British Sea Power – Interview – 2017

I hate to say it, but British Sea Power are a little bit of a national treasure. A band who encapsulate what indie music is all about: an independent guitar-based band who have done things their own way over the years. Some of you may remember their infamous Club Sea Power gigs of yore, which encapsulated their cultural eclecticism and inclusiveness. Born at a time when Britpop had run out of fuel, British Sea Power's club do's combined the likes of noise garage-punks The Eighties Matchbox B-line Disaster with Sussex’ first family of folk, The Copper Family, with added attractions such as a retro fashion show, featuring men and women in vintage war-time outfits. They have been trailblazers in many other respects; from organising gigs in very unusual locations (the Lido in Saltdean, Newhaven Fort, Natural History Museum, various village halls, the Czech Embassy in London, hosting their own festival at Britain’s highest pub, the Tan Hill Inn etc), to live soundtracking films such as Man of Arran, and composing the music for the brilliantly evocative documentary From the Sea to the Land Beyond, a film that explored a century of life along Britain’s coastline. It was a perfect match for British Sea Power, a band who have readily incorporated history – not just British but European, cultural, and natural history, too – into their music and image; from the wearing of retro cycling tops to spreading their live stages with foliage, from using grid references with which to meet journalists to showcasing obscure Cumbrian wrestling, and from releasing a joint single with Somerset’s finest The Wurzels, playing with various brass bands under the moniker Sea of Brass.

While their status is primarily that of a cult band, they have flirted with mainstream success on occasion. Their 2008 album Do You Like Rock Music? was a top ten album, and they have scored a few minor hits over the years including with their pro-European song ‘Waving Flags’ and perhaps their best known song ‘Remember Me’. And just as it seems that the band are disappearing from our radars, they hit back with some new songs, and yet another new lease of life. Not that they have been quiet since 2013’s Machineries of Joy: they have subsequently released two film soundtracks and recorded a third, delivered the theme to BT Sport’s European Championship, reissued their classic debut (The Decline of British Sea Power) and the 2015 compilation Sea Of Brass, (where BSP recorded some of their back catalogue with a brass orchestra), whilst continuing to perform in a mix of conventional and unconventional venues. But 'Bad Bohemian', the first taster from their soon-to-be-released album Let The Dancers Inherit The Party, immediately caught the attention of tastemakers and playlist compilers, including regular rotation on BBC Radio. A typically BSP adrenaline rushing bittersweet concoction, 'Bad Bohemian' has set the stage for what is another excellent album, a work that goes back to their more guitar-orientated roots.

Covering subject matters ranging from the stars in the night sky to the methodology of media manipulation, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party is primarily a work that portrays the optimism of a band in the face of local and global strife, chaos and turmoil. But, as is almost always the case with the BSP, it’s an optimism tempered slightly with melancholia, the resulting bittersweet brew both a rallying call, but also a poetic portrayal of a confusing world. Hence, perhaps, British Sea Power’s penchant for nostalgia and a simpler life. Not that they curl up in their collective blankets hiding from this brutish world. As guitarist Martin Noble says; “It was made to a background of politicians perfecting the art of unabashed lying, of social-media echo chambers, of click-bait and electronic Tonka Toys to keep us entertained and befuddled. All this can easily make the individual feel futile. But I think we’ve ended up addressing this confusion in an invigorating way, rather than imprisoning the listener in melancholy. Musically, it’s our most direct album and maybe the first one where we maintain a coherent mood from start to finish. Perhaps a little clarity isn’t a bad thing at this point. There wasn’t a plan to create an album with any particular subject matter but we’ve kind of ended up… with an album where individuals are dealing with their domestic and personal lives against a background of uncontrollable international lunacy.” Meanwhile, the main songwriter and singer with the band, Yan Wilkinson (aka Scott) says,These are things we pushed for. Things are sad and dangerous enough in the world. I’m not sure if it will be appreciated but I’d like to add something positive into the mix at this point. It is an album very much aware of the present day and the great possibilities that are out there as well as the worrying emerging ignorance and violence. It really does feel all the predictive sci-fi writing of past years is coming true. This album attempts to find an emotional response of hope and kindness in the face of this. Some of the themes are on a very personal level," says Martin. "Feelings of being connected and disconnected on a small and a global level. Everyday life for everybody. It all kind of got mixed up, but the parallels are there.

