British Sea Power: Operation Berlin

The militant pastoralists British Sea Power are seeking new horizons with a European jaunt, Alexia Loundras discovers
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The Independent Culture

British Sea Power are huddled together on the banks of Berlin's river Spree. Cowering under umbrellas, their eyes are trained on the horizon; their young faces seem to be fixed either with fear or laced with defiance. And their usual pick'n'mix outfits of scratchy wools, rough-knit jumpers and mossy tweeds, plucked from a time c1940, only serve to make them look even more forlorn.

British Sea Power are huddled together on the banks of Berlin's river Spree. Cowering under umbrellas, their eyes are trained on the horizon; their young faces seem to be fixed either with fear or laced with defiance. And their usual pick'n'mix outfits of scratchy wools, rough-knit jumpers and mossy tweeds, plucked from a time c1940, only serve to make them look even more forlorn.

"You look so scared," shouts the delighted German magazine photographer in front of them. "It's so great!" Truth is, the band are actually feeling rather chipper. But, armed with the brollies the snapper has brought them to pose with, the five-piece band - composed of singer Yan, his bass-player brother Hamilton, guitarist Noble, Woody on drums and keyboard player Eamon - have lost no time getting into character: intrepid explorers faced with unspeakable peril.

British Sea Power are in Berlin on an intensive 24-hour promotional jaunt - it's only just gone midday, but the band have already done four interviews and two photoshoots and there's more of the same to come. Later, they'll end the day with a showcase gig to punters and press. It's a wearying schedule, yet the prevailing mood is giddy excitement.

They are promoting their second album, Open Season, the splendid follow-up to 2003's majestic and critically acclaimed debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, but today's buzz has more to do with the album's lead single, "It Ended on an Oily Stage", which hit music stores just a few days earlier. The band have just heard mid-week sales reports are predicting a high chart entry and a lot is riding on the single's success - well, at least £60 anyway. "We placed bets as to where the song will end up," explains Noble. "It makes it all so much more exciting." Guesses range from an optimistic nine, courtesy of Eamon, to a rather more cautious 26, Noble. (Sunday saw the song become the band's biggest hit to date, slipping into the charts at an impressive 18, netting Hamilton the kitty).

The band's high spirits continue into the afternoon. While Eamon and the unfeasibly quiet Woody order a few beers, it falls to Yan, Hamilton and Noble to ingratiate themselves to the German press. For the next two hours they sip water and enthusiastically face the same questions over and over. They cover their genesis, in Yan, Hamilton and Woody's Kendal home: "a popular holiday resort for William Wordsworth, with lots of sheep, mountains and lakes", offers Noble. Their new album: "Where our first record sounded coastal, windswept and bleak, this one feels like a warm forest, a happy valley," says Hamilton. And their take on what makes a good song: "Getting caught up in the moment and keeping it going as long as you can," says Yan.

And there you have it - British Sea Power for the uninitiated, neatly wrapped for easy consumption in three soundbites. Here are five passionate and talented lads whose music pulses with the cinematic grandeur of the Lake District that spawned them. Their songs tell tales of romantic struggles and historical achievements, but it's the nature-lovers' affection for flora and fauna that infects everything about them. And that includes the new album, awash with references to nature, and even boasting an ode to an ill-fated iceberg. Having decamped to Brighton a few years back, every one of British Sea Power would rather lose themselves in the rolling downs near their homes than check out this week's hot new seaside bars.

Indeed, Hamilton actually walked all the way from a pre-Christmas gig in Leeds to his family home in Kendal, wearing just a coat and holey shoes, and armed with a bivouac and a bag of bananas. Really. The journey cut through the Pennines and lasted three days. "I started to worry about him after a while," admits Eamon, "but then I got a text. It said: 'I've just seen a one-legged crow', that's when I knew he was all right." While the rest of the band settle for wearing RSPB badges, Noble is a full card-carrying bird-watcher.

