, to let us know where his head's at, roughly.
1. Where are you now and what can you see?
I am on tour in the UK at a computer machine in Warwick University. I can see a few trees, a blue sky and a few buildings and about 400 pigeon holes with paper in them.
2. What was the last thing you ate?
A vegetarian breakfast for £1.25 in the student union. A bargain. We get a free buffet on the rider, but this was too much of a bargain to pass up on. I also had an apple and a nice cup of tea.
3. What was the last thing you hated really quite passionately?
At the venue in Northampton last night, the first song the soundman put on was Nickelback. I rushed to the CD player and turned it off before I vomited.
4. What's the next piece of music you intend to buy?
The Clangers album, it's actually really good. Maybe The Thrills' album, reminds me of the good time music like Teenage Fanclub. I am going to buy all The Copper Family's albums because they're great - a family whose songs have been passed down for 200 years. Tales of tending the land, drinking ale, the good times of Old England, and walking through the countryside. I've lost my copy of the Joe Meek and the Blue Men album 'I Hear A New World'. One of the most amazing records ever (if you ignore the Pinky and Perky voices).
5. What was the last film you saw?
The Shining again for the fifth time, still scares the living daylights out of me. Jack Nicholson is a true mentalist in that film. The bus has a very limited number of films. Its full of American Pie, Animal House and South Park which is ok, but you realise that people are turning into these characters. It's scary.
6. What did you dream about last night?
Eamon dreamt about girls as always. Hamilton dreamt about being chased by a kangaroo.
7. What's the most important thing you've ever done?
To decide that it isn't important to belong to popular culture. That popular culture is a tad stupid. Respect the aged and mad folk. Embrace the ridiculous. Noble got his Chief Scout award and Chief scout challenge. He's very proud of that.
8. What one place in the world do you wish you'd never been?
Temping agencies. They are full of arseholes.
9. Denim, leather or khaki?
Leather underwear. Denim beany hat. Khaki handkerchief.
10. Any plans for tomorrow?
Relax. We are going back to Brighton for the day so I will take a trip down to the beach with a few ales and watch the West Pier burning. It's amazing that no one is trying to find out who the arsonists were, it's quite obvious that the Council have paid for some cronies to burn it so the Council doesn't have to pay for it to be taken apart by man power. There's a huge flock of starlings that roost there and the arson attacks will have burnt all the hatchlings and the new nests. Barbarians.
And Two, If By Sea
Prefix Mag, 01/09/03
Blaming the full moon was really the only thing I could do. It had only been two hours since first speaking to the guys from British Sea Power, yet I could not explain the sudden shift in character, from calm to crazed. A seemingly normal Monday night show in Brooklyn, the soft-spoken, eloquent tendencies of the Brighton, England quintet disappeared, being replaced by tambourine bashing on the head, floor rolling with a drum and flag waving with a branch (one nabbed from Central Park no less -- "Jetlagged, we woke up at seven and decided to get branches from Central Park."). There had been hints, earlier that night, of their impending actions, telling me that "crazy things happen during full moons."
But slowly, the show began to make sense. British Sea Power is not your average band, full moon or not. Their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, released by Rough Trade, gives a glimpse of the true BSP, with songs about insects and immortality. But it's the live show, complete with branches, fake hawks and herons, and helmets, that gets the audience grinning and grooving. Yan, vocalist and guitarist, and Eamon, keyboardist (the band is exclusively on a first-name basis), while taking in the Manhattan skyline, gave Prefix a glimpse of more than just their stage antics.
You are known for your live shows. What preparations are made prior to taking the stage?
Yan: Do you mean ritual kind of thing? Sometimes we hit our heads. (Laughs.) We try to make no big deal about it at all. But then sometimes, depending on the gig - if it's a stressful one or we've got some quite weird gigs -- we all get a bit changed and we all bash each other. (Laughs.)
Eamon: It depends on how many Red Bulls we've had.
What do you consider to be weird gigs?
British Sea Power (2003):Yan: At Bowery Ballroom, with Dido and Bowling for Soup. They were showing videos about Sanctuary Records - it was for independent retailers - and it was just ironic, just cheap and just horrible. They seemed like really nice people, but watching, I'd just get spasms in my hand. I was standing up on the balcony, and I just wanted start throwing things, but I was holding back because that would have been pretty rude. (Laughs.)
Are people who've only listened to the album not getting the full British Sea Power picture?
Eamon: Yeah, you definitely have to see us live to get the full picture. Because you are presenting something, and you've got to present it well. If you present a gig in a good way, then it will stay in their heads a lot longer.
Is there any reasoning behind picking this type of set-up, or is it just who you are, how you think, what you do?
British Sea Power (2003):Yan: It kind of officially started when we moved out to Brighton together - we all live around there now. We wanted to get people to come out and see us and get noticed. We put on a show called Club Sea Power, which we did once a month, and we weren't anything special. So we came up with the idea that we'd fill the whole place up with trees. That's where the trees started. And with the trees, you'd start to get this feeling when you'd come into the room. You'd know it was a normal club, you'd probably been there 100 times before, and we wanted to give the feeling like you've stepped into another world, something slightly confusing and disorienting. Nowadays, the trees are just really normal. If we don't have them, I miss them. And they remind me of home as well, so it's nice.
Who else puts on a good show?
Eamon: Flaming Lips
Yan: Flaming lips instantly come to mind.
Eamon: We did a really good tour with them. It was just superb bringing us together, just great.
Yan: You don't have to have loads of gimmicks to put on a good show. There are some people who aren't pretentious, they are just really honest, and that makes it great.
When exactly did British Sea Power become British Sea Power? Was there a moment, or did it slowly happen?
Yan: It was a slow, slowly evolving thing. We didn't actually plan on ever being a band because we all had our own things going on. My brother was making films, I used to paint and that was what I was going to do. But then when we moved to Brighton, and just decided that we were going to go down there and exploit Brighton.
And that's when it all began?
Eamon: When we went to the first gig and it was like going into a wonderful forest, it was an experience.
Yan: People think that it's quite intense now, but there were psychos at those gigs. (Laughs.) The music was probably worse, but we made up for it with adrenaline.
All the hype from the shows created a lot of anticipation for the album. Did you feel you had to prove you were more than just a live show? Did you feel this pressure when recording?
Eamon: It took a long time to record the album.
Yan: Well, it did and it didn't. We did 90 percent of it really quickly. And then we had a couple of songs that we just couldn't nail. Like "Carrion," which is our last single, and that took a while. Looking back, we should have thought that we were pressured, but we didn't really. We produced it ourselves, and we had never produced an album before. And it was only done on four-track demos and stuff. I think having Rough Trade, our label, took a lot of that [pressure] off us, because they've just been happy to just let us do what we wanted. That's the main reason we went with them.
Have you been happy with Rough Trade so far?
British Sea Power (2003):Yan: I think that they're the... the most beautiful label, and that's not a name you'd normally give to a record label. They're beautiful, the way they operate. Geoff [Travis, the label's founder] is amazing. He's got some history, everyone knows about the Smiths, but he's quiet and he just smiles and lets you get on with it. We don't even see him that much. I mean, he comes to gigs and stuff. I hear stories from all our friends in bands in Brighton and they get so much shit.
Eamon: Friends on major labels, they're just under so much pressure. [Record label executives] are telling them to cut tracks and things like this.
Yan: But then we do everything so cheap compared to most bands probably. We do everything ourselves. We don't pay designers, we don't pay video makers, and we don't have to pay producers. That probably helps.
