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The Rise of British Sea Power

The Rise of British Sea Power

16 May 2013, 11:30

Before the Internet hype machine became all-encompassing, before album artwork became an incorporeal arrangement of pixels, in the days when people frequently had physical encounters with a record sleeve or a CD case before they’d even heard – or heard of – any of the music contained within, there was a time when album cover art really mattered. When there were still record shops for us to walk in to and physical records for us to chance upon, artwork was an advert, a statement of intent, even a manifesto.

I can still remember the first time, almost ten years ago to the day, that I picked up British Sea Power’s debut album The Decline of British Sea Power in York’s now sadly defunct Track Records. I can still remember the momentary consternation it caused my tiny 14-year-old mind, with the artwork’s declaration that this new release from a young band was “British Sea Power’s Classic…”; I remember feeling almost affronted by such confidence. That confidence spread, of course, to the album’s title, a title that felt destined to become an ever-more tedious joke as it was rolled out with the advent of every subsequent BSP release. The mysterious quote, “We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time… Even so, that will suffice… There is a land for the living and there is a land for the dead” which sits below the title, attributed to no-one, seems with hindsight to echo the atmosphere and themes of the band’s music (elegiac, enigmatic, harkening back to a mythologised past). At the time though, it was just as enticing and inscrutable as the rest of what I was looking at. This was, defiantly, artwork as an advert, a statement of intent, and a manifesto.

That year I bought two copies of The Decline of British Sea Power, the second after destroying the first by sitting on my Sony Discman with the CD inside, because I took that album everywhere with me, physically and figuratively. It soundtracked the summer and probably most of the winter too, it tapped into my consciousness. When you’re 14 years old, albums come along every other month that change your life, that leave an indelible mark upon you. The Decline of British Sea Power was, undoubtedly, one of those albums. It is hard to believe that I have now lived with it for a decade, that it is ten years since that bizarre openingtrack, forty seconds of Gregorian chanting, made me wonder just what the hell it was I’d bought.

In the present, my tiny 24-year-old mind is trying to deal with the fact that on the other end of the phone line is Martin Noble, one of British Sea Power’s four founding members. “I’m still in Brighton, just at the shop, collecting some supplies,” Noble tells me. “We’re out on tour tomorrow so I’ve got a bit to sort out before then.” I can’t help but laugh at this homely image. The first ten years of British Sea Power have seen festivals at the highest pub in Britain, a live performance from the Great Wall of China, a US stadium tour with The Killers, an attack from a Geordie in a bearsuit wielding a broken bottle strapped to each paw, and drunken motorboating on a Norwegian lake. I imagine their lives as a crazy rock’n’roll sitcom; I don’t picture them pottering down to the shops while taking phonecalls from over-eager journalists.

“We certainly like to live it up, and that dramatic, crazy side of things is part of what we love about being in this band, but as we’ve grown up with it, we’ve kind of been forced to become normal,” Noble says. “The first time we went on tour to the states, I think we were all drunk for three months before we even realised how long it had been. At some point we had to stop that and slow down to an extent, or I don’t think there’d have been a ‘decade of BSP’ article being written about us.”

The rock’n’roll sitcom image was partly gleaned from the band’s portrayal in the excellent semi-biography Do It For You Mum, which was written by Roy Wilkinson, the elder brother of lead songwriters Yan and Hamilton. The book deals candidly with the trio’s youth and their relationships with one another, which is another factor Noble attributes to the band’s stability. “We’ve never really had any major fallings out. Obviously there’s two brothers in the band, so they argue, but the thing about that is they can say what they like to each other but they’re always going to make up. I think that’s sometimes helped diffuse any tensions we might have had, because they end up taking their little frustrations out on each other rather than on the rest of us. We just keep our heads down,” he says with a wry smile.

Anyone who has ever seen British Sea Power perform live will be well inclined to believe Noble about the band’s relative placidity. It’s not that they are placid on stage – far from it – but that few bands look as overwhelmed with happiness at the sheer exhilaration of performing their songs, few bands create such an intimate connection with their audience.

Likewise, few bands celebrate the launch of a new album in quite such style. On a freezing April evening, I crammed onto a boat on the Thames with British Sea Power and about one hundred of their biggest fans, including Gavin and Stacey actor Matthew Horne, to listen to a Bulgarian a cappella band, followed by a “quiz” hosted by 6Music DJ Shaun Keavney (which consisted of him shouting a mixture of real and made-up German words in an incredibly bad accent and BSP member Phil Sumner playing French horn versions of ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘The Boys are Back in Town’). We then all shuffled off the boat and onto an old fashioned red London ‘Routemaster’ bus where the ticket inspector was mad performance poet Jock Scot, and the bus’ terminus was the 100 Club on Oxford Street, where we played ping-pong and had a raffle and watched some girls dressed as Julius Caesar dance. Then British Sea Power played a set and were joined on stage by Jehnny Beth from current Best Fit favourite Savages and their customary giant polar bear friend, and then only after the headline act did the support band, Bo Ningen, come on to play. One day in the future I will tell people this story, and they will insist that it was a dream, or that I have gone mad. But it was not a dream, and I have not gone made; British Sea Power made it happen. Like I said, few bands launch their records so brilliantly. The whole night feels like an example par excellence in what has made this band so special across their first decade.