But their genuine and endearing infatuation with natural life - coupled with their penchant for filling every stage they play with leafy branches, stuffed animals and birds, has proved to have a detrimental effect on the band - it's in danger of overshadowing their music. "But this is partly our fault," admits Yan. "We were naive. We had ideas that could never really translate. We called ourselves militant pastoralists, but that backfired completely. Though we talked about it, explained it carefully, we somehow ended up being called eccentric World War Two fetishists. Really, it's not the same thing." Presumably Eamon's First World War fireman's helmet - which for all intents and purposes looks just like a soldier's helmet - didn't help much either.

"We're an educational band," explains Yan. "We've shown that you can be into rock music, read books and take drugs as well - all at the same time, if you want to." Eamon winces at the suggestion. A recent jaunt on to the South Downs while on magic mushrooms resulted in a broken leg and a helicopter rescue for his mate, and a pitch-black ramble home for him. Yan continues: "We're like the Pixies, we write songs about original things. We're a good band and we need to move on."

Drastic measures are called for. "We're losing the stuffed birds," informs Yan. "They've become a millstone around our necks." But old habits die hard, and right on cue, Noble spots a mandarin duck with its rainbow-coloured slicked-back quiff swimming past, and the band excitedly spin round to check it out.

As British Sea Power arrive at this evening's 300-capacity underground venue, the band are beginning to show signs of fatigue. But their good spirits are bolstered by huge German beers, regular games of Hacky Sack and a growing sense of anticipation for the night's post-gig outing - to a place called Dr Pong's, a club based around communal mass games of knockout table tennis.

Working out the set list takes forever, as does the sound check - not least because, admits Yan, the band can't remember how to play most of their new songs. "We just have trouble remembering who plays what," he says, settling himself backstage.

Yet they had no such timing problems when making the new album last year. Far from proving the difficult-second-album theory, Open Season turned out to be a breeze to write and record - possibly because British Sea Power seem to have unlimited ideas, imagination and enthusiasm. Holed up in a converted barn, just near the Long Man of Wilmington (and next door to David Dimbleby, "I don't think he saw us as friends," says Yan. "Apparently we kept him up at night!") British Sea Power felt free to try something different. "We wanted to make a concise, beautiful pop record that had intelligence and warmth," says Yan. "But we also wanted to find a new depth to our songwriting that maybe wasn't there before. And I think we have."

The band are clearly inspired by their new album, and talk of it has certainly perked them up. And soon, pre-gig adrenalin whips them into a minor frenzy. Sipping vodka and Red Bulls, they jump about like boxers warming up for a heavyweight bout. But with 15 minutes to go, their group workout is interrupted by an offer from one of the crew of a back and shoulder massage. Yan's jumper is off in a flash. Ten minutes later he re-emerges wearing a Cheshire grin: "I feel like I've just had a huge spliff on a sunny day," he says woozily. "Now I'm really worried I've forgotten the songs!"

He needn't worry. Once out on the tiny stage he and his bandmates are wired and taut. Two songs in and Yan's already bounding around in the crowd - goading the audience for a reaction. The band do remember the clutch of new songs, and play them with a furious abandon that lends them a fiery new edge.

But there is post-gig disappointment in store when Yan realises his favourite red scarf is missing, pinched by a punter amid the stage-diving. Thanks to British Sea Power's culty status among fans, pilfering from the band is an occupational hazard. "That was another reason to stop using the birds," says Hamilton. "People would climb up on stage to steal them."

Leaving the venue, it's off to Dr Pong's - and the club does not disappoint. Fronted with dingy nicotine-stained frosted glass, it is the epitome of East German drabness. Inside, the decor is industrial, but not in a self-consciously trendy way. As Eamon says, wide-eyed like a child in a candy store, "it looks like a squatters' party". There's nothing here aside from a DIY bar dispensing beer and, of course, the ping-pong table where folk queue up in long lines to take a turn.

On the plane home the next day, the band look tired but happy. The response to their gig may not have been overwhelming, but British Sea Power will always be a band for more refined tastes. Now their minds are already turning to a weekend off and the various bird-watching, hiking and reading options that brings. "We always wanted to be different from other bands," sighs Yan happily. "And I think we've done that."

British Sea Power play Anson Rooms, Bristol, on Wednesday, then touring ( www.britishseapower.co.uk). 'Open Season' is out now on Rough Trade

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