The staying power of British Sea Power
Steering their own course may have kept British Sea Power from mainstream success – but they wouldn't have it any other way, they tell Alexia Loundras
Friday 29 March 2013
In an old pub near their Brighton homes, three of British Sea Power's six members are squeezed around a table. “What is it they say?” asks Scott Wilkinson, the band's affable frontman, who also goes by the name of Yan. He looks to his bandmates, drummer Matthew Wood and guitarist Martin Noble, before recollection strikes: “Always around, never in fashion,” he says, satisfied. He sips from his ale and a smile lights his lips: “Although,” he adds, “we were in Vogue once in our early days.”
Dressed in a faded jumper and frayed scarf, Wilkinson still possesses that effortless vintage, itchy-wool vibe that charmed the fashionistas. But he regards the question of his band's continued existence with the modesty of one marvelling at his dumb luck.
BSP are soon to release their fifth – and arguably very best – album, Machineries of Joy. It's a beautiful addition to a prolific back catalogue spanning ten years and also including three film soundtracks and a Mercury nomination for their third album, 2008's Do You Like Rock Music?. Since forming in 2000, they've gathered a battalion of passionate fans, who recently voted their “Remember Me” track into the Top 10 of BBC 6 Music's all-time Top 100 songs, where it nestled between Johnny Cash and Radiohead.
But despite the plaudits, full-on, financially remunerated chart success has somehow eluded them. And yet they've managed to do what so few bands have recently. While firework acts – like The Magic Numbers (remember them?) or even The Libertines – exploded and fizzled out around them, BSP stayed the course. Why them? “That's a question I ask myself a lot,” says Wilkinson with a grin. Noble knows: “We just make good records.”
There's something classic about BSP, like a dog-eared Orwell Penguin paperback. Influenced by Iggy Pop (“You know, stupid and smart at the same time,” says Wilkinson), BSP have used their unselfconscious and genuine interest in the world to write eloquently oblique, rousing music about all sorts of things. With songs inspired by the 1953 Canvey Island flood, global warming, immigration and the stoicism of the Czech people, BSP transform would-be Geography A-level topics into vivid, sonic Turners, brimming with the breadth and grandeur of the Lake District where Wood, Wilkinson and his now Isle of Skye-based brother Neil (aka Hamilton), hail.
“It depends what you want to get out it really,” says Wilkinson. “If you're after a few quid and maybe a two-year career, you're best off being One Direction. But if you want to feel like a better person – maybe learn a bit – you might as well follow your proper interests. It's a brave concept, but we always thought you could have ideas in music; write about things beyond your relationships or feeling a bit blue.”
That said, Machineries of Joy, agrees Noble, is probably the closest the band have come to a love album. But not in the usual way. “I never thought this was a romantic record,” says Wilkinson. “It's probably a more general kind of love-for-the-whole-world album. There didn't seem any point in putting more doom in the world.”
Machineries of Joy swoons with strings and an almost Keats-ian yearning. The album emits an encompassing warmth – a kind of beneficial presence. It's also a refined and gloriously cohesive affair. The band agree that this probably owes a lot to the way in which it was recorded. “We discovered there's a real benefit to actually learning the songs before we recorded them,” says Noble. Wilkinson giggles guiltily. “I don't know why it took us five albums and ten years to get to that.”
BSP might not have always put in the hours, but it's a work ethic they've long adhered to, right from the early days, when The Killers supported them on tour. “They did seem really hard-working,” remembers Wilkinson, slightly awed. “We practised to a level where we felt there was a chance it would go alright. They practised like Olympic athletes; to reliable proficiency!”
Of course, the visceral unpredictability of BSP's live shows is exactly what drives their legion of fans to strip branches from trees which, tradition holds, must be reverently waved at BSP gigs. “The fans set you free on stage,” says Wood, who really doesn't say much at all.
BSP admit that it is sometimes hard to see bands that once opened for them leapfrogging them in the success stakes. “I always wanted to be popular, though not in a social way,” says Wilkinson. “I just thought it would be more interesting. If you're having a weird idea in a song, it's more fun if it's in the top ten.”
Needless to say, the band enjoyed the taste of recognition offered by their Mercury Prize nomination. “I was surprised because I thought that most people hadn't taken any notice,” says Noble. But the guitarist's moment of sincerity is shattered by Wilkinson: “If I was ever nominated again, I promise to stay awake until the winner is announced,” smirks the frontman, recalling the Grosvenor House ceremony. “I'd tucked into the red wine,” he explains. “You know, never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“I wouldn't mind having a bit of money,” continues Wilkinson, “but I'd rather spend my days doing something interesting and having enough freedom to choose to spend the day reading a book.” He smiles, clearly pleased with his lot. “Besides, surprises still keep happening. Like when you write a song about Canvey Island and then you end up playing football with Canvey Island FC and then have [Canvey Island native and Dr Feelgood legend] Wilko Johnson jamming with you. Or you get invited to do a sound installation in a room full of Turners at Tate Britain as part of their Kurt Schwitters exhibition.”
Noble takes the baton: “Or when you end up playing in a wooden church to fishermen in a tiny fishing village in the Arctic Circle,” he adds. “It's definitely not time for a pipe and slippers.”
Wilkinson sups the dregs of his third pint. “So far, the older I grow, the more hours I work,” he says. “I'm just approaching my prime.” That big grin dances again. “The only thing that might stop me is my arthritic wrist.”
'Machineries of Joy' is out on Rough Trade on 1 April. British Sea Power tour the UK from 4 April
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