Rob Pollard v British Sea Power: "We need a Chavez"

<em>British Sea Power</em>'s Yan speaks to the <em>New Statesman</em> about music, politics and Grand Designs Australia.

British Sea Power remain on the outskirts of British popular culture, despite being one of the most interesting bands of the last decade. Their brand of music defies definite categorisation, and as a result, they've never managed the sales that their artistry deserves. They have an obsessive fan base who monitor their every move; desperate to soak up each release and live performance. They're an enigma that remain as compelling today as when they first thrust their music on us in 2001.

Machineries of Joy, released this week on the Rough Trade label, is British Sea Power's sixth album, and it's right up there with their best. Ten years after the release of their debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, the band are still going strong, producing music that continues to surprise and challenge us. To celebrate the release of their latest record, the New Statesman spoke to guitarist and vocalist Yan about the making of the album and the inner-workings of BSP.

Your new album is excellent, I've really enjoyed listening to it. How excited are you about its release and how happy are you with how it sounds?

I'm very happy with it and I don't always say that. It's hard to get a grip of it sometimes. It can take up to a year after finishing it before you realise whether it's gone that well or not. I think it reflects what the band's like nowadays. We recorded like a band, in a room, very quickly, and old-fashioned without messing around. I think some of our albums have been quite challenging, or even slightly naggy, like they almost want to turn you off or something, whereas this one's a bit more comforting, maybe.

How long did it take from the beginning of the writing process to finishing the record?

The whole thing was a year, pretty much dead on. We started last January, and for six months we were doing a club night in Brighton which we called "Krankenhaus", and every month we released a small, limited edition EP with five tracks on it which we just made and recorded and produced ourselves. So at the end of that we'd done about 30 tracks which were put into the public arena, which weren't all perfect, they were sort of enhanced demos, but they had to be finished in a way that someone could listen to them, with lyrics and a tune or whatever. So that was a big step; we'd never done anything like that before. Normally you'd work and then finish the final version and unveil it.

After that we had a few months off and then we all got together and started playing songs in Wales in the mountains for two weeks and that's when it all came together. And then the final bit was just a two week recording process in November. So it's a year, but it wasn't like working every day through the year. The biggest bit was all the writing we were doing in the first six months because doing that amount of songs each month that you wouldn't be embarrassed about was really hard work.

So just explain to me how that works then. You've released tracks on your own label, and then released some of them again on the new album through Rough Trade, is that right?

Yeah, Rough Trade have a fairly easy going approach with us compared to what a lot of record labels might be like. I suppose we've been with them a long time – I think we're actually their longest running band – so maybe they trust us a bit more, and if they think it's what we need to do, they think it'll turn out the best for them. It's a fairly sort of economical and practical approach in some ways, it's just a little bit back to front.

We didn't make a big deal out of it. It was only our more ardent fans who got hold of the demos – the people who went to the club night. And they were only available on our website and we never tried to advertise, and we limited how many we could sell. But people would talk about them, and then you would have to listen to them and then think about them in a different way, so you almost have like a second go. It's just like a second edit. Plus the first stage was just people working on songs in ones and twos, like my brother and Abi who live up on the Isle of Skye would just send songs down ready for the CD. But then when we did the album we're all playing them together, so that's like the second stage.

You mentioned some of the band living on the Isle of Skye whilst the rest are still in Brighton. How's that changed the dynamic of the band?

Theoretically you'd assume it would have a negative effect because I have this vision of bands living nearby, just playing for fun, or rehearsing every week or whatever, but I guess we're quite adaptable really, and we're willing to compromise with each other, so we just have to plan a bit more. We just do our rehearsal in a set time, two weeks this time in Wales, and we just have to make the most of it, and really condense the work.

The biggest difference is the mood of the songs that people write because obviously they're living in a very different kind of atmosphere up there, it's one step off Lord of the Rings, with the odd nuclear submarine going past! We're not exactly in the metropolis down in Brighton but, you know, it's quite different and you can tell that. We had to work quite hard at times to get the different moods to fit together. Id' say that's the hardest bit of it.

