There are bands you like, bands you love, and there are those that alter the chemistry of your brain and change your life. I'm not sure who said this to me; perhaps I read it somewhere. In my case, British Sea Power belong to the last category. I didn't witness the legendary chaotic brilliance of their early shows. By the end of the noughties, when I fully embraced them, the band had passed the peak of their Mercury-nominated mainstream fame of Do You Like Rock Music? By then, they were regarded as a troupe of musical oddballs with a penchant for soundtracks, horticultural pursuits, literary references, and unusual gig locations. Noble outsiders, or - as a recent DiS review suggested – a genuine cult band inciting passionate, near-religious devotion amongst their fans; yet, despite the accessibility of their music, somehow failing to reach wider audiences.
The cult label may seem pretty apt but there's always been something more profound, more significant about them. As the new decade started to unfold, their wayward, quixotic attitude was beginning to look like a dangerous affront to the prevailing social and political norms. Hearing jubilantly pro-European 'Waving Flags' on their last tour, in the wake of the Brexit vote, felt like a eulogy to the better, kinder times. In his recent article on The Line of Best Fit, the singer/guitarist Scott Wilkinson talked about “the joys of doing very little on benches”, a pastime rarely mentioned in a culture that places greater value on doing rather than being. Their close links to fans and willingness to support new artists also mark them out as the standard bearers of the old DIY spirit, where music is a community and not an industry.
And, of course, communities are all about supporting each other. The band's latest LP, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party, was made possible by the donations from BSP fans and friends. Without them, there might not have been another album. In typically idiosyncratic BSP fashion, crowdfunding rewards included tattoos giving fans lifetime access to all of their gigs. OK, back to a cult then.
It's been over a month since the release of Let The Dancers Inherit The Party, and with triumphant reviews and sold out shows across the country, the world seems to have taken the new record to heart. Frequently referred to as their most cohesive and direct work, the album sounds more shiny, more pop than their recent records. But don't be fooled by appearances; Let The Dancers Inherit The Party may be full of radio-friendly hits but with BSP you always find darkness lurking underneath. Just listen to the subtly angry lyrics of 'Voice Of Ivy Lee '(“Kings of propaganda, won't you take another look at all the things you've done”) or the sinister lament of 'Electric Kittens' (“Say a little prayer for halcyon days / Silently submit to the radio waves and hope that you'll be safe”). Hardly a laugh a minute.
Paying no heed to the advice alluded to in the title of their new LP, we sat down to talk to the band after their recent Edinburgh show. Celebrity fan Matthew Horne arrived joking about taking a night off from his tour to play BSP's crowd-pleasing bear companion Ursine Ultra. Band members dived in and out of the conversation, offering their opinions on everything from politics to art and their own history. In a jovial, alcohol-infused conversation we learned why British Sea Power are not like Radiohead, heard Scott's views on the French author Michel Houellebecq, and found out how the band's drummer Woody created the album artwork.
DiS: Last time we spoke it was Christmas 2015. You were saying you didn't know what was going on with the new album, and now it's finally here.
Scott Wilkinson: Yeah...It started off as our most political album ever and turned into something about baked potatoes. That's the truth. (Reference to the silver suits worn by the band in the video for 'Keep on Trying' and a photoshop of the band as foil-covered spuds.)
The subject of politics does appear to crop up in many reviews. You've always had a subtly political angle but do you feel like a political band?
Martin Noble: I don't feel like we are. I don't really feel like Andrew Marr. I love Andrew Marr but I don't want to be him.
Phil Sumner: You've got to be careful with being political.
MN: We don't talk politics. We're just humans in this day and age when there's a lot of shit going on. It's not even like we're trying to deliver a message of some kind.
PS: We just do normal stuff outside of Sea Power. Things are affecting us just as much as everyone else.
MN: Tell you what is annoying though. People in other bands who don't talk about what's affecting them and then just sing really fucking inane lyrics in a really conceited way. You listen to Radio One and it's just,“C'mon, what world are you in?” This bland world for people who just need gentle comforting like kids.
I've seen quite a few reviews saying Let The Dancers Inherit The Party is a joyful or at least a positive album. To me, it sounded rather bleak. The second side of the record is where it starts getting darker.
MN: Yeah, it does get darker. Even those poppy upbeat ones like 'Keep On Trying'. It starts with “If you act like a beast of the field, what does it yield?”
PS: People go, “Have you seen the video? It's fucking bonkers. Fucking rats and cats, and people running, and a computer game...” But if you look into it, it sort of makes sense. Maybe it makes sense to us. But I don't think it's that difficult to work out if you listen to the lyrics.
