Jan Scott Wilkinson is feeling a little tender this afternoon – “I’m a bit hungover today,” he sighs. “The old whisky and wine combo.” Ouch.
Overdoing it on the booze might be bad for the head but it seems for British Sea Power it can also spawn a wealth of ideas: the band’s latest release, ‘Sea of Brass’ – a reimagining of their back catalogue via the medium of the traditional brass band – was dreamt up during an in-flight whisky haze.
The band had won an Arts Council commission, to put on a show at an old factory in Derby, but was struggling to come up the right concept: “I couldn’t think of anything for ages and then had a slightly sozzled brain-wave on a plane,” remembers Jan.
“You know when you’re waking up and you’re still half asleep? I remembered listening to a radio show about brass band competitions and thinking how weird they were.”
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Brass bands seemed a perfect fit for the commission and for British Sea Power: their place in 19th century industrial revolution Britain; their connection with working class culture; the public art element to marching through the streets of northern towns, for all to see and hear. And of course British Sea Power have history with embracing British institutions and the nation’s past: performing at the Natural History Museum, aboard the Cutty Sark, in Cornish caves, and live scoring BBC’s documentary From The Sea to the Land Beyond: Britain's Coast on Film, exploring the social history of our coastline – life in war and peace, women's history, and the rise and fall of fishing and shipbuilding.
After Jan’s “slightly sozzled brain-wave” followed a one-off gig with the award-winning Redbridge Brass Band, which spiralled into a sell-out tour, onto collaboration with and now comes packaged in a shiny new four-disc box set, complete with live recordings, the studio album, a live DVD, and a 22-page illustrated booklet. All in just two years.
Jan says there wasn’t really a plan or vision at the beginning of the ‘Sea of Brass’ journey, but the band knew they didn’t want to do an “easy listening type thing”, just an album where the brass band simply played along with the lead guitar.
British Sea Power teamed up with arranger Peter Wraight to rescore some of the tracks from their back catalogue that they thought had been overlooked, and it turned out to be a similar sort of repackaging process for the brass band itself. “Peter was telling us how brass bands never really get to show off what they can do,” says Jan. “They have massive dynamics and range of tones, and huge capabilities of what they can do, but always end up doing Christmas carols. So we tried to get the full range out of the ‘brass orchestra’, as we started to call it.”
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The electric guitars of their day…
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It was a chance for the brass players to shed their old skin and show what they were really made of – going back to their vibrant roots. “It’s got a bit of a fuddy-duddy image but it wasn’t at one time,” says Jan. “It was working class, and they were the first metal instruments you could carry around with you – the electric guitars of their day.
“I think they were pretty rock 'n' roll, you were pretty cool if you were walking down the street in the brass band.”
I ask Jan if he was one of the cool kids in the school band, and he starts laughing. “No… but I was in the choir! I was the only boy,” he says. “I should’ve been getting in with all the girls but really I just sat staring out the window at all the boys playing football and wishing I was out there instead.”
On the studio album we hear Foden’s – a Cheshire brass band which goes all the way back to 1900 – chosen, basically because they were the best people for the job: the pieces were pretty difficult, and had to be figured out and played in a short space of time, according to Jan. “I can’t believe what they do really, it’s so complicated,” he says.
“You can’t go off and extend things, or riff. They sit down, look at the music, and that’s what they’re gonna play. You can’t expect them to go all ‘jazz’ on it. You’re locked in and have to stick to the plan.”
Instrumental tracks ‘Heavenly Waters’ and ‘The Great Skua’ majestically bookend the record with drama and weight, but Jan’s favourite track is ‘Atom’, which culminates in a crescendo of brass. “The end of it’s quite chaotic, the brass side of things goes pretty crazy which is nice to hear,” he says. “I think they mucked around on that one, they seemed to really enjoy themselves – experimenting with weird noises. Even though it was written I think they could do a bit extra there without getting in trouble!”
The box-set’s artwork is almost another piece all on its own: metallic line drawings of sea creatures crawl and glide through the discs, all dreamt up and drawn by Jan. He originally designed a poster for the initial live event in Derby – featuring an octopus with trumpets at the end of its winding, coiling tentacles –and as the project developed he came up with a herd of trumpet-tailed whales, and a scuttling hermit crab with a cornet for a shell.
The band’s always used wildlife to embellish shows, from taxidermy owls to dancing bears (their memorable mascot is the amusingly named Bi-Polar Bear). “It’s hard to hold onto some of the animals,” laughs Jan. “They get stolen – people take them as mementos because they think it’s the same as taking a set list, but you’re like, ‘They’re fifty pounds each, those!’ But once you start going onstage with them you can’t go on without them – it just doesn’t feel any fun.”
I ask if there are any plans for creatures from the ‘Sea of Brass’ to make a stage appearance anytime soon. A couple of cornet-shelled crabs maybe, or a trumpet-touting octopus? Jan’s not sure if it would work: “You’re going into Stonehenge scale type things then,” he chuckles. “Like lowering a whale down out of a space ship or something.”
Impractical, sure, but you know what? I wouldn’t put it past them.
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Words: Emma Finamore
'Sea Of Brass' is out now.