British Sea Power- interview by John Robb
Operating under their own steam and with their own windswept salt stained wilderness agenda, British Sea Power are a cut above your average band.
As British as you could get- they are a particularly gnarled and woody branch on the tree of Brit indie. They sound like the push and pull of nature on this stormy island, reflecting the melancholic rainy days and, at the same time, the buzzsaw speed of our culture. Their twisting and turning guitar chassis is live, a blur of branches, ornithology, historical references, fifties bohemia and skinny high IQ rhetoric.
They make records that are fantastic soundscapes- almost film soundtracks in their scope and dynamics but always returning to ÃÂ the buzzsaw power of spiky, manic, pop thrills rooting them back to a post-punk sensibility. The songs, mainly written by brothers Hamilton and Yan, are clever and complex and the bands artwork matches this with references to esoteric subjects and dusty old books.
Bands like this don’t come along too often and have to be celebrated. They have a new album out right now- the fantastically named ”ËValhalla Dancehall’ ”â even its title throws up a whole rush of images, images that guitarist Martin Noble is only to happy to continue paying with.
”ËIt’s Valhalla like death metal and dancehall like Jamacian music. We wanted to make a record that sounded like both but somehow we didn’t.’ he jests.
Not surprising ”â fusion is everything in music but that may have been a fusion too far even for a band as wilfully eclectic as this.
The new album is a further expansion of the British Sea Power template- there are the 3D cinemascope epics- gorgous creations of layers of sound and inteligence that tug at emotions you didn’t even know you had as you close your eyes and wallow in their special, spectral atmospherics. Then there are the faster furious songs that buzzsaw their way through the collection. It’s their most accomplished work yet, another top twenty album and a culmination of all their cultural surfing and the outsider status that was first sparked by growing up in the villages of the Lake District before moving down south to Brighton and then in the case of Hamilton and viola player, Abi Fry, ÃÂ to a remote house on the The Isle Of Skye consciously seeking out the remote as inspiration and commuting up and down the country to work with rest of the band in Brighton before they all went to Skye to record.
”ËValhalla Dancehall’ is a big beast of record- long and complex but always thrilling. This group don’t play by the rules of rock. They are smart and literate but they are never boring. Their wry sense of humour runs through their image- that fifties black and white Ealing monochrome sensibility as well as in their artwork with the smarts and music.
I think were in danger of taking them for granted. Some reviewers are confusedly lumping them in with lumpy indie rock when, in reality, they are sylph like genius.
”ËValhalla Dancehall’ is an ambitious and thrilling work that manages to both expand and yet not go over the brink after the complex ”ËZeus’ EP.
Martin is conscious of this.
”ËThe track, ”ËLuna’ on the album- in its original format was eleven minutes long, so we edited it down. There was a lot of editing going on on the album- ”ËLuna’ didn’t have a chorus either so we wanted to make it more listenable for ÃÂ people. It was ÃÂ quite demanding enough as it is. The album, initially, was even too much of a headfuck for ourselves to listen to in one go! so we judged that sixty minutes would be long enough and edited it down to that length.’
It was not all long epics though.
”Ë ”ËWho’s Losing Control’ reflects what Yan talking about. It’s muscular and upbeat -reminiscent of a bit of a party going on, a bit of argy bargy going on.’
Playing with their own image, like a very British Kraftwerk, BSP reflect our Englishness back at us. Behind those wry smiles and bookish intelligence there is much more going on than what they are giving us- they are a fine punk rock band when they feel like it and those dashes of rustic bookwormery and the howling wind emptiness of another wild natural Britain beyond the concrete are never far away.
Some would say all this is highly eccentric but for some of us British Sea power make complete sense. A band that is this obsessed by history and bird spotting and fills its stage with netting, flags and branches of trees instead of dry ice and drier egos is a band you can easily fall in love with.
”ËComing up with ideas can happen in an instant. You find something and its like flicking a light switch. We have got interested in Kurt Schwitters- the german artist who lived in the lake District after the war.
We are thinking of changing the flags live onstage and replacing them with Schwitters’ works and his toothless face. He’s kind of an inspiration and of course lived in the Lake District for some time which was interesting. He was at the ÃÂ forefront of a lot of art and installation art. There were so many different mediums that he worked in that it’s good to have him behind you when you are playing – prodding us!’
Schwitters is another cool reference that fits in the BSP work- the eclecticism and artfulness and no holds barred take on any art is inspirational. It’s a restlessness that BSP have themselves with their eclectic music and their self designed artwork, stage sets and self directed videos. It’s a restlessness that Martin enjoys,
”ËWe don’t have a chance to stop and think that we were we are similar to anyone. We go from spiky to post punk and ÃÂ then go on to big, expansive post rock soundtracks and there is even indie pop in there.’
Sometimes even in a micro world as busy as this real life has a habit of creeping in. ”ËValhalla Dancehall’ has even been mooted in some quarters as your political album. Martin ponders.
”ËThere are stories in there as well, sometimes when you are listening to other bands you wonder of they say anything or make any kind of comment. We were ÃÂ not trying to be political, more like just comment on the ÃÂ world as we see it and then you realise that it may be an outsider perspective.’
It is, in some ways, like the real world has barged its way into your own world.
”ËIt’s more comment really. It’s like Yan said, it’s like if an alien landed on earth, how they would view the world. If you look on the world in an Orwellian way it’s a crazy place.’
British Sea Power have a certain detachment- the detachment of the intelligent outsider. The band were born on the outside looking in. The core of the group grew up in a village outside Kendal in the Lake District.