"We wanted to focus on writing songs in a more classical way," says Martin, about the new album. "Strong melodies, verses and choruses, a bit more upbeat. We also gave a load of songs to our producer, and his idea was to try and make the album more cohesive. We do tend to write such a big variety of songs, and sometimes they don't fit together or have a mood that flows. That was one of the main aims, to create a similar mood."

From the Sea to the Land Beyond largely evoked a pre-EU era, as some of their past work has done, although this aspect of British Sea Power (of course, not helped by their name) has “been over-egged,” according to Yan. How do they feel about Europe and Brexit at the moment? “I think Europe, as a romantic idea and being a collaboration of unity, was brilliant and beautiful. There were obviously problems in the bureaucracy side of things, and a danger of it being too controlling. But these are solvable things. Also Greece is a shame but globalism and business also helped create that situation. But the good side was worth working for. Being able to travel freely and the improvement of British culture because of this was great. I think a lot of people who voted for Brexit will be harmed by it in a few years. On a big scale I think it’s safe to say the world is fucking bonkers and incomprehensible. I’m more interested in the small scale these days. Friends and vegetables (a reference to his long-term vegetarianism, and the fact he grows them himself these days).”

 

 

Taking it back to a more localised and personal level, is exemplified by the aforementioned 'Bad Bohemian'. “You said the world was losing all its lustre / You realised each day you're growing old / And the future stretches out there between us / And we decide if we want it to be cold / But don’t be a bad bohemian,” goes the opening verse, a kind of play on the phrase ‘good citizen.’ The title is taken from The Bad Bohemian, a biography of the humorous Czech writer Jaroslav Hasak. “Kind of a fun, drunken guy,” says Martin. He won Idler of the Year once! Conversely, the rocking ‘International Space Station’, like 2008’s ‘Waving Flags’, is an example of their sense of global community, purveyed through their typically big guitar sound. “I have an ongoing spiritual friendship with the songwriter Geoff Goddard who is beyond the grave,” says Yan. “He recommended I pay tribute to him in the form of an ode to the classic hit ‘Telstar’ which he wrote a large part of (Goddard was uncredited for his part in coming up with the keyboard melody for ’Telstar’). Originally this song was that, although it became a vocal song and was upgraded to 'International Space Station' as a celebration of international cultures working together rather than the original title of ‘Telstar 2’. I’m not sure it was good enough to obtain the title Telstar 2!”

Current single, the poppy ‘Sechs Freunde (Keep on Trying)’ is another reminder of the band’s hopeful internationalist outlook. “Sachs Freund is German for six friends and is used as a way of talking about the six degrees of separation theory. As it happens BSP are made up of six people. “It relates to that ‘small world’ experiment,” says Martin, “and the connection between people. On the whole people are only six connections away from anyone else on the planet. It is such a small world and people can have such a big influence. And then we looked at it, and realised there were six of us as well!”

Other characters stud the album. For instance, there’s the almost Springsteenian mid-western rock of 'The Voice of Ivy Lee'. “Ivy Lee was one of the first modern propagandists, and a very clever if somewhat dislikable man," says Yan. "You could potentially trace the beginnings of many problems back to his groundbreaking work." And what about the title of the album, where does that come from? “It’s taken from a poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay. A great artist. Somehow the sentiment of the poem summed up how I felt about the album. There is a lot of tiresome talking going on these days. I suppose it could also be seen as the continuing Scottish Influence, too!” Short and very sweet, Finlay’s poem reads: “When I have talked for an hour I feel lousy / Not so when I have danced for an hour / The dancers inherit the party / While the talkers wear themselves out and sit in corners alone, and glower”.

