British Sea Power: Interview
“Pure gold comes out of me arse.”
Do You Like Rock Music? That's a heck of a way to name an album.
For years, British Sea Power frontmen Yan (a.k.a. Scott Wilkinson) and Hamilton (a.k.a. Neil Wilkinson) have looked for ways to mess with us. Whether it be naming their first album The Decline of British Sea Power, dressing in military uniforms, or covering stages with recently picked foliage, the Wilkinsons take the art of fucking with an audience seriously.
In person, both Wilkinsons are inviting and witty. They like to make jokes and don't take themselves too seriously. Over a few beers, our conversation ranged from their unique live shows to the differences between the USA and the UK to Nickelback.
Do you like interviews?
Welcome to Washington, DC! So you're here to promote a new album?
Y: I guess, yeah, but to have some fun most of all. Yeah, a new album. Playing some songs off it.
It's called Do You Like Rock Music? How many journalists have asked you that question?
Y: If we personally like rock music? I don't know. About 97.
Does it piss you off?
Y: Not really. I think we were asking for it, to be honest. If we said "do you like puppies," then we would be asked if we like puppies. We could have used it to our advantage. Do you like presents? People might have brought us lots of presents.
But this is what you do, so it's appropriate.
Y: We try to include some new things under the term of ‘rock music.' That was the idea.
In other interviews you were talking about more than sonic things. Things in the forest and whatnot.
Y: More subjects. Things from the world. Good things.
How did you come up with idea? It sounds almost tongue-in-cheek.
H: I'm a Queen fan. There's nothing wrong with tongue-in-cheek.
Y: There's an equally serious side to it. As serious as we're likely to get. I don't know. I don't feel very serious right now. When you're writing, deeper emotions come out a bit more at that time. But when you're on tour, it's more geeking around.
Your sound on your new album is a lot bigger than on your previous stuff. These songs are more anthemic. Did you decide as band you were going to go for this sound or did it just emerge?
Y: It started off as writing about what was going on in our lives. And that's how we recorded most of the songs. But then we ended up with a lot of time on our own, back in England trying to find the missing element. So we ended up doing a lot of layers of sound, like soundscape kind of things and building up choirs out of each of them. I don't know. Recording helicopters and mixing them with pianos falling down the stairs. We have a lot of sound.
I heard this album was recorded in Montreal and in Britain at an Army training base. Did you record in the Czech Republic, as well?
H: That was the mixing.
Y: In a water tower, as well.
H: Big places, aren't they?
Y: They were all big places, actually. Physically big places. Lots of flat stone.
Do you think there was an evolution in your sound between Open Season and this album?
Y: I think this one sounds more like what we imagine in our brains what we should sound like.
H: Last time we just wrote the songs and winged it. This time we spent a lot of time thinking about the sound.
Y: We did a lot more ourselves this time than we did last time.
[To Hamilton] It seems like you're getting more songs on there as the albums progress.
H: I'm taking over the family business.
So the next album he's….
H: Yeah, he's going to retire.
Y: Next album, I do the ballads and the finishing song. [Laughs]
"We're quite willing to risk failure than give an average, safe performance."
Do you have any personal favorites off the new album?
Y: I enjoy playing “Atom” live. I don't really listen to the album.
So once you put out an album you don't listen to them again?
Y: I think it's equivalent of having posters of yourself on the bedroom wall. Which I got a lot of posters of myself... [Laughs]. No, sometimes irony doesn't come through. I really don't like hearing myself that often.
H: You gotta keep thinking forward.
Y: When I am about 60, I'll listen [Laughs]. We spent about two months in Amsterdam after Montreal. We had no more money and we had this unmixed album with parts missing. We spent about two months mixing it ourselves, just on our own individually mixing songs on the album. That was work. I was doing like 18 hour days, smoking loads of weeds, thinking ‘Fuck, this is never going to be finished.' I knew the songs were all right but...That's the sort of thing that comes back to you when you start listening. You start remembering all the songs you were playing around with. A lot of good sounds came out of that. That's one of the good things that came out of it. We re-recorded two songs ourselves which I thought was good because it means we can go pretty much anywhere now without having to go to a studio or having to work with anyone. Too much analysis! [Both laugh]
So what is the songwriting process like for your band? Do you both do your own songs individually?
Y: We do give a bit of advice to each other. Everything always changes a bit when you start playing altogether, but there's normally someone who's kind of in charge of the song he's written.
If one of you writes something that is absolute shit would the other one tell you that?
H: Pure gold comes out of me arse. [Both laugh]
Y: Normally you can tell after a period of time if something is bad. I often change my mind about songs. You give it time you can tell what people feel after you've played it for a bit. If people still being a bit grumpy or you have to force them to do it...
Have you guys relaxed on the stage name bit or are you still going under Yan and Hamilton?
Y: I've been using me second name more: Scott.
H: I never liked Hamilton.
So you don't use it anymore?
H: I use both. I don't really care.
From an outsider's perspective, it seems you guys have loosened up a little since the first album. When the first CD came out, it was very spare in terms of the cover design and you didn't have any lyrics. Now it seems you have a lot more to say. Inside the new one you have photos and lyrics.
H: We've kind of opened the world a little bit and let people see who we are.
Y: We've played in some interesting places, haven't we?
When you are on tour, do you only get to see the inside of the club or do you go out and about?
Y: We went whitewater rafting the other day in Asheville down the French Broad River. They said it was the third oldest river in the world.
What part of England are you guys from?
H: We live down south, but we grew up in the north. We grew up in the mountains in an area a bit like Asheville.
Y: Yeah, we leave down in Brighton now.
Back to music. One thing British Sea Power fans appreciate are the obscurity and the intelligence that go into the lyrics. You use a lot of metaphors in your writing. What inspires you to write the way you do?