MN: It's the kind of people we are. If you listen to Radiohead, there is a band who create an atmosphere and it's a bleak atmosphere. And it feels honest: I feel bleak about this subject, so I'm going to make bleak music. I fucking love Radiohead but we're just not like that.
There is definitely a surreal, absurdist angle to the video.
MN: Yeah, definitely the absurdity. Brass Eye.
[Scott rejoins the conversation.]
Let The Dancers Inherit the Party is a dark record. What do you think?
SW: It is, yeah.
But there's also no denial that it does sound very poppy.
SW: Pop just means it's easier to like. You're not putting obstacles in people's ways. And we've put lots of obstacles in people's ways. It's like an assault course. It is definitely pop but our pop is still leftfield of a lot of alternative bands. Not always musically, but if you add in the stupid costumes and the ideas. There is a weird thing where you're not meant to be a serious band and be daft.
MN: If you talk about anything serious, you have to stick to that and be very serious all the time. But you can't be a human being and be serious all the time.
SW: I think there are two sides to this: there is the musical end, which is the feel of the songs and production decisions, and then there's lyrics. It's those two things - it's a slightly weird combination. The lyrics are quite dark but a lot of the music is quite dreamy or up. I like the contrast because I think it reflects life better. I don't want to write depressing lyrics for depressing songs.
PS: And the other thing is the fans who've had a hand in this record.
The crowdfunder. Of course.
PS: Imagine if we'd turned up with an album that they funded and it was a bit hit-and-miss, a bit three-star. They can be proud of this record as well. I think everyone is.
Did the fact that the record was crowdfunded have any impact on the way you made it?
SW: No, it just meant we could do whatever we wanted to do.
PS: They put the money forward, it funded this record and it's actually good. We're all proud.
MN: I've read one review that said “they've given the fans exactly what they wanted”. I think that's absolute rubbish. It's not like that. They trust us and we do our own thing.
I've always thought of you as one of the last of the old school indie bands, a reminder of the times when indie was associated with being part of a community, being truly independent. With so many solo artists, even the concept of a band is now becoming an anachronism.
MN: Yeah, we've got a song called 'Good Good Boys'. It's an early B-side. It goes, “We're making things with wood and wire, see us now before we expire”. “Wood and wire” - guitars, you see.
Do you think this status helped you to crowdfund?
MN: I don't know. I think it's just the fact that we've got a lot of followers. I wouldn't be surprised if lots of other bands our level could successfully do the same.
SW: I recently discovered we are a cult. I've always felt cults are a bit shit but it's pretty cool. We went from national treasures to a cult.
I've heard “international treasures” mentioned.
SW: That's the one I've been trying to work. (laughing) It hasn't caught on yet.
NM: A treasure that can't be found.
PS: 17 years in the business and still can't be found.
Well, as you say, keep on trying. Going back to Scott's previous point about being serious and daft at the same time, I've always felt that was part of the attraction. Also, the fact that there was never any clear plan, with lots of seemingly random side projects and shambolic off-piste shows.
SW: That definitely makes us a cult.
MN: Yeah, definitely.
PS: Definitely more daft.
MN: Everybody thinks you should be one particular thing and they don't understand if you go outside of that. They are not on board then, are they?
SW: But then, this is our least shambolic album. All the songs are quite concise.We've got a fairly poppy producer, so there is a contrast. He likes to rein things in a bit. I like the fact that he's really emotional because we're not always like that. There's also a running theme.
What is the theme?
SW: Chaos of the wider world and how it affects your personal life. You want to care about terrible things happening around the world but what do you actually put more effort into? - Going to the co-op and buying a pizza. I think homelessness is fucking horrendous and I don't do anything about it. That's what, I think, is the theme. Trying to be fairly honest about how hard it is to maintain any kind of positive continuity and then appreciate the little things, like friends or growing vegetables. You can't fix Iraq but you can go and be nice to your neighbour. You watch the news and think, “Fucking hell, the world is depressing!” Then you go and talk to people and everyone is nice. My day-to-day experience is that people are nice. Most people are intelligent and nice. The world's gone mental though. You get these repeating fashions. You know, things like the seventies and glam rock. Normally it doesn't last long. You copy a few things like the trousers or the style of music. This time the eighties came back and we're getting back into the cold war and nuclear weapons! It's gone too far. Anyway, I just like Max Ernst. Do you know him?
German Surrealist? I've seen some of his work. Speaking of art, Scott was involved in the Kurt Schwitters retrospective at the Tate a few years ago and this time you've used his typeface in your artwork. I know you tend to do your album artwork yourselves.
PS: We do, yeah. Woody would have a hand in it.
Woody, was it you and Scott who came up with the album artwork?
SW: We work as a team.
Matthew Wood (aka Woody): Scott sent me a picture of Kurt Schwitters' typeface. I was trying to figure out how we could use it in all our artwork. I was coming into it from a more technical point of view.
