British Sea Power
Live @ Carling Academy Oxford
January 28, 2008
Interview & Photography: Steve Bateman

"Music and myth are machines for the suspension of time. These are mechanisms for which British Sea Power have a full set of keys." VINTAGE BSP NEWSLETTER

On first hearing British Sea Power's latest single, the widescreen and stadium-sized Waving Flags (which is pro-immigration), memories of those moments when a song has the ability to swell inside you and reveal its brilliance immediately, all came flooding back. And if that wasn't enough, the band's third LP, Do You Like Rock Music? - made in Canada, Fort Tregantle and the Czech Republic - was the first new record that I played in 2008, which also left me with that same euphoric rush! And as I went to press play on the stereo again, it soon dawned on me that I had already listened to a contender for 'Album Of The Year'.

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…


1. When British Sea Power first began, did you all have a common goal, and what was it that you took from the artists / bands that you most admired?
"Well, there were probably more things that we didn't want to do, than things that we did want to do sort of thing. We're all fans of bands like The Smiths - where there's a larger picture involved you know? Like references to people that you probably wouldn't have heard about, if you didn't get into The Smiths, things like that. Yeah, we just wanted to try and include things we liked, which wouldn't necessarily be musical things (pausing), we always liked dressing up (laughs heartily), that was probably the biggest common goal! But we used to dress up before we were in the band (laughing), we'd just put on stupid outfits (smiling)!"

2. Has the evolution of your sound been something that you always knew would happen, or has this been more of a natural progression?
"Um (pausing + thinking), I don't think what we've been aiming for has really changed that much, but we've kind of learnt more effective ways to do it! We record a lot of stuff ourselves now, so that's good, because we can go anywhere and just record, without anyone else being around which is nice. It's a bit freer and it's a more relaxed way of doing things, but I don't think we've massively changed to be honest."

3. And during this time, what has the devotion of your fans - affectionately known as 'The Third Battalion' - meant to you?
"Well, they don't seem to use that name so much anymore, but maybe it's a bit more secret? I don't know? But we take the piss out of them sometimes, and they do out of us, but we do appreciate them really (smiling)! I was thinking about it the other day, and I wondered if people might sometimes think that they're a bit weird - like there are people who have been to over 150 gigs and stuff like that. But, it's just like going to see your local or favourite football team or something you know? They come along and support us, and then they all meet up and have fun together! So there are kind of 2 sides to it - I think they enjoy meeting each other, as much as they do coming to see us (laughing), so it's good!"

4. If you could be magically transported back to any historical event or time, what would it be and why?
"Oh blimey! Um (long pause + thinking), I think I'd be a Caveman hunting and gathering (laughs heartily)!"

5. And who would be your ideal dinner guests?
"I used to have a fantasy dinner guest list, but it's been a while. David Lynch I think would be there (laughing) - he's brilliant! Frank Black (pausing + thinking), Iggy Pop, Julian Cope and (long pause + thinking). That'll do I think, yeah."

6. What is the one thing that you couldn't live without?
"Oxygen (laughs heartily)! You mean a luxury item don't you? Um (thinking), lavender!"

7. A number of music critics have stated that "rock 'n' roll didn't become interesting until the British got hold of it." Would you say that's true?
"I think British people turned it into pop music, that's what I learned, and I think that's a big difference - rock 'n' roll's one thing and pop's another thing - and I think that's what we added to it in a way, that was the development that we brought on. And, it has become the art form of the century in a way (pausing), is it a good thing (thinking)? I don't know? Probably (laughing)!"

8. Do you think a lot of artists / bands conform to music's formal structures?
"Um (thinking), I think most people do it accidentally - a lot of them. But it's not something that I really think about, how people make music you know? I don't think they're following structures, in as much as they're copying things unimaginatively (laughing). But I don't really pay that much attention to what's going on at the moment, to be honest with you."

9. What have been some of the standout moments in your career so far?
"Seeing Martin Noble survive (laughing), and become more indestructible than when we started (smiling)! I was talking to his Dad last night, and apparently, the family gets more indestructible as they get older! I saw him dive headfirst into a concrete pillar in Ireland (laughs heartily), and he hardly even flinched! I'm starting to think that he might be part-alien or something like that (smiling)! But it's hard to pick out moments. I have really good memories of doing the new album - I think that was one of the best things, because we took it in to our own hands and did it the way we thought we should. We went to Montreal and rehearsed in a pigeon-infested water tower, and mixed it in the Czech Republic. So that was pretty good, because there are always people trying to slightly worry us about taking an unprofessional route."

10. What's the most memorable MySpace message that British Sea Power has ever received?
"It's a negative one - it was an invitation to join the BNP! It was quite shocking in a way, do you know what I mean? I had a look on the page out of curiosity and it was quite scary (pausing), well, it wasn't that scary, because it was so stupid - it had this sort of surface where it was trying to show off this weird nostalgia for England. But, it was quite weird, because you could easily just select 'All Friends Approve' without looking, and before you know it, you're on the BNP's MySpace page. So, I suppose that was quite horrible. Shall I tell you a nice one to balance it out a bit (laughing)? We once played a show and Martin tried to pick me up, and he dropped me, and I cut my nose open and there was blood going everywhere, and this girl sent me a message saying, "How's your nose?" (laughing)."

11. Do you have any prized-possessions or favourite gifts from fans?
"I've had some strange cakes! They'd been transported in pockets, so they were crumbling everywhere, but it was a nice thought (laughing)! What else have I been given (thinking)? In Japan, I was given lots of little furry animals - they're very obsessive about Western bands. It's weird."

12. Some songwriters believe that "songs are already there and it's their job to find them." Would you agree with this, and is it difficult letting your songs go?
"Kind of. I think the ideas are there (pausing), I've just been reading David Lynch's new book (Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness And Creativity) - it isn't that good, but it's quite nice, and he says that his film ideas are fishes and he catches them. So if you stay true to that initial thought or feeling, although you still have to put the work in, you'll always retain the original idea. So in that way, I'd say yeah, because I'll think of an idea for a song and it will slowly sort of grow. In terms of letting my songs go, I'd say that I do get a bit carried away (laughs heartily). Normally, it's when you (pausing), like on this album, there were various tracks of us pretending to be monks (laughing). But sampling helicopters and pianos falling down the stairs were the cut-off point I think (laughing), otherwise, who knows what else might have ended up on there!"

13. If you had to sing a song at Karaoke, what would it be?
"I did one actually once - that's the only time I've ever done it - and it was Blue Moon by Elvis. I was ready for it, and then it came in, and it was the Grease version, so it was double-fast and it took me by surprise (laughing)! So I'd do that again, but I'd try and get the right version!"

14. For most musicians and fans, the sequencing of songs on an album, is a very important factor in the listening experience of a record as a whole. As a band, how do you decide on the final running order of your LPs + has there been any alternative album titles that were nearly used?
"It was quite hard this time, because we had a lot of songs. We went to mastering and it was going to be a lot shorter than it was, and then we'd finished mastering it, and the guy who was doing it, Tim, who's done our albums before and is quite a funny chap said, "I've got one problem with this." And we were like, "He's never said that before (laughing)!" He goes, "I feel I've been short-changed!" So we had to rethink it. We would've got there in the end, but he speeded up the process, and then we did it twice more and added a whole extra track on the end and stuff like that, which was the second version of All In It / We Close Our Eyes. I just mixed it on the home set-up, because we didn't have an ending, and now it finishes where it started in a way. With album titles, some get made up as jokes, like, That's What I Call World War 1 Joy Division - that was going to be it, with 2007 on the end, as in That's What I Call Music. It was a completely factually inaccurate title (laughs heartily)! I can't remember any of the others, but there's always loads and then they all get crossed off quite quickly."

15. A music critic once wrote, that "British Sea Power offer an essential live experience like Joy Division and The Smiths used to." But which do you prefer out of writing / recording and playing live?
"I'll go with my brother's answer to that question, he did a few days ago (laughing). He said that he "ploughs his furrows in the studio and harvests his potatoes playing live."
*I ask Yan if when playing live, he feels a synergy between the band and the audience*
"Yeah, and that's the whole point of it I think, and that ends up saying how good the gig is really I suppose? I mean you've got to obviously play your songs well (pausing), actually, I think you can play your songs badly if you've got a good enough connection and they sound good. But it's the aim I guess, yeah."

16. What would you say the divide between talent and luck is in The Music Industry?
"Um (long pause + thinking), I don't know? Is there a divide (thinking)? I think even the most talented ones probably have a large degree of luck involved, but either way, lucky or talented, you still have to work quite hard."

17. Are you pleased with BSP's profile, and do you think myth and intrigue are important elements which are now sadly lacking in modern music?
"I'm not really (pausing), I mean in terms of papers and things, they've all been nice - what can you say? It's pleasant isn't it (laughing), and I can't complain. It probably doesn't mean as much as when you first start off, because it's dead exciting, but now you think, "Well, you shouldn't care if they're all saying bad things, and you shouldn't really take too much notice if they're telling you that you're brilliant" you know? With the Internet, everything's available instantly nowadays, so myth and intrigue are both good things, and you can't have to much of them - and there isn't a lot at the moment."

18. If you had to choose between having a #1 Album or Single, headlining The Main Stage at a major Festival, or winning an important Award, which one would you go for?
"I'd go for headlining The Main Stage at a major Festival, because that's instant money isn't it (laughs heartily)! Glastonbury would be nice, but could we also increase the sound limit so that it's actually a decent volume (laughing)? Because that's the problem - you don't want the wind blowing the wrong way (laughs heartily)!"

19. Of the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony and Lust), which one are you most guilty of?
"Lust (laughing), or, unexplored lust (laughs heartily)!"

20. Do you believe in Proverbs?
"It depends which ones really, I used to quite like them - I remember getting Aesop's Fables when I was a little kid, and they're kind of Proverbs really. Yeah, I guess so, they're generalisations, but they have to be, if they're going to apply to everybody."

21. You recently said, "The world of most bands is really small and boring. The things that interest us are big. They move you. They matter." But are there any particular lyrics that you've heard, or any lines of poetry that you've read over the years, that have always stayed with you?
"Um (long pause + thinking). No, apparently (laughing)! I'm searching through and if they had, they would come straight to mind wouldn't they? But, I have quite a bad memory to be honest. I would love to be one of those people who can reel off all their favourite quotes, and having a detailed and accessible memory I think, is something that I'd like to be able to have."

22. How long does it take you to distance yourselves from your songs, and to date, whose opinions on your work have had the biggest influence on the music that you make, i.e. people close to the band, fans or the music press?
"Well I don't really listen to our music, and I forget about it quite quickly once its finished, but before that, it's all-encompassing (laughing). But once it is done, I start thinking about what to do next really. Regarding peoples' opinions on our work, certainly not the fans or the press (pausing), the band basically, and there's a chap called Old Sarge who writes our newsletters and stuff like that - he's always had interesting and worthwhile opinions, so I listen to him! And my Dad, he's quite forthright (laughs heartily)! He's a writer (pausing), well I say he's a writer, but he isn't a published writer - he's been writing the same book his whole life and he hasn't finished it yet (smiling). There are stacks of boxes filled with typed pages! It's a fictional book, and it's kind of a seedy gangster type thing set in The '30s and '40s, but he'll have to hurry up as he's getting on, he's 87 now (laughing)!"

23. Bruce Springsteen believes that "the best rock 'n' roll songs are always about longing." Is this something that you would agree with?
"Yeah, I think everything's probably about longing, as far as I can tell. As a band, we certainly do a lot of longing (laughs heartily)! If we're not longing for this, we're longing for that (laughing)!"

24. Having been in The Music Industry for several years, career-wise, what would now give you the most satisfaction?

"If I can just keep having enough coins for my gas and electric meters, and record music really, those are the 2 things that I wouldn't like to give up - electricity and music (laughing)! I mean I'm quite happy with how it's gone really to be honest, and if we finished tomorrow, it would be on a good point. But I'm not desperate to finish! We haven't thought about where we're going to go next, because we're kind of tied up for the rest of the year really. I suppose it does cross my mind, I've got some thoughts and a few song and sound ideas, and we're always kind of making things. But, we'll wait until we have more free time and our days aren't taken up with touring commitments, before thinking about the next album properly."

25. Lastly, chips or cream buns?

"Chips (without any hesitation), that's easy! I could live without cream buns (pausing), I could probably live without chips as well actually (laughing)."

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.

Oxford Set List

Lights Out
Remember Me
Canvey Island
Down On The Ground
Leaving Here
Waving Flags
Great Skua
Open The Door
No Lucifer
Trip Out
St Louis
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
True Adventures
A Rock

"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."

Read Alan Smith's gig review here

wers to questions...It's never about looking forward to it. Actually maybe I should change the
script, maybe we are looking forward to it. (Laughs). It's difficult to say because the last few months have felt strange, it's felt like going down a plughole. I've got a real sense of vertigo at the moment. So I can't tell you that I'm looking forward to it. I will get through it and find where I land after that. That's what will happen.

Lucy: 'Taxidermy' and 'Drink Me' are quite drastically different in their musical 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
and 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 of attention?
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.