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British Sea Power - Shepherds Bush Empire, London 170413 | Photo by Howard Melnyczuk

The latest album’s title is cribbed from a Ray Bradbury story collection, and Machineries of Joy is a good description of the band in the “joy” part only: there is nothing mechanical about them. At the 100 Club, the band launch into new material like they are excitedly giving you updates on their lives and the back catalogue is like reminiscing about old times, such is the feeling of friendship and loyalty among their fanbase.

One of the greatest aspects of this band is that no matter how popular they become – and they have become popular, Machineries of Joy went into the top 20 of the album charts, their third album Do You Like Rock Music? went top 10, receiving celebrity endorsements from the likes of Peter Capaldi, Brian Cox and even David Bowie – they still feel like a cult. Speaking to Noble, it’s easy to understand why.

They have lived in Brighton for the entirety of their career, resisting the allure of the capital or even further afield. They have also been signed to Rough Trade for their whole career, the longest stint a band has ever had on that label. This is a band that is somehow both so down-to-earth and so head-in-the-clouds that it’s impossible to think of success affecting them in anything but a positive sense. In the same way that the comedian Stewart Lee still drops jokes from 20 years ago into his routines, like Easter Eggs for the nerds, there is a sense that to get the most out of British Sea Power, you need to have been there from the start.

As an aside, the sense of community spread by the band has recently had wider ramifications, as one of their songs has become central to a pro-immigration campaign, run in the wake of increasing UKIP popularity in some parts of Britian. The song is a true BSP anthem, and goes down a storm at their album launch show, with its chest-pumping, indeed, flag-waving lyrics: “Are you of legal drinking age? On minimum wage? Well welcome in.” Singer Yan Hamilton, co-writer of the song along with Noble, told The Quietus that he’s “not really a political ranter”, and sensibly so, since the message of the song isn’t anti-anything, and though the song is patently “political” in one sense of the word, it’d be a shame to see it hijacked by politics. As the band demonstrates every time they play it live, it’s a song about differences bringing people together, about celebrating our disparate cultural heritages. We all have our own flags, but we should be waving them as one.

On Machineries, the band themselves sound like more of a collective than ever. “Phil and Abi joined us on the last album [2011’s Valhalla Dancehall], so this is only the second album we’ve all made together, we’re still learning about each other”, Noble tells me. “It’s the most open the songwriting process has ever been, though. On the last one it was still very much that one or two of us would write the songs, and everyone else would play along, but this time it’s definitely felt more collaborative.”

“We’ve soundtracked the two films recently [Man of Aran, in 2008, and From the Sea to the Land Beyond last year, which Noble tells me might get a release later in 2013], and we’ve definitely learnt a lot from those experiences. And Abi brings a bit more of a classical element to it – she’s the only one who really knows how to play music”, Noble jokes.”She’s made us push things into areas we wouldn’t have, like we’ve got a song in 6/4 time on the new one, which has been…” he pauses, looking for the right word, and finally comes up with “interesting.”

I can’t help but agree. Machineries is more “interesting”, though not in the hesitant way Noble intones. It’s by far BSP’s most musically complex album, and takes more risks than anything they’ve done since The Decline, including using hand-built instruments. Noble is the band’s bassist, and apparently now their home-made mellotronist. “Basically it’s a series of recordings taken on a dictaphone, and then you filter that through a 16-track so you’ve got the different sounds, and then you just need a sequencer or something to play it through. It’s fairly simple but I spent the downtime between the last two records making that.”

It comes as no surprise that members of British Sea Power spend their spare time building instruments. It’s tempting to draw a wider analogy about the band here, in that even when they aren’t “making music”, they are making something that contributes to the BSP experience. “I agree, it’s all a part of it, I don’t think we could have one aspect without the other,” says Noble. “We love the writing and recording, but really, for me anyway, it’s all about getting it out there and playing it, bringing together those different aspects. We never really know how good something is that we’ve done until we play it on stage.”

In his review of Machineries of Joy for Pitchfork, Ian Cohen wrote that “there’s just one kind of song British Sea Power do well”. He didn’t mean this entirely as a compliment, and it’s not entirely true, but Cohen did hit upon something. The very best British Sea Power songs are instantly identifiable as such, and impossible to imitate, which might be part of the reason their influence has never spread further, and perhaps why they retain such a loyal fanbase: there is no-one else quite like them.

Usually, writing a “ten years on” piece, I’d expect to find myself discussing how seminal the album in question has proved to be (see Best Fit’s recent feature on The Postal Service), but in this case, it hasn’t really turned out that way. The Decline of British Sea Power made an indelible mark upon me, as it did many other people, but ultimately it was most influential on the band that made it. I ask Noble if he ever contemplated making it to ten years, especially given how chaotic the early years of the band were.

“Honestly, I didn’t contemplate that, but I didn’t not contemplate it either. We just set out to make a record, and then we toured for a while and made another one. We just keep one album in our sights at a time, and somehow ten years has gone since the first one.”

Noble rather modestly explains away the band’s continued success by saying that they simply “wouldn’t know what else to do”, and says that they will “probably” be around in another ten years because “we got this far without really thinking about it.”

So no big 10-year celebrations then?

“We might like to do a reissue, or some shows where we’ll play it all the way through, or something like that. We’ve not talked about it yet though, we’ve still got a new album to promote!” I’m hoping that publishing this means holding Noble to his word. “British Sea Power’s Classic… The Decline of British Sea Power” – has a certain ring to it as the title of a reissue, doesn’t it?

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