SW: Woody's got some pretty impressive skills going on.
MW: I downloaded the font I had to draw, then converted the picture into a typeface. I also used a very similar typeface. Edited it out a bit and used those e's and b's across the whole artwork. Took me quite a long time. Took weeks.
One of the things that fans love about you is the fact that there are certain reference points and stories that keep cropping up again and again, like Kurt Schwitters or the original bad bohemian, Czech author Jaroslav Hašek. If you know your BSP history you get duly rewarded with understanding certain links, signs, and symbols. You have a mythology of your own.
SW: I think it's a bigger thing on this album than ever. I thought we'd done more than enough ideas and most of them have got lost. It's time to refocus them, concentrate on small parts and make that work because...
MN: We're too confusing to have a proper effect on the world, or people, or music fans.
Was it a conscious decision or something that just happened?
SW: (smiling at Woody) Woody is into it. He doesn't mind. He likes a bit of organisation. He is not scared of a bit planning. But, yes, for me it was a conscious decision. Definitely.
So was it a kind of re-channelling of previous ideas?
SW: Not only. Also the ones that are relevant now. Current state of the world.
Did parting with Rough Trade have an effect on the way you worked on this album? Were you nervous about doing it under your own steam?
SW: Rough Trade never made us do anything. I think it's a personal thing. Three years ago I stopped smoking weed. It was probably the biggest influence on my life. Makes it easier to do things, and I got a bit bored of sitting around. I wasn't really that nervous about the album. I just didn't want it to be over yet. I wanted to give it a good go; and if it failed, then fair enough. I didn't want to go out failing because we got a bit lazy. Up until recently, we've focussed a bit but we were like a bunch of pissheads on drugs, having fun and being nice.
It's part of the charm, surely?
SW: I hope so. It'd be nice. (laughing)
As well as recurring cultural and literary references, you've always been a band that clearly paid a lot of attention to words and lyrics. Do you normally start with music and then go onto writing your lyrics?
SW: Usually, except for the odd sentence. I like music and then I like books. There are very few people I listen to to get ideas on how to put words together. The only thing I get jealous of is the odd person who does music well and it's really simple 'cos that's the way I do it.
Anyone on your radar at the moment?
SW: There is a song I really like called 'Yes, I'm Changing' by that New Zealand (ed. Australian) band. What are they called? Tame Impala. I really like Michel Houellebecq. I like his film. Have you seen it?
SW: He plays himself in the film. He gets kidnapped by terrorists. They want to hold him hostage but he makes friends with them. He had a bit of a hard time, but I think he's a nice fellow. I think he is a bit tricky and intelligent. First, he got in trouble for plagiarism. And he said, “Well, yeah...” (laughing), and I thought, “Brilliant. I like collage.” And then he got in trouble for being anti-Muslim, and he went, “I've read the Koran and I really like it.” (laughing) He thought it was a beautiful book but he has racist characters in his book. I thought, “That's just life. It's not what he is. That's great.” There is this thing that you're a not allowed to talk about things. If you do, you get lumped into this bad gang. That's just nonsense. That's really stupid. His books are amazing. I get excited when there's one coming out.
You've always been known as quite a bookish band. Not in a bad way. Well, there isn't a bad way.
SW: There is when you're needlessly trying to be clever. I think I got better at it. I take a more honest approach to it these days. I like factual books. I like Naomi Klein. I read all sorts of books. Some of them I don't have to agree with. I just like learning how things happened. People go, “How did this happen? How did that happen? How did we get this president?” When the Iraq war was going on and everyone was protesting against it, we were warned about waves of immigration, economic nightmares, and terrorism. And then it happened. Not that many surprises going on. Newspapers are useless. I think they're shit. Not all of them, but suddenly so many are pulling a new image as if they'd always been against the war. They weren't against anything. There were millions of people protesting against the war and the papers were just going along reporting whatever they were told to report. It's terrible.
So you are quite engaged with politics.
SW: I'm very interested in how things work.
What about the rest of the band?
SW: Not so much. (laughing). Neil thinks the world is mental and doesn't want to have anything to do with it, which is a fairly clever and reasonable thing to do. Woody just wants to do what he does really well. He's quite artistic in his own way. I think he just doesn't want to get messed up in the nonsense. Martin is just weird. He is passionate and he likes climbing up things. I can guess what he's going to do but I don't understand how he thinks.
Well, you've known each other for a long time.
SW: They're all just nice people, same as all the people we've worked with. Hang around with nice people and your life will be all right.
Let The Dancers Inherit the Party is out now via Caroline International/Golden Chariot. For more information, including upcoming tour dates, please visit the band's official website.