British Sea Power have always been a band who have eschewed lyrical cliches of love and relationships. What's the inspiration lyrically on the new record?

Yeah, it's true that in a way. If there are elements of love songs they're always done in a slightly odd way. We've always tried to include a lot of ideas in our albums and songs but we didn't really try and do that this time. Not because of a lack of them, we just didn't feel the need for it and wanted to do something a bit different, let something else take the forefront. Without it being about love, I think it's a more emotional, warmer record. It's not trying to push a manifesto or anything, and the lyrics kind of sit together because they seem to, rather than an intellectual rule binding them. I keep being drawn back to Ray Bradbury no matter how much I try and get away, and that's where the name of the album comes from. He's a very interesting fella, and he had a funny way of working as well: it was quite subconscious and things would come up and he wouldn't realise why until a lot later when it would make a lot of sense in a less factual kind of way.

You've been around for such a long time now, outliving so many of your contemporaries. Why do you think British Sea Power have managed to remain strong over a long period of time?

Cumbrian endurance I think. Getting used to walking up the fells as a kid [laughs]. No, I think it's about being relaxed about life. Most bands seem to fall apart for personal difficulties and disagreements, really, or maybe greed, drugs, or sex, whereas we're kind of moderate. We don't mind taking in some far out ideas and doing weird things, but in terms of getting on with each other we're pretty thoughtful, as far as bands go anyway, which isn't a high level to set yourself by. It's always been enjoyable. That's a bit of a boring answer but it's true.

Where do you think you fit into things on the musical map? I read The Brighton Source and you were described as 'Brighton's elder statesman'.

I know, that's horrible isn't it? We had that on Steve Lamacq's Round Table. It's all said with an element of positivity, and even love, though. We've been described as 'national treasures' a few times, which is a bit weird. I think we just sit slightly outside everything, and we're quite enduring. I originally always thought we'd be over and done with in about three years, or one or two albums. It just makes me feel kind of old, and I don't actually feel old except for when people start saying it's unusual for a band to last this long [laughs]. Bands are pretty weird things. If it were a painter it wouldn't be unusual. In fact, people might assume you could even get better, even a filmmaker. It's just music, and I think it's to do with marketing, it's just obsessed with youth...physical youth.

I read somewhere that you plan to open up your next set of shows with an acoustic set, which I think is a great idea. Is that still going ahead?

It is, yeah. It looked doubtful but it's mostly gonna happen, except the odd night when regulations prevent it. We did it once before and it worked well, so we're gonna try and do it better this time. We go on shortly after the doors open, people turn up early, so it's more of an evening. It's kind of hard working out a set these days because we have a lot of songs, and you start thinking about what you're missing out as much as what you're including. You can play some odder songs in a more relaxed mood - you're not really trying to impress anyone, you're just playing some B-sides, and things you wouldn't normally be able to fit in a set.

The merchandise you sell at your shows is absolutely exquisite. What's the story behind all that?

We always just assumed that if you're a good band then the things that are associated with you would be as good as they can be. Some of it's somewhere between Frankie Howerd sense of humour and Ian Hamilton Finlay. So some of it's quite stupid, like my favourite was the "Heron Addict" t-shirt. It was at a time when there was a lot of musical heroin stories in the newspapers, not to do with us but in general. That was quite funny because we were sort of swapping nature or birds for drugs. And then one thing led to another and we've had mint cake teabags, and a first aid kit. We thought music is something which can make life better, even improve a person's mind, so in a way it's like a first aid kit.

How tough is it to make a living out of music?

