Music is one of those little worlds where we could be allowed to actually stand out as intellectuals.
The five lads of British Sea Power create angular, aggressive, and abrasive rock music that resonates with focus, intellectualism, and clarity. Their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, was one of 2003’s most acclaimed debuts.
The band began in 1999 and slowly gained momentum as their gigging grew and grew. A groundswell of support and interest eventually caught the attention of Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade Records founder who signed the Smiths. With Travis’s unwavering support, British Sea Power mixed their steadfast love of nature and fondness for history and literature with powerful, angular sonic textures, creating a sound that was both cerebral and primal.
These days, BSP are pop musicians who are just as comfortable in libraries as they are in smoke-filled nightclubs. Live, they caught the attention of the British press by draping the stage with plastic animals, branches, twigs, and leaves to add a more pastoral atmosphere to the proceedings. Their sets are tight affairs filled with crisp sets of power Anglo-rock that culminate with improvised lyrics and spastic guitar solos.
BSP are leading the charge of “Brighton rock,” a name that aptly fits the southern English seaside town the band calls home. BSP’s critical success has opened the door Stateside for fellow Brightons Clearlake and Electrelane.
British Sea Power recently concluded their American tour and returned home to prepare for a new album and settle into a summer of touring. Their new single, “A Lovely Day Tomorrow,” is being released in both Czech and English with their friend Katerina Winterova (The Ecstasy of St. Theresa) singing the Czech vocals.
Playback St. Louis sat down with Yan (vocals), Hamilton (bass) and, Noble (guitars) in Columbia before their show at Mojo’s and discovered that the shy, smart, reserved lads of British Sea Power are just as hard to pin down as their music.
Your songs utilize a degree of intellectualism that is missing from the music of a lot of other bands. Has this been a plus or a minus in getting exposed?
YAN: I think the fact that we have interests outside three-chord rock ’n’ roll sets us slightly apart from other bands. Music is one of those little worlds where we could be allowed to actually stand out as intellectuals.
That’s true, although there are very few bands that write songs about Lindbergh or ornithology. The average band doesn’t do that.
YAN: I think it comes from books, good old-fashioned books. And it comes from history and people. I am interested in people who are willing to make an effort and do something.
Can you talk about the “Remember Me” single? I read that you did something kind of special for that. You had people send in the names of people that they wanted remembered.
YAN: On the back of the record, we listed people that others wanted remembered. It’s like each song was individually named or dedicated to somebody. We were surprised, because we got a surprising number of really emotional letters about best friends who like died as teenagers and stuff. We weren’t expecting that. We thought we’d get letters for people’s heroes and all that. It was a massive mixture of people that got sent in.
HAMILTON: Har Mar Superstar emailed us and asked for his name to be put in. He played on the same stage as us at the Reading Festival.
How do British Sea Power songs come about?
YAN: I used to write most of [the songs]; [Hamilton] used to write the rest. It’s kind of changing now; it’s a lot more equal. Noble will take what I’ve written and completely change it around and create a lot of the layers and atmospheres and things like that. Most of the songs were written in the old-fashioned, sitting-at-home kind of way. “Apologies to Insect Life” was kind of jam-based.
HAMILTON: Julian Cope used to write songs while riding a bike.
NOBLE: I think walking is one of the best things for writing lyrics. Bikes and walking. The rhythm of walking and riding a back helps, I think. You look like a madman walking down the street talking to yourself, but it’s a small price to pay.
You mentioned Julian Cope; it sounds as if he has had an influence on some of your records. I was wondering what it was like to meet someone whose work you admire, or to hear that someone you admire likes your record?
HAMILTON: We’ve never met Julian Cope but I heard he liked us. We were going to do a project with him and go up to Liverpool for a weekend and just play some songs, but he got wrapped up in his books and other things.
YAN: He lives in Avesbury, which is one of my favorite places in England. He almost lives in the center of one of the largest prehistoric stone circle in England. New Year’s Eve in Avesbury is the strangest night ever. It’s like a mixture of druids and really far-out people.
How have British Sea Power been received on this tour?
HAMILTON: I think a lot of people who see us think we are quite strange. [Laughs.]
YAN: Places like New York seem a bit more familiar now; places like [Columbia] seem a bit odd. It’s quite weird so far this tour. I can’t pin it down; it’s just odd. But the people seem to be really enjoying themselves,
HAMILTON: Each part of the States is like a brand new country, isn’t it? The culture and everything is different everywhere you go. Each part has its own culture but everybody speaks the same. It seems simple, but it is so different. It’s very hard to get your head around.
You do some crazy stuff with the stage, adding plants, fake animals, branches and sticks. Do people get that, or do they have this sort of deer-in-the-headlights look?
NOBLE: There usually are a few different kinds of people at the shows. There are the deer-in-the-headlights people. Some people are the more melancholy types. Some people like the silly bits at the end.
YAN: I think we have been surprisingly well received in general so far, and much faster than expected. I get quite a thrill by playing in London and seeing people bringing their own branches to concerts now. We even gave out palm leaves to people who seemed quite keen to see us. Some of them were waving them and swaying them around.
British Sea Power, Clearlake, and Electrelane are all bands from Brighton currently touring in the States. Do you think there is a hip “scene” in Brighton that is breaking out?
