British Sea Power
The Guardian wrote, "The glorious sound of a unique band going for broke." The Independent On Sunday, "Emperors of the elegiac," and The Sunday Times, "They are a national treasure." Q even concluded their album review with the optimistic notion that, "British Sea Power could become the unashamed Big Rock heroes that their ambition and intelligence demands." And I whole heatedly agree - it could well be that BSP's time has finally come!
Where the Brighton-based band's sophomore effort, Open Season (2005), was home to more melodic and accessible songs than their unapologetic, and at times, intense and visceral debut, The Decline Of British Sea Power (2003). Do You Like Rock Music? seems to be the crystallisation of what BSP were building towards all along, as it's an epic work of sky-scraping beauty and grandiose gestures. Yet an early quote from the cult group, "We sing of landscape and memory and the urgency to do it now," is still befitting of their ideology to this day.
But for those of you unfamiliar with the quartet's music or past, they formed in 2000 - naming themselves after the British Naval Force and the British Empire, "when Britannia ruled the waves" - before being signed to Rough Trade by an enamoured Geoff Travis. Joy Division, The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, the Pixies and Arcade Fire, are oft-used musical comparisons, and the band's line-up consists of Yan (vocals / guitar), Noble (guitar), Hamilton (bass / vocals) and Woody (drums), with writing and singing duties divided between brothers Yan and Hamilton. A fifth member, Eamon (keyboards), left in 2006 to concentrate on his other band, Brakes.
The remainder of BSP's story, involves everything from clever lyrical references as diverse as history, literature and nature. To giving journalists sets of grid references detailing where interviews would take place, to WW1 outfits, appearing in RSPB Magazine and even a spilt-single with The Wurzles! To eccentric / quirky live shows with stages covered in foliage and plastic birds, and even a roaming 10ft bear called Ursine Ultra, who the group used to beat to the ground (they won the Time Out 'Best Live Band In Britain' Award in 2004). To their celebrated 'Club Sea Power' club nights and gigs at unusual locations, such as by the sea on the Scilly Isles, underground in a Cornish Slate Mine, the Chelsea Flower Show, the John Betjeman Centenary Gala, the Royal Daffodil Ship on the Mersey, and at the highest Inn in England, Tan Hill in Yorkshire.
British Sea Power have also had a long-running fascination with the Czech Republic and its culture, recently playing at the country's Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, London - a show that was "designed to embrace Internationalism and the allure of Central and Eastern Europe." More enviably still, the group has toured with and been commended by the likes of David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, The Flaming Lips, Interpol, Radiohead, Lou Reed and The Strokes, and early on in their career were warmly welcomed by the music press as, "A Conceptual Band," as "Militant Pastoralists" and as having "Quintessentially British Style."
Recently, BSP were described by one writer as "a truly original British rock band of the 21st Century, because they appropriate and transform material from a vast swathe of art and culture, both high and low, and make the results impossibly exciting." So, on a cold January afternoon, it's with great delight that I'm able to sit down and speak with Yan at Carling Academy Oxford, minutes after the group have arrived and unloaded their equipment at the venue Woody is currently out of action with a back injury, so Tom from Brakes is temporarily filling in for him on drums.
Just before my interview with Yan though, and in answer to the album
title, Do You Like Rock Music? - with "rock music serving as a
metaphor for anything that is good in the world or worth bothering with,
and non rock music being all that is evil or contemptuous." Of
course! And now, maybe even a little bit more
A very special thanks to Yan, Noble and Hamilton, to BSP's Tour Manager Dave, and to Keira @ Rough Trade, for all of their time and help.
Read Alan Smith's gig review here
Lucy: 'Taxidermy' and 'Drink Me' are quite drastically different in their
styles, so what kind of sound can we expect from the 3rd album?
KJG: We don't know yet. We're playing a lot of new material tonight so you'll be able to judge that for yourself. When I'm this close up to it, it's really difficult to tell. I'm on a bit of a negative slant today, but usually with our music I can only hear the bits that have gone wrong rather
than anything that went right. When you reflect back on something it's very difficult to give an objective opinion, and I don't believe in objectivity anyway, I think everything's subjective. I just throw a deck of cards and
wherever they land, that's where she finds herself. I'm not really the one to explain my part in it, you must do that as the observer really, and of course that will reflect your part in the grand scheme of things.
Lucy: Do you enjoy playing live more than the creative process in the studio?
KJG: (Laughs) I don't enjoy any of it. It comes and it goes, ok? There's nothing like when you're writing and you manage to catch something by its
tail; when you're looking for those things underground that are skittering out of sight just when you're about to catch them. And when you catch them it is worth it, but it's a momentary pleasure. I've got so much noise upstairs, and I can hear things in my head that to me are absolutely devastatingly beautiful. I'm always trying to download them and get them
here, but they never get here in the right state, they're always very disabled and they don't even begin to imitate what I can hear in my head.
It's a frustrating process in the main.
Lucy: Your lyrics are simultaneously emotionally expressive and cryptic. Are you looking to be understood by your audience?
KJG: I'm always trying to understand myself, but it's like there's a point in the centre of the room, and there's a hundred windows to look at the same point from. All I can do is give you different angles on the same thing. God, you know, if I could find one conclusive thing in anything I would probably have something to put an anchor down on. But I cant, and I haven't met anyone that can. You can pick out anything you like in my lyrics, I don't seek to be cryptic. I love words for the sake of words, for me they're kind of free standing, and they don't really need to be explained. I think every word has its own character and colour and picture and the result you get with lyrics just depends how you put them together. You could just do it in a William Burroughs esque way, or throw the deck of cards, and you'd probably still find something that our tiny little minds would latch on to in order to gain some kind of emotional understanding. I don't think there's a constant, the only constant that there is for me is that there is no constant. I use myself as my canvas, I gut myself and fillet myself the whole fucking time, I'm always hooking myself out of the water, I'm always cutting my own head off and disembowelling myself, and as you can probably tell I'm quite angry about it at the moment. I'm very tired of it all, of my
process and how I find life, because it always seems to be about living and dying all in one breath. I'm getting pretty fucking tired of that.
Lucy: Do you think drugs stimulate or hinder creativity?
KJG: Well that depends on the drug, because I think most things arrive in the form of a drug really. I know in myself that if anything I am, much to my greater expense, an adrenalin junkie. My synapses don't work well enough to put pills in my mouth, I can't do that, despite popular opinion. I don't need any help breaking down, put it that way. There's not much holding it
together. If there was a drug that could put aline between two polar opposites and make them in to one thing I'm sure I would have it
intravenous, but I haven't found it. I think drugscan be a bit of a lazy way for creativity anyway, you're better off in the cold light of day in the mirror.
Lucy: As a band, you are distinguished by the extreme physicality of your
live performances. Do you consciously make an effort to put on a show or do
your performances just naturally come to you, and whatever happens, happens?
KJG: It's a bit of both, because you see, I think taking the stage is one of the most unnatural things anyone can do. In a way, just walking on stage actually creates an altered state - its not right, no one's meant to do that, unless you're a priest or a magician, or something like that. To put somebody who's very incapable in many ways in to that position creates a combustion reaction inside me. I know that, and I take the stage knowing that. Obviously there's all the usual things that affect my performance; if I'm on my 45th day of a tour I'm probably gonna be pretty fucking tired, so I'll be dictated by that. If I'm doing new material like tonight I don't
know what's going to happen, because we haven't built the train tracks yet. The beauty of playing live is when my drummer goes in to 5th gear or in to 10th gear, and for some reason there's something that hits me in the base of the spine and I'm gone, and that's Halleluiah for me. During the last few months a lot of strange things have been happening onstage, I think the process is changing. I don't know what's going to happen tonight, I've been having quite a tough time on stage, I feel like something's pulling me under, as if something's got me.
Lucy: So does the crowd influence your performances on stage?
KJG: Yes they do. I'm unkind enough to be pretty impersonal about how I do it, so I use them for me to kick against in effect, or to surf on, (I don't
mean physically surf). If you're in an empty roomand there's a couple of people at the back, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a bad show -
they might get the show of their lives. And then again when something's really heaving and going off, I get quite a distorted view of it, because I
can feel quite overwhelmed lose my sense of place in the situation. I lose control of myself. I don't know, I probably wasn't meant to do this, I
wasn't built for this. It wasn't a career option, I didn't start there and go there, I didn't pick up the things on the way. I've sort of gone round
Lucy: As the lead singer of the band, most media interest is focused on you.
Do you feel pressurised by your position or do you enjoy being the centre
KJG: I've been here on this wheel long enough,(and I say this with a little bit of trepidation because I think you have to be really careful with this kind of thing, because the motivation to do it in itself I think is usually pretty corrupt) I'm not doing it for anyone else, I need a cheque through the door like anybody else does, you have to keep eating, you have to keep living. I'm looking for some sense of going home on my own terms, and people's critique of me is not relevant, whether it's positive of negative.
I do need a cheque through the door though, otherwise I'll have to go and be a butcher or something.
Lucy: What is the religious meaning behind the song "For I am the way"?
KJG: If you use the word religion in its truest sense, all it means is communion, it hasn't got any of the attachments to any written word. My
understanding of the word communion is loss of the sense. Another way of looking at it is you've got to get in to get out, and the only thing that I
know to be true is me, is this tiny little dot in the centre of the universe. It's the only thing that I know feels pain; I can see other people's pain and I can feel it in an emotional way, but not in a physical way. I find myself in the unfortunate position of feeling like I am the
centre of the universe and that everything is a projection, made by me - i.e. you two don't exist, you're something that I created. I don't wish that
sense upon anybody because it's not a good one. Through 'For I am the way' I'm saying that you've got to get in, because the only thing one knows to be true is oneself. And on a good day, if you stand on top of a mountain or go to the desert or stand in the ocean, and become completely inconsequential, linear time stops and you become everything and nothing. That for me is
communion, that's how I define religion. I thinkthere's a line in there which goes "Today the only bridge I have I burn" which sums it up really, because it is about cutting all lines of communication in order to really truly commune.
Lucy: Do you think that in the future your creativity will move from the sphere of music in to literature for example?
KJG: It's real hard to say. In a way, that sounds like a much easier life. But for all I know I'm deluding myself. I'm looking for someone to help me frame something at the moment, and someone is actually, someone's being really good to me. I would love to write, but I don't know if I'm good
enough to do it.