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The Rise of British Sea Power

The men of British Sea Power are not men of ceilings and cities. Nor, despite their name, are they men of military or industry. Instead, their press kit is filled with fond mentions of geography, solitary achievement and assorted beasts and birds. A half-hour, transcontinental conversation with Hamilton, the group's affable bassist/co-songwriter, repeatedly returns to men attempting to spend some QT with Mother Nature.

In a 2003 interview with MOJO magazine, frontman Yan (the band goes without surnames) imagined embarking on a fantasy coastline tour of England. They would sail from beach to beach, putting down anchor long enough to play a gig for whoever sauntered down by the seaside to check them out. In other words, just like L. Ron Hubbard and his seafaring Scientologists during their fugitive "band on the run" era, only with much better music and presumably less folly.

It may be a while until British Sea Power is playing harbor gigs in Long Beach. In the meantime, they are booked for Spaceland (Feb. 27) and The Echo (Feb. 28). If they can't bring the gigs to nature, then they'll be content bringing some nature to the gigs.

"You have to make all of them what you can," Hamilton explains. "That's basically why we bring in a little bit of foliage... to negate the typical bay of blackness, the rock 'n' roll hole."

The "foliage" he speaks of-a word that has perhaps never come up in all the band interviews I've done-is a carryover from Club Sea Power, a night in Brighton where the band used to organize and play alongside some of their hand-picked favorite peers. To spruce things up a bit, British Sea Power decorated the stage with branches and foliage and plastic birds. The subsequent atmosphere turned out to be a special one, so it's been boxed up and taken on the road.

For all the band's eccentric leanings, then, it would figure that they would be an electronic or avant-garde group of some sort. Instead, last year's The Decline of British Sea Power was full of giant guitars and tightrope vocals, inspired by the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, David Bowie and the Pixies. Singles "Remember Me" and "Carrion" gave audiences a glimpse of the band at their most grand and unabashed. Like David Byrne before him, Yan is capable of infusing high drama into even the most cryptic of lyrics. Rather unlike Byrne, though, Yan also has a penchant for brash proclamations ("I will not walk half-deceased/I believe bravery exists"). Sometimes it's hard to know how seriously the band takes themselves, but it's clear that they never pander to the wink-wink sort of retro irony that is pervasive in today's rock 'n' roll.

"We call it 'two-car garage,'" Hamilton says of the garage rock redux that still has the majors and MTV swooning. "Julian Cope used to call his band a two-car garage band, but he meant it in a good way. We adapted it into a designation for the lesser manifestation of this revival. The original garage rock was kids in America trying to do the Rolling Stones or the Beatles and failing in a brilliant way." Whereas the new edition, he continues, is simply the posh pretending to be something they're not.

That's not to say, though, that Hamilton doesn't see some kindred spirits out in the musical mainstream. "The White Stripes are impressive. He's just talented, Jack White. He's like a soccer player who can just beat people at will."

Other bands have made more of a direct impression on British Sea Power, who have already had the opportunity to tour with the likes of Interpol, Pulp and the Flaming Lips. The latter-who perhaps are authoring the modern book on how to create a captivating live environment-seemed to make a definite impact.

"We've been incredibly fortunate to play with bands that we actually think are good," Hamilton says. "And they're bands that have all been extremely interesting and friendly characters. It was a real pleasure to tour with (the Flaming Lips) in many ways. They were incredibly pleasant. After the second show we played with them, we turned up at sound check to find them sound checking by playing an instrumental of ours called 'Heavenly Waters.'

"Wayne Coyne was very keen to give us kind of farcical or avuncular advice," he continues. "I actually fell off the stage a couple times and he was advising me, 'You can't carry on like that, man, or you'll end up like that Christopher Reeve dude.' So that was solid advice: don't fall off the stage."

Even if Hamilton and his bandmates manage to keep themselves confined to the stages of Spaceland and the Echo, fans can still expect high-energy shows in the hour-long range. The set list will be focused primarily on tracks from The Decline of British Sea Power, which was the 17th best album of 2003 according to HMV Records' "Poll of Polls," which calculates a mathematical average of every end-of-year list published in Britain. The Sunday Times, meanwhile, called them "the best band in Britain." This will be the band's third trip to North American soil, but their most comprehensive tour here to date.

While Hamilton says there hasn't been a discernible difference between the reception from European and North American crowds, he notes that the band does have some unquenchably faithful fans back in Britain.

"In Britain, we do have some particularly keen audience members who go to great lengths just to see us. It quite astonishes me how far they will travel to see us. They'll travel to America or to Japan from Britain, which is quite bewildering to me. It's quite an honor."

As the band's reputation continues to grow, they will surely continue to strike a chord in the hearts of rock lovers, non-conformists and intelligent misfits everywhere. The band's "Spirit of St. Louis" is a joint tribute to Charles Lindbergh and James Osterberg (Iggy Pop). Osterberg has influenced countless musicians, of course, but the famed aviator is a stranger inspiration. Hamilton talks admiringly about Lindbergh's stubborn single-mindedness; piloting a plane that came partly from his imagination, defying the odds with little to keep him company beyond a sack of sandwiches.

"He also had some unfortunate enthusiasms for the Third Reich," Hamilton adds dryly. "We like his aviation, but not some of his enthusiasms."

The name "British Sea Power" is capable of conjuring up some rather disturbing visions of imperialism on its own. But that, of course, is precisely the point.

"It's a name that's meant to be both ridiculous and magnificent at the same time," Hamilton says. "British Sea Power is kind of a historical term, so naming yourself after 500 years of history is a silly thing to do - and a good thing to do, we would argue." He cites Franz Ferdinand as a band employing a similar tactic. "That's a name we feel kin to. Franz Ferdinand, the archduke, was assassinated in Sarajevo, which started the First World War. It's the same thing. They named themselves that because it's a ridiculous idea that in 10 years time no one will think of Archduke Ferdinand. They'll think of a pop group."

Conceptually, the songs on The Decline of British Sea Power-begun by either Hamilton or Yan and then fleshed out with the entire band -are modeled loosely on the mood of landscape artist J.M.W. Turner's body of work. It's a "heroically daft" idea, says Hamilton, and it's not a parallel that many listeners would notice on their own. Once sent down that direction, though, the resemblances emerge. Turner's landscapes allowed the artist's romantic abstractions to seep into the facts of the geography. He was drawn to seascapes and shipwrecks, storms and natural disasters, and eventually ended up as a recluse.

Turner's dying words were purportedly, "it is through these eyes, closed forever at the bottom of the tomb, that generations as yet unborn will see nature." At the beginning of this year, British Sea Power gathered at a house in (appropriately) the middle of the woods to start work on a follow-up album. They made an impact on 2003, but whether they will make an impact on unborn generations remains to be seen. In any case, such lofty sources of inspiration should be an asset to the band's developing craft.

But just as important as knowing where you want to go is knowing where you want to avoid. After discussing some more kindred spirits of British Sea Power-from Franz Ferdinand to Electric Soft Parade to the Cooper Family-the conversation is briefly turned toward bands on the other end of the spectrum.

"Nickelback - they're a band of a peculiar kind, aren't they?" Hamilton asks. "They do what they do. We played a show with them in Germany - they had a lot of fireworks. They actually had a drum roadie playing secret drums behind the stage on certain songs to make a bigger snare sound. They're real throwbacks, aren't they? I wouldn't even particularly criticize them because what they do is so far removed from what we think about. It was really quite fascinating. They had a lot of guitars, too. I think they had 20 guitars."

Author: Adam McKibbin
Source: Entertainment Today
Date: 27th February 2004

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