NOBLE: England is a country in denial, but in really there are more signed bands per square meter in Brighton than anywhere else in England.
YAN: I don’t think it is a proper scene like in the North. I have an iodine theory about Brighton. Iodine is one of the chemicals that comes off of the sea and makes you feel relaxed and dreamy. I think that is probably the biggest influence on all of the bands in Brighton.
You have been compared to Joy Division, Wire, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Do you think these comparisons are accurate?
YAN: It was so long ago when I first heard them. They’re all informative bands. I was lucky to hear them when I was quite young, having an older brother with an incredible record collection.
Has the Northern English sound of these bands permeated your music?
YAN: I think that, for example, you can’t see Peter Hook play bass and pretend you didn’t hear it. I think it has a lot to do with accents; those bands come form more industrial cities, and we grew up in the countryside.
What inspired you to write a song [“Spirit of St. Louis”] about Lindbergh?
YAN: Because he was unique. I had read a book his son wrote about him. People had been trying to do this with these big, four-engine planes and teams of three or four people and massive fuels tanks; people had died doing this. Then he set off in a tiny little plane, completely stripped of anything, on his own with some sandwiches and a handheld compass and flew something like 44 hours straight. I don’t know if it was the tiredness or something, but for a while, he said he felt like he had a ghost in him. He was hallucinating and stuff. He set off as a nobody and landed in France as the biggest superstar in the world. It’s such a crazy story. There are much worse ways of becoming famous than flying across the Atlantic with some sandwiches and a compass.
You have cited General Montgomery as an influence in interviews. Do you think that he doesn’t get the same amount of respect as Rommel or Patton?
YAN: No he doesn’t. I like the way he wore his cap and the way he attired himself really smartly.
NOBLE: He was brilliant. His logic kind of went against the rules. All he really cared about was his troops and making sure they were fit. He was in Egypt and he new all his soldiers were going out to brothels and getting diseases and stuff, so he had a brothel in the barracks and made sure that the prostitutes were clean. He did loads of things like that.
YAN: I think he had this strange, family-stroked kind of homosexual love for his men, which is pretty strange for a field marshall. I think his dad was like a gay vicar and his mother abused him.
NOBLE: Yeah he used to have to wear dresses. His mother wanted a girl, I think.
How is it working with Geoff Travis?
NOBLE: I get bored of saying how nice Geoff is. He’ll do things like take us out for a pub lunch and a pub quiz that night as well. He’s a quite a knowledgeable fellow is Geoff.
YAN: He’s nice and he’s humble and quiet and just kind of genuine.
Did he really make enough money from the Strokes to restart Rough Trade?
NOBLE: Yeah. He also had Low and the Libertines. I think it’s like of those weird cycles where things conspire for the best. It like how New Order funded the bands on Factory.
Is there anyone person in British Sea Power who is the take-charge person?
YAN: Unfortunately, there is nobody who does that; it’s pretty equal. Woody doesn’t really do anything other than play drums fantastically. That’s all he wants to do.
HAMILTON: He doesn’t talk. He reads a lot, sleeps a lot.
YAN: I don’t know; each of us plays some part, I suppose. Noble sort of tells us what to do. He’s the one who pushes us on the most. He’s the most organized in the band.
NOBLE: Someone has to be.
YAN: You’ve only really get one good chance to do something like this and you’ve got to make the most of it.
Did you learn much from any of the bands you’ve toured with?
NOBLE: We toured with Pulp, which was great. We were played with the Flaming Lips right when they began making a massive impact in England with this record and these big celebratory atmosphere concerts.
YAN: Interpol; we learned professionalism from Interpol.
HAMILTON: I’d like to tour with Julian Cope and Bo Diddley.
YAN: The Copper Family; they are like a 200-year-old folk band. We have played with them before. They are great. Bob Copper has the lowest voice I have ever heard.
How much planning went into the track order of Decline of British Sea Power? It is well paced and appears to have been very planned out and precise.
HAMILTON: We concentrated on each song at a time, trying to make it the best it could sound. We were pleased at how well the songs went together.
YAN: I remember the day we put it all in sequence. It worked out well. It was a good day.
NOBLE: We had a list, but changed it when we heard the songs together. I think that, for a guitar band, it is quite diverse. I think that was the only possible order to put the songs in and we got it right.
Have you started work on your next record?
NOBLE: Yeah. We were in the countryside for about three or four weeks, just before we came here on we this tour. We were in this little barn just at the foot of the Downs, which is the hills around the Brighton area. For three weeks, we had of all kinds of weather: storms, massive gales, every type of weather that you could imagine.
Finally, do you know when the new album will be coming out?
NOBLE: Hopefully, it will be out this year.
Did you set up a schedule or did you just ease into it?
YAN: This is the shortest time we’ve ever had to work on music. That’s why we kind of shut ourselves off in the country.
NOBLE: We had two weeks to demo and that kind of thing. We try to get away from distractions and try to create own stupid fantasy world for whatever we wanted to do. There are no rules; they all go out the window and then it all ends up different from anything we planned. We just go with it.
British Sea Power’s debut album, The Decline and Fall of British Sea Power, is available on Rough Trade records. For more information on the band, visit their Web site at www.britishseapower.co.uk.