Y: Probably me favorite books. I just get quite excited about words and stories told in a good way.
Any books that spring to mind as favorites?
Y: I like J. G. Ballard quite a lot. He has good imagery, but it never gets in the way of the story. It's all there for good reason. I am reading Situations by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sometimes you read a sentence in a good book and you feel quite intensely happy. I normally write down and steal at least part of it. Mostly I steal all of my words from books or radio or newspaper. [To Hamilton] You write a bit differently, don't you?
H: It's just things you notice, really. I just might go walking to have peace and quiet and things just come to me. Mostly it's just remembering is the trouble. You just forget half the things.
You seem to have an affinity for Eastern Europe in your songs.
Y: We appreciate it all right, don't we? It's one of the wildest bits of Europe, landscape-wise and animals-wise. It seems like there is an old-fashioned sort of braver spirit or something about the place.
H: You get ladies by the side of the road selling peaches. It has an old world kind of feel, just like 20 minutes outside of Prague.
"You don't often see a true encore, where a band is forced to come back on."
Do you pay attention to the political mess going on over here?
Y: I was keeping touch with it quite well early on in the tour. It's pretty fucked up, really. It's so long, do you know what I mean?. It's so long. Anyone running for that must be utterly insane with the amount of stupid pressroom rubbish you would have to talk on a daily basis. I think if you took the worst bits of being in a band and multiplied it many times without the drinking... maybe if they take on the drinking and drugs aspect they will get through the whole thing. You have to pick the best of a bad bunch. That Clinton woman makes me feel a bit scared. I don't actually trust her.
H: I think Obama is trying too hard to be righteous.
Y: McCain, wasn't he a prisoner of war in Vietnam or something? He called his wife a ‘cunt,' didn't he, like live? That's a dangerous thing like in negotiations with Russia about missiles and he gets angry... fuck off! [Laughs]
It is interesting to have a non-American's perspectives on these things because they are not as emotionally invested.
Y: It's weird that you have only one person kinda in charge with so many states. When you travel about, you find out how different the places are. New Orleans to New York and Hollywood to Middle America. It's like weird.
Don't you get that in England? Like the difference between people in Newcastle and the ones that live in Kensington in London?
Y: I don't think they are as different. There's not really the central mass big area that you kind of get lost in and become fundamentally Christian.
Back to your music, I feel like there a renewed energy on the new album. I really liked Open Season, but it didn't feel as fresh or something. Has there been a rebirth?
Y: I was personally very tired on Open Season. [Chuckles] Tough times.
H: The emotions were there, but this time we made a particular effort.
Y: We did make a lot of an effort, didn't we? We did make much of an effort. It was a lot more fun.
I read that said there was an undercurrent of evil on this album. That you picked the cover because it is a German first aid kit and though it saved people, it has an evil glint to it. What were you specifically referencing on the album?
Y: It's not an underlying evil, it's a battle between good things and bad things or how you make your mind up what is a good or a bad thing.
How do you define that?
Y: It's tough sometimes. Well, sometimes it's easy. That was kind of the whole point of having the rock music/non-rock music list idea. People in the press do like a good list. Sometimes it's almost the same thing. You get Big Daddy, an '80s wrestler. He was a goodie wrestler in a fixed sport, yet he accidentally killed an opponent. So, it gets a bit mixed up at that point. He was a big man, but he was called Shirley in real life.
Do you believe that evil exists?
Y: Yeah, I don't believe it is a supernatural force or something, but there is a difference between doing something good and doing something bad. It's a changing thing.
Isn't it a matter of perspective? Couldn't you be doing something bad yet thinking you were doing something good?
Y: Well, there's a lot of ‘everything's all right” nowadays. It's easy to hide from things nowadays because everything is so complicated. It's probably a good thing to try and think about what's good or bad and not just what's easiest. I'm not saying I'm skillful at it.
H: That's partly the rock music thing, what we see as forms of evil in a way.
So rock music is a good thing?
Y: Yeah, rock music a good force.
H: But some people use it for evil means.
Y: Someone like Nickelback.
H: We played with them once and they had about 100 Marshall amps, but in the back of the stage, not one of them is plugged in.
Nickelback also sells a shitload of albums, so what does that say to you?
Y: What is says is that we're jealous and that's why we're trying to bring them down. [Laughs]
British Sea Power: good, Nickelback: evil.
Y: No, it's just the case that rock music was once quite a dangerous and exciting thing. Parents would be scared if their children started being like rock ‘n' rollers and stuff. Or it would be like the first time girls got to be sexually excited by these things. It was a really powerful thing. Often that danger was just an element and nowadays it's a fairly bland description of a sonic style. We think it's the excitement and originality which actually the good bit of rock music.
Yeah, the same thing happens at a live show. The guys come out and play their songs, they walk offstage, everyone knows they're going to come back.
Y: You don't often see a true encore, where a band is forced to come back on.
You guys seem to build myths and legends around your shows. When I first saw you the legend was you picked foliage and put it on the stage but by the point I'd seen you guys you weren't doing it anymore.
Y: We did it most of the time for about four years. We recently did it the first few times in ages. I mean, we do some bad gigs and that's part of the point of it: we're quite willing to risk failure than give an average, safe performance.
So what's next?
Y: Euro-festivals. You get a few days off every week and you get to Poland or Latvia or Reading.
Is your fan base bigger back in Europe than here?
Y: Our own gigs in London than they are anywhere else by a bit.
H: Europe hasn't taken to us that much. Germany has a bit. I think it's the name.
What about [EP title] Krankenhaus? They must like that.
H: The Germans like that, yeah.
That covers Germany, Switzerland, Austria….
Y: Technically, we sold slightly more records than we did before, when less people are selling less amounts. Though, that isn't that many.