People don't normally like talking about money but I don't care, really. We're sort of in a middle range, which is almost the hardest because it is a full-time job but we don't sell millions of records. We do alright, I'm quite happy with what we do. It's also quite a big band, so just touring can be quite expensive. So it's quite hard I'd say. I couldn't have a Ferrari, put it that way. But then again more interesting things happen. We get invited to do weird things. I'm doing the sound installation for Kurt Schwitters' Tate evening at the moment, and you don't get much money for that either but I get to do a sound installation in a room full of Turners about Kurt Schwitters, who I like, and I imagine that's better than earning loads of money but always being so stressed and the only way you can get any joy is by buying a nicer car, or having two weeks holiday somewhere ultimate and then going back to just feeling horrible everyday. So to answer the question, it's doable but I don't live an extravagant life.

A fascinating element of BSP is your fervent following. You have a really obsessive core group of fans. That must be a brilliant feeling.

You sometimes get DIY discounts, or random favours, a bit like the Masons [laughs]. I do appreciate it. I used to not take it seriously, and even think they were weird, but I think I was just getting used to it. But the more people you meet who are big fans, they're normally quite diverse and interesting people. Generally quite good natured and interested in the world. I find it hard to believe that they make such an effort, especially to see five gigs out of ten on a UK tour or go around Europe and watch us.

So you're still based in Brighton, which, of course, is Caroline Lucas' constituency. How's that worked out for the area?

I think the difference is subtle but it's an improvement. I can't think of anyone who'd be better, or any party that would be better. At least they're trying and it's a difficult time to do anything positive in. I think it's definitely a good thing. If it was up to me I'd take things up to another level but that would be impossible in today's world. I'd like to see less waste and a bit more cooperation between people on things like the environment. It's at its lowest level in decades in terms of how much people care about it. It's hard times but that doesn't mean you should stop thinking about anything else. I think a bit more of a hippie philosophy would be good [laughs]. If people could just help people without it having to be a rule, that would be good. But Brighton's a nice city. It's very friendly and you get all kinds of people.

Will the Conservatives still be in power after the next election?

I think it's possible but it'd be a shame. I think all the parties are failing to some degree at the moment. They're just very shortsighted and they don't have much faith in people. They don't put out any longterm thinking, they just want to follow what they think the quickest trend to get back into power is and then fail to implement anything useful or longterm. That's partly the system, I guess, and partly just culture. We need a Chavez: someone with a bit of life in them. They might not be perfect, but they want to help people in general.

Would you consider yourself a socialist then?

Well, if I had to go for any of the main categories that are available then, yeah. We were once asked to be Ministers of Culture for the Monster Raving Loony Party and I said no. I think they were serious, it's hard to tell, but now I wish I'd taken them up on it. So somewhere between Monster Raving Loony Party and socialist. But I don't really believe most systems which say they are these things, and they're often very similar when they're extremely one way or the other. I just think people are weird and it's all a bit of a mess, and I wish it was all shifted to a more friendly society.

I was watching Grand Designs Australia a minute ago and they've got no building regulations or anything, and he's building this amazing house with the help of welders who happen to randomly be passing by, and it's amazing the difference in attitude between that and the English Grand Designs [laughs].

What's you view of Europe and our relationship with the rest of the continent?

In general I'm into Europe; I like it. And I think in the time when we have become more integrated with it, our culture has been improved aesthetically and in all kinds of ways. Obviously, we've been around Europe a lot and you meet a lot of people, and I think there's a lot to learn. There are problems but imagining that we're gonna be better off on our own with English people in charge, I don't think that's gonna work very well.

I'd say get involved in it and try and make Europe something really good. And I hate all this anti-immigration stuff because they focus on such narrow things and they blow it out of all proportion, and it's not even true a lot of it but it's just like a scapegoat, almost for blaming the economic climate on these new people, and that's just an old story that's gone on forever, and it's always slightly evil as far as I can see. I mean, we get all our nurses and doctors from other countries. We get all kinds of good workers, good builders, good manners, even. Good lots of things, really, so I like the idea of Europe and I don't want to be separated off from it. I don't want to have to apply for a Visa when I go on tour to Germany!

Machineries of Joy is out now on Rough Trade

Yan, aka Scott Wilkinson. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain