Words by David Natoli
Brighton’s British Sea Power is a throw back of sorts. Harkening back to a time when a band described as “indie rock” or “independent” could range from mildly eccentric to downright impenetrable to the average listener, they certainly create their own world. Like The Smiths’ grim, Northern, tragicomedies, and The Libertines’ ramshackle, cobble stoned literary punk, British Sea Power have dreamed up a world of wonder, contemplation of nature, Military chic, Czech cultural references and rural beauty. Their moniker alone conjures it’s own images – turn of the century port cities, steam engines, men in top hats, and wildlife exacting revenge on human follies. The gigs are rife with a certain beauty that can be hard to explain. I can only describe it as like watching a handful of brave men going to battle. Foliage drapes the amplifiers, flags fly, stuffed birds watch on, a large bear descends from the rafters and attempts to kill bassist/vocalist Hamilton. Stage dives, thousand yard stares, audience bating, and woolen trousers are often employed. During the climax of their headlining CMJ label showcase gig, guitarist Noble jammed a microphone into the lens of a video taper who had pushed his way rudely to the front. When the guy swung up at him, Noble provided the man with a look I read as admonishment and confidant protest against observing the gig only through a lens, disconnected from the fury.
The story so far includes a critically lauded first LP (The Decline Of British Sea Power) that melded attacking noise with graceful wiry anthems, and a second (Open Season), a softer, more autumnal collection of songs to some extent muted some of the bands power and eccentricities. Early 2006 saw keyboardist/percussionist Eamon leave the band to concentrate on his other project, Brakes.
Their most recent EP (Krankenhaus?) and forthcoming LP (Do You Like Rock Music?) are a glorious examples of artful, raucous, thoughtful, and original sounds. Welcome them into your homes.
One gets the vibe that BSP don’t much enjoy the peripheral trappings of performing live: the sea of cameras foisted up at gigs, killing time at venues hours before they play, a succession of interviews the only thing breaking the monotony. My conversation with Yan (vocals/guitar), Hamilton (bass/vocals) at The Bowery Ballroom in NYC was often illuminating, sometimes politely awkward, and certainly plagued by noise from sound checks going on downstairs.
D: So I noticed in Hoboken the other night you guys were a little more stripped down than usual – you’ve done away with the trees….
Yan: Yeah, for a while, to make sure we haven’t forgotten about the…music…
D: Does the music get overshadowed a bit by that kind of stuff?
Hamilton: It’s superfluous and there’s a lot of it going around these days.
Yan: It’s as much for us as anything else. Fewer things to distract you for a while. We’ll probably bring something back sooner or later.
D: I imagine there are some who might be disappointed not to see Hamilton attacked by a bear…
Yan: Yeah but you can’t please everyone can ya? They were dangerous as well. Our manager got attacked with a knife while gathering branches in New York! Hamilton fell out of a tree once…
D: You guys play a lot of unconventional venues in the UK but not so much in the US. Do you find that it’s difficult to plan that type of thing over here?
Yan: Yeah because we don’t really know the territory and we’re not here long enough to find out. What happens in England now is that people just get in touch with us and tell us about places they think that we’ll like.
D: Lyrically you touch quite a bit on nature, animals and natural disasters. I was wondering if any of that extended to the personal politics the band might have, like vegetarianism, environmentalism, etc.
Yan: There’s probably a bit of that, but it’s not like hardcore. I found out the term for that recently…climate porn.
D: Climate porn?
Yan: It’s like when people exaggerate the Biblical aspect of global warming and turn it into something dramatic and almost overdo it in a way. I find it interesting. Newspapers and stuff, the way that they make it seem like nature is taking a personal grievance rather than it being the natural cause and effect of how things work.
D: Are the natural elements discussed in the lyrics metaphorical?
Yan : It’s partly just the way I like to be. It makes me feel good to go out into the countryside. Also its symbolic, metaphorical…like how the Indians like the wolves, you know it has meaning for them, like sheep…. There was an Austrian artist that had this theory that straight edges and right angles that you get in cities have a subconsciously detrimental effect on the brain. He used to encourage people to get creative and plant trees on top of roofs and get people to lean out windows and paint shapes below their windows to get people to put their own mark on things.
D: People in NYC often have these elaborate garden boxes outside of their windows…
Yan: Yeah I love it…it’s good to get the old insects back in as well.
D: What motivated you guys to start British Sea Power? To me there are too many bands and it forces me to question the motivation people have behind starting bands. Very few are unique…
Yan: I think they are being unique in a way. I agree with you though. I don’t remember to be honest, which isn’t a very good answer.
D: Were there any bands before this one for you guys?
Hamilton: We used to play loads of things didn’t we? Harmonicas, tape recorders…. You get machines and you find out what they can do.
Yan: It was people like The Smiths and Julian Cope that made things seem that they were bearable and making music seemed like the best thing you could do really.
D: Is it strange to be brothers in a band? Siblings are normally so different…
Hamilton: It’s the only thing I know so it’s hard to say.
Yan: I think its good because you have the same experiences when you’re young and they sort of shape how you are. It saves on talking…
D: One of my favorite things about the band is the design aspect. It reminds me of the Factory Records aesthetic and The Smiths, who you mentioned. Do you all contribute to that?
Yan: It changes. Woody is the one who puts it all together and makes it great.
Hamilton: You get ideas walking in the country. You see a sign or something that makes you think.
Yan: I don’t think they’re really similar to the Factory ones…
D: Maybe not in style exactly but consistency wise…
Yan: Maybe. Saville knew what he was doing obviously. I always thought they were beautiful covers. He stole ideas from old typography though…
Hamilton: I suppose we’re keeping a good tradition going.
D: Does it worry you that we seem to be moving away from a complete package like that and more focusing on digital, and individual tracks?
Yan: It’s evitable things change but nothing is stopping you from making physical things. It’s a choice really. Technology moves on and you’ve got to go with it. You could say the same thing about when people started printing things. You know everything used to be made by individual people and then they made printing presses.
D: Do you ever anticipate a time when you would do a digital only release? I know it’s sort of the question of the day…
Yan: I like cardboard.
D: A friend of mine commented recently that it looks like vinyl won out in the end vs. CDs.
Yan: CDs are not a good scale for artwork and vinyl sounds better. It’s got weight too. CDs main selling point was that they’re light, not as easily destructible as a record but it’s not really true.
D: You guys are a band that always has quality B-sides. How do you approach writing them?
Yan: It used to be the bit where we got to have a bit more fun. We do a lot of recording ourselves now, which is good for that. We get to use a bit more individuality maybe, and no one telling you “that’s too stupid.”
Hamilton: There’s room to do the crazy shit. We do a lot of things that aren’t proper songs and some funny things you’d never get a chance to do…
D: Are there any bands that you feel a particular kinship with?
Yan: Although I don’t listen to any of them anymore…The Pixies, Julian Cope, The Smiths, New Order, Joy Division…
Hamilton: Maybe a band like The Coral…they seem like sort of a little gang.
Yan: I like bands that just sound like they come from somewhere geographically – like The Coral. They come from Liverpool and they sound like a Liverpool band.
D: Early Hardcore/Punk in the U.S. was a very regional scene. Bands from Chicago didn’t sound anything like bands in DC or Boston. So would you say British Sea Power sounds like…a band from Brighton? Rural England?
Yan: Probably Northern English. Rural English is hard to say. There aren’t many bands from the Lake District you see.
D: Are there any others that you know of?
Yan: Actually there are now. Kendel is a small town. It’s not far from Manchester but it’s a totally different world. Yeah they’ve got a few bands now that are doing all right. I guess they have seen that it is possible to be in a band and come from a small town…
Hamilton: There is a festival now.
Yan: We headlined the first festival over there. But normally you just get Punk bands doing covers mostly.
D: The upcoming album Do You Like Rock Music? seems to have a bigger sound maybe…brighter, louder… How much of that is down to the producers you chose? (Howard Bilerman formerly of Arcade Fire and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed! You Black Emperor)
Yan: Yeah, it’s partly them and it was partly our own idea of how we wanted to do it. Probably the best thing they did was just let us do it. They never interfered and they never objected to anything, and they weren’t fussy.
Hamilton: There were lots of nice machines. Proper ones…that help the sound. And this other guy Graham Sutton mixed it and helped bring it all together. It was a group effort.
Yan: “Atom” and “No Need To Cry” we recorded ourselves and they don’t sound that different (to the rest of the LP). It all fits together. (Pause) Yeah, we had some help. (Laughs)
D: Songs on the EP like “Pelican” and “Hearing Aid” seem a lot more abrasive than anything on the last LP Open Season. Was that on purpose?
Hamilton: Open Season I can’t really listen to. It sounds a bit feeble to me.
Yan: It’s pleasant. I think it’s got good songs on it, good tunes. There are times when I hear bits on accident I am surprised that I quite enjoy it. But it wasn’t really what we intended to do. We were a bit tired and just did it. It’s a bit more romantic I suppose.
