The ascent of British Sea Power

British Sea Power’s Noble (Martin to his mum) discusses festival curation, new material from the band and giant fish with Tim Smyth.

British Sea Power’s Noble (Martin to his mum) discusses festival curation, new material from the band and giant fish with Tim Smyth.


About a fortnight before the winner of the Mercury Prize is announced, British Sea Power’s Noble has other things on his mind. Though the maverick pastoral-rockers are among the favourites for the gong, the multi-instrumentalist has a festival to run. However, given BSP’s interest in all things bucolic and surreal, it promises to make Electric Picnic seem little more than a cider-fuelled sing-a-long by a campfire.

“Yeah, really what we’re doing at the moment is getting things together for our own little festival,” he enthuses. “It’s called ‘Sing Ye From the Hillsides’ and it’s a mixture of music and general activities – there’s going to be husky-racing and falconry and it’s happening at the tallest pub in England [Tan Hill, Yorkshire, which is 1,732 above sea level]. One of the barmen was in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the loudest human voice, so what we’re probably going to do is have him judge a loudest voice competition where everyone goes up a hill and literally sings ‘Ye’ from the hillsides.

We’ll be playing three shows at it – the first night’ll be a mellow one, then we’ll do a proper one on Saturday. Sunday we’re playing the live soundtrack to a documentary made in the 1930s called Man of Aran. Well, it’s not really a documentary, because most of it was made up. I mean there’s this massive scene where these fishermen are bashing up a basking shark, even though they hadn’t fished for them for about fifty years. About half the stuff we’ll be playing is new music and for the shark scene we’ve got this 12-minute jam with whale noises on the guitar. It’s like ‘Sister Ray’ but with a giant fish.”

 “Yan comes up with these massive cacophonies that are like nothing I’ve ever heard before. We’ll probably do a lot more of those on the next album”

I see. Is it a headache getting all these things together for it? “Well, it’s mainly a headache for our manager, really.” It should hopefully be clear by this point that BSP are not like most other bands – and they’ve been that way from the start. The wrenching guitars, Shakespeare-quoting lyrics and heart-on-sleeve sincerity of 2003’s debut The Decline of British Sea Power made virtually everything else that year look positively anaemic. Elsewhere, earth-shattering live shows – complete with crowd invasions, marauding bears and the 20-minute “Rock in A” – quickly cemented their reputation as a band to watch. However, Noble looks back on the earlier shows as being somewhat incomplete.

“I suppose part of it’s because I get kind of panicky when there’s loads of guitar and our first album was really driven by a guitar-heavy sound. I mean we had one song – ‘The Lonely’ – which I think we played about six times in total up to about this year because we had e-bows and pianos and loads of extras on the record, whereas the whole thing came across a bit thin live. Now that we’ve got Philly (Phil Sumner, cornet and keyboards) and Abi (Fry, violist and sometime musician with Bat for Lashes) to fill things out, we’re all just so much more pleased with how it sounds on stage.

It’s not just their live sound that’s been souped up. This year’s spellbinding third offering Do You Like Rock Music? is a roaring return to origins. 2005’s sophomore LP Open Season was a streamlined and glossy affair and, while unanimously hailed by critics, it drew fire from some fans for being too polished. Things got even more difficult when US radio banned single “Please Stand Up” and when keyboardist Eamon departed to give more time to his own project, Brakes.

Perhaps all of these trials and tribulations are what lend Do You Like Rock Music? its raucous sense of urgency and defiance. From the blitz attack of opener “Lights Out For Darker Skies” to the soaring, sweeping pro-immigration anthem “Waving Flags,” it’s a raw, life-affirming cacophony of an album. At the time they were recording it, though, it felt, to a great extent, like business as usual.

“Well, I mean, all we did was get all the bits together that you have and try to make the best of it,” he answers when I ask him if the band felt they were on to something special with this set of songs. “Our producer Graham Sutton really deserves the credit for bringing it all together. We were consciously going for something more raucous, something with a more live feel to it. I suppose the biggest innovation was having Phil in the studio. He just puts his cornet through all these effects and it just comes out sounding massive. I suppose it’s a bit like Brian Wilson mashing together all those instruments on Pet Sounds and coming out with something entirely new. As for the material… well, really we just stole the best bits. For instance there’s one part on ‘The Great Skua’ I nicked from Bach…”

On the level of songwriting, DYLRM? is a much more collaborative effort. Though the main duties are shared between brothers Yan (Scott Wilkinson, vocals and guitar) and Hamilton (Neil Wilkinson, bass and guitar), Yan’s cuts have taken up most of the tracks on their previous two albums. Here, though, Hamilton’s voice dominates.

