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

GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser