BRITISH SEA POWER
Press biography 2010
British Sea Power are a six-piece band variously originating from Cumbria, Yorkshire, Ealing and Shropshire and are currently based in East Sussex and on the Isle Of Skye.
Yan Scott Wilkinson – vocals/guitar
Neil Hamilton Wilkinson – vocals/bass/guitar
Martin Noble – guitar/keyboards
Matthew Wood – drums
Abi Fry – viola/keyboards
Phil Sumner – keyboards/cornet/guitar
On the sleeve of the new British Sea Power album sits a picture of a three-legged horse. The horse is a nod to some inspirational thoughts from the late Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal – his suggestion that there’s nothing to beat placing bets on three-legged horses with beautiful names. Such bewitching Central European musings and the band’s tripod horse, of course, only exist in the world of art and imagination. But, in the real world, British Sea Power really do have a horse. Or, at least, the racehorse British Sea Power, a recent runner at Kempton Park, was named after the band (the owners were kind enough to ask permission). Somewhere out on the oceans there’s also a big three-masted yacht named after the band. These transferences of dreams into reality are maybe emblematic of this most audacious of bands. Here is a group who have sung of the Carpathian mountains, atomic particles and Scandinavian sea lanes while playing some wonderfully idiosyncratic concerts. Yet they’ve also reached the top ten of the album charts and sold out prestigious shows across the globe. Again in the words of Bohumil Hrabal, BSP are a band where “the unbelievable came true”.
BSP’s inventive live shows have become a latterday rock institution. Atop the Great Wall Of China. At London’s Natural History Museum and Czech Embassy. On the Scilly Isles and on Arctic islets. Down a Cornish slate mine and at the Chelsea Flower Show. On ships at sea and deep in Polish forests. BSP have been acknowledged by the great institutions: David Bowie, the National Maritime Museum, Jarvis Cocker, the British Horseracing Authority. They are a band who tour giant American stadiums with old pals The Killers, but a band who also make singles with ancient West Country hitmakers The Wurzels. BSP are a band who play forests and giant rock halls as specially requested guests of The Flaming Lips, The Strokes and Pulp. But they’re also a band who stage their album launch parties in remote Sussex pubs where their own special guests are The Copper Family, a clan of Sussex folk singers who’ve been going for 200 years. No other band did this. Most likely no other band could.
If BSP are a band where dreams become real, this effect is unlikely to dim with their new album. Valhalla Dancehall is a record that moves from concise electronic pop to nine-minute solemnity to swaggering thug-glam. Lyrical subject matter includes local libraries, indigenous societies, the Dame Vera Lynn Celebrity Clay Pigeon Shoot and the party to which everyone is invited. Valhalla Dancehall is a record that suggests BSP’s cupboard remains full of medieval armoured gloves. Again a gauntlet is thrown down.
British Sea Power formed in 2000. From Cumbria came brothers Yan Scott Wilkinson and Neil Hamilton Wilkinson, plus school friend Matthew Wood. Guitarist Martin Noble arrived from West Yorkshire. BSP released their first record in 2001 – the Fear Of Drowning single on their own Golden Chariot label. But it was the band’s live performances that defined their first years. When BSP played the 2002 Reading Festival, Rolling Stone indicated that the entirety of the weekend’s bill paled before them: “Fuck this puerile drivel, we’re going to see British Sea Power… British Sea Power rule!” Since then the band have played a collection of unforgettable shows in remarkable surroundings. The band have also established their own micro-festival at the Tan Hill Inn, the most elevated pub in Britain, high up on the North Yorkshire dales. It’s the only place you are likely to see the Klaxons and Arctic Monkeys milling around between husky races and falconry displays. When invited by the late author’s family to play at the John Betjeman Centenary Gala in 2006, BSP performed alongside Ronnie Corbett, Nick Cave and The Prince Of Wales.
The band’s debut album, The Decline Of British Sea Power, was released in 2003. Confidently contradicting its title, the album swung boldly from 30-second choral swoons to the 14-minute epic Lately. The latter took in life, death and the Scandinavian sea lanes of the Kattegat. In between lay the post-punk pocket-battleships Carrion and Remember Me. “Stadium-sized melodies and exquisite songwriting,” said MOJO. The NME was in accord: “Out of this world… a dazzling debut.” The Sunday Times was unequivocal: “The best band in Britain.” With the completion of the album, the band were joined by the great Eamon Hamilton, all the way from Laurie Lee country, Stroud in Gloucestershire. Eamon played keyboards and boldly banged his marching drum through crowds from Brighton to Japan. Who could forget the night Eamon went wild on the BBC, stomping around the studio to steal a kiss from Jamelia and draw a crisp salute from auld Stipey?
There were concerts from St Petersburg to San Francisco – including tours with the Flaming Lips, Interpol, Pulp and The Killers. In 2004, Time Out made BSP Live Band Of The Year at their annual awards. In 2005, BSP released their second album, Open Season. It was a more streamlined, graceful record, but again the press located strength in depth. “A marvellous album,” reported The Guardian, “a triumphant lesson in sweeping toward the mainstream with your imagination and mystery intact.” Rolling Stone said that: “The first few songs are so jaw-slackeningly great it can take days to get to the album’s highlight, the epic eight-minute medley of Please Stand Up and North Hanging Rock.” The NME said: “Wonderful… breathes with originality, poise and grace.” In the wake of Open Season, BSP made a single with The Wurzels and jammed on stage with German avant garde enigmas Faust. The latter engagement concluded with an energetic fist fight.
