The most remarkable thing about British Sea Power is that in the same way as their fellow Brighton-based buddies The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, their ascent has largely been down to an incessant touring schedule that has seen them play just about EVERY town or city known to man within the British Isles.
I caught up with guitarist Noble and bassist Hamilton before the final date of their latest nationwide sojourn:-
Some of the songs on your album (‘The Decline Of British Sea Power’) seem quite personal. Was it a difficult album to make?
NOBLE: (laughing hysterically) I can’t remember much of that now!
HAMILTON: We had a pretty good time doing the songs for it…
NOBLE: Every bit of it that you thought was going to be hard turned out to be OK in the end. I guess that’s what helps make the album so special to us… We got it all recorded in about three different sessions.
HAMILTON: We actually got most of the album done in three weeks but the new single ‘Carrion’ took ages because we had to keep going back to the start and re-record it. We didn’t quite know what we wanted it to sound like until one day we decided we were happy with one of the recordings.
NOBLE: The guy who engineered it also co-produced it with us. He’s a Norwegian guy (Mads Bjerke) who just works 12 hours solid and has one meal a day – breakfast – and his entire diet consists of nothing but digestive biscuits! He’s really skinny and you worry about him because he appears to be losing weight all of the time. I know that if I don’t eat for hours I tend to get a bit ratty but Mads never lost his temper once. It must be a Norwegian trait.
Which track stands out for you on the album?
HAMILTON: My favourite track from a recording point of view was ‘Apologies To Insect Life’ because we just did it as we would if we were playing it live, and we’d only just finished writing it a matter of days before so it was quite exciting to do because we never expected it to turn out the way it did.
NOBLE: I like ‘Men Together Today’ because it’s got my little brother singing on it as well. I think ‘The Lonely’ and ‘A Wooden Horse’ stand out as well, because although they’ve been part of our set from virtually the start of the band's existence they still sound fresh and interesting.
The album’s had pretty good reviews. Does it give you a buzz that most of the critics appear to be on your side?
NOBLE: We’ve had another good one today in the Daily Telegraph. I think we’ve only had one “mixed” review and that was in X-Ray magazine but everyone else has been raving about it.
HAMILTON: I think it makes life a lot easier for us when you got written about in a positive way.
NOBLE: If it means that more people are gonna go out and hear our stuff it’s got to be good. I think it would be brilliant if a band like us who like things such as birdwatching became massively successful. I mean, all the things that come with us – it’s not conventional “rock star” attitude or anything – I think it would be an amazing achievement. The world would be a better place…
Do you think this could be achieved more easily if you got stations like MTV and Radio One playing your songs on a regular basis?
NOBLE: It has a knock on effect, like if they play your videos or your records and more people like what they’re hearing then the chances are some of them may buy those records.
HAMILTON: The more exposure for us, the better…
You’ve built up quite a devoted fan base. Do you think it has anything to do with the fact you’re easier to relate to because you aren’t part of some “fly by night” music scene?
NOBLE: It’s hard to say. I mean we don’t really care about whether we fit any stereotyped scene or not. Most of those bands who are part of “the scene” don’t do or say anything that interesting anyway.
You seem to be permanently touring. Does being on the road ever get tiring?
NOBLE: We did five weeks in Europe with Interpol and then we came home for three days before starting out again on this tour, so it can get to you after a while.
How did you get on with Interpol?
NOBLE: We got on really well with them.
HAMILTON: It ended up with all of us being like one big family – the Interpol / British Sea Power travelling circus!
NOBLE: Paul (Banks) was really into us. He was born in England and I think he’s got some kind of deep homesickness so he liked us because we reminded him of his homeland. He often got on stage with us and played guitar during our set.
Both yourselves and Interpol share similar influences, most notably Joy Division. Do you see any similarities between yourselves?
HAMILTON: I think we work together quite well but we’re not really the same. I could imagine if you’re a fan it would have been good to see us both on the same tour, but I don’t think either band sounds anything like each other.
NOBLE: I think Interpol have a particular sound that carries through the whole of their album, whereas we tended to treat each song completely as its own entity. We like to try and bring different characters out in each song we do. Going back to what you were saying about Joy Division, I think they were a really good band, and I would agree with the comparisons on some of our early singles or maybe even the live show when we first started out, but now we’ve got so many different styles running through the album that I feel it’s misrepresentative to say we sound like Joy Division. I think the main comparison between us and Joy Division is that they tried to create a mood and cared about what they said which made them special, and I hope that’s what we’re doing to some extent.
