For those who have been living in the Brighton area this last decade you’ll probably have come across British Sea Power, a quintessential INDIE band in the old fashioned sense of the word, purveyors of non-mainstream guitar based music that generally paddles its own canoe, never quite following the diktats of current fashion or flavours; where virtuosity is not a pre-requisite of authenticity or quality. Alternative is perhaps an appropriate single word summation of this band who have dabbled successfully in the sub-genres of punk, lo-fi, noise pop, post-rock and melodic rock whilst managing to stay within the general confines of what we know as pop and rock.
In their time they have re-defined what it is to be in a band, often eschewing the traditional means by which to get their music out there. They’ve played countless unusual venues, often at their own instigation, from the Lido in Saltdean, to the tiny Isle of Eigg (situated within the Scottish Inner Hebrides), and from Newhaven Fort to a ferry on the Mersey; have collaborated with some unlikely fellow musicians such as Sussex’s first family of folk, the Copper family and The Wurzels, set up their own clubs and gigs (most famously Club Sea Power) and composed a number of film soundtracks, often performing those live.
That’s not to say they haven’t enjoyed commercial success. All but their first studio album, (all released on the seminal Rough Trade label) have made the top 25 in the UK charts, and even that debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, was a word-of-mouth hit, selling over 60,000 in the first two years following its release in 2003. They have even enjoyed some singles chart success in the day when that still meant something (i.e. until the very recently).
How did they end up in Brighton? “My brother Roy, who was originally our manager, helped to put the band together in many ways, and he lived in Lewes…” says Yan, while we sit in St. Anne’s Well Garden Café. “I ended up going to Reading University which is where the band first started… there aren’t that many reasons to go to Reading unless you end up at university; there wasn’t a lot of music, just two venues, and there seemed a lot going on here. We decided to move, staying in Lewes for a while, then ended up moving to Portslade and then Brighton… Martin (Noble) and Woody (Matthew Wood) originally had this place in Portslade, a flat above a butcher’s and we used to practice there, full band, full volume and nobody used to complain… it’s hard to find places like that.”
“It stank of blood, but I lived there in the end” (even though Yan – who is also known by his other name, Scott – was and still is a vegetarian). “I used to get woken up at 5am by the sound of meat cleavers bashing on boards. Eventually, it was converted into a café, the smell of coffee was nice, wafting up.”
The original make-up of the band was Yan Wilkinson, his younger brother Neil, guitarist Martin and drummer Matthew Wood. Yan, Neil and Matt were all from Natland in Cumbria, a small village near Kendal, but it was while at Reading University that Yan met Martin, who is originally from Bury. Initially calling themselves British Air Power, they wrote a song called British Sea Power and decided that was a better name. “We thought Air Power was a bit strong so we changed it to Sea Power. At the time there was less war it seems, and we thought it was something that would get relegated to the past and then all of a sudden there seems to be war everywhere. It made it more potent a name, but also an annoyance. Originally, the name was something about recycling the past and making it into something better. It was a little bit pretentious. At the end of the day we are musicians. I have an interest in history; but it’s a band, we make music!”
“Occasionally people ask us what it’s all about… when we started we had the odd phone call from someone who thought we sold boats or we had something to do with steam engines!”
There has been a tendency for some people to think of British Sea Power as a band pining for a past that never existed; a vision of a sepia-toned utopia where everyone talked to each other, cycled through meadows of luscious fields, drank local ales and revelled in the innocence and simplicity of life… This image of the band has only been heightened by the practice of showing classic Powell & Pressburger films before a show, organising a 40s fashion show at one of their club nights, and resorting to black and white imagery on many of their videos, including the recent Machineries of Joy video, which featured a young girl cycling through the countryside…
However at their infamous Club Sea Power shows at the former Brighton venues The Lift and The Freebutt in the early noughties they demonstrated early on their on-going cultural eclecticism. “We were interested in putting together a collision of things at our club nights, so we would have The Copper Family (I liked Bob, he liked a drink!), and then Eighties B-line Matchbox Disaster, or a weird fashion show, or someone talking, and then the odd person with an acoustic guitar. More fun that way.”
“I’m not really into Britishness nowadays,” says Yan. “There are lots of bands who have a name, but they might be the opposite of that name. I’ve realised a country is quite a strong word. It’s obvious when you look back, but at the same time we wanted to have things that did have a meaning even if it was about changing the meaning… I do think it’s a good name even though I’ve tried to change it!”