“I suppose it can look that way on the surface,” Noble concedes, “but if you look at all of our songs – including the ones not on any of the albums – you’ll notice that it’s been about 50/50 between both of them. One had less pressure on him because he was used to it and then the other was just rising to the challenge.”

Given the sheer number of musical templates the band draw on, it’s not surprising to learn that they’ve done a lot of moving about in the last year. Known for taking live shows to odd locations (including underground to Carnglaze Caverns in Cornwall), they carried the same principle to recording.

“You see, we were just so sick of recording in London,” he reveals. “We’d done that for the last two albums and really it’s just such an impersonal experience. You just go to the studio all day and record, then you’re back to your hotel in the evening. You never feel like you’re actually in a place. So basically we took ourselves off to a cottage in the New Forest, a water tower in Sussex and a place called Fort Trentangle in Cornwall. There wasn’t really a whole lot done – it was a bit of cheap fun and a holiday to be out of London. We got ‘Canvey Island’ in the bag – we all wrote a bit – but that was all. We did a bit in the Czech Republic, too, but things really took off when we got to Montréal. Partly we wanted to go there because of what we’d heard coming out of Hotel 2 Tango (Harold Bilerman and Godspeed mainman Efrim Menuck’s recording studio) and partly because we wanted to take in what was going on in the scene over there.”

 “We wanted to show that anything can be rock music – not just skulls and dice ”

Since getting out of the studio, the touring has been both relentless and rewarding, with the band scoring slots in the TV with David Letterman, Jools Holland and, er, Countryfile. Presumably they saved their enthusiasm about Colonel Montgomery and marine birdlife for the latter, though. But other than taking time off to record video diaries for rural interest programmes, they’re not a band to stay still for very long.

“We had a US tour there a few months ago – went really well, I have to say, but this thing of breaking America is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t really go over there to do that. You head over more to build a profile than anything else. It’s like starting over again, so it takes a while to establish a base. It’s the same as when we were getting going in the UK. It took about four or five tours before anyone knew who we were. But it was fun anyway – we played so many different places. I’m really looking forward to the next leg of the tour as well. The songs are coming together great in rehearsal. We’re coming back to Ireland again this year and we always have a great time when we head there. I mean we sort of unpack, decide to go for a drink and, well, that’s about it really. I think the first time we played there about fifteen people turned up…”

When the touring’s out of the way, there’s already talk of another set of recording sessions. “Yeah, everyone’s just gagging to get back into the studio with all their little bits. We’re trying to find a good place in Sussex to do a bit there. We’re hoping to spend about six months in our own studio, and this time we’ll go for a completely different approach. There’ll be a lot more studio layering, and probably less of a live feel to it all. Yan loves to blend loads of things to white noise – he just comes up with these massive cacophonies that are like nothing I’ve ever heard before. We’ll probably do a lot more of those on the next album.”

Joking aside, though, both the music and lyrics reveal a band who takes its work seriously. The out-and-out force of its title and the lengthy manifesto in its liner notes only underline that fact.

“I suppose we do take it seriously on one level, because you want what you write to mean something. It’s sort of about translating those intense experiences you get on your own to a group setting, without it all ending up sounding like you’re just dicking around with your mates. You just wind up coming across like Goldie Lookin Chain that way.

I guess the title sums up what we’re about on this record more than anything. I mean, before now we still tried not to include things that you wouldn’t find in your average, clichéd rock song, but we took it a bit further this time. We wanted our record to provoke people into asking themselves, ‘what is rock music?’ and then show them how it can be so much more than it is. We wanted to show that anything can be rock music – not just skulls and dice.

In lots of ways, it’s the record I’m the most proud of, and it’s probably the record that relates most to the present day. There’s a lot of dark stuff going on at the moment, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about too. It’s about seeing both those and still managing to celebrate what’s ‘rock music’ about it all.” Deep stuff, but no-one says it with as much unpretentious passion as British Sea Power. As Yan sings on “Atom”, “I’ll be the first to admit this is a bright but haunted age.” Do I like rock music? As long as BSP are involved, oh, yes, I do.

British Sea Power play Belfast’s Mandela Hall tonight.