 

 

Meanwhile, the album’s sleeve features typography influenced by the German Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, whose work BSP’s two vocalists, Yan and his brother Hamilton (aka Neil) Wilkinson, discovered while growing up on the edge of the English Lake District, where examples of his work now reside, including at Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal. “He was part of a European group of artists denounced by Nazism as degenerate,” explains Yan. “He fled to the Lake District where I grew up although I had no idea of this at the time. Later we used a sound piece of his, 'Ursonate', as an intro at concerts and later on I took part in a Late at Tate evening devoted to him. I contributed a temporary installation for the evening. It is a continuing link which seems to grow new adventures each year or two. There are more in the works. I see a link from him to people like William Burroughs and David Bowie with their adoption of collage techniques. I also adapted one of his prototype typefaces – systemschrift – for the artwork.” Furthermore, the video for 'Bad Bohemian', which Yan made, alludes to the work of Schwitters. “Instead of a collage of newspapers or tickets like Kurt Schwitters sometimes used, the modern “found” items might be YouTube clips or cute kittens or something! I think it made sense at the time.”

Recorded in Sussex, London and on the Isle of Skye, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party is the band’s sixth studio album under the British Sea Power moniker. Their first five albums were all released on Rough Trade, representing the longest continually signed band in the legendary label’s history. But BSP decided to crowd fund this new album, and release the album independently via their own label Golden Chariot. Moreover, rather than using the services of third party crowd-funding company such as Kickstarter, the band in their inimitable fashion, tapped directly into their fanbase. With pledges ranging from pre-orders for a limited-edition box-set version of the album to a tattoo that gives entry to all future BSP shows, an idea that came from Abi Fry, the former Bat For Lashes violinist who joined the band in 2008. Officially it’s called the ‘Endless and Irremovable BSP Rock Matelot Entrance Tattoo’, and it cost £1500 per person. “We will also play a party for a guy in the local area,” says Scott about the many interesting prizes on offer for those who have helped finance the recording of the album, which also includes a three-year guestlist for all BSP headline shows and BSP-organised events. What did Yan make of the whole crowdfunding process? "It helped us appreciate that there are people who want us to continue and will actually enjoy directly helping us. It’s nice. It sort of allows you to be fully DIY. In the end we licensed the album to Caroline Records who are a great bunch of people. We got to make it how we wanted to, but they will do a much better job of getting it out into the world. We’ll be busy enough doing the gigs.”

With everyone spread out nowadays (Neil and Abi are on the Isle of Skye, Woody (Matthew Wood) has moved back to Cumbria, while Martin, Scott and Phil Summers (keys) remain in Brighton) has it made it more difficult for the band to, well, be a band? "Neil and Abi went to Skye, the northern tip, about the time of our third album, so they've been up there a while now. They didn't have internet then which made it difficult in their little bothy. But they've got broadband now. Abi does all her strings up there but she often has to wait for breaks and wait for the wind to stop," laughs Martin. "Neil does loads of singing up on Skye and then just sends the files down. It's all fine." What's their place like? "Their bothy is surrounded by bigger houses. It's quite an open area. They all spy on each other with binoculars," he laughs. "They are the sort of weird couple in the middle of it all. When they moved there the toilet was literally a bucket in an out building, which you had to get to by walking down a path. Since then they've been doing some pretty unique DIY, shall we say. It's much better, more mod cons. But not all."

British Sea Power have been a remarkably steady ship since she docked in Brighton around the turn of the millennium, although several members have moved to other locations. In fact there has been only one person who was and is no longer a member of the band, Eamon Hamilton, who left in 2006 to pursue his luck with Brakes, a band he fronted, and who were themselves signed with Rough Trade. Does Yan see him much these days? “Not a lot. He lives in America with his family. I wish I did see him more.” Apart from the band what else are you doing these days? “I was getting a bit emotional there,” admits Yan. “Missing Eamon and jamming due to geography. Painting’s a really cheer-me-upper though! I go in the shed. I paint. The world is a better place. I spend more and more time doing this. I also have rekindled my love of digging holes in the earth.”
Jeff Hemmings

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