British Sea Power - Salty Water

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The difference between a cow and a sheep

The horror, the horror. We fall out into Arezzo's football stadium, yet to cool from the day's intense heat. Shell-shocked and lost for words. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the British Sea Power interview experience.

It starts with the introductions, which are perhaps the most comprehensible element of the encounter. Yan, the singer, dressed with a haircut that Edward Fox would be proud of, friendly in a somewhat diffident way, sitting legs crossed, wears what appears to be an ironed and clean shirt, and, in the best tradition of Brits abroad, sports a pair of thick wooly socks to protect his Northern feet from the Italian heat. Next, brother Hamilton, the bassist and sometime singer of the band, a fraction more engaging, and cute (according to TMO's photographer), who posseses a dreamy look that may just be due to the long bus journey from Brighton to Tuscany, or not. And finally, Noble, the band's guitarist, dressed in the proud kit of Arezzo F.C (currently languishing in Serie B), and positively brimming with enthusiasm - leading one to suspect that he's been introduced to the interview process as a concession to journalists.

In fact, all three, after the introductions are made and the interview is under way, are friendly. They are, though, by no stretch of the imagination communicative. But part of that, it seems, is simply that being a 'rock band', with all the attendant duties and clichés, doesn't much interest the band. From the name, through to the songs, they are England's least conventional rock band.

The group, described once as 'militant pastoralists', was formed in Brighton by brothers Hamilton and Yan (who, as with the other members of the band, avoid mention of surnames), and childhood friend Woody (drummer), all Cumbrians by birth and possibly inclination, and Noble from Leeds. During 2001, the band developed their own typically eccentric club nights in Brighton, which rapidly gained a notoriety (on-stage shrubbery accompanied by D.I.Y cleavage tattoos were a regular occurence) and attendant record company interest. In 2003, they released the highly acclaimed album The decline of British Sea Power, and won critical acclaim and a gaggle of celebrity fans ranging from David Bowie through to Jarvis Cocker. "Even Elton John likes us," cracks Noble. "but he likes everyone now, doesn't he?"

Their lyrics are suffused with nature, to the point of writing a song for the cracked Atlantic shelf Larsen B. A sample lyric:

"Valleys drop, mountains rise
Lift your head, brave the skies
All of the forgotten names
Lakes are forming on the pockets of your brain" [True Adventures]

Are they, then, the 'militant pastoralists' of repute? "I can tell a sheep from a cow," responds Hamilton firmly, while the other two nod sagely.

There must be a strange equation, no doubt calculated by the late Frank Zappa, that takes an inverse relationship between the quality of a band's lyrics against the willingness of the author to talk about them, producing a number on a scale between one and ten, with ten being the least likely to discuss. British Sea Power would score ten out of ten, in this interview at least, were it not for Noble's eponymous interventions. He gamely talks about the roots of Be Gone, the song with a chorus of "Oh Floreal, oh Guillotine". "Floreal was the name for one of the months of the revolutionary calendar brought in after the French Revolution," he explains. "I like the old folk songs. Silly old songs like blues songs. Those are the best songs," responds Hamilton smiling. "It's nice to get people thinking about stuff that you've read or stuff, references and the like, but it can get a bit..." he pauses. While we wait for a conclusion, that never arrives, Yan pipes up, "I'm going to go Japanese in my lyrics. Keep it simple".

Panic is starting to well up inside, as I feel any semblance of substance in the interview slipping away before my eyes. Foolishly I press on, determined to get statements that will somehow define the band. Nostalgia is a word that comes to mind when listening to them. There are subtle aural references to English rock's eccentric past, with hints of Joy Division, the Smiths, or the less eccentric (and non-English) early U2. Romantics in search of a pastoral past, is it fair to say that Nostalgia is a motivation and inspiration for much of their music? "I like Cole Porter," says Hamilton, while Yan interjects: "I just got into Tiny Tim. You can listen to all these old shows, and radio broadcasts on the internet now. There's a lot of good stuff there. Last week I heard a documentary about Tiny Tim. He did Tiptoe through the tulips, but his story was absolutely mentalist, but he just kept going. That's why I like him [laughs]. He had his ups and downs, but he kept going, you know", all of which is delivered staccato, phrase followed by pregnant pause, which does nothing to quell my nerves."He used to sing in a very high voice," Yan continues, absent-mindedly. "He was very tall. Instantly, there's a funny surprise for you. He walks on stage. Tiny Tim, you reckon he should be small". The other two at this stage, take the ball and run with it.
Noble: "There should be more names."
Hamilton: "People should adopt themselves superhero names. Like all those old blues names - Blind lemon etc."
Noble: "But they were blind, weren't they? Seeing-Eye Hamilton [all laugh]."

Resorting to the stock questions doesn't help matters. Were they given the chance to work with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be? Without a pause, and with a straight face that is teetering on the brink of collapse, Yan responds "I'd like to work with Ken Dodd. He's got an amazing opera voice. Amazing voice. You wouldn't believe it. He's surprising. Be nice to do the vocals while he touched you with his tickle stick. He is quite funny, funny and sad."

They become slightly more conventional when the subject of Live 8 comes up. Should musicians get involved with politics? "Why not? Politicians aren't that good at it," responds Yan pensively. "If you say one stupid thing, though, to the wrong person, that's going to be your quote for the year, isn't it?" says Hamilton. "It's a dangerous game isn't it." But, I push, doesn't it say something about the nature of music today that despite an immensely unpopular war, there's next to no protest-music. Noble begs to differ: "As crude as it is, there's Green Day. Even Travis did that Beautiful Occupation. Rubbish song, but people still do it. It just seems a bit naff. It's like another style box to tick in, isn't it? Conscientious etc."

"We're very cynical people," says Yan, in a Cumbrian monotone that resolutely refuses to suggest whether that's a good or a bad thing. "Greenery," he continues. "People used to comment on the aroma of some of our early shows cause we had such good branches on stage. I don't think they'd thought of that before. Bushes smell nice."
"That's going to read very differently in print, you know", I venture.
"I know, I kind of like it though," he responds, with just a touch of demonic mirth.

And so, we finish up. Our questions exhausted, our interviewees undaunted. There's a temptation to return seconds later, to see if they're chalking up another kill on their interviewer board, but instead we head into the stadium for a well earned beer. The band are playing the annual Arezzo Wave Love Festival, a wonderfully eclectic festival, but one wonders how an Italian audience will take to these steroid enhanced levels of eccentricity.

A couple of hours later, the band trot out on stage, all now dressed in the colours of Arezzo F.C, a winning move from the start. They proceed to play a show that is nothing short of incredible. There are the obligatory tree branches on stage, but it's the personalities of the band that colour the set. While they give away little in interview, on-stage they seem driven by a desire to give the audience their money's worth. There are acrobatics, forays into the stadium audience, and tune after brilliant tune. Having survived the British Sea Power interview experience, I wasn't quite sure whether I liked the band or not. Having seen them play, I'm convinced. The world needs bands like British Sea Power. And, from the audience reaction it would seem that I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Author: Andrew Lawless
Source: Three Monkeys Online
Date: 1st July 2005

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