2008 has been a great year for British Sea Power. The Brighton-based foursome saw their third album, the magnificent ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’, universally acclaimed upon its January release, and the record earned a Mercury Prize nomination but a few months later.
Perhaps their most accessible record to date, following 2003 debut ‘The Decline Of…’ and 2005’s ‘Open Season’, ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ saw the band embrace epic strings, utilising elements familiar to fans of acts like Arcade Fire to expand their already deep and wide ambitions. The band – Yan, Noble, Hamilton and Wood – enjoyed their highest-ever chart placing, with the album reaching number ten.
Clash meets the band at the annual BT Digital Music Awards, held at Camden’s Roundhouse venue; we’re up for a couple of awards, and British Sea Power are nominated in the Artist of the Year category. Later in the evening Radiohead will win said category, but BSP deliver the live performance of the night with a skull-rattling rendition of recent single ‘No Lucifer’. Finding a quiet corner with Yan, aka Scott Wilkinson, we have ourselves a wee chin-wag ahead of the awards.
"I’d have shot up there… and been tackled by security"
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Fair to say that 2008’s been your best year yet as British Sea Power, so far as expanding your profile goes?
Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. It’s a weird one, really. You know you’ve made it when you get your full page in The Sun and The Daily Star. But we don’t really take it that seriously. You’d be fed up if nobody wanted to talk to you, but when they do you mustn’t take it for granted.
And how do you feel in an environment like this? It’s all a bit… mental.
This isn’t as intense as the Mercury Prize press room, that’s for sure. At that, I got nominated to make the little speech to Jools Holland. If I was a best man and had to make a speech, it’d be the same thing – I don’t mind going on stage, but making a speech kind of makes me nervous. That’s why I hit the wine – you could see me on telly, just before they awarded the prize, and I was asleep on the table! Someone shook me awake. My phone could have been ringing, but I was oblivious. It’s quite a good thing nobody did ring, as I would have probably said something drunken and stupid. Someone could have easily done a Brandon Block on me: “You’ve won”. I’d have shot up there… and been tackled by security. But we don’t feel bad to lose out to nice guys like Elbow – give us ten more years and we’ll have another shot.
Elbow are a bit like yourselves, in so much as I can’t imagine them coming from anywhere but Britain. Wild Beasts, too. Do you know what I mean? There’s something quintessentially British about you, yet the specifics are not easily identifiable…
We did our album in three different countries, yet people say it’s a typically British album! So I don’t know… At the same time, our most popular song, or single, from the album, ‘Waving Flags’, is about welcoming Polish people to Britain. It’s the good side of Britishness, not ‘keep everyone out’. We’re not nostalgic, and nor do we have any weird ideas of what Britain is. It’s basically a country full of… I was going to say mongrels, but I’m not sure that’s quite the right word.
Maybe not, but I get what you mean – there’s a multicultural side to Britain that’s come alive in the last decade, more than ever before. Where you’re from, Brighton, is pretty multicultural…
Where I live in Brighton, it’s pretty dead centre. It’s, like, central gaysville…
I’m pretty sure that’s worse than ‘mongrel’!
Well, yeah, maybe… but you know what I mean – you walk down the street and you’re likely to see at least five large men wearing dresses. Which I think is great.
It’d be amiss of me to not bring up the DMAs, since we’re sat here amongst a sea of camera and fancy lights… What brings you here?
Errm… if there’s an A list, we’re like H or K or something. We have to make the effort sometimes, to let people know there’s a band called British Sea Power that exists and puts records out. That, and they offered us a free dinner. Also, my girlfriend will be very happy I’m sharing a stage with the Sugababes tonight. I think they’re alright – I consider the producers part of it. I don’t have a problem with that; it’s not so different from Joe Meek.
Totally – there’s been a real rise of the producer since the turn of the millennium, partially due to hip-hop stateside. You like that sort of meticulously arranged, creative pop?
Having some kind of design, or ideas, about music is a great thing. I’m pretty interested in it – producers with strong personalities are a good thing, as they can stamp their character on a sound. That can really benefit a lot of bands. We might work with interesting producers in the future, but on the last album we did a lot of the recording ourselves. We took all our equipment to an old army fort in Cornwall.
Did the different environments you recorded ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ in have a definite effect on the end product?
Maybe… It could just be the massive variety of temperatures that we subjected ourselves to – from winter in Montreal, where it was minus 20 degrees, to mixing the record on the edge of a forest near Prague, in the blazing summer heat. That, and also the unusual element of physical danger – two Sea Power-related people came close to getting lyme disease, and I flirted with canker disease from pigeon droppings when we were rehearsing in a water tower near Ipswich.
"...it sounded worse than someone being tortured"
Doesn’t sound like fun…
Oh, it is fun. We started the record in this disused water tower, within which we were basically squatting. Every time it rained the roof would leak, all the water would fall in; we just had to put a load of mattresses down. It was this big, dank, octagonal tower, with the middle liable for water damage and the outside in danger of catching deadly diseases from pigeons… we had the safe area of about a one-metre band around the edges, where we did most of the work. But it had a natural reverb of over 13 seconds. That’s the sort of thing you’d get in a cathedral, or something like that. The natural sound of buildings is an interesting thing. Well, it’s not THAT interesting, but it’s interesting to me.
I think it’s pretty interesting, what you can do with instruments that isn’t necessarily ‘typical’…
I like trying to play the piano to the best of my meagre abilities, but also… we wanted a big noise, so instead of getting like a sample we just pushed a piano we found down a set of stairs. It made a pretty great noise.
I bet. Tell me more about this Cornish fort you recorded in, too…
The fort was owned by the military, and they started doing exercises halfway through the recording. So you’d get a Chinook helicopter flying over, and dropping off a cannon. They’re impressive machines. I’m not into warfare, but the machinery and sounds involved are fucking amazing.
Not that you’d want it in your back garden, mind…
In this fort, you’d look out the window while doing a vocal, and you’d see these teenagers, new recruits, in full camouflage, with guns, sneaking around. They looked really innocent. The captain there heard me doing a vocal, for ‘Atom’, and he said it sounded worse than someone being tortured. And I got the impression that this was a person who’d actually heard someone being tortured for real…
…There’s a tapping on the window; a fan has written ‘Hello British Sea Power’ on a notepad. Yan smiles, and waves politely. “See, C-list, at least,” says me, before hitting upon the tragically lame pun of ‘Sea-list’… “Get it? Get it? Awww… I’ll get my coat.”
2 Brighton Corn Exchange
3 Southampton University
5 Cambridge Junction
6 Bristol Academy
7 Birmingham Academy
9 Newcastle University
10 Dundee Fat Sams
11 Glasgow ABC
12 Manchester Ritz
13 Leeds Met University
Watch the video for 'Waving Flags' below.