Czeching it out: British Sea Power on liking Rock Music
- British Sea Power »
Writing in the Architects’ Journal about the (then) Czechoslovak Embassy, in 1969 one David Rock remarked that he felt the aim of the design was to create a building that was "modern with no conscious concession to the past". It would be too perfect if British Sea Power had had this sentence in mind when choosing what is now the Czech Consulate as the venue of the launch shindig for their superlative third album, Do You Like Rock Music?.
There’s a holler of "welcome to the Czech Republic" (before guitarist Martin removes one of its light fittings while stood on the shoulders of the crowd). They sing 'Canvey Island', with its opening line "HN-51 / killed a wild swan" on the day the disease is found in three more of the birds, dead in Dorset. Under the embassy’s textured concrete and before a audience of friends and fans and foreigners, British Sea Power emphatically demonstrate that they’ve rediscovered their mettle, that their ambitious, intelligent oeuvre encompasses far more than foliage, uniforms and songs about the sea. Of course, in case you weren’t already aware, they never were Little Englanders with a misguided memory of a quaintly imagined history, as Scott (formerly Yan) explains when I meet him and Martin (once Noble) a week before the Czech embassy gig.
Scott: "People thought we were nostalgic for a day gone by that we wished we could live in, but that was never the case really. We were interested in looking back to learn about where we are nowadays. I think that got lost, so on Do You Like Rock Music? there was a conscious decision to include stories from the time when the record was being made."
And what stories there are. Open Season was recorded in London, apparently while staying in a Travelodge. It must be hard to be inspired when the most exciting aspect of your accommodation is the effectiveness of your trouser press. While Martin and Scott refuse to criticise their sophomore effort, you can tell the protracted and wandering recording sessions that shaped Do You Like Rock Music? were a far more enjoyable experience:
S: "It was supposed to be an adventure, we just didn't know it was going to be an epic one."
Martin: "As you're going along through these experiences you want the record to echo this journey you've been on. You'll not be satisfied with anything boring."
S: "You do this thing for a number of reasons, and one of them has to be that you have to have fun. The last record wasn't the most fun record to make, so we decided to make that the primary objective above and beyond the music, hoping that it may, in some way, infiltrate the music."
M: "It's all about thinking of creative ways of working, and knowing there must be something better than going to London and working there. So from a cottage with an open fire in the New Forest, we went to a disused water tower near Ipswich..."
S: "We went there in a camper van, got some mattresses for free from the back of a shop, and squatted there for a few weeks, getting shit on by pigeons and flooded out every time it rained. We took away certain things like the reverb, a real cathedral reverb. Once we'd heard that and that was in our heads… We took away a love of basic shabbiness too. You don't have to worry about things like tidying up, because you can't, it's a pointless activity. Our shopkeeper found it for us on the internet, for 12 pounds 50 a week I believe? We thought that was good value until we got the castle for 150 pounds a week, you could sleep about 600 there."
Video: 'Waving Flags'
The "castle" is Tretangle Fort, one of a network built by Victorian Prime Minister Palmerston in a time of heightened tension with the French. Still owned by the MOD, the landlords made their presence felt during British Sea Power's tenure:
S: "There were helicopters dropping off cannons, practicing landings on the ships and running around in camouflage with guns."
M: "To get in and out you had to open the big doors, and it was quite a hassle. One day there were these two quite young soldiers standing guard on the doors. I thought poor bastards, having to stand there all day."
Once the sentries had departed, British Sea Power went to the Hotel 2 Tango Studio in a freezing Montreal to record with A Silver Mount Zion and Godspeed!'s Efrim Menuck and Arcade Fire drummer Howard Bilerman. What inspired them to sally forth from the fort, and head across the Atlantic?
M: "We've listened to a lot of stuff that comes out of there, from Silver Mount Zion and Godspeed You… and Wolf Parade, the Dears, and there's a certain charm to albums that have been recorded there."
