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British Sea Power: Meeting the band is an educational experience

Their love of science and history may not sound rock'n'roll, but it's what makes them great.

Interview,Chris Mugan
Friday 04 January 2008 01:00 GMT

More than any other band I have met, time with British Sea Power is an educational experience. Not merely in terms of finding out what makes them tick, but sat around a table in a Sussex pub is like meeting a scout troop run by TV scientist Magnus Pyke and animal expert Terry Nutkins.

Today we are in Rottingdean, a village on the fringes of Brighton, the band's home city, to photograph them below Sussex's white cliffs. Any normal band would head straight to the nearest pub, but not British Sea Power, they track down Ye Olde Black Horse, once run by a member of The Copper Family, the local clan that has been performing traditional folk tunes for 200 years.

Singer Yan, in fact, heads further up the high street to reconnoitre Rudyard Kipling's gardens, but returns with news that high walls make it gloomy. So to the shore, where the foursome set up a pair of puppets that his brother, bassist and co-vocalist Hamilton, picked up in Montreal. Originally from Taiwan, they supposedly hold the souls of dead people in lumps at the back of their heads.

The band patiently hold their poses on a crisp, clear day, even though Yan is suffering from a hangover and Hamilton snuffles like a sulky schoolboy. Drummer Woody remains his usual stoic self, while guitarist Noble gamely strips off his military surplus coat and tucks in his trousers to give the impression of wearing puttees.

So far, so expected for a band synonymous with a keen interest in history and a love of wide-open spaces. Since they emerged in 2001, BSP have built up a dedicated following that copy their martial dress and bring foliage to gigs. In fact, Noble's first suggestion for a photo shoot was further away from Brighton at a nearby observatory, an institution I, for one, had no idea existed, along with the other band members. "He's the band's deep-thinker," an admiring Yan explains later.

Unfortunately, the observatory is closed over Christmas, a shame as it would have made an apposite backdrop given the subject matter of a song on new album Do You Like Rock Music?. "Lights Out For Darker Skies" is seemingly a hearts-on-sleeves agitpop number, in favour of the campaign to reduce light pollution so we can see more stars at night. Yan, though, denies this is his intention.

"Originally, I wanted to write about the story of light from cavemen's fires to all the electric light we have today, but as I was researching this I came across the campaign for dark skies. The other thing is that I wanted to put some present-day things in this album. I got fed up with people getting the wrong idea about us. They think because of the way we dress we want to live in some bygone age, but that's not true. In years to come, I want people to listen to this album and know exactly when it was written.

"So I put in things you would read in the newspaper or talk about with friends, as a backdrop. There's a lot of strange things going on nowadays, so you don't need to look for another time wars, religious fanaticism, impending doom..." "Pete Doherty," Hamilton butts in, before his brother continues. "In this song I'm really writing about a relationship, which is something bands have done for years, so you have to find a way of doing it differently."

As a result, his band's third album is their most open to date. Previously, their work sounded like someone was singing the contents of an almanac, with obtuse references to the ice shelf Larsen B, or the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, which brings us neatly to forthcoming single "Waving Flags". For there is no mistaking this track's salient point a welcoming call to Eastern European immigrants: "You are astronomical fans of alcohol," Yan intones in its opening line. The idea that we should welcome the Poles because they can binge drink like the rest of us is not one widely used in political debate today.

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As the Heydrich reference in their 2004 song "A Lovely Day Tomorrow" attests, the band have a long-running interest in Eastern Europe, dating back to when Hamilton and Woody went inter-railing in the region. Yan says: "It's as much the countryside as the people, though I suppose there's a connection between the two. A lot of it feels undiscovered and there's so much out there. It captures your imagination." "A Lovely Day Tomorrow" was recorded with Czech musicians and only released as a single in their country.

For this album, British Sea Power recorded part of it deep in a forest there, though in a change of direction they also worked elsewhere: a studio next to a junkyard in Montreal, a Cornish fort and a Suffolk water tower. The band that claim to be always learning as they progress sought to maintain their own interest as much as add variety, Yan admits.

