British Sea Power – interview with iconic art rock band

Iconic art rock band British Sea Power are set for a Derby return when they play The Venue on 23 October as part of a UK tour. Storge editor spoke to guitarist Martin Noble around the release of their latest album Let The Dancer’s Inherit The Party, making the political personal, and leaving their long-term record label. 

In 1941 George Orwell sat beneath the drone of bombers, surrounded by the chaos of the Blitz, pragmatically contemplating the potential for his individual demise as much as the destruction of his country as a result of war. It may be his novel 1984 we’re currently buying up in droves as it looks less like a dystopian fiction and more like a handbook for today, but it’s the words of England Your England which appear sepia-tinged and ghostly between the lyrics of the latest British Sea Power album Let The Dancers Inherit The Party.

In his essay Orwell was blunt on the problems his country faced at that time, the characteristics both good and bad it held as a nation. He spoke of us being defined by ‘solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes’ and yes, he was later paraphrased in political oration for his rose-tinted view of ‘old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning’ but he also dismissed the idea that we were the ‘jewelled isle’.

Perhaps that is a country none of us would now recognise, even Orwell wrote of it as something at least lost if not conjured only by wistful memory. There is comfort in the nostalgia of some good old days, of some simpler times, of the known. Evoking it plays on the fear we all live in, whatever our current political persuasion; the loss of this mystical past, full of Crown Green bowls, cricket and the chink of cups at high tea, cuts deeply on some, and is the balm to others. And as it was then, so is it now when it is raised on this record, set against the confusion and fear of today. It’s the personal in the political as British Sea Power gently lull with lyrics of ‘hold hands as the radio plays, say a little prayer for halcyon days’ against the swell of strings.

“The album was made to a background of politicians perfecting the art of unabashed lying, of social media echo chambers, of clickbait and electronic Tonka Toys to keep us entertained and befuddled. All this can easily make the individual feel futile. But I think we’ve ended up addressing this confusion in an invigorating way, rather than imprisoning the listener in melancholy.”

The backdrop guitarist Martin Noble talks of may well be stark but he’s right that while the album is seeped in the apprehension of our times, it is also one which sparkles with hope. Certainly an album which subtly reflects the wider world – the post-fact era where doublespeak is the order of the day, and distraction and doubt are political tools of choice – it’s one which brings a glimmer of brighter days by being anchored in the individual, in the tales of life going on.

“The album in general, especially on songs like Keep On Trying (Sechs Freunde) and What You’re Doing, touches on disconnection and connections. Feeling connected or disconnected on a personal level all the way to global levels. Sechs Freunde refers to the Small World Experiment that investigated how we are only six connections from anyone on earth. It’s a positive pep talk to yourself to Keep On Trying, even when the dark side is rearing it’s ugly multi-head.

“Musically, it’s our most direct album and maybe the first one where we maintain a coherent mood from start to finish. Perhaps a little clarity isn’t a bad thing at this point. In terms of lyrical themes it always comes from whatever the brothers are feeling at the time, whatever is affecting them and they need to get off their chests. It only occurs at the end of making a record what it is about, and whether it is about anything as a whole.

“I think it’s quite reflective this time. There wasn’t a plan to create an album with any particular subject matter but we’ve kind of ended up with a case of ‘think global, act local’ – an album where individuals are dealing with their domestic and personal lives against a background of uncontrollable international lunacy.”

The artwork too reflects that by-gone era that shares so much turbulence with our own. With members growing up near the former Lake District home of artist Kurt Schwitters it’s perhaps no surprise to feel his influence once again in British Sea Power’s work – they’ve previously used his sound poem, ‘Ursonate’, in live shows while elsewhere his work is referenced in their lyrics.

An early postmodern artist and a Dadaist, Schwitters work embraced irrationality and chaos, and rejected the cultural and intellectual conformity which the movement believed had led to war and ‘mutual destruction’; in referencing him there is yet more of that distant but parallel past coming through subtly but certainly.

“We’ve always done our own artwork as fortunately Woody studied illustration and Jan studied typography so they both have the skills. This time round we were thinking about an artwork based on typography and Jan found this typeface and that was the font that Kurt Schwitters made up. As we’re all fans of Kurt we made him run with it for the artwork.”