British Sea Power’s third album, Do You Like Rock Music?, was recorded in the Czech Republic, Canada and at Fort Tregantle – a 19th Century redoubt up on the Cornish cliffs. It was released in 2008 and went straight into the top ten of the UK chart. Subject matter included floods on Canvey Island, economic migration, Slavia Prague FC, heartache, Big Daddy and the Apocalypse. The album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and again the press shouted the record’s virtues from the rooftops. “It has the unity and sweep of a great film or novel,” said The Independent On Sunday, “British Sea Power are emperors of the elegiac.” Q magazine detected numerous strengths: “Ambitious, impressive, genuinely moving… chock full of epic tunes and seductive melodies.” The Observer homed in on the band’s blend of the eccentric and the everyman: “This is rock that’s both arcane and populist, built for huge halls yet awash with references to the Carpathians and ‘Czech ecstasy’.” The album didn’t win the Mercury but victors Elbow added their name to the list of BSP admirers. In Uncut magazine, Guy Garvey declared that, “Not only do British Sea Power own the best name in history, they’re fucking great.”
By the time the band made Do You Like Rock Music? Eamon had left to front his own band, Brakes. BSP live players Abi Fry (viola/keyboards/Ealing) and Phil Sumner (keyboards/cornet/Shropshire) became full band members. The new line-up recorded the Man Of Aran soundtrack, a new largely instrumental score for Robert Flaherty’s fascinating 1934 film of the same name. The album was again well received. “Stunning… breathtaking,” said Ireland’s Hot Press. “Chimes perfectly with BSP’s fascination with lost ways of life,” said The Independent On Sunday. Fittingly, BSP played their new soundtrack to screenings of the film on a series of islands: Jersey, the Hebrides, a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle.
And now BSP’s fourth studio album, Valhalla Dancehall. It was written and recorded on Skye and in a remote farmhouse, near Selmeston in East Sussex. The title hints at some wild internationalist daydream – a mix of glowery Norse mythos and jam-happy Jamaican discos. Behold as Thor gets it on with Lady Saw. Of course, a pale alternative-rock band is never likely to be mistaken for such dancehall greats as Captain Sinbad and Sister Nancy. But you can dream. The album has a glorious scope, moving from the windswept nine-minute meditation of Once More Now to the neat electronic pop of Living Is So Easy. Recordings were made during Britain’s coldest winter for 30 years. There was snow and black ice and the fuel oil ran out at the band’s farmhouse studio. One night co-producer Graham Sutton’s car ran into a snowdrift 20 miles to the north. He had to kip down in his vehicle until morning.
While recording at the farmhouse, BSP made their own nine-hole golf course and enjoyed wine, beer and spirits in a The Yew Tree, a lovely pub in nearby Ripe. It was at this pub that the novelist Malcolm Lowry had a drink before walking home to his death, an uncertain event involving a matrimonial tiff, a bottle of gin and some sleeping pills. Lowry is buried in Ripe churchyard. Unfortunately, his grave doesn’t feature the epitaph he’d written years earlier: “Malcolm Lowry/Late of the Bowery/His prose was flowery/And often glowery/He live nightly and drank daily/And died playing the ukulele.” Meanwhile, up on Skye, between recording 50 tracks of ‘porpoise noises’, singer/bassist Hamilton found himself helping a sheep give birth on a remote Skye hillside. The lamb was breached but the BSP man got it out. Sadly, the lamb died the next day, but the sheep survived and the farmer relayed his thanks. This impromptu animal husbandry gives a flavour of the remoteness and simplicity of Hamilton and Abi’s island hut. Of course, a recording schedule that reaches between Skye and Sussex isn’t the most convenient. Abi has now pretty much mastered the art of driving the length of the United Kingdom at a single stretch.
Despite this colourful recording backdrop, some substantial compositional ambition and lyrics that move from “interstellar clouds on the Sussex Downs” to visible panty lines, Valhalla Dancehall is also often a very direct album. A case in point is the track Were You Not Told?. It’s a song that mentions local libraries and recommends militancy over militarism. But it’s also a song that blasts in on a glam stomp and a glorious guitar riff, while voicing 21st century anxieties in plainspoken language. Similarly, the song Living Is So Easy mentions the Parisian banlieue and the Dame Vera Lynn Celebrity Clay Pigeon shoot (a real-life Sussex event that has featured Bernard Cribbins and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa). But it’s a chimingly direct song, centring on desire and some vast universal party. You can almost imagine Lady Gaga singing it, a sure sign of premium pop quality. Indeed, beside the atmospheric, reflective Hamilton songs Baby, Cleaning Out The Rooms and Once More Now – tracks that form a link to the Man Of Aran album – Valhalla Dancehall can be seen as a bit of pop fantasia. The band like to imagine there are hints of Kraftwerk, Abba, Winfred Atwell and Slade. All lined up beside an all-new Norse/Kingston pantheon and a mood of sweet, intoxicating sparkling wine.
Place your bets then. Odin and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry are in the stewards’ enclosure. British Sea Power not only have a beautiful name. Between them, they also have more than three legs.
PS. A polite note. When they started out 10 years ago, BSP did indeed wear some old RAF jackets. Guitarist Martin is interested in bird life and named an instrumental track The Great Skua, after the big piratical seabird. Subsequently, BSP have been routinely proclaimed as “Birdwatching Brighton eccentrics in military uniforms”. But it is a good five years now since any of BSP sported any military apparel, while five-sixths of the band wouldn’t know a Golden Eagle from a Goldcrest. As it suggests on their new album, this band are “militant not military”.
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