S: "We had the idea that we'd go there and record every song live in three takes so it had that energy, rather than just piecing it together, where you do lose the friction you get off each other, and the slight mistakes. We'd done ‘Apologies To Insect Life’ like that. It stops people fiddling too much, though they didn't want to in the end, Howard and Efrim. They were on a similar wavelength. We were happy if there were some mistakes in there rather than perfecting it to a weird level, where you lose anything human."
It’s also been a more united writing and recording process for British Sea Power, with Scott's brother Neil (previously known as Hamilton) contributing much more, most notably on the brilliant 'No Lucifer', a swaying epic that turns a gimlet eye on the activities of the current pope during World War Two. In lesser, blokier bands, this change in dynamic might cause tension, but in British Sea Power the devolution of power was heartily welcomed:
S: "I've cut my work right down. Was it an easy progression? It was for me. It's been really healthy - instead of having three songs where I'm happy with three-quarters of each I can put them all into one song. It's good, I'm surprised he wasn't pissed off earlier not having room to do more songs, but he is a nice chap."
M: "One of the fans did say, 'A Hamilton's for life, not just for B-sides'."
To-ing and fro-ing between Montreal and Tregantle, British Sea Power took it upon themselves to mix their own record (partly because they'd thought they'd run out of money) with the assistance of Graham Sutton (Bark Psychosis, Jarvis Cocker producer) deftly removing the "crap", but allowing British Sea Power free reign with their vaulting ambition:
S: "Some of the vocals that ended up on the record were done in my flat with the neighbours upstairs, which was crazy. But then you get choirs, wind, waves, weird keyboards and all these soundscapes. Graham had to keep all the weird shit we put into it, pianos being chucked down the stairs. Me and my brother would go into the cellar and record what we called "gooning", where you get to a loud bit on 'Atom' and basically go "arrghghghghghg". It’s the sort of thing you wouldn't normally end up doing with other people in the studio, but to me and him makes perfect sense, so all of that stuff is in there."
And it was all finally finished at the Sono Studios in the homeland of the diminutive diplomat who introduced the band at their album launch. Just where does this affinity that the band feel for the Czech Republic derive from?
M: "It keeps coming back, I've been there six or seven times, Neil's been there a lot. We got a couple of cheap bikes and cycled around the Czech forests. I took a stupidly long journey and had to catch a train for some of the way. I was ill, and trying to shake it off by cycling. All I had was half a chocolate bar and a can of Red Bull, and I was cycling to this lake on a map and thinking when I get there, I can have a swim, because it was a boiling hot day. I got there and it was an only man-made reservoir. While we were there was when George Bush was over, and they were talking about putting the missile defence system about ten miles from where they were.”
S: "But the surrounding area is very beautiful. It's breathtakingly picturesque at times, and the feeling that you're actually in a wild place rather than that you might bump into a motorway just around the corner. It's like that water tower. It's got a shabby beauty to it. It's more timeless than it is here, and devoid of fashion. It's got its own character, and I like that."
Video: 'Remember Me'
If British Sea Power set out to have fun and adventure making Do You Like Rock Music?, they've clearly accomplished their task with aplomb. After the embassy gig Scott might say he felt the band were “rusty” in performance, but that's nothing their impending gruelling touring schedule, and the band's refusal to go off half-cocked, won't sort out. They're raring to go, loving their rock (Teutonic, prehistoric, megalithic, and so forth), with a firm stare set, as ever, on the future:
S: "I'd happily start making another record tomorrow, so long as we were going to go in the right direction. I think we decided to put what we thought was the right way to make a record to the test, rather than be predictable. We wanted to take responsibility for what we were doing, trying to see if it was right or wrong and if it works or not. This way it's easier because if it goes wrong, it's your fault. I think we took the enthusiastic amateurish approach over any form of professionalism. Homemade is better than supermarket, isn't it?"
17 Belfast Spring & Airbrake
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20 Norwich Waterfront
21 Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms
22 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
23 Leeds Irish Centre
24 Kendal Brewery
26 Glasgow Arches
27 Manchester Academy 2
28 Oxford Academy
29 Brighton Komedia
31 London Koko
1 Brighton Digital
Photo: Eva Vermandel
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