British Sea Power (Interview)
You don't "go" to a British Sea Power gig, you participate, like how going to church should be. Ask any of the sweat covered mass who spilled out onto the streets of Sheffield, ears ringing and smiles beaming from faces of people who knew what they'd seen and knew in no uncertain terms that they'd just witnessed the best live band today.
This series of shows through April marks the end of The Decline Of British Sea Power, the last 18 months has seen them go from cult Brighton based act to exposure on national TV, appearing on just about every "Top Album's of 2003" list and even cracking the UK top 40 with the singles Carrion and Remember Me. It could almost be said British Sea Power have forced their way into the mainstream. Don't tell the band that though.
"We're not really mainstream," argues bassist Noble. "Compared to some bands that come along and suddenly everyone's heard of them." Which is a fair point, as compared to the blanket coverage afforded, say, Franz Ferdinand, British Sea Power are still pretty much in the lower leagues in terms of sales curves. Not that they really care too much, but could they take that step up to Top Of The Pops and sell-out arena tours? A clue could be in the bands recent viewing habits:
"We watched a Queen DVD last night," reveals guitarist Noble. "I reckon we could do that... the dark side of Queen, but not as professional."
Whether requisite big curly hair and moustaches will be grown to complete what would be a startling metamorphosis remains to be seen, but the recent single A Lovely Day Tomorrow - only domestically available at their recent gigs - shows a remarkable knack of writing deft hooks and choruses. Originally the b-side to the original release of Remember Me, its new vocal is delivered courtesy of Katerina Winterova of Czech band the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa and is the culmination of a long standing love for Czech culture. Having played their first show in Prague recently, the singles obviously appeal has been reflected.
"We're number 7 on Czech radio," says Hamilton with a hint of pride in his voice. "It was a bit weird being in taxis and hearing your song" adds Noble. Though this being British Sea Power, A Lovely Day Tomorrow has a theme whose dark tones add a sinister nature to its sunshine melody.
"Some Czech partisans who were trained in Britain were sent over to kill this Reinhardt Heidrich, who was called the Butcher of Prague" says Hamilton. "Afterwards loads of Czech people were killed in recriminations."
Hardly a surprising topic of song for a band who've referenced Dostoevsky once or twice in their short career, although critics could quite easily point the finger of pretension square in their direction. Once again, though, you'd expect them not to let it bother them too much. After all, this is a group who've done everything on their own terms from the beginning onwards. "We've been doing everything ourselves," notes Noble, "gradually learning... the production side, doing the covers. We did all the videos up to Remember Me. It can take a little more time than with people who get things done for you."
But at least you get things done you way you want?
It's suggested that being signed to the resurrected Rough Trade label (currently enjoying something of a purple patch with the Strokes, Libertines and Delays on the roster) has allowed British Sea Power to develop at their own pace, without the pressure of providing hit singles that would come from being on a major label. Noble obviously agrees:
"It's quite family orientated. The only pressure on a follow up is the pressure you put on yourself."
"Some bands," Hamilton adds "their label won't let them tour until they've had loads of hits, so it's good we've got to see the world."
It's on the stage were the band are truly at their most powerful. While The Decline Of... was undoubtedly as good as we've had in recent years, hearing the songs performed live, by what seems on occasions a possessed band, is an experience. During the Sheffield performance moments occur where the barrier between band and audience seems to break down totally, notably during the band's customary set closer Lately when keyboard player Eamon dons his World War II helmet, marching band drum and sets off onto the floor while singer Yan is dragged into the audience and carried high by adoring arms, somehow making it back with all his limbs intact. Noble invites concern for his safety by climbing to the top of his stack and drummer Wood stands (or sits) at his post throughout the chaos maintaining his steady beats unperturbed, or maybe he's just got used to all this by now.
It's not uncommon for older writers to bemoan that no contemporary band offers an essential live experience as had Joy Division or the Smiths. One night in the company of British Sea Power would be enough to change these minds, for even during the 'slower' songs such as A Wooden Horse and Blackout the mesh sways with a vigour that often verges on the violence of an 80's football crowd but somehow manages to just stay on the side of unilateral love and peace. Inter-song banter is kept to an absolute minimum - anyone unfamiliar with this particular world has to find any information out themselves - though a moment where Hamilton ruffles his brothers hair has a certain touching quality to counteract the straight forward noise of Apologies To Insect Life or Favours In The Beetroot Field, both of which cause energy levels throughout the building to surge once more.
As with any band whose debut album has been met with such approval, the pressure to follow it up with an album that at least matches its predecessor's qualities is often felt, not only by the band, but also by the listeners, who'll often see it as a disappointment regardless. British Sea Power seem untroubled by such matters, confessing that bar 'a few ideas', any real writing work on the album isn't due to start until the summer. Given that the all their previous releases have been self-produced, have they thought about getting a producer in to add an extra element?
"Yeah, we thought about it," says Hamilton, before adding with a shrug that "No-one's turned up to do it."
So is there anyone you'd like to work with in this context?
"Brian Wilson?" he offers.
"Joe Meek... but he's dead," chips in Noble. "Or Phil Spector, on day release."
Unlike many bands, British Sea Power have always come across as one that have always been willing to embrace other cultures. Their recent organisation of a "Czech Night" to coincide with the country's admission into the EU is one example of this, a recent bizarre gig offer is another.
"We got offered to go to Uzbekistan."
What? By who?
"By the British Consulate. We haven't turned it down, there's been a few bombs going off and stuff. We'll wait till the albums finished, might make for good publicity."
This kind of thing just doesn't happen to most people. What does though, is the traditional British act touring Japan and the subsequent welcome. Hamilton is keen to point out the scale behind the images though.
"There's a small proportion of the population very into English bands." Then, with a smile. "It's the only place you feel like a real rock star... like Beatlemania."
Despite his initial admission of Japan that "I was scared", Noble evidently found much to love in the Far East, enthusing about strange variations of bidets that feature all manner of taps and sprinklers. Better still:
"The toilet seat, when you sit on it, makes this weird noise so no-one can hear what you're doing."
It might not be your usual lead guitarist's story of excess sex, drugs and booze on the road, but what did you expect? This is British Sea Power, after all.24 May, 2004 - 23:00 — D.C. Harrison