British Sea Power - Salty Water

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

I first met British Sea Power slouched over cheap pints of ale, smoking roll-up cigarettes in a chain-brewery pub whose clientele was predominantly dread-locked travellers, Goths and aged rockers. It was the launch night of a local, non-profit promotions company, and I'd been told British Sea Power were a bit special. They were incredible. Spindly and energetic, they scuttled manically around the stage, playing angular rock and psychedelic folk.

My next experience was a few months later at a monthly night BSP put on, Club Sea Power. It hosted a fine array of local talent and a ritualistic performance by the band themselves. That night was always full of people in sailor outfits, indie kids and middle-aged men with pipes; again I was blown away by their explosive performance and Yan, the lead singer's laser guided stare. Only a few months later they were signed to Rough Trade.

So will British Sea Power change the world? Will they be one of those cult bands that future generations cite as influences and providers of epiphanies? Their obsessive travelling fan base, "The Third Battalion," would argue fervently that they already have. In 2003, they played three sold out US tours, a sold out UK tour and The Decline Of British Sea Power - bombastic pop drenched in poetic lyricism and menacing guitar lines - made every British music journalist's top 20 albums of the year.

But the band remains silent. For every "Remember Me" that assaults the senses and suggests the band are confident rattlers of the rock 'n' roll genre, there's a "Blackout" that paints a truer depiction of the band - quiet, contemplative, reclusive. And they're a band in transition. Currently locked away in the tiny village of Polegate, within the heart of the Sussex downs; they're renting a large barn-house to record material for the next album. As my cab winds through the endless country roads into unnerving darkness, only the steam rising off the fields remains visible; it's the perfect introduction, a "Welcome to British Sea Power Country." It's silent, still, and infinitely dark.

The prospect of talking to them is bizarre, I've never read an interview with the band, never seen them on MTV2 mid-festival season, yet I've heard other media types talk of them endlessly. "They sound like Joy Division." "They sound like David Bowie." "They're oh so English." It seems they're the music press' favourite unknown entity, but I got the chance to see what Noble (lead guitar), Hamilton (bass) and Eamon (keyboards) actually think about themselves and their music.

If you don't mind me starting right at the beginning, do you think you could talk about the first band, or song, that provoked an interest in music?
Noble: Salt 'N' Peppa, "Push It." That was the first record I bought. I thought it was a pretty good song.
Eamon: Tracey Ulman's "They Don't Know About Us," that was class.
Noble: My granddad was a big influence on me. He used to play the piano. He can't play anymore as he has really bad arthritis, but he used to be a really good piano player and entertained the troops during the [Second World] War. As a kid I'd hum him a tune, like the A-Team or the Muppets, and he'd play is straight off... he was pitch perfect. His hero was Charlie Kunz. This is what my Granddad sounded like [he jumps up and puts a Charlie Kunz album on, turning the interview atmosphere into a cabaret].
Hamilton: Guitars were my first influence. Collectively, Yan and me used to love all types of amps. We'd go down to jumble[yard] sales to buy tape decks and try and turn them into amps. We liked buying machines and making noises with them, and then trying to record those noises.

You toured the U.S. quite a bit last year, how were you received? Did the experience teach you anything?
Hamilton: I got the impression they thought we were quite cool. In England people like us, but they don't think we're cool.
Noble: The sexual make up of the gigs was really different as well, playing gigs in England the audience is about 60 to 70 percent male. In America it's at least half and half. In Japan the audience was about 80 percent female.
Hamilton: Generally the experience was great, though talking to the fans was a bit hard at times, but you're always gonna get the super freaks who know everything you've ever done, every chord of every song and cite endless different musical references at you in an attempt to secure a kind of confirmation that they're right about you.
Noble: There was a musical distributor who literally thought we were the second coming, and in Seattle a doorman said we sounded like a rehash of a load of '80s bands. So to be honest, the diversity of reaction was really nice.
Hamilton: I think Americans take things a bit more seriously, not that that has anything to do with our popularity, that's just the way things are over there.

Were The Shows Successful?
Noble: The shows went surprisingly well. Our first U.K. tour had us playing to audiences of about 50 to 70 people, so we thought it would be as shit out there, but we played some sold out shows, we even played to 350 people in Seattle.
Hamilton: Yeah, we were generally received really well. We were supported some really cool local bands.
Eamon: The Ordinary Citizens were great.
Noble: They're gonna' play with us in San Francisco at the Noise Pop festival.
Hamilton: San Francisco is a lovely city. But there was a record shop that wouldn't let me in just because I wasn't wearing shoes. It's my choice not to wear shoes so it's not as if I can sue them...
Noble: Yeah but sueing people is big business out there if you know how.
Hamilton: Well I just had to wait outside, so it wasn't a completely perfect experience.

What about geographically? Did you see much of America itself?
Hamilton: We saw the Niagra falls, but that was a bit of a let down. I mean it was a pretty impressive amount of water...
Eamon: It's not that tall though.
Hamilton: In terms of size, it was lacking.
Noble: It was a really misty day as well, so we couldn't see it's full splendour. And we spent so much time in service stations.
Hamilton: When your whole time is spent on the road, a couple of weeks is too long and so all the service stations look the same.
Noble: And somehow the service stations there are worse than the English ones... everything's Roy Rodgers liquid cheese and hot dogs.
Hamilton: You can't just buy a normal cheese sandwich. What's worse though is that it's normal to them, so service stations are filled with truckers and fat folk. We thought we were in some Twin Peaks hell when our bus broke down and we had to spend two whole days at a service station. They had some good magazines though.
[Before the interview started, BSP played some new material, including a song called "Fat Factory," featuring Yan singing in a high Southern voice" "My mum's fat, my dad's fat, my bro's fat, my sister's fat. Fat factory, the state of the nation." It seems the impressive waistlines obviously had a profound effect on the boys during their travels. "Don't worry," Noble comforts "this isn't our song, it's for our [fictitious] side project Bobby Cunt And The Magic Formulas").

So how did it compare with Tokyo, which you flew to almost instantly after coming back from America?
Hamilton: They're completely different.
Noble: They're so fashionable out there, fashionable to the extent that they look exactly the same. For example we met these two couples, both the guys were dressed identically, even with the same haircuts, and so were the girls.
Hamilton: All the women dressed liked schoolgirls and had really short skirts.
Noble: That's the fashion out there; it's a sexual fantasy.
Hamilton: There's this magazine where all the girls are dressed like that.
Noble: It's called Sweet Dreams.
Hamilton: There's something really wrong with that if you ask me. There's a lot of prostitution out there because the girls get used to buying nice new gadgets and new things but they haven't got enough money to sustain their spending, so they prostitute themselves so they can continue buying nice things. But it's seen as entirely normal, it's not really talked about.
Noble: It's not as fucked as England though, there's little crime, and the shows were really good. There's even a tape of one show as clips were used on national television. The album's doing really well out there as well.

So how's the new material coming along? Is renting this rather remote little barn house conducive to writing good material?
Noble: This house is great. When we practiced at my house back in town we could only rehearse from 5 'til 10 in the evening, but here we can rehearse and record whenever we like here.
Hamilton: No one bothers you out here, or tells you to turn it down.
Noble: You can go with your mood as well. If you're feeling lazy you don't have to do anything, which would be impossible if you were hiring a recording studio.
Hamilton: Plus we've got more of an idea as to how to record properly. We're spending more time listening to the songs to make sure we like them. Not that the first album was thrown together, but that was always going to be the steepest learning curve.
Noble: Now we know how we sound, and we know more about sound, period. On the last album I didn't even realize what each guitar pickup did so I just kept it in the middle. Now I'm a professional.
Hamilton: I think the way we approached the last album was quite na´ve. We just built the songs up, starting with drums and bass, then adding guitar, keyboards and vocals on top. But now we're recording a lot of the songs completely live.
Noble: I think what we're trying to do now is sound fresh and timeless, we're trying to avoid all the comparisons with '80s bands, as it seems a bit contrary. As far as I can see we only get compared to '80s bands because our music's a bit dark and a bit serious.
Hamilton: We'd rather sound like a '40s band.
Noble: I think the next album will sound more like a soul record.
Hamilton: We want to record an album with danceable, repeated bass lines.
Noble: An album you can put on and listen to all the way through in one go, but if you want to listen to it more carefully, there would be a lot to reward the listener.
Hamilton: Now we're just recording whatever, listening back you hear certain takes that have something nice about them, something magical. So we're developing on those moments, playing them and building on those moments where it all works for a few seconds, and hopefully by the end we'll have an album.

Author: Jonathan Falcone
Source: Filter Magazine
Date: 17th February 2004

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