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