British Sea Power
By Michael Tiernan

I wasn’t sure what to expect sitting down to ask a couple of the guys from British Sea Power a few questions before their show in Cork, Ireland. Their music speaks for itself. An arty and eclectic mixture of old and new, raucous and patient, jagged post-punk and soft melody, their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power, is the culmination of four years of writing, live sets and EPs, and has been met with virtually universal critical acclaim. What was cause for curiosity and some concern was their rather odd aesthetic and growing reputation for wild onstage antics during their live shows. At the very least, I was prepared to have to pry conversation out of a couple of rude, pretentious and off-putting characters. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yan, lead singer and person most responsible for British Sea Power, was anxious to talk music, and Noble, British Sea Power’s guitarist, chipped in a few quips as well despite just coming out of a nap.

Yan draws the origins of British Sea Power all the way back to first learning how to play music with his brother, the band’s bassist and occasional vocalist, Hamilton. “We used to mess around, playing Iggy Pop covers and Echo [and the Bunnymen] covers.” It was when Yan went off to college in Reading, England that he met Noble. The way Yan tells the story, Noble didn’t need much convincing to begin collaborating. “We thought we’d have a coffee and start a band instead of going to lecture.” In the meantime, Hamilton met drummer Wood and British Sea Power was formally established in 1999. Soon after their formation, the band moved out of Reading, a place they don’t seem to miss and that Yan describes as “uninspiring.” Once the move out of Reading comes up in the discussion Noble gets worked up and decides to chime-in saying “there was no music scene in Reading, and that’s a fact.” Moving to the seaside city of Brighton, England seems like a logical next step then for a band called British Sea Power. As Yan puts it, “we wanted to be close to the sea.” Once in Brighton, things really began to pick up. Yan and Noble proudly describe establishing their own label, Golden Chariot, to release their debut single, Fear of Drowning. Also in Brighton, British Sea Power’s reputation as a band to be seen live began to develop and earned them a weekly residency at a local club called the Lift. It was at the Lift, or Club Sea Power as it came to be known on nights when British Sea Power would take the stage, that a Rough Trade representative, drawn by the self-released Fear of Drowning, came to see and eventually sign the band.

So, that’s how the band came to be, but what about their style? To say the least it seems a bit random. A typical live show sees the band flanked by stuffed birds and branches, their attire gives the impression that they’ve been digging through some seriously musty attics and their cover art looks more appropriate for a novel than a CD. In fact, on its cover the title of The Decline of British Sea Power is prefaced by “British Sea Power’s Classic.” Yet, it all seems to have some common denominator that I just can’t put my finger on. When I described this to Noble he clearly felt a sense of accomplishment and nodded his head, as if this is the desired effect of all these elements. “There’s no specific thing that’s set out – it’s just whatever we like,” he described, “we don’t have a manifesto, we’re not that type of people.” Overall, British Sea Power conjures up thoughts of Charles Dickens or Masterpiece Theater… they’re distinctly British and distinctly antique; if 18th Century English aristocracy had a taste for indie rock you get the impression British Sea Power would be their favourite band. Thankfully, while all these arty elements are a nice sidebar, the guys from British Sea Power keep the tone as unpretentious as possible and have a good sense of humour, as a hilarious excerpt from one of their website’s newsletters can attest:

“We would also like to remind you that the mighty Echo and the Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant will be special guest at the Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool shows in October. Mr. Sergeant will be performing under the banner of his experimental Glide project. His last string of experimental shows went so well that he discovered a cure for gout and also a sonic device that non-lethally dispels grey squirrels from bird tables without interfering with any other resident wildlife.”

Despite the tongue-in-cheek quality of British Sea Power’s aesthetic, it’s bound to put people off as an effort to put style over substance. When I asked Yan if he was worried about the trees, birds, and overall weirdness of British Sea Power becoming a distraction, he paused for a moment and responded, “I’ve thought about that a little over the past few months but I’m quite confident about the music.” As well he should be, The Decline of British Sea Power is simply one of the best albums of the year. It holds tightly together despite its impressive range. “We looked at it like a good action film: starts with a chase scene, develops the characters, and you’re off,” that’s how Yan describes putting the album together. As ambiguous as that may sound, anyone who has listened to Decline knows exactly what he’s talking about. Opening with their two most rocking and punkish songs, “Apologies to Insect Life” and “Favours in the Beetroot Fields,” Decline then shifts gears effortlessly to a string of catchy post-punk including the masterful “Remember Me.” If The Decline of British Sea Power is an action flick, then the fourteen-minute “Lately” is its happy ending. A sprawling anthem, “Lately” beautifully ebbs and flows before tumbling out into a loud aching bliss of distorted guitars.