The strong creative vision has always been a feature of British Sea Power, a band who are unafraid of broad boundaries and indulgent of eccentricities in their art. Their last release was 2015’s Sea of Brass reworking some of their previous tracks with arrangements for brass band. Before that came an original score for the documentary of Britain’s coast, From the Sea to the Land Beyond, and the soundtrack for 2014 film Happiness. “We are continuously writing and we’ve done a few film soundtracks and have worked on some music for an Estonian computer game as well, so we’ve been stockpiling music for a while. For this album we’d been there with the more soundtrack type music so we pulled together the tracks which felt more like songs, more like people would recognise as British Sea Power songs than anything too obscure.”

Coming back to original material also marked with a break from Rough Trade through which they released five studio albums and were the longest continually-signed band in the label’s history. Let the Dancer’s Inherit The Party was instead released on their own label Golden Chariot, on licence to Caroline. “There’s a lot of bullshit you have to do as a band. When we released Sea of Brass, that was a project which snowballed and we ended up putting that out ourself. We did everything – the artwork and the distribution, everything. We realised you can’t be doing all that and writing a record at the same time. All that stuff is very sobering. You question, ‘am I band, am I business? I don’t know!’. It was a really difficult decision to leave Rough Trade as they’d been part of the family for so long, but it sort of made sense. We ended up going with Caroline, just for a fresh new start.”

Always a band with a fervent following deciding to self-release meant a different approach to funding and it was in the fans that the band found the answer. Like other bands they offered a range of pledges to fund the album, from the fairly standard box set pre-orders to those that were more unusual, but perhaps more in keeping with the band’s idiosyncratic nature.

“We had a number of silly ideas and the tattoos started off as a joke, then lots of people said they’d have one. We came up with a couple of designs but if people had their own ones that they wanted then that was fine too.They get a live pass – entry to our shows – by having the tattoo. There were people all over the world, there was a postman on the Shetland Isles, someone in Scandinavia. And some people in America too which is weird as we haven’t played there in a while, so I’m not sure how they’ll get the most of their pass. It’s just really weird and ‘what they hell?’, but in a good way. We’re playing an acoustic show in someone’s house too, perhaps that’s more standard on these things. But it’s great. It’s a weird time for bands and things are evolving quickly and it’s nice to have some control in the sea of madness.”

The band are now preparing for live dates around the album’s release. Over the years they’ve become known for their use of unusual venues – from caverns to an embassy – and even on a standard stage the band make it their own with added foliage, and occasionally an indulgence in improvisation and postmodern iconography. “Usually when we play these one off venues they are fairly small and you get the hardcore fans come to them. They are more rabid affairs and you trust in them, you can do whatever you like and they’ll be fine because of the fans. In bigger venues you don’t want to make too many random mistakes – they often happen anyway but you feel a bit more responsible.”

Alongside new tracks the band will delve into their catalogue for the coming set lists, a different type of nostalgia and comfort found in the songs their younger selves lived. “Sometimes when you stop feeling that connection to the older stuff we just stop playing them. I find it’s good to reconnect with the past through them. Sometimes if the song feels like you’ve been going through the motions with it then we just drop it, but other times it can rejuvenate you as they’re from a more youthful time.

“We never put a song to bed but we just stop playing them for a while and then they come back on the next tour, or at the fan club shows we bring all kinds of weird songs out and you can’t go wrong, you can’t fail to enjoy them at that sort of gig.”

It seems unlikely that the current political turbulence will quiet anytime soon but life, and music, go on regardless. Early in the album, on Bad Bohemian, it is with the reverence and fervour of prayer echoed in the line ‘let me not die while I’m still alive’, and it is with this resolve that BSP lead us through their latest long player mirroring the fear and grief prevalent now, but finding the surer footing of hope.

Orwell had it that his country had in it the power to change out of all recognition and yet remain the same. British Sea Power, underground yet iconic, possess that too; an everlasting animal quietly but definitely moving ever forward, changed but yet the same.

“Some of our earlier records might have had more of a soundtrack feel to them but this record we had strong songs and we wanted to do an album of more British Sea Power sounding songs. We’ve still got a lot of material left over so we’ve probably got at least half an album of songs that maybe didn’t quite fit with this one, maybe a bit more off-kilter for the next one again.”

British Sea Power play The Venue on 23 October 2017. Tickets are on sale now and promoters recommend buying ahead online for what it likely to be a sell-out show.

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This interview was first published in issue 9 of Louder Than War magazine but is available online for the first time here.

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