By: Jeff Terich
British Sea Power are legends in their own time. In just eight years, the Cumbrian four-piece have built up a stage and press persona so bizarre and elaborate, the myth surrounding them has become almost bigger than the band itself. Named with only a single moniker each (Yan, Hamilton, Noble and Wood) the group has been known to dress in military style garb onstage, surrounded by artificial trees adorned with fake birds and, on occasion, a ten-foot stuffed bear. In the past, the band has given interviewing journalists coordinates at which to meet them. Once arrived, the poor sap armed with a tape recorder was likely met with personas that offered a tapestry of truth and fiction, the stuff of good legends but also a fact-checker's nightmare.
A Show of Sea Power|
That's how the stories go, anyhow.
The myths behind British Sea Power wouldn't have traveled as far as they have if the band didn't actually create such alluringly powerful music. On their debut, The Decline of British Sea Power (2003), Joy Division-like blasts of wiry punk sidled up to jittery Echo & The Bunnymen inspired rock, while follow-up Open Season (2005) showed a more melodic, slightly glossier side to the band. With album number three, Do You Like Rock Music? (released January 9 on Rough Trade), British Sea Power not only offers up a bold title but also a bold, explosive sound to match. More Arcade Fire than Joy Division this time out, everything on Rock Music sound bigger and brighter, more epic and expansive. According to frontman Scott Wilkinson, or Yan as he's more commonly known, a bigger sound is exactly what the band had in mind, though they stumbled upon a few surprises in the process.
"We've always been interested in big, atmospheric sounds but we never really [captured them before]. I think this is the best attempt we've ever managed to do," Wilkinson says. "We were kind of all just playing together in a room and got one particular sound. But we also managed to capture a lot of accidental sounds. We were recording at a military fort in Cornwall and there would be the sound of a helicopter landing outside or soldiers marching. Instead of trying to minimize these things, we got excited about them."
In addition to recording at a Cornish fort, the band assembled pieces of the album in Montreal and the Czech Republic. In the process, they worked with three different producers - Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire), Efrim Menuck (Godspeed! You Black Emperor) and Graham Sutton (Jarvis Cocker) – yet somehow created a cohesive product in spite of its long and winding road toward completion.
Tregantle Fort in Cornwall
"Originally, we were just going to record in the same studio with the same equipment at the same time," Wilkinson says. "[Bilerman and Menuck] let us do it how we wanted. You could drag a big pipe into the studio and bring in some big sticks and just start banging them on it. They let us use their equipment, and we recorded on their 24-track tape machine. Then we didn't actually finish the album. We didn't have enough time. So, we went back to England to do some experimenting with home recording. Graham Sutton's job, I guess, was to bring the two different recording styles together."
The songs on Do You Like Rock Music? are melodically accessible, though the lyrics reveal a dense strata of historical and literary footnotes. Aquatic birds, Megiddo, Czech football clubs, the Canvey Island flood of 1953 and bird flu are just a few of the references to be found within the album's 13 tracks. That isn't to say they require a Cliff's Notes companion to be enjoyed. Within the details there are universal themes, be they the battle between good and evil or finding camaraderie through dark ale. According to Wilkinson, the specific context to each song was tied, in part, to the album's creation.
"It kind of developed as we went along," Wilkinson says. "We had a lot of ideas, or really, one main idea. We wanted to get away from familiar surroundings, and get away from recording in an expensive studio, to get somewhere new. We wanted to feel a bit freer and to do things our own way, and do things maybe a bit more amateurish. We wanted to have an adventure with this record and have good memories of recording it. We developed a backdrop to songs as they were being made, and all kinds of stories ended up being in the backdrop. We wanted to have a particular time and place feel to these songs, and not be too general."
Second single "No Lucifer" deals most closely with the theme of "good vs. evil," yet does so in a rather bizarre manner, incorporating British wrestler Big Daddy's chant of "Easy! Easy!" and the image of riding to Armageddon on folding bikes:
To Sodom I will go
Not to Megiddo
Several Lucifers come
And We can beat them all
A Carlton Corsair
The Raleigh Twenty, yeah
A little lost roe deer
The wind in your hair
Though Big Daddy isn't the focus of the song, his presence and biographical details provided some unexpected inspiration for the band, which expanded to one of their most epic and most peculiar tracks to date.
"It's kind of about varying, serious and childish forms of good and evil, and trying to be on the right side," Wilkinson says." It wouldn't necessarily start with the idea of good and evil, but it was more of a drunken jam, and we were just using the ‘easy, easy' chant. The next day we listened to it and decided that it sounded interesting. Big Daddy was this massive wrestling hero in the '80s, and kids would play wrestling on the playground. He accidentally killed someone in the ring. He's just got this great character, and so we put that in relation to the song. There's one line - ‘Is that what the future holds? Kevlar or Cherry Wood?' - and it's an example of the strongest wood and an example of the strongest manmade material. And then there's the idea of fighting the Hitler Youth with bicycles."
He pauses briefly and laughs, "It's a very strange song."
Along with a new album and new surroundings, British Sea Power found it necessary to rethink their live strategy after finishing Do You Like Rock Music? As stated earlier, the group's live performances are, in no small part, responsible for some of the mystique and legend surrounding the band. With their elaborate costuming and vegetation, British Sea Power always manage to put on an extremely intense show with each member at his most animated including drummer Wood frequently walking into the crowd with a snare drum strapped to his shoulder. After five years of similar stage set-ups, however, the band has taken to a new approach, all in the interest of keeping their show as entertaining as possible.
"We had a bit of spring cleaning," Wilkinson says. "We kind of got associated with having trees and plastic animals onstage, and lots of natural, symbolic things, and just having lots of funny props around, but we decided that four years of that is enough. We don't need that anymore. So, we took that all down and slowly developed new things. We've been using nautical flags, which are actually quite pretty. You can spell out funny words, or send different messages like, ‘My engine has failed.' We've also been using pictures of animals on bed sheets. Stages aren't really attractive places. Without the lights, they're quite ugly. A lot of it is just trying to make it more interesting for the audience."
Yan & Hamilton
As a crowning moment in the year leading up to the release of the new album, British Sea Power brought their live show back to the Czech Republic, all without leaving their native England. To preview the album, they performed at the Czech Embassy in London, which coincided with the release of their single "Waving Flags," where Yan declares, "We are from Slavia," and wraps up the song in a climactic cry of "Oh welcome in!" Through both this geographically clever gesture and powerful introductory single, the band offered their olive branch to their Eastern European neighbors and the rest of the world.
"It's sort of the next little development in a side story," Wilkinson says. "My brother wrote the song ‘A Lovely Day Tomorrow,' and there are two versions of the song. There's our version and there's one with a Czech band called The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, who we toured with before. That's kind of where it started. It was just sort of a different idea of welcoming people. Instead of trying to build a wall, we were inviting people."
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