The UK is obsessed with its metropolitan life. That very pleased for itself city culture. Living outside this torrent of self made noise in the remote towns and villages gives a very fresh and different perspective.
A perspective that seeped into BSP along with the damp Lake District nights growing up in Kendal.
”ËYan and Hamilton didn’t even come from Kendal itself. They both lived in a little village outside Kendal. So going to Manchester and then to London for them made everything seem very fast. Growing up surrounded by the Lake District and then when you see a city full of concrete and big buildings it’s got to affect you.’
Growing up on the outside looking in.
”ËAll the cultural things were there though, the books you read, ÃÂ the films you liked to watch- outsider films but not in a ‘Catcher In The Rye’ crap kind of way- that’s a bit ÃÂ juvenile and obvious- it went deeper than that.’ Martin smiles again,’ Yan is getting involved in learning about society now. He’s reading the Daily Star to keep up with things.’
BSP have evolved into something mesmerizing. People looked confused when they talked of bird spotting or Montgomery or any other topics from life’s great encyclopaedia. After all these years they still expect bands to be dunces or grunting about drugs. BSP have moved about as far away from rock n roll as you could without losing the thrill of its electricity.
Casual clothes mean casual mind someone once noted and the band’s rugged outdoor look is so fantastically anti rock n roll that it cuts a dash across the form. Looking more like a fifties hiking party than the sort of clown droogs that normally make up musicians, BSP have fun playing with their own ideas but on the new album were conscious of not doing too much.
”ËThe things like the interest in history and military elements and nature may be over egged and the over literal references and the more obtuse song inspirations we tried to avoid this time. I think Yan avoided that purposely although on ”ËThin Black Sail’ he was singing about a submarine.’
And those literary influences are still lurking.
”ËOn ”ËGeorgie Ray’ the title was a composite of Georgie Orwell and Ray Bradbury – of the two writers names. If you read their books, it’s unbelievable that we are not all dead.’
Like any band that thinks about what is does BSP never rest on their laurels. They are constantly re-evaluating and constantly challenging themselves.
”ËWe write one song and then deliberately do something completely different. It’s like fighting with yourself! If we wrote an atmospheric song we would then write a punk, spiky song. As the songs were evolving song each had its own separate character. It’s like we don’t want the songs to be the same, we were avoiding doing stuff that was samey. Before the song on the album, ”ËLiving Is So Easy’, was finished it had no guitar- just electronics and keyboards- even the drums were started with an old drum machine that was the size of an amp head and we were hitting different things like and old tin sheet for the snare. We were just making sure that we were not retracing steps.’
Constantly restless- their inspirations would be in a constant state of flux but always brought back to their own turf.
”ËWe have one idea, like in my mind a ”ËRalf and Florian’ era Kraftwerk track it that morphed into something more Stock, Aitkin and Waterman when we added keyboards to it and it sounded brilliant!’
Defining organic BSP let the songs develop.
”ËThings morph and grow. You can hear how songs develop. The basic idea would be stretched and added to and then edited. Maybe that was something to do with how we wrote and recorded the album. We wrote a lot of the album at Yan’s house when he was living in the middle of nowhere for eighteen months. And I mean the middle of nowhere. It took along tome to get there by train and then there was the half hour walk over fields to get to his house. And he was there for about eighteen months. When we would turn up he would open the door with a funny look in his eyes!’
They even recorded a chunk of the album at Hamilton’s place on the Isle Of Skye.
‘We would tour for a bit and then they would stay in Brighton and we do some stuff or we would go up to Skye and record. Hamilton had al this recording gear up there- tape machines and loads of tape echoes. That was a lot of fun. He wrote this track that went on the album, ‘Mongk 11′ which had loads of tracks of tape loops and echoes and you could hear all this weird, swirling feedback on it. We got good at using old technology to record stuff and modern computers to do the editing.’
The album was recorded in the wilderness- a perfect combination of the rugged howl of nature and the emptiness of their surroundings that fused the music. Maybe BSP make an anti-urban music- urban as in the city sprawl. This is an older, more timeless tradition that they click into- one that they hinted at powerfully and magically with their epic ”ËMen Of Arran’ soundtrack. The band played the powerful, surging, salt stained soundtrack to the”Â¦1934 Man Of Aran film about the stark lives of the islanders on Aran off the coast of Ireland- in million ways the perfect film for this band to add music to. There is talk of sound tracking another film, maybe something sci fi but it’s the ‘Man Of Aran’ feel that has carried on into the more epic tracks on ‘Valhalla Dancehall’.
”ËWe spent the recording budget on the rent of the house and a load of microphones and recorded two thirds of it ourselves. Working like that had its had its ups and downs. You could get lose track of what you were doing after a while because you would get so absorbed in it! Sometimes it was great like on the ”ËGeorgie Ray’ recording, which was actually a demo. We only had few mics up and it sounded really good so Yan put the vocals down and the song was done.’
Eclectic or eccentric, BSP are operating on their own.
”ËWe like a lot of music and I guess every time we listen to something we think, ”Ëgreat let’s do something like that.’ Live we really enjoy playing spikier, punkier songs and we also have a big love of Mazzy Star and that really kind of melancholic, beautiful songs type of music. You have to have the full range of styles to match the full range of human emotions. It’s more more human to have a wide variety of styles and not the same emotion all the way through.’
Hint of a future direction?
”ËThere’s already demos of new songs and a slight R n B direction is going on”Â¦’