Rough Trade, in the bio they created for you, said that British Sea Power "aims to return honor and diligence to a depleted art form." How has music become a depleted art form?
Yan: It seems like a lot of music now is similar to something like a grocery. It's like something you buy, and it's packaged up to different forms to appeal to the different groups. But it's basically just a business. So, I read about when it was being made, before we were born, and it just seems like it had such a tremendous power that it doesn't have now. Whether it's the Beatles or Joe Meek or Julian Cope or someone like that. It just doesn't seem to have that kind of basic connection that it used to have with people. It used to be a rallying focus for people, and nowadays it's...
Eamon: It's like seeing the latest blockbuster or something.
How are going to bring back this art form? Have you already?
Yan: I think it happens during individual moments. It could just be a gig, or one song, or occasionally it's when Noble goes on a mental climbing spree, which he's been trying to back off. People get so used to going to gigs and standing there and watching, and then just going home again. And you look around, and people look like they're probably thinking about something else, like what they're going to be having for dinner, or an argument they just had with their girlfriend or something like that. And for me, the best moments are when the whole room is locked into the same kind of thought, and they are all there, in the present. And it's in that moment, that's when it happens.
Have either of you ever been to a show when it's been like that. When all of the sudden everything seems to fall into place?
Eamon: The first band I ever saw was the Pixies, when I was 13 or 14, and I remember that it was stunning. That was really stunning.
Yan: I saw Iggy Pop in Leeds when I was about 15. When he played old stuff with the Stooges, like Raw Power, I hadn't seen it originally, but it seemed like it had that same power. The new stuff sucked, basically. I'm a massive fan of the guy, but he just doesn't have that same strength any more. But the old stuff does.
Who, or what, inspires your music?
Yan: We don't just get inspired by music. We could be reading a book about how Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic for the first time in a tiny plane, and he only took a compass and a sandwich with him because of the weight. There was a big thing going on, like who's going to be the first guy to do this? People tried in big planes with four engines and died doing it. And then he set off with a compass and a pack of sandwiches, and went 44 hours straight or something without sleeping, and arrived in France as the most famous man in the world at that time. So it could be that [which inspires].
Eamon: We also all grew up in villages around Britain. I grew up in West Country. Yan, Hamilton, and Woody grew up in the Lake District. Noble grew up just near the Yorkshire Dove National Park. And that inspired us, and was an emphasis on all of us, the space of the countryside really.
Is that where the whole stage setup comes in?
Eamon: We like the outdoors.
Yan: It's a cross between that and a strange David Lynch scene.
Many bands today seem to be really dumbed down, yet you've been billed as the new favorite band for the "intelligent, nonconformist listener" according to Mojo. Is that how you'd describe yourselves?
Yan: Well, apparently.
Eamon: That's the people who we are. We all love reading; we all swap books. There's Thor Heyerdahl, who crossed from South America to the Polynesian Islands in a balsa wood raft in 1946, on the Kon-Tiki Expedition.
Yan: We're big on explorers.
Eamon: Yeah, explorers.
Yan: Especially if they do it in a real good style. Like he went across on a balsa wood raft he copied from one of the few drawings they had back from hundreds of years ago. And people were telling him, professional sailors and stuff, that if you set out you're going to die, you're not going to get across in that tiny little thing. And then it was the perfect vessel. It just was different.
Different has also been a word to describe you. Or even weird. Would you agree with that?
Eamon: Are you calling us freaks? (Laughs.)
Yan: Yeah. I'd be glad to be a bit different in this world.
Have you attracted any really strange people to your shows?
Yan: Our most loyal fan base is pretty odd. There is this bloke called Captain Riot. For our last single, we individually named each one, handwritten after a different coastal feature or place, and our next single is people who have inspired us. Some of them are people we know, like Captain Riot, who comes to our gigs and has invaded the stage several times. (Laughs.) He's about 40 and works for the Council, but then he lives this other life where he comes to the shows.
Eamon: Then we also have Cathy Freeman, who has been an inspiration. She's amazing but she's unhinged sometimes.
Yan: She's just brilliant.
Eamon: We're just trying to celebrate people who have done things that are outside.
Yan: I guess it's the norm to just blend in nowadays. And it can be a bad thing.
So now that you've reached a certain level, are you not going to do the classic "sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll" thing?
Yan: Less than I used to. I never considered us reaching that level of fame. But I take my pleasures swimming. I've been getting into swimming in the ocean lately. I moved into a house by the sea, about 20 minutes away from the English Channel, and that gives more of a chance at peace than getting out of my mind on dope or speed.
Eamon: Rock 'n' roll is really good, and that's what we do.
Yan: As far as I can tell, Eamon's never lived a safe life. He hasn't changed.
Now that the album's out in the UK and is coming out in the US, what's next? What are the plans?
Yan: We're trying to do a tour of England by boat, setting off from Brighton, heading west, around the whole coast, and arriving back in Brighton.
So would each gig actually be on the boat, or would you land?
Yan: For some of them we would make the effort to go to a coastal venue, and then others we'd hopefully just pull up on the beach, put the ramps down --
Eamon: And rock out -
Yan: Rock out and go with it. I don't think there has to be an audience, but if there is one, they have to be involved as much as you can get it that way. Even if no one was there, I'd be happy to play a gig to some seagulls.
Rebecca Willa Davis
Interview with Hamilton and Noble
British Sea Power, a five-piece from Brighton, UK, are known as part performance art, part lunacy, and pure rock and roll. They are prone to demented gazes and potentially dangerous physical stage antics. But when I found them backstage at Washington, DC's Black Cat -- the final stop of their first US tour -- they looked nothing like their onstage personas. The just looked knackered. The headlining band the Libertines were loud and saucy in the next room, throwing back beers and sabotaging a fruit and cheese platter, but British Sea Power were near comatose -- splayed on tattered couches with limbs askew, eyes blurred, and Red Bull aplenty. I was surprised to find them in this condition, and delighted that they conjured up enough time and energy to talk to me for a few minutes before they took the stage, despite blackout-marred interview plans. In one beer's time I spoke with Noble (guitar) and Hamilton (bass) about gardening, trying hard, and their first impressions of America. Here's what they had to say.
So where were you during the blackout [of August 14, 2003]?
Noble: Just fucking around.
Were you in New York?
Hamilton: We were leaving for Philadelphia when it happened. We went back to New York yesterday, went out, walked around the streets. It was quite good when the lights came back on.
What did you think of it?
Noble: It was weird.
Hamilton: I think it was good for people. Made you think about when there was no electricity, what they used to do.
Did you go out at night?
Hamilton: We went out last night in New York. I was kind of hoping it would go on for a while and be a huge catastrophe. But we got to see Carlos [Carlos D. of Interpol] DJ at Lit.
Not a bad way to spend a Friday night in New York. So, can you start out by telling me where you're from, how you got together, the basic British Sea Power story?
Noble: Well, this guy [points to Hamilton] and the singer are brothers. Woody the drummer is where they're from [comes from the same home town]. I met Yan [vocals/guitar] at University.
Hamilton: We all lived together for a bit in a house in Reading. And just holed up there and knocked around.
Noble: We had a big garden. [Smiles] Tried to grow some grass.
Yeah? How did that go for you?
Noble: Well we were only there for a year, so we didn't see the fruits of it.
Yeah it takes a bit of time. I would imagine it's pretty gratifying when it um ... flowers.
Hamilton: Yeah I bet.
Noble: Have you gardened as well?
No. But I'm originally from California and I've had some friends who, um, used to garden.
