FOREWORD: This piece was written a few years before I actually got to see British Sea Power live at Bowery Ballroom, where they put on one helluva show. Their excellent ’08 disc, Do You Like Rock Music?, found the boys displaying a more straightforward, but no less appealing, rock sound.
From the south coast of England, Brighton’s precocious British Sea Power harbor stormy melodic outbursts weathering colossal crescendo cascades, contrasting coastal climactic countenances against pacific stanzaic streambeds. Lead singer Yan (guitar-keys), whose gasping utterances and trembling breathless quavers drape crackling shore-shot serenades, plies taut thespian articulation to persuasively commiserating hymns. Sans surnames, Yan, his brother Hamilton (bass-vocals), and Cumbria-based schoolmate Woody (drums), soon secured Leeds guitarist Noble and began staging Club Sea Power nights at a local pub for kicks, never seriously contemplating a record deal.
On opening ’03 salvo, The Decline Of British Sea Power, the four green chums attempted to venture beyond the blue horizon. After nervously disjointed “Apologies To Insect Life” (sporting a buzzing guitar swagger, ruptured bass throb, and knockin’ drum scrum) and its ensuing noisily askew annihilation “Favours In The Beetroot Fields,” this admirable initiation settles somewhat into intricate literary Anglo-pop mode. Yan’s passionate sincerity shines through crushworthy ascension “Remember Me,” where Noble nicks no-wave guitar licks from Nick Zinner’s toolbox of blaring feedback tricks before the lyrics cruise into the Libertines on-the-verge-of-breakdown snarl. There are moments of sheer guitar discord on the stridently woozy “Fear Of Drowning” and the urgently tumbling symphonic swish “Carrion,” but for the most part, the divine Decline reclines ‘til the lysergic “Heavenly Waters” floats out to sea.
On ‘05s stellar follow-up, Open Season, Yan’s maddeningly theatrical melancholic wail befits the stately transcendent romanticism and luxuriously iridescent stoicism inlaying each exquisite track. Beats are stronger, arrangements richer, and Yan’s fey voice becomes fulsome, as the spiraling melodramatic dispatches receive deeper conviction. Now a quintet with the acquisition of experienced keyboardist Eamon, BSP’s sweeping Epicurean grandeur surges forth on serene fugue “It Ended On An Oily Stage,” lushly elegiac “Be Gone,” and sedate piano wisp “Like A Honeycomb.” The searing guitar ascendancy and numbing gust of “How Will I Ever Find My Way Home” conveys an unfettered nervousness their debut necessitated.
I spoke to Yan while the band was on the road heading to a Dallas, Texas, gig.
AW: Who were some of your early musical influences?
YAN: I used to worship the Pixies and Julian Cope. They made it sound like fun being in a band.
Vocally, you remind me of David Bowie or Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs. Were they important touchstones?
No. Not really. It’s just a biological accident how I sound like them.
You have a powerful dramatic voice.
I have a traumatic brain as well. (laughter) Sorry, that just sounded funny. I’d say Open Season is quite an optimistic album. On the first album, we thought that we’d be all over afterwards. We were surprised we got to our first album, to be honest.
The odd numbered songs seem to have quicker drumbeats and louder sections. Was that done purposely to diversify the mood flow?
Odd numbered songs should always be faster ones. It’s a secret rule.
What did producer Mads Bjerke, who has worked with Spiritualized and Primal Scream, add to British Sea Power?
He’s more of a talented engineer than our producer. He’s very patient as well so he can deal with awkward fucks like Jason Pierce (Spiritualized leader) without getting wound up. He’s good at finding the right sonic value of where a movement should fit.
There are so many wonderful textures abounding on your first two records. Did they take long to work on in the studio?
It was quite quick really. We didn’t have a lot of time and money. Only two or three Open Season songs we worked on live while touring. During the Decline tour, we did “Please Stand Up” and “How Will I Ever Find My Way Back Home.” That’s about it.
“Please Stand Up” is a cool song that, to me, is closer to Morrissey’s dreamier fare.
Apparently we’re being banned from MTV with that song. We did a video and they thought the lyrics were too suggestive.
Well that’s ‘cause MTV sucks corporate dick. What have you been listening to recently?
I was just enjoying Soft Bulletin by Flaming Lips. Last night it was Pulp. I listen to all kinds of stuff. I’m a big Buddy Holly fan.
Is there a hometown Brighton scene I should be made aware of?
There’s a lot of music going on, but no collective style or scene. There will always be a lot of bands there that like playing music. They are nice people worth drinking with that’ll never get beyond the Brighton area. There’s a very good band, Tenderfoot, who’ve got a chilled out, soft album coming out. I’ve been there three or four years. But I actually grew up in the Lake District of Northern England. It’s the most beautiful area – clean, very green, hills, and valleys.
Perhaps that bucolic setting affected the lovely picturesque music British Sea Power composes.
I think it must be. You can’t get away from it.
What’s “The Land Beyond” that you seek?
I can’t say. At the moment it’s Texas (where they’ll be playing this night) It’s hard to condense things down to the perfect pop format. It’s easier and more natural to have that lone street feel.
Is there a Victorian splendor informing your music?
I don’t know. Maybe ironically.
The Decemberists, a band from Portland, Oregon, write vintage seafaring lyrics not unlike yours. Do you find any common ground with them?
I’ve heard nice things about them and I’ll have to look out for their albums.
What were some of the differences between your debut and Open Season?
The first one was historical and the second was about present day. But the second one harks back to some ancient stuff. Yeah. That was a hangover from the debut.
How’d you and your brother, Hamilton, decide to make music together?
We just listened to records, played along, and recorded ourselves. It was good fun. At first, we did things like the English farming band, the Wurzels, who were a funny lot. They did “Combine Harvester” (a novelty record copping Melanie’s goofy puppy love tryst “Brand New Key”).
What are the differences you’ve seen between American and European audiences?
They’re a bit less obsessive in the States. We’re taking the long time strategy, but it’s an uphill battle. We’re doing our best. We’re not complaining. A lot of our American shows have been sold out.
Are you working on any new songs?
We’ve only just learned to play the new album. We have some new songs but can’t play them yet. It’s hard to say how they will sound like when they’re done. We’re gonna do more European shows.
How’d you come up with the prodigious name, British Sea Power? It fits the oceanic luxuriousness of your songs.
It was the most ridiculous name we could come up with that nobody else had. In the early 20th century, the British sea fleet was suspended. It was the end of the empire. They didn’t need big boats anymore.
What’s with all the commotion about Prince Charles marrying Camela Parker Bowles in England? Don’t’ you think the Brits should be spending their time fixing welfare issues instead of saluting two ragged hags?
We keep them around for novelty freak value.
Before I let you go, do you have any decent tour story?
No. But Hamilton says the other day he shagged a bull up the ass. I don’t know if that’s true, though.
I think you’ve been in the Southwest too long.