British Sea Power: Naval gazing for beginners

Among this band's interests are Czech writers, the Ordnance Survey and stuffed birds. Intrigued, Ben Thompson travelled to a map reference near Brighton to meet British Sea Power
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Despite its grandiose name, the north London indie refuge The Monarch is the sort of venue that often struggles for mythological significance. Yet when British Sea Power – Brighton-based practitioners of "high-church amplified rock music" – played there in September, the sense of seeing something special could not be escaped.

It was not just the unorthodox stage-dressings of twigs and reeds that created a rare sense of occasion, nor even the life-sized model birds – a rotund owl, a lop-sided heron – watching over the band protectively as they performed. Quasi-military uniforms gave British Sea Power the look of Venture Scouts gone awry, and their unnervingly intense stares established a five-yard exclusion zone at the front of the stage, which their limber vocalist used as a kind of informal gymnasium, running through an impressive sequence of press-ups and squat-thrusts.

"Well-mannered and discreet when engaged in the daily hubbub," boasts an early British Sea Power communiqué, "once placed upon the concert stage they are remarkable in their actions – quick of foot and unafraid in their movements."

But what does the music sound like? The most obvious reference point would seem to be early Joy Division, whom British Sea Power recall in their clear determination to make a noise that hasn't existed before. Sometimes you hear a band's first record and you can imagine them all sitting in the studio, thinking about the Beatles, but British Sea Power's debut single, "Fear of Drowning" (released in the summer on their own Golden Chariot label), had no legend other than its own to live up to.

As the briefest of visits to their website (www.britishseapower.co.uk) will confirm, the band's music is the gateway to a broad vista of cultural intrigue: a world of inclusive Central European nationalism, ornithology and antique weaponry forged into farmyard implements. How many other up-and-coming pop acts of recent years would have had the chutzpah to browbeat their burgeoning fan base with impassioned recommendations of The Bad Bohemian, the classic biography of the Czech writer and provocateur Jaroslav Hasek, written by Sir Cecil Parrott, the former British ambassador to Prague?

British Sea Power's commendable determination to push the boundaries seems to extend to every aspect of the business of being in a band. Right down to arranging interview locations via the Ordnance Survey, as "reassurance that the age of initiative is not yet entirely worn out."

Map reference 457086 turns out to be a pub by the train station in the small Sussex village of Glynde, just off the main road between Brighton and Eastbourne. Half-expecting to be blindfolded on arrival, bundled into a stolen Ford Transit and dangled over Beachy Head while men with megaphones berate me savagely in unfamiliar East European tongues, I am relieved to walk into an old-fashioned hostelry. At the end of a series of rooms filled with families, lone pensioners and garrulous men in their fifties talking about the internet, we find the band, hunched around pints of Guinness in time-honoured fashion.

They introduce themselves as Yan, Wood and the brothers Hamilton and Noble (singer, drums, bass and guitar respectively). In fact it is Yan and Hamilton – the former rather confusingly referred to in all subsequent conversations as "Scott" – who turn out to be brothers. Growing up in a small Lake District village just outside the notorious mint cake hotbed of Kendal, they practised on a cardboard guitar before getting the real thing for Christmas.

Once they'd recruited Wood, a local sticksman, and the guitarist Noble from the other side of the Pennine divide, Cumbria was never going to be big enough to hold them ("Once you've played the Wheatsheaf," Yan notes phlegmatically, "you've kind of peaked"). After some hard, formative graft – variously referred to as "an incubation period", "pupa stage" and "training camp" – in the unsympathetic terrain of Reading, they relocated to the South Coast, whose maritime heritage and arcane bonfire rituals marked it out as suitable for colonisation.

Shyer and more softly spoken in person than their martial onstage demeanour would lead you to expect, British Sea Power still ooze missionary fervour. "There's so much more you can do than just write songs and sing them," Noble insists.

The idea of being in a band as a means of engaging with (rather than retreating from) the world around you is not a new one. But it currently represents a welcome step away from the blankness of presentation that Oasis have refined to an almost disturbing extent, and that has continued to echo down through subsequent generations of new bands who think naming themselves after a Tim Buckley album is enough.

"I think it was Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth who said that a gig should be 'one group of people going to see another group of people being free'," Yan quotes approvingly. "People don't want to be aware of standing in a dark, smoky room, watching someone play a guitar; they want to be taken right out of their bodies."

Geoff Travis (whose reanimated Rough Trade label is on the crest of a wave thanks to the success of the cheerily one-dimensional New York new-wave bar band the Strokes) was so impressed by British Sea Power's ability to do that that he lost no time in signing them. "I know they're going to make a great debut album," Travis enthuses, "and the fact that I can't join the dots and say exactly what that album is going to sound like is part of what I find so exciting about it."

Are the band still excited by the idea of an artefact with their name on? "We'll be much happier when there's a lot more of them," insists Brother Noble, sternly, at which point Brother Hamilton gets up to go to the bar.

Having been surprised by the apparently conventional style of British Sea Power's off-stage mufti, I am relieved to see that the seams on his jumper have been unpicked to create a distinctive poncho-like appearance, a theme echoed by his trousers, which flare out suddenly and extravagantly just above the ankle. As he walks, the swishing effect is akin to the motion of a tropical fish.

'Remember Me' is out on Monday on Rough Trade. British Sea Power play Barfly at the NCPM, Sheffield, tonight, Bivouac at the Duke of Wellington, Lincoln, tomorrow, the Free Butt in Brighton on 30 Nov and the Paradise Bar, New Cross Rd, London SE14, on 11 Dec. The Brighton gig will be accompanied by a catwalk show, Woad, Empire Line, European Hosiery 1789-2001

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