Whatever the case there is no doubting that British Sea Power is a very suggestive name. Just recently an editor of a Welsh paper wrote the headline ‘British Sea Power’ above an image of a huge coastal storm, one of many that have been hitting the British Isles these last couple of months. “I think they were having a laugh,” says Yan. And not surprisingly, they have been called up a few times to lend their music to films that have water as a central theme. Firstly, there was Man of Aran, where they composed a soundtrack to the 1934 fictional documentary about life on the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland, and then last year came the wonderful From The Sea To The Land Beyond, a poetic meditation on Britain’s coastline, that used film from the British Film Institute archives. “It came out good,” says Yan. “Mark Atkin and Heather Croall (co-producers of From The Sea To The Land Beyond) curated the project and asked us because they liked us. They had this idea of using the BFI vaults, but they thought it might be a bit obvious, because it’s all to do with the sea and they thought, “can we ask them to do that’? Maybe its a bit cheesy – y’know, sea power, all about the sea… Then they got Penny Woolcock (director) involved, and she is a big reason why it works so well visually. It doesn’t really have a story, but its not completely random either.”
Shown at various film festivals, and on the BBC, it was also recently released as a DVD accompanied by British Sea Power’s soundtrack, on the band’s Rough Trade label. British Sea Power re-worked their back catalogue and minimised the vocals, to fit the imagery. “It seemed sensible to use our back catalogue, there’s a lot you can do with a song, and often you wish you had done things differently. It’s nice to re-interpret… I think that was a natural sound we did; we’ve got Abi (Fry) now and she isn’t on at least half of the original songs. It’s nice not to have to write lyrics sometimes; I like instrumental music, it becomes the main thing. When you’re singing its got to be the main thing usually. It’s easy to let the lyrics pass you by, and half the time they are meaningless.”
“When I watched it on the BBC I found it quite relaxing – it was the first time I had watched it without thinking what is right and wrong, and after a while I forgot about all that – no one telling you what is going on or what to think.
“It’s been quite popular… I’m surprised because it seems like an art project, but in a lot of ways its been received as well as a normal record. I’m surprised by the range of people – older people and teenagers – getting quite moved by it and really interested in these strange images, and identifying with them more than you’d think… I have been happily surprised.”
More recently, and somewhat against the grain, they were asked to do a soundtrack for Happiness, a film that documents the approval of the internet and TV by Bhutan’s King Jigme Wangchuck in 1999, ostensibly for the purpose of increasing the nation’s Gross National Happiness… ‘It is about the last village in the country that gets connected to electricity… a mother sends her little boy to the monastery to get an education because she can’t afford to keep him, so it’s about this lad and this fella who go to the city with a yak to get a TV.
“Not many people have seen it yet, but it’s a lovely documentary. They wanted to use a song from Man of Aran but when we watched it and offered to do the music for it. It’s really slow and quiet. It’s getting a good reception (it was shown at the recent Sundance Film Festival), but I don’t think it’ll be at the cinemas. With this one we all got involved, wrote 10 songs, mostly fairly short. Some of it was written on the Isle of Skye where my brother (Neil) and Abi live, and Martin and I did some work on it down here.”
So, soundtracks are the future for the band? ” Yeah, I think so, but we’ll still be doing our normal thing. It’s a different approach, generally you don’t have to write lyrics, and you’ve got a starting point with the visuals and pictures.
“We’re working on another soundtrack, this is the first normal film we’ve done – it’s got actors and a storyline. It’s about Matthew Webb, the first person who swam across the English Channel (without artificial aids). It’s kinda like in-between serious and fun. It’s looking good; it’s approaching the final editing, we’ve been on it the last three months, and its changed quite a lot in that time, but the essential ingredients are the same.”
“I haven’t really researched it, but most people couldn’t swim then, not even sailors apparently… they say they taught them how to drown quicker if they went overboard, make it easier…”
Can he swim? “I can swim, but I wouldn’t win any races…”
I see it’s another film with water heavily featured… “I’d really like to do something else at some point,” he laughs. I point out that the Bhutan film didn’t feature water. “That was wonderful… It’s landlocked, it’s all mountains!”