"When we recorded [second album] Open Season, we stayed in the same hotel and went back to it every night. It was a proper Groundhog Day, Alan Partridge experience. We didn't want that again. We had an idea that the experience of recording should somehow end up on the record, so we tried it out." Most inspirational was their trip to Suffolk, where the boys hunkered down in their sleeping bags beneath the pigeons to make the most of the tower's cathedral-like acoustics. Noble reminisces: "There are some pigeons on 'Lights Out For Darker Skies', who lived at the top of the tower. Recording there was dangerous because of electric shocks. Our equipment was rained on."

On their Cornish excursion, recording was interrupted by army manoeuvres. Hamilton says: "That's when we got the helicopter sounds. There were soldiers in a field being trained. They wanted to use us in their manoeuvres."

The Czech leg was disturbed by protests when President Bush paid a visit, while Montreal brought snow and sub-zero temperatures. Consequently, instrumental "The Great Skua" is slower than anticipated because the band were all in overcoats, while the intimate "No Need To Cry" was recorded in Hamilton's cellar. Mainly, though, the global gestation of Do You Like Rock Music? gave the band the opportunity to hone their most thrilling album so far.

They needed to move away from the needling riffs that were utterly idiosyncratic when they emerged in 2003, but have since become something of a clich. One jokey title for the work in progress was "Now That's What I Call World War I Joy Division". "They used to be a rare pleasure, but there's too much of them nowadays," Yan complains.

British Sea Power were one of the first contemporary bands to use post-punk rhythms, before Franz Ferdinand took that genre to new populist heights, while the launch party for their debut album featured a performance by The Copper Family, a long while before the pastoral revival took hold.

Now Yan's declamatory style has been overtaken by that of Arcade Fire's Win Butler. It is rumoured that their frontman is a BSP fan, but you just know the new album is going to invite comparisons with the Canadian collective, even though the band were first to employ a roving drummer in Brakes frontman Eamon Hamilton. "People will think we're jumping on a bandwagon," Yan concedes, "but Eamon was really upset when he first saw them. We played Canada and someone told us they called Arcade Fire the Canadian British Sea Power."

Now the album title has taken on a life of its own, thanks to Radio 2 DJs Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe discussing what is rock and the band coming up with their own list that includes anything from Iggy Pop to dominoes. Yan explains the connection. "They are both life-enhancing experiences, things that makes you feel more alive. Seeing a really good performer is like having a good game of dominoes or climbing a mountain and seeing an amazing view."

While the band's main writer is a natural spokesman, his younger brother is gaining influence. Hamilton has always contributed occasional vocals, but the third album sees his strongest contribution to date, though he laughs off any suggestion he struggles to usurp his brother. "Maybe he's got more easygoing, but this was more of a group effort. We do have different styles, though. I usually go for walks while he gets his inspiration sat on the toilet," Hamilton deadpans.

"I have to help him out with his lyrics because he can't spell and he doesn't get many long words in," Yan retorts, though admits a sneaking inspiration for his sibling "Look at him, he's cool" while revealing that he was one of the less-hip kids at school, which included a spell on a physics quiz team.

Even today, this impacts on his writing. "I make notes about things I hear on the radio, scientific programmes. They're more interesting than poetry and you get better word combinations. Though I only went on the quiz because there was a girl I liked," he adds.

He and Hamilton obviously got rid of any fraternal rivalry as kids. Noble, meanwhile, came up with tunes for "The Great Skua" and "Waving Flags", his biggest contributions to date.

Conversation eventually turns to the race to invent a perpetual motion machine and the peculiarities of the Qubecois dialect, much more interesting than celebrity spats or run-ins with the law. Like immersing yourself in their music, time with British Sea Power is a distinctly rewarding experience.

'Do You Like Rock Music?' is released on 14 January on Rough Trade

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