Lovely Strange Imagination: British Sea Power

...on their Ray Bradbury-inspired latest album and ten years of enduring goodwill

Ten years have passed since British Sea Power’s landmark debut ‘The Decline Of British Sea Power’ defied the pessimism of its title and swept forth in majestic and arresting fashion. But instead of stopping to celebrate this very worthy of anniversaries (“We are waiting for the ruby anniversary to really cash in,” they tell us), the band have pushed on from last year’s soundtrack to ‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond’, Penny Woolcock’s astounding archival portrait of life on the British coast, with the release of their fifth album.

Considering the richness of the band’s back-catalogue, the ability to continually both surprise and delight their audience must be a tough task. However, ‘Machineries Of Joy’ – launched in classic BSP style with a boat party on the Thames, and arriving alongside talk of a BSP-branded range of bicycles – is a release that suggests there is no chance of the band running out of steam in the near future.

Ten years ago, ‘The Decline of…’ kicked off (as it still does, obviously) with the a cappella choral introduction of ‘Men Together Today’, which provided a first taste of BSP at their most majestic (in comparison to the unhinged, crackpot intensity that follows immediately afterwards on ‘Apologies To Insect Life’. On the band’s latest release, a similar choral backing rises up as the album’s final song, ‘A Warm Wind Blows Through The Grass’, nears its end. It is tempting to link the two, as if ‘Machineries Of Joy’ sees BSP coming full circle after ten years and five albums (plus the soundtracks) together. But the thing is, British Sea Power are not about destinations – they’re not even really about the journey (to shy away from that particularly well-trodden analogy). Instead they are more interested in energy, energy and a unique sense of inspiration.

There’s a heart-stopping scene in ‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond’ where a young girl dances across a steel girder high above the ground, while a crowd of spectators watch open-mouthed from the pavement below. It’s an arrestingly beautiful moment, as surreal as it is sublime. In that sense, it’s one that you might expect to have struck a particular chord with British Sea Power the first time they saw it.

Busy touring in support of ‘Machineries Of Joy’, the band asked to answer our questions via email. The band’s responses, sent courtesy of their frontman, Yan, are brief but characteristically offbeat. At the very least, you sense, Yan might be just a little drunk. Read on for his pronouncements on doughnut making, dancing with Richard Gere and “getting dilly dally down the promenade”.

What inspired the album title? A Ray Bradbury short story collection and a collaboration between Die Krupps and Nitzer Ebb share that title. On the surface, the album seems more in the spirit of Bradbury than it does such stern 80s sounds…
Yeah spot on there, Bradbury has helped us all at bedtime with his wonderful stories and lovely strange imagination, our album is similarly dreamy and also takes you into space.

This is the second album you've recorded since you've been split between Skye and Brighton [bassist/vocalist Hamilton and violinist Abi relocated to Skye before the recording of 2011’s ‘Valhalla Dancehall’] . Did writing and recording work differently this time?
The north/south split has little effect on what we do practically . . . we just get together a bit less. But Hamilton and Abi are getting rest hardy and calloused living up there in the wild whilst the southern contingent are getting more soft and rubbery by the day.

A lot of the songs appeared in earlier forms on the run of CDs you released last year. What was the thinking behind that? Was there a case of testing the waters a little bit, seeing what worked best?
We decided to do a run of EPs to accompany our residency at a club in Brighton [the monthly Krankenhaus club nights, which featured a debut performance from Savages, and an appearance from the Brighton and Hove Brass Band among other things] , and this was a chance to experiment and produce recordings which could have unusual attributes.

In your recent New Statesman interview Yan (sort of) called for a socialist revolution. In general, there seems a fairly strong focus on a communal awareness in a lot of the songs. Are the two linked?
There is a placard around Catbells in the lake district which says something like 'Happiness comes from communality widest spread'. This seemed to make sense to me after a bottle of beer on the hilltop . . . but if everyone was in British Sea Power who would make the doughnuts?

What other issues fuelled the making of the album?
Influences were things like the beauty of things coming to life, the unconscious, people blowing each other up, how nice sunshine feels on the cheeks.

There's a similar focus on community in 'From The Sea To The Land Beyond' (as in 'Man Of Aran'). How aware were you of the stories you were soundtracking in the film?
We were aware that the things we were watching were things that happened before now, and these black and white people had a right good old time lifting wood onto boats, and getting dilly dally down the promenade, and also liked to blow each other up on occasion . . . we tried to create a sense of depth of reality to the images which have been seen so often.

How does it feel to be invited to perform the soundtrack at Sundance?
Feels good, I haven't danced in a long time especially with Richard Gere [Clash can only assume Yan actually means Sundance founder Robert Redford, although we might be wrong].

When will we see the first BSP bicycles? Will they have Sturmey-Archer gears, or will they consist of something more suited to the muddy trails of the Sussex Hills?
Imagine something a bit more like Pee Wee's lovely red bike but with added jet propulsion.

It's not long until the tenth anniversary of Rough Trade releasing ‘The Decline Of . . .’. What's your assessment of it nowadays? It seems to have aged rather well.
Yeah we were good good boys back then. The quality still shines through. As my old man sometimes like to say as he sits with his big magnifying glass: "If the world can't hear the majesty in ‘Lately’ then it must be bloody thick." [For more on the role of Yan and Hamilton’s father in the rise of BSP, read ‘Do It For Your Mum’, the touching and hilarious book written by their elder brother, the music journalist Roy Wilkinson.]

There are a lot of live favourites on that album. Do you ever tire of playing the older stuff?
No, it is fun playing the new stuff but playing songs from that long ago does act as a kind of transcendental time machine… sometimes the flashbacks are pleasant sometimes not so pleasant.

What do you think it is about BSP that draws the sort of enduring goodwill you seem to have enjoyed over the past decade?
Probably down to our enduring good looks, and lack of professionalism.

Are there any particular high or low points?
We try not to think about what has gone on too much, it's been a right laugh!

Words by Paul Tucker

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'Machineries Of Joy' is out now.

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