Having lived here for more than a decade, how does Yan feel about Brighton now? “Generally, it’s quite diverse, quite friendly. I like the sea, and I like the fact you can walk everywhere, and it’s not backwards. What I don’t like is how expensive it is… I can’t see it having a good effect. If you’re in the arts or you want a family, it’s difficult to get the space… the same as London, more or less. But compared to an average town it’s pretty good. I don’t think it’s utopia, but you go to some places and it feels like you’re back in time.. I lived in Seaford for a while…”
“It’s just me and Martin and Phil (Sumner – on keyboards and cornet, and the sixth member of the band) who live here now. Woody has moved back to Kendal, Neil and Abi live up on the Isle of Skye. They love it up there, in a croft… He writes a lot, but they’ve only recently got the internet! He’s not into technology. I quite like technology; he likes tape machines and that sort of thing. They’ve got the internet now, and sometimes they send emails…”
From 2002 to 2006, British Sea Power featured Eamon Hamilton within their ranks, who during his stint with the band formed his own, Brakes, and went on to release a couple of albums, also on Rough Trade. “He’s living in New York State with his wife the last I heard. I’m not sure he’ll do music again… he’s started selling houses, real estate. He’s very likeable, not sure how ruthless he is though,” laughs Yan. “I like Eamon a lot, we did a couple of gigs together when he was with his original band, Brighter Lunch. We saw him sound checking – he was absolutely going for it – and when he got to the end and someone said something to him, he said ‘Awww, I thought that was the gig!’. He had started sound checking and he thought he was doing the gig!
“We never got rid of him, he left to do Brakes, he’d probably still be with us now. It’s hard when there are other songwriters; he wanted to do his own thing, sing and write.”
After completion of the soundtrack to the Matthew Webb film, British Sea Power will be touring the UK in April and throughout the summer, including a show at The Barbican in London, and with thoughts turning to working on the follow-up to the acclaimed Machineries of Joy album which came out last April. That album showcased their eclecticism; from the motorik title track to the punky K-Hole via the epic sweep of What You Need The Most and the pop structures of Radio Goddard. “I have mixed feelings about the eclecticism of our music, I like albums that know what they are doing, like Screamadelica. It’s not a concept album, but it’s got an ideal of what it wants to be. With different writers involved I guess it’ll always be eclectic… unless we learn to communicate better,” he laughs
Still the idea of an album as a concept remains important to artists like British Sea Power. “People say it’s not important any more, I’m not sure how much that is true. I think people still listen to albums, even if it’s just on Spotify – if it’s a good album people will listen to it all. I don’t always listen to them. I used to make compilations, a massive phase when I was a teenager, I really enjoyed putting together the perfect compilation. I didn’t think I was destroying albums then. I think it’s people lives now, they’re just busy… there are a lot of things you can do now wherever you are; there’s more pressure on peoples time, so to demand that time of someone, the longer it is, you’d better be making it worth it… Things do get better if you make them concise…. Same with books and films, most things could be a little bit shorter.”
Although he thinks Cornwall might be a good place to end up at, with its bigger and cheaper physical spaces, Brighton is where he thinks he will be for a while yet. “I don’t think I’m part of the Brighton scene, I don’t go out much to be honest. I prefer working, or making things, learning about things… We did a lot of touring for a lot of years, and you spend half your time drinking in bars and clubs, which was brilliant, but after a while you start to feel about being at home the way you would feel about going out: it’s a bit of a treat that you miss. I probably prefer to do a bit of digging in the garden!”
“When you’ve been away for while, touring, I always think, ‘yeah, it’s good here’. In April we’ll be drinking for three weeks, drinking our socks off, and that’ll do. I still enjoy touring, it’s like we’re part of a good ol’ bunch of people – that’s what I enjoy about it really… the gigs are good, sometimes really good and occasionally really hard… but we can have a laugh in the dressing room…”
As for the giant bears that inhabit many a British Sea Power gig, I’m curious as to how that all began. “Originally, the legendary American Jeff (otherwise known as Disatronaut) put on our club nights at The Lift (now The Hope), and he turned up with a bear one night. We used to have trees, and branches inside, plastic birds and things, so when you went to our gig it wasn’t a normal gig… So, he thought, ‘I’ll give them a bear’! We ended up with two bears. Occasionally it’s brilliant, but sometimes I just want to shoot the fuckers. I think God! that’s fucking annoying, get me a gun! The older bear I think was from the Laurel & Hardy, no Abbott & Costello movies… its got a great big metal cage inside, really heavy. If you did it wrong you could probably hurt yourself. With the new one, it was all lightweight, so people who get in that are all running around, dancing, and acting stupid…it’s not bear-like! Mixed bag, really.”