Hamilton: That's all I want to do when I'm older and tired. Just have a little garden.
So why did you guys move to Brighton? It seems like it was a collective band decision.
Noble: Reading was too business orientated. Bunch of townies. Do you know what a townie is?
Noble: Yeah, just like people working then they go out on Friday or Saturday night and get drunk and try to shag. It was kind of that kind of place.
In Brighton you started Club Sea Power, a night where you play. What's different about the gigs you play here and something we'd see at Club Sea Power? At your show at Northsix on Monday you had the foliage, plastic birds, and costumes that you've come to be pretty well known for. But how would it have been different if you were performing at home?
Noble: Well, yeah, usually we choose our own bands. But we would've picked Jeffrey Lewis [the opener for the Northsix show] anyway 'cos he was great. It's good because you can just do what you want.
Hamilton: Maybe we'd do a fashion show. We do different things every month.
Is your set decoration at Club Sea Power more elaborate?
Hamilton: It's changed a lot.
Noble: We have a bunch of more birds.
Who is the bird person? Is it all of you or is there one person who's spearheading this bird obsession?
Noble: I like birds.
Hamilton: We all do. [Looking at Noble] But he's more into the names of them.
You're the ornithologist then.
Noble: Yes. I think it's cool when you see a few different ones, and you know that they are different but you're not quite sure and the more you kind of look into it then you can actually see the differences. After awhile, it's like anything, like when things are a bit foggy, then when it's clear you can see that they're different. It's obvious. Like in German they've got three names for one thing. It's like that with birds.
Hamilton: We'd like to get some sheep up there too.
Will they be plastic as well?
Hamilton: No, real sheep.
You'd have to harness them to something though, right? You don't want them messing with you while you play, right?
Hamilton: Eh, it's alright.
Noble: We'd put some earplugs in them.
That's sensitive of you to think about their ears. So what is the fate of Club Sea Power now that you're touring so much? Is it going to continue?
Hamilton: We haven't got time really have we?
Noble: No. But when we do headlining tours we can choose our own band. We're trying to bring it on tour with us, adding parts of it, more and more.
Hamilton: We're just trying to make some things special. That's all there is to it.
Hmm. Special. You've talked a lot about making things special in other interviews. I read that the reason you set up the stage the way you do is because you believe in trying hard to make every gig your best, to make them all ... special.
Hamilton: Well we'd get bored really, doing the same thing every time. It all looks the same when you walk into a black place. It's nice to have something different. And all we have really is some leaves and some plastic birds.
Noble: We think you should just try as hard as you can.
That's an unusual approach, because it seems that right now it's cool to seem like you don't care. Which is ironic when you consider how much effort a lot of bands put into trying to seem like they don't care.
Noble: Well, it's like, if someone serves you some food and does it with a smile on their face ...
Hamilton: It makes things better.
Noble: We believe that it's possible to do more than one thing at once.
Let's talk about the tour. This is your first US tour, right?
Noble: We've been here for South By Southwest.
Right, but this was your first time playing outside of Texas?
Hamilton: Yes. And it's a bit of a shock because it's most of our first times in America as well. It's been good.
Noble: There's been some strange things though. I don't know what you think but, um, we stopped on our way at a service station, and there's all these kind of burger bars. It's kind of scary.
Burger bars? You mean like along the New Jersey turnpike?
Noble: Yes. And there's just loads of junk food.
Hamilton: In England service stations are pretty depressing as well.
Noble: Really depressing.
What's depressing about our service stations exactly? The people or the fact that there's so much junk food?
Hamilton: I guess both. You get a cross section of the population, a picture.
Noble: What about all the American flags everywhere as well? What do you think about that?
I think that's a post-September 11 thing. Prior to that you didn't see as many, at least not in this part of the country. I think there's generally more national pride now.
Well despite the Irving Show being cancelled it was a pretty good tour. You played Boston, Philly, Brooklyn, and at the Bowery Showcase. Tonight DC and then what?
Noble: We go home!
What are you going to do when you get home?
Noble: Go for a long walk.
In nature, perhaps?
Hamilton: Yeah. I'll go down to a nice countryside.
Noble: It's lovely really.
Hamilton: Then we've got the festivals. Reading and Leeds.
And you're back in the fall?
Hamilton: We'll be back in the end of October I think.
Noble: And we tour Japan.
Hamilton: Then we're gonna write some new songs.
The World Will Come Around, One Day...
Drowned in Sound, 19/06/03
British Sea Power are one of those bands who seem to have sprung up on the blindside, virtually unnoticed by the governors at IPC yet revered by an increasing number of adoring fans who have thrown their Stereophonics t-shirts in the bin, choosing instead to don military gear just like their heroes.
The most remarkable thing about British Sea Power is that in the same way as their fellow Brighton-based buddies The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, their ascent has largely been down to an incessant touring schedule that has seen them play just about EVERY town or city known to man within the British Isles.
I caught up with guitarist Noble and bassist Hamilton before the final date of their latest nationwide sojourn:
Some of the songs on your album ('The Decline Of British Sea Power') seem quite personal. Was it a difficult album to make?
Noble: (laughing hysterically) I can't remember much of that now!
Hamilton: We had a pretty good time doing the songs for it...
Noble: Every bit of it that you thought was going to be hard turned out to be OK in the end. I guess that's what helps make the album so special to us... We got it all recorded in about three different sessions.
Hamilton: We actually got most of the album done in three weeks but the new single 'Carrion' took ages because we had to keep going back to the start and re-record it. We didn't quite know what we wanted it to sound like until one day we decided we were happy with one of the recordings.
Noble: The guy who engineered it also co-produced it with us. He's a Norwegian guy (Mads Bjerke) who just works 12 hours solid and has one meal a day - breakfast - and his entire diet consists of nothing but digestive biscuits! He's really skinny and you worry about him because he appears to be losing weight all of the time. I know that if I don't eat for hours I tend to get a bit ratty but Mads never lost his temper once. It must be a Norwegian trait.
Which track stands out for you on the album?
Hamilton: My favourite track from a recording point of view was 'Apologies To Insect Life' because we just did it as we would if we were playing it live, and we'd only just finished writing it a matter of days before so it was quite exciting to do because we never expected it to turn out the way it did.
Noble: I like 'Men Together Today' because it's got my little brother singing on it as well. I think 'The Lonely' and 'A Wooden Horse' stand out as well, because although they've been part of our set from virtually the start of the band's existence they still sound fresh and interesting.
The album's had pretty good reviews. Does it give you a buzz that most of the critics appear to be on your side?
Noble: We've had another good one today in the Daily Telegraph. I think we've only had one "mixed" review and that was in X-Ray magazine but everyone else has been raving about it.
Hamilton: I think it makes life a lot easier for us when you got written about in a positive way.
Noble: If it means that more people are gonna go out and hear our stuff it's got to be good. I think it would be brilliant if a band like us who like things such as birdwatching became massively successful. I mean, all the things that come with us - it's not conventional "rock star" attitude or anything - I think it would be an amazing achievement. The world would be a better place...
Do you think this could be achieved more easily if you got stations like MTV and Radio One playing your songs on a regular basis?
Noble: It has a knock on effect, like if they play your videos or your records and more people like what they're hearing then the chances are some of them may buy those records.
Hamilton: The more exposure for us, the better...
You've built up quite a devoted fan base. Do you think it has anything to do with the fact you're easier to relate to because you aren't part of some "fly by night" music scene?
Noble: It's hard to say. I mean we don't really care about whether we fit any stereotyped scene or not. Most of those bands who are part of "the scene" don't do or say anything that interesting anyway.
