British Sea Power - Salty Water

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Freaks of nature

They wear military uniforms, count Jarvis Cocker and Smash Hits as fans, and bring packed lunches to interviews. Alexis Petridis meets British Sea Power.

"We kind of exist in our own world," claims British Sea Power's guitarist, a 23-year-old who calls himself Noble. New rock bands are well known for making overblown claims such as this, but in the case of British Sea Power, it's more like an under- statement. For a start, Noble's real name is Martin. In addition, we are conducting the interview in a field near the tiny Sussex village of Balcombe. I was directed here by an enigmatic message from the manager of the Brighton-based quartet, containing an ordnance survey grid reference and some gibberish about "a place where even the trees scorn normality and grade-two listed serfs still walk the land".

British Sea Power appear to have brought me here in order to look at two army telecommunications masts, disguised as the least convincing trees in Britain. It's an incongruous sight that ties in with the band's curious twin preoccupations: nature and the military. Singer Yan, his bass-playing brother Hamilton and drummer Wood - also, one suspects, not their given names - claim to have met Bury-born Noble while he was on a rambling excursion near their native Kendal. During their recent British tour, the band allegedly abandoned their hotel in order to sleep rough in the Peak District's Snake Pass Wood.

Their roll-call of heroes ignores John Lennon and the Clash in favour of Field-Marshal Montgomery and Thomas Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia between the wars who, Hamilton enthuses, "could still do a handstand on a horse at the age of 70". Live, they affect military uniforms (an image their website dubs "the militant cabin-boy look"), decorate the stage with foliage and stuffed birds, and are attended by three female roadies dressed as land girls. "It's weird how if you make even a little bit of effort, people really appreciate it," says Yan. "It makes you a bit sad that other people don't make so much effort."

They have described themselves as "the nation's most Cumbrian rock band", and indeed there is something of the windswept moor to their sound: gusts of noisy guitar, echoing vocals, thunderous drumming. It touches on the explosive post-punk of Joy Division and Wire, but is packed with fresh ideas. New single The Spirit of St Louis pays simultaneous tribute to Iggy Pop and Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly across the Atlantic. "Using hardly anything, they both caused a sensation," explains Yan, as if this was the most straightforward concept in the world. "Lindbergh got in his little plane with some wrapped-up sandwiches and a compass. Iggy Pop played this really basic rock."

It's the sort of taut, intense music that you would expect to be performed by earnest young men with long faces and furrowed brows. British Sea Power's shows, however, are simultaneously ridiculous and sinister. They shun introductory music in favour of a reading by CS Lewis, intended, says Noble, to create "a romantic, forgotten atmosphere". Hamilton may be possessed of the most disconcerting stare in rock history, while the band's penchant for performing strenuous physical jerks on stage was only curtailed after Yan injured his back demonstrating "a flying leap landing in a press-up". A recent gig ended with Noble climbing on the drum kit, then diving through it face first. It looked like it really hurt. Noble nods solemnly, rolling up his trouser leg to reveal a lengthy scar. "It's the music. It's like it's shouting things at me. Get up on that amp! Jump into the drums! I can hear voices."

"If you're getting up on a stage, you should do something, make it a bit special at least, rather than just going through the motions," says Hamilton.

"It's important to try and make every gig the best thing that's ever happened, even if you know you're going to fail," offers Yan. "I think that's why it looks so ridiculous sometimes, because we set ourselves ridiculous targets - like trying to create an experience for the whole crowd, as strong as the deepest religious 'thing' that you could ever imagine happening."

It's difficult to tell how seriously this sort of remark is meant, delivered as it is in a deadpan Cumbrian accent. In fact, it's hard to tell how seriously British Sea Power take anything. "There's a lot of fun in our music," frowns Yan, "but I don't think it's funny music."

This ambiguity probably accounts for the polarising effect they have on audiences. On one hand, the band's reputation is growing so quickly that Smash Hits has expressed an interest. On the other, a record-label talent scout recently described them as "the worst fucking band in the country".

"It is ridiculous," adds Noble. "I can see why some people think we're a bunch of pretentious wankers, but I mean, it's better than being boring, isn't it?"

In the flesh, the members of the band have little in common with their wild-eyed stage personas. Hamilton is so softly spoken that his voice barely registers on my tape. Wood does not speak at all except to announce that he "doesn't really listen to music". Nevertheless, there is something strikingly odd about them. Today they have eschewed their uniforms, but even in mufti, it seems unlikely that any passing locals would confuse them with normal human beings.

Hamilton's jacket is festooned with patches advertising his native Cumbria, the kind that ramblers sew on their rucksacks. Yan is wearing a bottle-green jumper that would have been the height of casual fashion in 1948. With their fringes and stubble, they look like heroes from an Enid Blyton novel grown up and gone slightly to seed. They may be the first rock band ever to turn up at an interview with their own packed lunches.

At a time when moments of wild inspiration are few and far between in rock music, British Sea Power are laden with initiative. In the past year they have had more original ideas than most bands have in their careers. Their monthly Brighton club night has proved a hotbed of invention, offering amateur dramatics, bizarre support acts - the next event features the Copper Family, a folk singing troupe fronted by an 87-year-old - and on one occasion, a fashion show entitled Woad, Empire Line, European Hosiery 1789 -2001. It was something of a damp squib. "It ended up with me and Hamilton walking down this catwalk wearing long johns and Russian hats," admits Noble, before adding hopefully: "People clapped!"

Their debut album is due in the summer. They boast a bizarre coven of celebrity fans, including Jarvis Cocker, BBC political editor Andrew Marr and author Douglas Coupland. Do they not worry about being considered a novelty act, or running out of steam? "Oh no," smiles Noble. "We've got loads of ideas. And if people don't like those, we can always come up with more." Brimming with confidence and peculiar concepts, he goes back to his sandwiches.

Author: Alexis Petridis
Source: The Guardian
Date: 25th April 2002

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