While many bands loosely categorized as indie (that stopped meaning independent an age ago, right?) strive to be ‘different’, few achieve in a way that seems quite as effortless at British Sea Power. From waving flags and espousing a slightly tongue in cheek form of nationalism to an odd tendency to drop the calls of various birds into their tracks, the act often seem more like a hung-together song-writing collective, and touch on countless genre influences throughout their multitude of releases. Recently they put forward a series of EPs in place of the traditional album, under the simple argument that ‘musicians need to practice too’, yet the results were still as off-the-wall as ever. With an appearance at this year’s Indiependence Festival just around the corner, State caught up with singer and guitarist Jan Wilkinson to mull over the story so far…
You’ve got a reputation as a bit of a cult band. Do you mind that?
No, I don’t mind. Derived from culte or cultus: to worship! Are we a worshipped band by a devout few? It also implies odd or abnormal beliefs and behaviour. Perhaps there is something to your theory. My favourite artists were a little odd. Look at Bowie dressed up like that with Ronson on guitar, or Iggy Pop or Julian Cope with his big tortoise shell. I’d say we’re pretty straight compared with those people. Perhaps the times are generally a bit more conservative and fans don’t really have the loyalty they used to. Bands are run like small businesses and frankly I’d welcome more strange parent-worrying behaviour. Sometimes cult just means not quite popular enough. So in conclusion we are sort of a cult band but we don’t try to be.
There are some pretty dramatic changes of pace through your album back catalogue – reggae and ska influences, rock, pop, post-punk – is it important to you that every album tests your musical limits?
We have more than one writer. Everyone gets involved so there’s always a mismatch of ideas that need to live together somehow. I think habits are bad and I try to get away from them. I’d like to get a lot further away from them. As you get older it’s hard to be so black and white about what’s good and bad. I think the reggae was more of a talked about wish than a reality. There’s still time.
You’re a very British band in a lot ways, and quite a few of your tracks deal with British history in different ways. You’ve also played some really obscure spots, it can almost seem like a quest to explore your own cultural identity. What in particular appeals about exploring your own national psyche through music in this way?
It’s strange what your subconscious can make you do if you don’t fight it. Mostly gigs in a mine or whatever are done for a laugh and to see if it works. I like to understand myself and the world. I’m interested in cultures from all over and traveling makes it apparent that there are good and bad things about most of them. People are the same below and a little different on the surface everywhere. It just so happens by chance I was born here and that’s a starting point. The thing that makes me most British is that I grew up being rained on a lot. In outlook I’m more internationally flavoured.
Hiding bird sounds in your tracks seems to have become something of a BSP calling card. What bought that about? Do people still bring model birds to throw on stage at your gigs?
It’s Martin mostly these days. He keeps doing it. I think he bribes the engineers when no one’s around. He does like them; in fact he ran the marathon for the RSPB recently. The birds have died back a bit at gigs, much like they have in real life. The owl is still a regular though, something of a mascot.
Your music’s quite intellectual in its subject matter at times. Do you think it’s important to push the limits of that aspect? Do you feel modern music is largely too dumbed down?
Dumbed down always seemed to imply to me that it’s done by someone else possibly against people or artists will. I think we confuse people a little because you’re not meant to be concerned with intellect and also enjoy daftness. Someone like Bob Marley or The Ramones were intellectual in my book but it didn’t get in the way of the feelings or music. Frank Black put very intelligent things into music. Francis Bacon managed it in paint. I hope we succeed sometimes too.
You’ve always touted non-musical influences in what you do. Are there any new ones stepping into your eye line these days?
I’ve had a brief fascination for world’s toughest trucker and rally driving, and that film about Senna was very good. Funny thing is I’ve never learnt to drive.
The EP series was an interesting concept. What made you release that rather than put together another full-length album?
Well we’re going to do an album this summer and autumn. It was just a bit of a challenge to release 5 songs a month on entirely non digital limited release CDs with artwork and a semi-professional finish. Kind of against the grain of everything internet related and fashionable really. It was a bit like an intensive training session to get better at making music. Athletes train so why shouldn’t musicians?
You once threw a broken piano down a set of stairs to get a better sound out of it. Given some of the sounds you wind up with, that can’t be the only quirky recording technique you’ve used. Does anything else stand out?
It wasn’t all that quirky in a way. We were after the sound of a piano falling down stairs and there was a piano at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t in a healthy state anyway so there you go. A little push and boom. Ironically I’m not sure if the recorder was operating right and it didn’t get recorded. We weren’t strong enough to push it back up again either. Oh well it was fun. We were just having a laugh. I can’t think of any more things like that. I like pretty straight forward recording techniques nowadays. It’s what you play that counts.
Your stage set ups and your use of them are pretty notorious. Let’s say you had unlimited money to play with when it came to building the tour stage. What would you bring?
An army of prehistoric cavemen perhaps or even better pre humans and a couple of Bigfoots.
You seem to do better every time you come back to Ireland – there’s certainly a fan base there and your last Academy gig was quite wild. Is there anywhere you enjoy playing above anywhere else, and how does Ireland compare?
I like Japan too. Ireland’s just different in a hard to place way. I like the words I don’t understand even though it’s more or less the same language. My mum’s Irish but she ran away at the age of thirteen so doesn’t have an accent. Maybe half my blood has something in common.
You’ve been around well over a decade now, and your acclaim as a band seems to grow steadily. Do you feel your peak is still in front of you?
Still approaching our prime till the day we die.
Touch wood this won’t happen, but if things ended for you today, what would you like to be remembered for?
Hopefully not for being a dickhead. Anything else is a bonus.
Win a pair of weekend camping tickets to Indiependence here.