Hamilton: There are bits of it that sound really great I think.
Yan: I think True Adventures has a really great sound, but it’s got a few on there that were a bit weak sonically.
Hamilton: That was a quick job (both laugh), which isn’t a bad way to do things; a lot of good records are made quickly.
Yan: It was definitely in our minds to move away from that.
Hamilton: We wanted something that was a better representation of us so it was sort of a reaction I guess.
Yan: It can be a bit schizophrenic hearing the record and then playing it live.
D: You seem much more powerful live.
Yan: We used to rely more on layering up of sounds, which is fun to do…but we want it to be more economical really.
Hamilton: After Open Season, I think a lot of people thought we were posh boys. Kind of delicate…I mean we’re not bad boys but…(laughter)..We’re not soft.
D: There was such huge difference in sound between The Decline Of British Sea Power and Open Season…
Yan: Well with the first one we had an engineer helping us and we produced it ourselves really with some technical help. The second one we weren’t so involved…because it was a quick job. This one was more of a labor of love.
D: Was there label pressure to record quickly?
Yan: No, there wasn’t really pressure. It’s just how it worked out really. We had 12 songs and every one of them went on the record. Whereas this time we must have started with almost 20 songs and have chosen the ones we like best.
Hamilton: We also spent a lot of time on our own, isolated in strange places in England. We started off in a water tower.
Yan: Yeah we had it easy on the last one. We subjected ourselves to more hardship this time. I recommend it.
D: You also recorded in Montreal right?
Hamilton: Yeah it was like a massive cold room with shit everywhere. A couple of lights – no fancy stuff like fireplaces or pool tables…MTV going. No computers.
D: The new songs seem to maybe have a more modern theme. “Lights Out For Darker Skies” even references the year 2007.
Yan: That is a bit of a disappointment that! (LP has a 2008 release date). We’re gonna be about a month late, but yeah. We’ve kind of given up on looking back really…history and all that. It’s become almost like a trend, in England at least. It’s become an intellectually cool thing to do almost.
Hamilton: Which falls a bit flat a lot of the time.
D: I guess the exception would be “Canvey Island” about a great flood that happened in the 1950s.
Yan: But again that song talks about similarities to things that are happening more and more nowadays. I guess with that story I found it quite funny. There was a flood, people died and whatever, and they interviewed a survivor and he was quite sad about a friend being lost but he was equally sad that his football team’s ground had been ruined. It meant as much to him…all of the team’s archives went missing as well.
D: How did Eamon’s departure affect the band?
Hamilton: He is still with us in spirit. But he never really wrote songs. He always had his own thing going even before British Sea Power.
Yan: We miss his character, and his drum (Eamon would often surge through the crowd beating a drum) and his risquÃ© outfits. Every full moon as a special treat for us he would wear a shabby brown shirt that only came down to here (gestures slightly below the unmentionables) and nothing underneath. That kept us on our toes.
Hamilton: He is a pretty fearless fella.
D: I have noticed that Hamilton stares you down when you are singing Yan….
Yan: Yes, it’s sort of nice. But, is it a malevolent stare or a nice stare?
Hamilton: But he is not actually singing, it’s like a puppet act. He is also sort of a pretty fella. But really…I’m kind of unaware of what I’m doing.
Yan: He’s actually learning aren’t you? That’s why he has been singing more songs because he is learning so well.
D: There seem to be some common threads that run through your songs from the beginning: the concept of bravery, righteousness, “being a man”, etc…
Yan: Well I remember being about 12 or 13 and seeing the film Mad Max. That was one if the first proper films I ever saw. I remember thinking that the story was true, or that it was going to happen in the next year or two. I assumed that things were going to spiral out of control. It seems like it is, it’s just taken a bit longer than I thought. I mean it’s not really an original thought. You know how everyone now is relying so much on technology what if you take it away? Everyone starts dressing in leather jackets with studs and raping girls! I like a bit of JG Ballard and how he really took a look far into the future but it’s already a bit of a sci-fi world. I like sci-fi. A bit of William Burroughs…I was just sitting in a lobby this morning in the hotel. There were lots of suited people there and out of about 40 people there was only one person who wasn’t interfacing through some type of technology. No one just sits there anymore. They need to be constantly amused.
Hamilton: It’s almost like a zombie state that they are in. But you know a lot of good ideas come out of having nothing to do.
Do You Like Rock Music? is slated for release on Rough Trade Records on the 14th of January and 12th of February, in the U.S. and the U.K., respectively.
Photos By Eva Vermandel