British Sea Power - Salty Water

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Rule Britannia!

The Edge enlists with British Sea Power to discover the roles of moths and Jamelia's bottom in their charm offensive

For those of you who think that national treasures exist only in stately homes and various museums around this great country of ours, British Sea Power will prove otherwise. For those of you who consider owls, herons and foliage to be the last untainted bastion of Bill Oddie-like Nature freaks, British Sea Power will make you think again.

They are a group not afraid of dressing in submariners' uniforms and singing about 'brilliantine mortaliy' with plastic owls perched poetically on their amplifiers. In a few hours the band will take the stage in front of a packed house*, but first there's the small matter of the interview. In a box room. In the dark. With Star Trek on the TV. It gets weirder, I assure you. Unfortunately as we begin it becomes clear that both Yan (lead singer, guitars, thousand yard stare) and Hamilton (bass, crown of leaves) have both been puffing on the old magic dragon, and will play very little coherent part in the proceedings. Noble (lead guitars, bird-watcher), on the other hand, seems surprisingly normal and willing to talk. So, Hamilton, tell us about playing on Jools Holland...

"Well, Michael Stipe did salute our bass drummer!" Now there's something you don't hear every day. What did it feel like to see your bandmate take a salute from the daddy of MOR rock? "It felt good. I'm not really into REM though. In the jam at the beginning we played with [legendary blues artist] Buddy Guy and Jamelia." What the hell did Jamelia do? "She just wiggled her arse. Not very musical, I suppose."

Quite. As the day's failing light trickles limply through the room's one tiny window, there is a communal sense that we might be trapped in this dingy interview hellhole for quite some time. A light-hearted question, it seems. is in order. So what kind of a person comes to a BSP show? "Everyone from rugger boys to, um, men with one leg." There's an uneasy pause as the band stare at me with hollowed-out eyes, daring me to laugh. I crack up and so do they, explaining that they seem to attract a hugely diverse audience. It's not surprising, seeing as both their music and their live shows have the reputation of being unpredictable, loud and incredibly odd, more of which later. "At one show in Cambridge", chips in Noble, "this old woman who looked like she'd been locked away for a while turned up with an old cake in a bucket. It was stale and all the icing had fallen off. We didn't eat it."

I should explain before we go on a little bit about British Sea Power. Even if you've never seen them live you will probably know that their onstage set includes an owl, a plastic heron and a shed load of trees and leaves. Ground Force, however, this ain't, and there's certainly no room for Charlie Dimmock's pendulous assets or Alan Titchmarsh when you realise just how bloody brilliant this band really are. Purveyors of some of the most original and intelligent rock music around at the moment, BSP draw on influences ranging from Joy Division to The Cure via The Smiths and, um, John Betjeman. In short they're Brighton-based oddballs doing something away from the mainstream that actually has the potential to influence it. Just don't mention society.

"Society is strange" decides Noble, with an odd smile. "I don't see why people always flock to cities. Everyone wants to look like someone else. That seems strange." So do they feel part of all that? Playing songs about Liberace and moths onstage each night whilst wearing Edwardian tennis gear and WW2 winter camouflage must give them some sense of a degree of separation, surely? "Yeah, but you're always a part of it, aren't you?" decides Hamilton, his dilated pupils darting up at me momentarily before returning to stare into some distant space. "You can never escape society." But, it would seem, you can get away from it for a while. I remind the band that they kicked off a recent tour by playing The Scillonian Club on The Scilly Isles. Played in what is possibly one of the most inaccessible venues on the British toilet circuit, this show has gone down in musical folklore, with subsequent reports evoking a locals only, League Of Gentlemen style atmosphere. "A few fans did actually make it, to be fair" defends Noble, "and it was a hell of a gig."

Bassist Hamilton has the unnerving habit of staring at the centre of my forehead whilst slurring his answers, and Yan seems more preoccupied with the arm of the sofa than the minor distraction of being interviewed. Noble, on the other hand, is a veritable chatterbox and seems eager to provide us with information on birds of various descriptions, their respective breeding grounds and nesting habits. It has been widely reported in nearly all of the articles written about them that British Sea Power enjoy nothing more than a communal nature walk through the New Forest, supping on ginger beer and singing sea shanties, and to a certain extent the band play up to this. They are, however, keen to tell me that only Noble could hold any real conversation about birds - a confession subsequently proven when, in a moment of desperation, I decide to put him to the test against my fellow interviewer's keen ornithological knowledge. Myself, Yan and Hamilton can only stare at each other blankly throughout the subsequent conversation as the finer points of marsh warbler flight patterns (probably) are discussed in depth. Eventually we can continue.

I ask whether they favour personal experience as an inspiration for songwriting, or if it is just as easy and valid to write about inanimate objects? "I think radiators and chairs can be emotional objects as well, don't you? It's better if it's closer to home, though. Writing is completely a group experience that comes with a lot of thought. We've only ever written one song just before we went into the studio, and that was Apologies To Insect Life." The track Noble refers to is the punky, to-the-point crowd pleaser on debut album The Decline Of British Sea Power, and coming straight after a minute- long recording of synthesised male voices singing in perfect harmony it hits you pretty hard. From these two tracks alone the diversity and intelligence of BSP's debut is clear, and what follows is an even more intense musical journey through raging seas, dark and brooding coastlines, hovering hawk moths and wooden horses. So how do they intend to follow it up? "Well, come next year we're getting rid of all the trees and stuff on stage," reveals Noble, and the band nod in agreement.

This seems to be a popular decision, and it would appear that the band are wary of being typecast into a minority niche. Indeed, whilst they jokily profess to wanting to replace the trees with traffic cones and hard hats (Village People Power, anyone?), a stripped-down, rawer live show is a tantalising prospect. Noble sums it up well: "We'll have to see how it goes, I think.

The next record should be an interesting one, because whilst we're not going to abandon what we're doing now, we've got to move it all up a gear somehow and add something extra. Getting rid of the trees is part of that progression.'" So there you have it. A difficult and at times awkward interview, but what more could I expect from such a band? Whilst unwilling to shift up to the next gear when talking to me, they relish the prospect of updating their live performances and recorded material. As Yan and Hamilton shuffle barefooted away, only Noble remains. The tape stopped, he walks us downstairs to the Wedgewood Rooms where final preparations are being put to the trees and lighting on stage. We talk about George Orwell and his unnerving habit of asking women in bars to marry him, the fact that Yan and Hamilton aren't always as stoned as they were today, and the Rough Trade 25th anniversary party in London later on that night.

If tonight's interview proves anything, it's that British Sea Power are as diverse, confusing and unique in conversation as they are in music. Noble and the rest of his compatriots are a band with a strong identity that will undoubtedly translate well as time goes on, and whilst many find them difficult, a little time and effort goes a long way. Like the interview today, they might make you work hard, and at times frustrate the hell out of you, but ultimately it is in their genetic makeup to entertain and bemuse in equal measures. British Sea Power - we salute you.


Author: Alex Mattinson
Source: Wessex Scene
Date: 16th November 2003

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