You seem to be permanently touring. Does being on the road ever get tiring?
Noble: We did five weeks in Europe with Interpol and then we came home for three days before starting out again on this tour, so it can get to you after a while.
How did you get on with Interpol?
Noble: We got on really well with them.
Hamilton: It ended up with all of us being like one big family - the Interpol / British Sea Power travelling circus!
Noble: Paul (Banks) was really into us. He was born in England and I think he's got some kind of deep homesickness so he liked us because we reminded him of his homeland. He often got on stage with us and played guitar during our set.
Both yourselves and Interpol share similar influences, most notably Joy Division. Do you see any similarities between yourselves?
Hamilton: I think we work together quite well but we're not really the same. I could imagine if you're a fan it would have been good to see us both on the same tour, but I don't think either band sounds anything like each other.
Noble: I think Interpol have a particular sound that carries through the whole of their album, whereas we tended to treat each song completely as its own entity. We like to try and bring different characters out in each song we do. Going back to what you were saying about Joy Division, I think they were a really good band, and I would agree with the comparisons on some of our early singles or maybe even the live show when we first started out, but now we've got so many different styles running through the album that I feel it's misrepresentative to say we sound like Joy Division. I think the main comparison between us and Joy Division is that they tried to create a mood and cared about what they said which made them special, and I hope that's what we're doing to some extent.
Going back to the characters and themes running through the album (i.e. "birdwatching"), do you consciously aim to write songs about specific events or pastimes?
Noble: No not really. We just write about things that interest us. It's not like we sit around thinking no one's written a song about "birdwatching" so we should to break the mould or anything.
Hamilton: We might get an idea from reading a book or maybe just something trivial that someone has said to us could form the basis of a song...
Noble: There's a line in 'Blackout' which goes "Watch the birds hovvering over Narrow Moor..." which is a nice little image of the Lake District. It's kind of evoking that folk music mentality when you write about the things you experience.
Two of the band originate from Kendal in Cumbria, but you're based in Brighton. Did you feel you had to move down South to get any real recognition?
Hamilton: To be honest I just wanted to move anyway. Kendal is a nice place but there's only so much you can do there. It was alright for walking around the hills in the summer but... maybe we'll go back there and retire on the royalties from our album sales! I think we actually ended up in Brighton by chance more than anything.
Noble: The good thing about Brighton is that you feel encouraged to be creative. It's quite coincidental that there are bands like ourselves, the 80s Matchbox B-Line Disaster, Clearlake and Electralene because none of us sound anything like each other or have the same influences yet at the same time we're all supportive of one another and tend to kick each other up the arse from time to time.
It must be beneficial though that it's only a short train ride from London, which surely encourages A&R men to make the effort more so than in northern outposts such as Kendal?
Noble: I don't really know. I mean to me, Brighton just breeds individuality. With us, Geoff Travis (head of Rough Trade) came down to one of our club nights and straight after seeing us he said that he wanted to put our records out. We never got any A&R types at our shows, or not to my knowledge anyway.
Do you get any pressure from Rough Trade about how and when you have to release records?
Noble: We did a gig in the Scilly Isles at the start of the tour and we got a phone call while we were over there from Geoff (Travis), and basically he said that even if we didn't sell one copy of the album, he still wanted us to make more. When a record label boss says that to you then you know he's got 100% faith in what the band are trying to achieve, so I think it would be fair to say we're under no pressure at all from Rough Trade. Our motto is the world will come around, one day...
Would you ever consider signing to a major label?
Noble: At this moment no, because I know people in other bands who are currently with labels such as Sony, and the pressure they're under to sell records or face being dropped is quite intense.
Hamilton: It's a horrible scenario where they're caught up as pawns in a business.
Noble: I know bands who've recorded perfectly good records and then because it hasn't been released to coincide with a particular trend the record labels have made them remix entire albums so it fits in with whatever's fashionable at the time.
Hamilton: We've produced this album ourselves, done all the artwork on the covers ourselves and so far all the promotional videos have been done by us. It's great to have the freedom to be able to do that.
Noble: I think it's quite obscene when record companies try to tell you that your video should cost tens of thousands of pounds because you're supposed to portray a certain image. Our first video cost us £80 and the second one cost £400 and for the new single we've done videos for 'Carrion' and 'Apologies To Insect Life' which cost us £800 for the pair. If you've got good ideas you don't need loads of money.
Hamilton: I think if a record label ever came along offering ridiculous money to make a video I'd spend it on a holiday.
Noble: I think I'd go to the Ice Palace in Switzerland or somewhere...
You tend to wear military regalia when you play live and decorate the stage with trees and stuffed animals. Why?
Noble: It's because of the fact that we wanted to be treated seriously. It's supposed to be a serious look but I think we're becoming more and more like gypsies.
Hamilton: I think it's all to do with trying to create an atmosphere.
Noble: It's good to evoke different images. When you've got the opportunity to do that, it would be a shame not to use it. Some people think it's just a gimmick but it's not...
Hamilton:... and if 'Carrion' becomes a hit single and we're asked to perform on TV shows we're going to dress up and re-enact 'The Elephant Man'!
The Grand Foliage
"It starts with love for foliage and ends in camouflage..." - 'Something Wicked'.
Been to see British Sea Power lately? Boy oh boy... their live shows, once merely a quaint eccentricity of wood and electricity, have evolved into a chilling, thrilling all-out assault on the brain - with you, dear gigger, the quarry in their crosshairs.
A BSP show is a cinematic hoot for the psychologically sturdy and a headfuck for the emotionally weak. Think David Lynch hosting a sleep-over in Kew Gardens. Think Tim Robbins guiding a Berlin-era Bowie around the set of "Jacob's Ladder". The Sunday Times last weekend called them "the best live band in Britain". BSP's official two-word response: "bloody liars".
Comparisons, like resistance, are futile. There has never been a band with so much substance. From the superficial and comedic to the strange and beautifully inspired, the modus operandi of this five-strong freakshow is convoluted and still expanding. The scary stares, the plastic birds and bits of trees, the tin helmets, the military badges, the Betjeman and TS Elliot poems, the Spitfires and the Stukas, the torn ligaments and sprained ankles, the fashion line, the gig on the Scilly Isles, the socks, the scarves, the BSP chocolate, the ornithology, Operation Lighthouse, the amateur gymnastics, the soap wrapped in road maps, the slogans "Bravery Already Exists", "Exceeding the National Average" and "All You Will Need This Winter"... all a quintessential part of the BSP DNA.
And now a final piece in the jigsaw, so to speak. A debut album: "The Decline of British Sea Power". Avance!
Monday is their D-Day. In the same week that (59 years previously) the Allies pushed into Normandy, British Sea Power will launch their first full-length assault on our unsuspecting heads. The band's itinerant crew of military jacketed acolytes, the "Third Battalion", are slathering at the bit. Some goon stuck a promo copy on eBay and it fetched £62.
British Sea Power's songwriting has already been revered as among this island's most astonishing and original. Check out the singles to date, which range from the peculiarly biographical "Spirit of St Louis" to a right-on ecological warning ("Childhood Memories") and a uniquely perceptive stomper in "Remember Me" - last year's magnificent outrage.
But, hey, as "The Decline of British Sea Power" proves, there's much more swilling around the heads of Yan, Hamilton, Noble, Woody and Official Fleet Reserve than just that.
The forces of nature - good and evil - the bravery and dynamism of history's heroes and villains, dad's war stories, the vast open spaces of northern England and the beguiling influence of a genius 60s songwriter are all part of the BSP make-up.
Bookish? Yes. Their name, the album's title and the cover art of all their releases to date have been borrowed from volumes purchased cheaply from the many secondhand shops in The Lanes, Brighton.
"I used to read biographies a lot," offers the softly-spoken voice of Yan across the pitch-black unlit space in the back of their tour bus, parked on a dirt road behind Coventry's Colosseum.
"I haven't found any good ones for a while, but I used to read them all the time. A good book will completely absorb you. A good biography gives you an insight into how someone's mind works. I like reading about people, because it helps get you motivated."
Another voice in the dark, this time belonging to guitarist Noble, adds: "What some people do in their lives is amazing, don't you think? Fucking hell... we've all got to do something like that."
Famous folk are strewn across "The Decline Of..." in varying degrees and in strange guises. It was Field Marshall "Monty" Montgomery, the victor of Alamein, who encouraged his soldiers to raise their spirits by taking advantage of "Favours in the Beetroot Fields" - a euphemism for banging a prostitute.
Nineteenth century Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is similarly immortalised in "Apologies To Insect Life", a soviet-inspired rocker that calls the Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Red army Choir to mind.
Then there's the album's closing song, "A Wooden Horse". Piano player/drum beater Eamon (aka "Official Fleet Reserve") thinks it might be inspired by imprisoned-Austrian-kid-turned-weird-genius Casper Hausen. But Yan's not convinced.
"That's probably the oldest song on the album. When I lived in Reading, before we moved to Brighton, I decided that I wanted to make a musical version of the Trojan Horse. Something we could use to somehow sneak in, establish ourselves, and cause a bit of trouble. You know."
A re-recorded version of "Remember Me" is about dying slowly. Cheers.
"That's a good thing, as long as you don't get depressed about it," offers Yan. "You reach a peak, physically, and it's quite early in life. It's a fact of death.
"That song is also about someone who died, Geoff Goddard. Noble and I worked with him in the Cedar Fields café in Reading University.
"He used to write death discs with Joe Meek. Johnny Remember Me - that was him. He was a bit odd, but I think he was probably pretty clever. The whole album is dedicated to him."
As is "The Lonely".
"He used to sit up all night in front of his plastic piano with his stereo headphones on, watching B-movies with all the lights off.
"It was a romantic image that stuck in my head. He used to take a lot of speed, I think, and he was pretty on edge. He wore the same red trousers for 20 years, maybe more. He's worth writing a song about, is Geoff."
Yan's brother, evergreen-garlanded bass player Hamilton, sings on the charming "Blackout", a schizophrenic beast that cites references to the awe-inspiring majesty of the great Cumbrian outdoors, experimenting with hyperventilation as entertainment and the ghostly apparition of a silver-clad future lady on Narrow Moor. Um... thanks.
The young Hamilton also penned the neo-classic, "Something Wicked".
"That was originally inspired by a book I read, The Shining Levels, about a guy who lived and worked in the Lake District.
"We want to write songs that give you a sense of the awe, majesty and confusion that you feel when you stand on the top of a mountain. Other things have come into that one, though, like the use of nature for evil. Nature cults, and the use of natural imagery on fighter planes and stuff."
"Carrion"? That'll be about blood, guts, JG Ballard, autopsies, lighthouses and hair gel, then.
And "Fear Of Drowning", a revamped and revitalised version of BSP's self-financed debut, could be about very bad floods in Lewes, a rowing boat with a hole in it or loss of identity in a sea of information - depending on which explanation Yan is minded to give you.
I prefer the latter - and specifically this analogy: "If you take all the classifieds out of the New York Times, there's enough type for eight average novels. And that's more information than they had in total 150 years ago or even 100 years ago."
Yan and Hamilton's father, their personal WW2 hero, tells a great story when pushed, it seems. Bits of his adventures appear on the 14-minute epic "Lately" - the album's zenith. The song also bravely tackles the impossible concept of infinity with surprising success.
Yan: "I took a really strong microdot one time when we went camping in Dorset. We did a lot of stupid stuff and had a lot of fun, and then when it got all spaced out I'm pretty sure I saw infinity. It was like a tunnel with a Dr Who effect going on. It had an understanding to it.
"That stayed in my head, and after that experience I wanted to write a song that didn't have an end, that had a never-ending guitar riff. So I did."
So what do BSP hope people will get from the album?
Noble: "It's a waste of time not to give it a good listen. People could listen to a couple of songs and ignore the rest, which would be a shame. It's really, really good. I hope people take the time to listen to it, properly."
Yan: "I hope it has the same effect as iodine - the chemical you get off the sea. You know that slightly dreamy feeling you get when you sit down next to the sea?"
Who has the "strongest legs in Pontefract?" and who sounds like a "one-armed chimp"? BSP guitarist Noble is your guide.
A collection of recorded music from both male and female players.
All proceeds to The League For Children's Pity.
1. Interpol - 'Leif Erikson'
"Hail to the magnificent Interpol. Here, the human heart is subject to extreme wind-chill factors and a big battering of Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale."
2. John Leyton - 'Johnny Remember Me'
"A Number One hit of yesteryear, this was written by the late Geoff Goddard and produced by the equally late Joe Meek."
3. Julian Cope - 'Out of My Mind On Dope And Speed'
"Garage rock sounding like it's being played by a one-armed chimp wearing a boxing glove."
4. The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster - 'Psychosis Safari'
"An invincible and international hit from the demimondaine lords of Olde Brighthelmstone."
5. Sir John Betjeman - 'The Licorice Fields of Pontefract'
"With instrumental backing sounding like Lou Reed with the Brighouse and Rastrick Colliery Band, the dear, dead Poet Laureate tells it like it is: 'Red hair she had and golden skin / Her sulky lips were shaped for sin / Her sturdy legs were flannel-sacked / The strongest legs in Pontefract'. The dirty devil.
6. Tatu - 'All The Things She Said'
"Are they really from Lesbos? Are they Lithuanian? Are they Turks? We do not mind. To write pop music as potent and intriguing as this is maybe the most difficult thing of all."
7. Neil Young - 'Through My Sails'
"Almost as pleasing to the senses as pissing in a stream."
8. Bessie Smith - 'Gulf Coast Blues'
"In the first half of the 20th century, Bessie enlivened the world with her unearthly blues and habit of battering members of the Ku Klux Klan.
9. The Streets - 'Don't Mug Yourself'
"Brilliant stuff. An improvised version of this greasy gem is a regular part of the BSP set-closing tantrum known as 'Rock In A'."
10. Pavement - 'In The Mouth A Desert'
"Pavement have melodic and lyrical content to, at least, match Mozart and Dickens."
Interview with Noble
Leeds Music Scene, 16/05/03
In a full transcription of the interview that appeared in the May 16 issue of the YEP, Andy Roberts talks to Noble - guitarist from eclectic Bowie-esque soon-to-be superstars British Sea Power about growing up in Leeds, the band's forthcoming LP and their songs that apparently should be imagined "at a lock-in knocking back pints of barley wine and ordering a nice blend of Glenmorangie and Blue Nun for the ladies"!
We hear you went to Roundhay School - what are your memories of growing up in Leeds?
I moved to Leeds when I was 13. I was taken under the wing by the Smith and Picken family and had a happy time at the 9th Northvale scouts. Burning myself and sleeping in bivouacs in Wike and making bridges was a fun time. I used to drink Thunderbird in the Roundhay Park woods and have fun in a polygamous kind of way. I first fell in love in Leeds. Ms Eade, if you're there, I'll never forget you.
Were you in any bands in Leeds before moving away? If so, do you think Leeds is a good place to be in bands and why?
I was in a band called Blind at the age of 15, we were a very good band for our age - far better than The Music. We used to play the Duchess of York and fill the place full with pissed 15 year olds, we played reasonably well and we'd all have a super time. Sadly, the Duchess is no longer with us. The Wetherspoon pub plague seems to have taken over Leeds. It seems like a riot in Leeds on a Friday night these days. My friend's brother got punched in the face for calling someone a dickhead! At least Josephs Well is going strong as a venue.
You played Leeds Festy 2002 but do you ever come back to Leeds?
Yes of course, to see my brother, my friends, mum and dad and my grandparents. My Grandad used to work at Rowntrees, and my other grandad plays a mean church organ. He can play any tune. You hum it - he can play it.
I love going to the Yorkshire Dales or Yorkshire Moors. It cleans the soul and increases one's appetite for life.
Will the date at Joseph's Well be special in any way or will it just be another date on the tour?
There will be friends and family there so I will take care to impress them. I may break my arm or play really well. All British Sea Power shows are a little bit special. For both the Leeds show and the show at York Fibbers on 19th May we will be be featuring a live video link to a bird-observation hide at Flamborough Head. We will also be showing some previously unseen footage from Heartbeat and playing a recording of John Betjeman reading his poem The Licorice Fields At Pontefract. He's a good man Mr Betjeman. You're all in for a treat. The words go: "Red hair she had and golden skin/Her sulky lips were shaped for sin/Her sturdy legs were flannel-slacked/The strongest legs in Pontefract." You wouldn't get that from that strange ape-like boy from the band The Music.
How did you end up in Brighton and in British Sea Power?
Well, firstly I studied Zoology and Psychology to try and understand the way humans and animals behave because it is frequently very confusing to me. Julian Cope once said in a song "People I see remind me of mooing like a cow in the grass". Sometimes I think he's on my side talking about the foolish folk out there fucking everything up for the world, and sometimes i think he's talking about me. I left Reading because it was a stagnant concrete shithole of commerce with no charm and moved to Brighton for the sea, countryside, ornithology, clay pipes and good times.
What is the thinking behind the stage garb and props?
If you have something that looks good, that's nice. If you have something that sounds good, that's nice. If you have both, then that's nice times two. We find it just a bit strange that people seem to think having some plastic birds and a few tree branches on stage is a radical departure in the world of entertainment. Presumably, in 1967, the same people were saying to The Velvet Underground, "Hmm, this music's rocking, but do you really have to have this strange German model bird who can't sing and what's with the films showing when you play and why do you have that weird fruit Andy Warhol hanging round?" We like the heron and the owl and the beech leaves. We hope other people do as well.
What was it like playing with Interpol in Europe? We hear Paul Banks joined you onstage to play 'The Lonely'?
Interpol are on the prowl and this is their domain. Yes, Banksy did join us to play on song 'The Lonely' in Germany, which was a very pleasant. We played five weeks and nine European countries with Interpol and it was just a joy.
Would you say you were a quintessentially British-sounding band?
We do celebrate the place we come from, but not to extent of being frightened by Europe, what some people think of as the strange land across the English Channel. We're a British-sounding band like The Smiths were a British-sounding band - a band who draw inspiration from some lesser known British byways, but also a band likely to get attacked in the street by the kind of person who would shave a Union Jack on his bulldog's bum and get upset when the Queen Mum gets a can of sardines stuck in her throat. Then again, the ugly old dear did have good taste in booze. Mine's a gin and Dubonnet.
Did the LP take a while to come together? What was it like recording?
We spent a lot of time making the album. We recorded stuff in an old coach house in North Wales, in our front room in Portslade and by the Grand Union Canal in London. All credit to our label, Rough Trade. They gave us all the time and money to make the album we wanted. And, you know, it's rather good. In fact, we feel we should tell you all that The Decline Of British Sea Power will emerge as the best album made by a British guitar band this year. At the very, very least. Also Mads Bjerke who works with Spiritualized, is the man who help us record, engineer and produce the album. He's an immense talent. He mixed the new Primal Scream live album and he introduced us to the intimacy of Roberta Flack. The man survives on digestive biscuits and tea for 12 hours a day and never lost his temper ever.
The LP is fairly eclectic - does it capture the essence of the whole BSP thing?
You could never capture the whole World Of British Sea Power in just 47 minutes. But, the album is a delightful and brilliantly scheduled bus tour that takes in all the scenic delights and magical secret glades. The album ranges from a two-minute slice of furious, brutish rock'n'roll to a 17-minute piece of what can only be described as symphonic rock music. The former is about Lonnie Donnegan and Field Marshall Montgomery. The latter song is called 'Lately' and is good enough to have been on any great album. Good enough to have been on, say, Marquee Moon by Television.
Does 'The Decline of...' have universal appeal in your mind?
No. It will only appeal to those with a brain and a brain which they are unembarrassed to turn on. We don't expect Prince Edward and The Datsuns to be buying a copy.
How are the re-recorded 'Fear Of Drowning' and 'Remember Me' different to the previous versions?
They're older and wiser. The earlier versions couldn't quite get served in the pub. Imagine the new versions sat at a lock-in knocking back pints of barley wine and ordering a nice blend of Glenmorangie and Blue Nun for the ladies. They sound a bit like that.
Are you destined to be critically acclaimed yet under-discovered? If not why not?
Only for a little while longer. Our oldest known fan is Ronald Of Natland, who, I think, is 77 years of age. He tells us that "If the world doesn't embrace this album then this world is sick." This album is too good to go unnoticed. We have a new song with the working title 'How Animals Work'. It's like a more pastoral version of New Order at their very best, and Leadbelly. We think that it will be Number One in the charts in January 2004.
Would you like to take Club Sea Power on tour with you?
Yes, we would, and we are, to some extent. The London show on this tour is the first fully fledged example of Club Sea Power on the road. We will be unveiling the BSP range of women's clothing and will have such brilliant DJs as SAS Dirtyman, Monsignor Ian and Phil King playing his renowned set of unknown glam-rock greats. We are also scheduled to have a five-drummer grand finale, featuring Young Tom White from The Electric Soft Parade, Sanderson from Jesus and Mary Chain, and Shinyu from Earl Brutus banging a marching drum and trying to charm the ladies. Shinyu used to massage Madonna, you know. I won't tell you why the contract ended.
Rod Jones from Idlewild is from Leeds too - are there any other chaps like you, fellas from Leeds and environs lurking in top quality bands?
There is a great band called Hood from Wetherby. They are signed to Domino Records, of Pavement fame. A good band. I also have a soft spot for Dave Gedge formerly of The Wedding Present.
I hate British Sea Power. The bastards.
I first encountered them supporting Clinic in a dreary loftspace somewhere in Cardiff. The stage was tartily dressed in bits of tree and plastic birds. Wiry singer Yan was busy diving into a vocal pool that had previously been plundered by Ian Curtis and Berlin-era Bowie. His equally shadowy brother, Hamilton, had bits of twig in his hair and seemed to be marching on the spot in an exaggerated flat-footed style while he gripped his bass like a cocked Sten gun.
Both young men seemed to have clocked me as I walked into the room mid-set. They hadn't, of course, it just seemed that way. But still I felt the blood drain from my face as I fell victim to their collective glare - an unblinking accusatory screwing out that seemed to burn through my retina and into my very soul. I tried staring back at Hamilton, but as I took in his military jacket and cropped hair I was reminded of a photograph I'd seen of my late Uncle Ted on Home Defence duty at the AA guns in Sidmouth, circa 1942.
As "Lately" kicked in with its 16 epic minutes of landmine-dodging terror, stuffed bird frottage and deathly shrieks, I felt the tears start to roll. This was powerful, spectre-filled stuff being played out in front of me. I was unable to speak about anything else for weeks. Still can't in fact. Ask any of my friends - I've become a BSP bore. The bastards.
Go to the PlayLouder singles club and you'll hear a bit of what's got me so fired up. Check out their recent dalliances with pioneering aviation - the marvellous "Spirit Of St Louis" - and you'll grasp another side of their complex personality. Keep that CD spinning (or flip that 7" if you're a traditionalist) and you'll come across the very marvellous "The Lonely".
"A lot of The Lonely is about Geoff Goddard, the composer best known for his work with Joe Meek," explains an impersonal email signed simply "Hoots mon, British Sea Power.
"Yan and Noble (guitarist) worked alongside Geoff at The Cedar Rooms Canteen at Reading University, a place where Geoff had happily washed up for all the years after he quit showbiz.
"We just thought he was this eccentric old guy who liked to sing when he was doing the dishes. He was a bit like Frankie Howard.
"We gradually found out he'd had a Number One single in the 60s with Johnny Remember Me. He became quite an inspiration to us.
"The lines about the Casio piano and Liberace are definitely about Geoff. When Joe Meek first heard him play, he said, 'Great! Let's make some records. I shall call you Hollywood!' That led to his initial stage name, Anton Hollywood. The history of popular music doesn't get much better than that."
History, yes. Very important to BSP, this history thing. Hence the song about Lindbergh and his transatlantic solo flight. Hence, also, various subtle references to Sussex-based pioneer film-makers and assorted East European shenanigans. The whole military thing goes way deeper, though.
"Yes, our dad did serve in World War II, manning the anti-aircraft guns all the way from Sunderland and the New Forest to the India and Java," relates the collective Yan/Hamilton emailing finger. "We are the youngest of six children and we think the way we were brought up gives us a different perspective to most people of our age. We never thought twice about sharing a bath, wearing thermal underwear or sharing a bed - right up to the age of about 16. Luckily, we didn't reach puberty till we were almost 20."
Funny boys. But funny how? How seriously, for instance, can one take their claim to being admired by Jeremy Vine? Or that Bill Oddie is going to jam with them at the Eden Project in July? All the way, according to the horse's mouth. Similarly, we should accept that BSP are hated by The Vines, Sarah Lucas, Ben Elton and Nick Hornby, should we? If you like. BSP would much rather spend time asserting their one overbearing belief - in the power of music to suspend time. They have a good explanation for this.
"Any halfway decent band will suspend the flow of time in its mundane, day-to-day, minute-by-minute form. Any half decent band will stop the clock. They will stop you thinking, 'Hmmm, cheese for tea? Or do I fancy fish?'
"Instead you will be taken back to that ice-cream on the beach all those years ago, or moved forward to contemplate The End Of It All. We are young, but we are not immortal. In fact, we have already composed our collective obituary: "British Sea Power. Like Malcolm Lowry, their work was glowery, but never flowery. They lived nightly and drank daily and died playing the ukelele.'"
Not the crap ramblings of a wannabe Ocean Colour Scene, you'll agree. They've got substance, these boys, and they're not afraid to use it. All in one go, if necessary.
They have a name for all this, too. "High church amplified rock music". Or: "A nice big power chord smashing the stained-glass window and sending a shiver through The Book Of Common Prayer." That's one worth remembering.
I could ramble on, if you want. Like I say, these boys have turned me into a BSP bore. The bastards.
Freaks of Nature
The Guardian, 25/04/02
They wear military uniforms, count Jarvis Cocker and Smash Hits as fans, and bring packed lunches to interviews. Alexis Petridis meets British Sea Power.
"We kind of exist in our own world," claims British Sea Power's guitarist, a 23-year-old who calls himself Noble. New rock bands are well known for making overblown claims such as this, but in the case of British Sea Power, it's more like an under- statement. For a start, Noble's real name is Martin. In addition, we are conducting the interview in a field near the tiny Sussex village of Balcombe. I was directed here by an enigmatic message from the manager of the Brighton-based quartet, containing an ordnance survey grid reference and some gibberish about "a place where even the trees scorn normality and grade-two listed serfs still walk the land".
British Sea Power appear to have brought me here in order to look at two army telecommunications masts, disguised as the least convincing trees in Britain. It's an incongruous sight that ties in with the band's curious twin preoccupations: nature and the military. Singer Yan, his bass-playing brother Hamilton and drummer Wood - also, one suspects, not their given names - claim to have met Bury-born Noble while he was on a rambling excursion near their native Kendal. During their recent British tour, the band allegedly abandoned their hotel in order to sleep rough in the Peak District's Snake Pass Wood.
Their roll-call of heroes ignores John Lennon and the Clash in favour of Field-Marshal Montgomery and Thomas Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia between the wars who, Hamilton enthuses, "could still do a handstand on a horse at the age of 70". Live, they affect military uniforms (an image their website dubs "the militant cabin-boy look"), decorate the stage with foliage and stuffed birds, and are attended by three female roadies dressed as land girls. "It's weird how if you make even a little bit of effort, people really appreciate it," says Yan. "It makes you a bit sad that other people don't make so much effort."
They have described themselves as "the nation's most Cumbrian rock band", and indeed there is something of the windswept moor to their sound: gusts of noisy guitar, echoing vocals, thunderous drumming. It touches on the explosive post-punk of Joy Division and Wire, but is packed with fresh ideas. New single The Spirit of St Louis pays simultaneous tribute to Iggy Pop and Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic. "Using hardly anything, they both caused a sensation," explains Yan, as if this was the most straightforward concept in the world. "Lindbergh got in his little plane with some wrapped-up sandwiches and a compass. Iggy Pop played this really basic rock."
It's the sort of taut, intense music that you would expect to be performed by earnest young men with long faces and furrowed brows. British Sea Power's shows, however, are simultaneously ridiculous and sinister. They shun introductory music in favour of a reading by CS Lewis, intended, says Noble, to create "a romantic, forgotten atmosphere". Hamilton may be possessed of the most disconcerting stare in rock history, while the band's penchant for performing strenuous physical jerks on stage was only curtailed after Yan injured his back demonstrating "a flying leap landing in a press-up". A recent gig ended with Noble climbing on the drum kit, then diving through it face first. It looked like it really hurt. Noble nods solemnly, rolling up his trouser leg to reveal a lengthy scar. "It's the music. It's like it's shouting things at me. Get up on that amp! Jump into the drums! I can hear voices."
"If you're getting up on a stage, you should do something, make it a bit special at least, rather than just going through the motions," says Hamilton.
"It's important to try and make every gig the best thing that's ever happened, even if you know you're going to fail," offers Yan. "I think that's why it looks so ridiculous sometimes, because we set ourselves ridiculous targets - like trying to create an experience for the whole crowd, as strong as the deepest religious 'thing' that you could ever imagine happening."
It's difficult to tell how seriously this sort of remark is meant, delivered as it is in a deadpan Cumbrian accent. In fact, it's hard to tell how seriously British Sea Power take anything. "There's a lot of fun in our music," frowns Yan, "but I don't think it's funny music."
This ambiguity probably accounts for the polarising effect they have on audiences. On one hand, the band's reputation is growing so quickly that Smash Hits has expressed an interest. On the other, a record-label talent scout recently described them as "the worst fucking band in the country".
"It is ridiculous," adds Noble. "I can see why some people think we're a bunch of pretentious wankers, but I mean, it's better than being boring, isn't it?"
In the flesh, the members of the band have little in common with their wild-eyed stage personas. Hamilton is so softly spoken that his voice barely registers on my tape. Wood does not speak at all except to announce that he "doesn't really listen to music". Nevertheless, there is something strikingly odd about them. Today they have eschewed their uniforms, but even in mufti, it seems unlikely that any passing locals would confuse them with normal human beings.
Hamilton's jacket is festooned with patches advertising his native Cumbria, the kind that ramblers sew on their rucksacks. Yan is wearing a bottle-green jumper that would have been the height of casual fashion in 1948. With their fringes and stubble, they look like heroes from an Enid Blyton novel grown up and gone slightly to seed. They may be the first rock band ever to turn up at an interview with their own packed lunches.
At a time when moments of wild inspiration are few and far between in rock music, British Sea Power are laden with initiative. In the past year they have had more original ideas than most bands have in their careers. Their monthly Brighton club night has proved a hotbed of invention, offering amateur dramatics, bizarre support acts - the next event features the Copper Family, a folk singing troupe fronted by an 87-year-old - and on one occasion, a fashion show entitled Woad, Empire Line, European Hosiery 1789 -2001. It was something of a damp squib. "It ended up with me and Hamilton walking down this catwalk wearing long johns and Russian hats," admits Noble, before adding hopefully: "People clapped!"
Their debut album is due in the summer. They boast a bizarre coven of celebrity fans, including Jarvis Cocker, BBC political editor Andrew Marr and author Douglas Coupland. Do they not worry about being considered a novelty act, or running out of steam? "Oh no," smiles Noble. "We've got loads of ideas. And if people don't like those, we can always come up with more." Brimming with confidence and peculiar concepts, he goes back to his sandwiches.
Interview with Yan
Straight outta Cumbria, British Sea Power are poised to break like a wave over 2002 when their much-anticipated debut album hits this spring. Frontman Yan explained their tactics for the year ahead.
Can you tell us how British Sea Power came together to make music?
Yan [singer]: "It all started off with Hamilton [bass] and Woody [drums], they were in an indie-grunge band in Kendal, in the Lake District, at school. And then I met Martin [guitar] in Reading at university and obviously I was still in touch with Hamilton, because he's my brother, so we all decided to give it a trial go for a month in Kendal in one of our summer breaks. We all enjoyed it straight away…although we probably weren't that good [laughs]. After that we all wanted to keep it going so everyone moved down to Reading for a year and that's when it really started, that's when we had our first gig. We converted the garage for practice, covered all the walls with carpets - that didn't do anything, a real waste of time - and came up with the name and the uniforms and a lot of the ideas.
"At the time, most bands had one-word names - there're quite a lot of long names now - so we wanted to be different, and we kind of wanted something that sounded really powerful, or something that we'd have to live up to, and also kind of a little bit ridiculous as well. Someone just kind of got the phrase from somewhere, it was a song to start with, which we don't do anymore, but the name of the song stuck around. It works on different levels; literally, it kind of describes our band, if you take the words separately [the band are now resident in Brighton], and then it's got the historical aspect to it…also, a lot of people don't know what it means, so it's quite good for the imagination as well."
What do you have planned for the year ahead?
"Right at the moment we've been really busy trying to get really good demos for our whole album, and we're maybe even going to use some of the recordings on it. We're going to have a new single out in, probably, late January or early February - it's 90% certain that it's going to be a song called 'Just Like Liberace' - then we're hoping to have an album out by the end of Spring. We've got all the material for it and we're getting quite a good idea about how we're putting it together, how we want to do a lot of collaging with sounds and stuff in between the tracks. Kind of make it into a narrative rather than just have ten separate songs on there, make it sound really interesting as a whole piece."
What do you do outside the band?
"It's pretty much full-time now, really. The only other thing I do, and even that has been absolutely knocked sideways now by the time that I'm spending on the band, is painting. I left university to paint as much as be in a band, really. I started selling a few and it's something I take as seriously as the music, it's just I can't do both at the moment, it's just time and I haven't got a studio now either. They're a bit like [Mark] Rothko [Russian-born painter of abstract murals] but they're kind of more detailed and stranger. I don't think they would work as album sleeves, really, but I design the sleeves anyway and I quite enjoy the theme we've got going at the moment, which is that each sleeve is linked with an old book. Like out first single, 'Fear Of Drowning', that came from a book called 'The Wooden Horse' [by Eric Williams], which co-incidentally had the same name as the B-side, which was about a prisoner of war escaping in a really ingenious way. And then 'Remember Me' was from an old version of HG Well's 'The Time Machine', so we try and get a theme between them, as well as it being something nice to look at."
What are you most looking forward to in the next 12 months?
"Probably the album, really, but right at the moment it's just getting this demo for the single completely finished because our manager wants to hear it and Geoff Travis [Rough Trade label boss]'s been wanting to hear it - I kept telling him that it'll be a few more days and then that we all got flu. So that'll be a real weight off me when we can get that finished."
What bands have you been into recently?
"I've been collecting a lot of records from charity shops like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison and some classical stuff and The Shadows, I haven't been listening to very much modern music. To start with it was pretty much, 'That looks pretty good, that must be a good record,' and then you start learning and you kind of get tips from here and there. I like a lot of rock 'n' roll stuff, and I got into Joe Meek and country…I'm not into any one kind of music, really, it's just got to kind of be special in some way."
Is establishing yourselves in London a priority for you?
"If nothing else, just in a practical way. It's not a big deal that we think we have to be cool in London but we'd like it if we were. But London has such a fast turnover of what it's into and what it's not, that I wouldn't really want my career to depend on it. I'd really like it if I could be big in the kind of small towns and villages that are all a few years behind London, probably because that's where I grew up, really."
Who do you consider to be your peers?
"[Laughs] I don't think anyone's really coming from where we're coming from. There's one band in Brighton that I quite like, I wouldn't really say that they're like us but we both kind of appreciate each other, we play together quite a lot - they're called 80s Matchbox Beeline Disaster. They're quite heavy, a bit like The Fall if you turned up all the guitars, quite dark, but they just have a really good feeling to the noise that they do. They're bringing out their first single soon, I think they'll do well. We'd probably be rivals if we weren't friends; one of their first gigs was one of our first gigs in Brighton."
What do you think is British Sea Power's best song?
"I think my favourite song's probably 'Fear Of Drowning', but I don't think we've done the best recording of it yet. It's probably as much the way it was written as anything, it came really quickly, I wrote it in about ten minutes. It was one of those things where it just kind of flows out of you and it wasn't completely finished but it was all kind of there, just waiting to be brought out. I think it shows off the band's most natural style, in a way. Woody's getting his own style going with the drumming and everyone kind of contributed something to the song as well, it wasn't just one that I wrote and people copied either so it was the start of something, I suppose."
What would you like to achieved at the end of this year?
"Spearheading world peace [laughs]. Ideally. Or maybe just having released the best album in years, a really classic album that sums up the times as well as being timeless, I suppose. We're not fussed if we don't have a massive response at first, we've been doing it a while and we'd carry on anyway, just as long as we keep getting better, because we keep getting better at the moment; recording and songs and live. We've been making improvements and changing. So if we can just sum all that up in an album and be really happy with it ourselves, we'll be quite happy."