Thanks to their live shows and word of mouth, The Decline of British Sea Power is starting to get the attention it deserves. However, it seems that among their contemporaries, British Sea Power has been a favourite for quite sometime. They’ve been invited to tour with the likes of Interpol, The Flaming Lips and, more recently, The Strokes. Yan and Noble also filled me in on an exciting project on the horizon for British Sea Power. They’ve been talking to former Teardrop Explodes frontman and indie legend Julian Cope and working out plans to have him take over vocal duties. With British Sea Power as Cope’s backing band, they hope to release a few songs and do a few odd dates sometime next year under the tentative moniker of Leviathan. As much as new EPs and work on a new album would be welcomed by fans, few will complain about such a fitting collaboration that would promise some fantastically bizarre live shows.

For all their eccentricities, crazy live reputation, critical praise, and bright future, Noble and Yan seemed to have a refreshingly casual attitude to the whole thing. They were just as interested to talk about their own favourite bands as they were about British Sea Power. Yan’s obsession at the moment is the Silver Jew’s Bright Flight. He got so enthused about the album that he ends up searching around the tour bus looking for the case. Once found he hands it to me in a generous effort to infect me with the same admiration for the album that he has. Discussion of the Silver Jews brings him to the topic of Pavement, which according to him has been his most direct personal influence going so far as to say he listened to them so much that he “overdid it” for a while. Noble, on the other hand, has just picked up the first Flaming Lips album and begins to talk about how much they’ve evolved before having an epiphany in mid speech and asking to himself “I wonder how we’ll sound in a few years?” Their love and zeal for good music fills their own record, and that is part of what makes The Decline of British Sea Power so dynamic and attention grabbing. While they have a good sense of humour about their style and antics, it’s no joke when it comes to the music. When I bring up the comparison to Joy Division that British Sea Power can’t seem to avoid, Yan nods his head simultaneously recognizing the comparison but disagreeing with it. Yan and Noble don’t seem eager to compare their music with anyone, but Noble does concede, “Joy Division took their music really seriously, I like that, I like it when bands are serious about their music.” That seems to sum up British Sea Power’s attitude pretty well; they take their music seriously and other than that they just want to enjoy themselves and be exciting. If their show at the Half Moon in Cork was any indication, British Sea Power have apparently found just the right balance between musical mastery, tremendous stage presence, and possessing a curiously strange flavour.

Coming on stage to the eerie recorded “ahhhing” of “Men Together Today,” British Sea Power made it immediately clear that this would not be a run-of-the-mill nod-politely indie rock show. Immediately upon opening with “Fear of Drowning” everything started to come into focus. The eagle, owl, and pelican which adorned the stage (which happened to be light on trees tonight) seemed right at home with the nostalgic post-punk guitars and wispy vocals. Fitting their style and sound, their live show is all their own but without any suggestions of being forced or gimmicky. However, once Noble ripped into the fantastic power pop riff of “Remember Me” halfway through their set things really began to pick up. The next twenty-five minutes or so would confirm why British Sea Power is rapidly earning a reputation as a band that cannot be missed. The Cork crowd matched the enthusiasm for this refreshingly peculiar brand of rock. Suddenly four fans had decided to combat the surreal presentation of British Sea Power with their own display by locking arms and jumping in a jig-like fashion in front of the stage from left to right and back again.

If British Sea Power weren’t convinced that they had both won the crowd over and firmly established themselves as eccentric oddballs, ending with “Lately” would assure that they had accomplished their mission. Sadly, any hope of maintaining their sanity was lost in this spectacular effort and everyone in the band seemed to be suffering the effects. An unnamed fifth member who, if his helmet was any indication had apparently just returned from an African safari, began to walk around the stage and eventually through the audience pounding on a large marching drum. Noble was clearly beginning to crack, frantically playing his guitar while trying to decide if he was more comfortable sitting like child on the floor of the stage or instead mounting himself on a piece of equipment. Hamilton, who had managed to camouflage in with their beloved stuffed birds by perching himself on top of amps, was still paralysed with a zombie-like aimless gaze that had been shared by his brother for most of the show. Speaking of Yan, he was obviously in the worst shape. Stumbling around in front of the audience with an occasional unintelligible yelp or two, he had now resorted to a desperate cry for help by doing a handstand in the middle of the song. Wood, or “Woody” as the other band members affectionately called him, was bravely doing his best to hold things together on drums during all this madness, earning the reputation dubbed on him by Yan and Noble as “the best musician” and “an inspiration.” For the crowd it was an overload of the senses: Hamilton’s manic stare, Noble’s nervous manoeuvres, Yan’s crooked legs doing their best to fight the effects of gravity, and a strange character weaving through fans pounding his drum louder and louder. Yet, despite this chaotic scene, the music kept on strong and true and “Lately” proved to be bar-none the best song of the night. Amazing. Once all the guitar fuzz had faded out, the men of British Sea Power marched defiantly off the stage and through the crowd, out the venue, and presumably into an ambulance to take them to the closest hospital with a sufficient mental ward. The crowd roared with approval but did not dare ask for an encore as nothing could possibly top that closer. Earlier Yan had said to me, “I always had a thing that if I was gonna be in a band that the biggest crime would be to be boring.” Well, not being “boring” is certainly one goal among many that British Sea Power can check off as completed.



©2004 Skyscraper Magazine.
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