Going back to the characters and themes running through the album (i.e. “birdwatching”), do you consciously aim to write songs about specific events or pastimes?
NOBLE: No not really. We just write about things that interest us. It’s not like we sit around thinking no one’s written a song about “birdwatching” so we should to break the mould or anything.
HAMILTON: We might get an idea from reading a book or maybe just something trivial that someone has said to us could form the basis of a song…
NOBLE: There’s a line in ‘Blackout’ which goes “Watch the birds hovvering over Narrow Moor…” which is a nice little image of the Lake District. It’s kind of evoking that folk music mentality when you write about the things you experience.
Two of the band originate from Kendal in Cumbria, but you’re based in Brighton. Did you feel you had to move down South to get any real recognition?
HAMILTON: To be honest I just wanted to move anyway. Kendal is a nice place but there’s only so much you can do there. It was alright for walking around the hills in the summer but… maybe we’ll go back there and retire on the royalties from our album sales! I think we actually ended up in Brighton by chance more than anything.
NOBLE: The good thing about Brighton is that you feel encouraged to be creative. It’s quite coincidental that there are bands like ourselves, the 80s Matchbox B-Line Disaster, Clearlake and Electralene because none of us sound anything like each other or have the same influences yet at the same time we’re all supportive of one another and tend to kick each other up the arse from time to time.
It must be beneficial though that it’s only a short train ride from London, which surely encourages A&R men to make the effort more so than in northern outposts such as Kendal?
NOBLE: I don’t really know. I mean to me, Brighton just breeds individuality. With us, Geoff Travis (head of Rough Trade) came down to one of our club nights and straight after seeing us he said that he wanted to put our records out. We never got any A&R types at our shows, or not to my knowledge anyway.
Do you get any pressure from Rough Trade about how and when you have to release records?
NOBLE: We did a gig in the Scilly Isles at the start of the tour and we got a phone call while we were over there from Geoff (Travis), and basically he said that even if we didn’t sell one copy of the album, he still wanted us to make more. When a record label boss says that to you then you know he’s got 100% faith in what the band are trying to achieve, so I think it would be fair to say we’re under no pressure at all from Rough Trade. Our motto is the world will come around, one day…
Would you ever consider signing to a major label?
NOBLE: At this moment no, because I know people in other bands who are currently with labels such as Sony, and the pressure they’re under to sell records or face being dropped is quite intense.
HAMILTON: It’s a horrible scenario where they’re caught up as pawns in a business.
NOBLE: I know bands who’ve recorded perfectly good records and then because it hasn’t been released to coincide with a particular trend the record labels have made them remix entire albums so it fits in with whatever’s fashionable at the time.
HAMILTON: We’ve produced this album ourselves, done all the artwork on the covers ourselves and so far all the promotional videos have been done by us. It’s great to have the freedom to be able to do that.
NOBLE: I think it’s quite obscene when record companies try to tell you that your video should cost tens of thousands of pounds because you’re supposed to portray a certain image. Our first video cost us £80 and the second one cost £400 and for the new single we’ve done videos for ‘Carrion’ and ‘Apologies To Insect Life’ which cost us £800 for the pair. If you’ve got good ideas you don’t need loads of money.
HAMILTON: I think if a record label ever came along offering ridiculous money to make a video I’d spend it on a holiday.
NOBLE: I think I’d go to the Ice Palace in Switzerland or somewhere…
You tend to wear military regalia when you play live and decorate the stage with trees and stuffed animals. Why?
NOBLE: It’s because of the fact that we wanted to be treated seriously. It’s supposed to be a serious look but I think we’re becoming more and more like gypsies.
HAMILTON: I think it’s all to do with trying to create an atmosphere.
NOBLE: It’s good to evoke different images. When you’ve got the opportunity to do that, it would be a shame not to use it. Some people think it’s just a gimmick but it’s not…
HAMILTON:… and if ‘Carrion’ becomes a hit single and we’re asked to perform on TV shows we’re going to dress up and re-enact ‘The Elephant Man’!