British Sea Power - Salty Water

( Skip navigation )


Young Men and the Sea

When foreign bands face the notion of hitting the American highways for a tour, they look at the obvious concerns: Transporting instruments through international travel, dealing with culture shock and the potential for homesickness and the grim reality of trying to blip on the pop-cultural radar of a country with millions of people scattered across most of a continent. It's a pretty daunting affair by anyone's standards.

British Sea Power stares down those conventional worries as well as a list of unconventional trials when the Brighton, England, outfit returns to America next month for its first coast-to-coast tour of the Land of The Free. They'll have to locate bushes from which branches are clipped and brought on stage. They'll have to manage traveling with a wardrobe that includes scarves, boy-scout style sashes, pieces of discarded naval uniforms and, of course, the most talked-about pith helmet in rock'n'roll history. Worst of all, the five-piece will keep its trademark stuffed-and-mounted bird in a closet in the homeland.

"We won't bring our bird to America, unfortunately. I don't think he can get through. They'll think he's a terrorist," deadpans bassist Hamilton.

The notion of get-ups that seem scrounged from Paul Revere and the Raiders and General Pershing's yard sales, a stage littered with shrubberies and, for lucky fans in the United Kingdom, a perfect taxidermy bird, may sound like British Sea Power (BSP to the initiated) is an act that relies on gimmicks like Halliburton relies on Oval Office favoritism. If so, you obviously haven't crossed paths with the band's formidable debut, The Decline of British Sea Power (2003, Rough Trade). The one-name band members (singer/guitarist Yan, guitarist Noble, bassist Hamilton, drummer Wood and keyboardist Eamon) tear through a concoction that draws on everything from Joy Division's ice-age desolation and The Smiths' pouty guitar figures to the scorched-earth rock revivalism of The Strokes and Vue. Sometimes the mix is as volatile as a meth lab, with roaring guitars and punching dynamics that dismiss the notion of easygoing British rockers ("Apologies to Insect Life"); others, it's a slow, almost morbid jaunt through a sinking feeling of gray-skies clinical depression ("Fear of Drowning").

Amid the squall of guitars and roller-coaster rush of fast-again-slow-again pacing, The Decline of British Sea Power also features literate lyrics and sharp themes that prove there's more to the band than its idiosyncratic style and stage presence. Songs check everything from Fyodor Dostoevsky's tomes and the Trojan War to claustrophobic mini-psychoses. Most amazingly, the hit on the the non-awkward use of the phrase "Brilliantine mortality" as a chorus in "Carrion." By all means, BSP's career encompasses worlds more than just oddball wardrobes and a stage setup that could be sponsored by the National Geographic Society, but listeners latch onto the obvious: There's sure to be some murmurs about the absent bird onstage when the act hits the States. Hamilton isn't worried that the act's taxidermy sidekicks will overshadow his band's music, though.

"We have him up there for a reason, so people are bound to talk about them," he says. "I think they create worlds, atmosphere for the shows."

In fact, creating worlds may be BSP's modus operandi more so than anything to do with its outfit choices, its nearly rabid stage show (the act's known for throwing guitars and letting Eamon whip out a military-style marching drum and prance madly about the stage) or even its feathered stage companions. Most every other act in the world meets its audience midway with an easily decipherable look, sound and attitude all learned from carefully studying 50 years' lessons in rock history. Worse still, many more succumb to lowest-common-denominator stupidity and (yawn) follow formulas to a T. British Sea Power, however, doesn't mess around with any of that: Either you get it, or you don't.

Although you can't throw a pith helmet at The Decline of British Sea Power without hitting an allusion to Joy Division or The Smiths, BSP is more than a gang of revisionist new-wave rockers a la Interpol or The Rapture. Unlike most modern acts, British Sea Power comes out of left field with a concept that extends far beyond its songwriting. Using its musical heritage as building blocks, BSP combines its beguiling stage presence and bookworm mentality to craft a monolithic image, a notion of a band that's entrenched in a way of life like The Clash was to unemployed squatters or Nirvana was for flannel-clad Hessian-punks from the Pacific Northwest. Only this time around, BSP takes the Ziggy Stardust route and becomes musical epic heroes of a lifestyle that exists only in its members' heads.

"It's just the way we portray it, and it helps. It can be quite confusing because it's five people all with different worlds," Hamilton laughs. "It's good when people have the same ideas and it comes together. We just go about it in a basic way, just getting together and seeing what comes out."

Every pearl of fantastic whimsy has a grain of reality that seeded it, however, and BSP builds its idiosyncratic persona from the countryside that surrounds its South Lakeland and Yorkshire stomping grounds. Days spent tromping around the outdoors, shooting short films and, eventually, making music in the verdant lands around their homes soaked into the band's artistic process. Like the Brighton countryside, a mysterious, almost primeval atmosphere permeates the band's music and image.

"The place we grew up was an awe-inspiring place. I guess that kind of did something to us," Hamilton gushes. "School wasn't too much there, so we'd just walk around the countryside. I don't know how to explain it, really. It's just the way you grew up. It's a really nice place."

Of course, the universal inspiration - boredom - also played heavily in British Sea Power's formation. After all, there's only so much outdoorsy strolling a fellow can do before you've got to find a creative outlet for your time.

"We didn't really have much else to do at the time," Hamilton admits. "We were living together and first we started making films and messing around. Then we built a little studio and it just sort of carried on then, hoping to get better. We kind of learned from each other. We all liked different stuff, but we really wanted to try something new. It makes life lively."

Beyond the band's upbringing, its ties to Britain's legacy of gray-skies rock is the other worldly influence upon its sound. While BSP borrows some of the icy-heart intensity of the best Joy Division tracks and lurks in shadowy corridors built by The Cure and The Smiths, it's clear the band isn't just revisiting its record collection, but taking it into the future. One spin of The Decline of British Sea Power ought to make that obvious for anyone who isn't looking to bag a cheap and easy comparison.

Of course, cheap and easy is where it's at for many listeners, so the Joy Division analogies dominate much of the coverage devoted to the band that isn't wound up about its unusual appearance. Those tendencies toward revivalist comparisons end up puzzling the act more than the hubbub over its stage togs.

"We're still young, so maybe it's just the way we were brought up on it," Hamilton says. "I find it a bit strange. I see us as making something new, really; otherwise we wouldn't be bothered to do it. I think people like to look at the past, like to think it's coming back again. They enjoyed that time or whatever. It's fair enough.

"I guess they first see a band and compare it something they've seen before. It's impossible not to. It's good when they see a bit of new life and other people are just enjoying it for what it is."

Nonetheless, for many it comes down to the unknown pleasures of a stuffed bird. As large of a shadow that Ian Curtis' gravestone unfairly casts over BSP's music or the focus on stage props rather than the vision they represent can be a problem, the British boys aren't too worried about an image problem, as they're all parts of the band's expansive persona.

"It's all the same. It gets people interested in us," Hamilton explains. "If they are interested in them, they'll look into the other side."

Author: Matt Schild
Source: Aversion
Date: 23rd February 2004

« back to Press

Related Links

Site Info

Created And Maintained By James Sui