‘When it comes down to cave or carpark, cave wins. As for church or club it is more difficult. Churches are superior atmospheres generally, but clubs often sound better and have a better bar‘ – Siobhán Kane talks to Scott Wilkinson of British Sea Power.
From Cumbria to Brighton, British Sea Power have always been connected in some way to nature, whether it be the mountains or the sea, and it has always found its way into their work, from 2003’s The Decline of British Sea Power, to the recently released Machineries of Joy.
Now firmly based in Brighton, the band have developed an interesting musical culture around their work over the last decade; their first club night Club Sea Power was very successful, and has morphed into a monthly club night Krankenhaus that regenerates the band in various ways, particularly in terms of trying out interesting live sets, while acting as a platform for other artists in the process. It has also led them to act as curators of their own festivals, such as 2008’s Sing Ye From the Hillsides! which took place at “Britain’s highest pub” the Tan Hill Inn in Yorkshire – and space has always been important to the band, and over the years they have played in village halls, libraries, sea forts, churches, ships and caves, which adds to their live performances, which are often fused with an off-kilter theatricality.
They are also a band as synonymous with their love of nostalgia, as they are with producing interesting music, perhaps initially signalled by their referencing of The Wooden Horse (a Second World War book by Eric Williams) on their first record. Their interest in that particular period is borne of real connection and experience, detailed in the book written by Roy Wilkinson Do it for Your Mum, which was published in 2011. It is more than a family memoir, it is mainly a story about the indefatigable human spirit present in some people, namely Ronald Wilkinson, Roy, Yan, and Hamilton’s 89 year-old father, and “ex-World War Two anti-aircraft gunner who has reinvented himself as a crazed follower of the contemporary indie-rock experience”. It is a book about hope, music, and togetherness, and it is wonderful.
This love of nostalgia has led them to interesting soundtrack projects also; from Man of Aran in 2009, which accompanied Robert Flaherty’s 1934 film of the same name, and most recently for From the Sea to the Land Beyond, a film which shows archive footage of the British Coast, but while British Sea Power are constantly exploring the past, they also harness a vital and present spirit, perhaps it is that they have a respect for craft, both in terms of industry and artistry. Siobhán Kane talks to (Yan) Scott Wilkinson.
One of your most recent pieces of work is the music for Penny Woolcock’s film From the Sea to the Land Beyond – could you expand a little more on the project, and how it came to be?
It began similarly to our first film and music piece with an invitation to play a one off live concert to moving pictures. This time however, instead of rescoring something old it was a newly commissioned film putting together various pieces of film documenting this Island’s relationship with the sea over the last century or so. Again, similarly, it grew into something more substantial, and we decided it was worth recording and repeating the performance. It is a fairly poetic film with a fairly loose narrative that leaves a lot to the viewers imagination rather than ramming opinions and facts down the throat.
In some ways it has a sympathy with what The Unthanks are doing at present, with their Songs From the Shipyards project. Do you think that there is a sense of honouring industry and endeavour from the past, even more now? That we are in such a strange, restless period, ever more reliant on technology, and so looking at where we have all been is the only way to understand where we are now, and what a mess we are in?
It’s possible I suppose. I’m not sure I would consider myself to be honouring the past in any way. I am interested in it only equally to the present and the future. I don’t think it’s what you’re suggesting, but often people look on anything in black and white with a kind of biased romanticism. In Penny’s film (From the Sea to the Land Beyond) there are many ways to view the changes you see. The filming becomes uglier in many ways, less poetic but perhaps more honest. People are mown down storming a beach. Industry declines. Hovercrafts appear, as do big phones. People start looking at the camera lens very differently. People seem gradually more safety conscious. These are some of the things I notice. I think it is strange what happens to the packed shipyards but our film is about people’s holidays, play and also their industrious relationships with the sea.
Your work as a band is so interesting, intelligent, full of life – you never seem to have veered from the DIY ethos, it seems like the most important part of it for you – it seems in that spirit that you all started making music.
Thank you. It is true, it seems we do almost everything ourselves. Probably even more than when we started. Really it is where the enjoyment is. In the work and creation and the places this can take you.
This goes back to things that you did outside of the band, but adjacent to it, such as your club nights – back years ago, with Club Sea Power, and more recently Krankenhaus – do these nights serve as a kind of hub of creativity, a way to showcase other people’s work as well as trying out some new ideas of your own, playing records, and such? How integral are the club nights to you as a band?
They help a lot. it can be hard work but that’s okay. We had a quite unbelievable selection of amazing bands playing across the six Krankenhauses, from Bo Ningen, Savages, Jock Scott, Palma Violets, and many more, as well as poetry, ventriloquism, brass bands and dancing. I really see no reason why these things can’t live together with good DJ’s and ping-pong. We would do an early set to make sure even lesser-known acts would have a full house, and that way the whole night is the focus rather than a build up to the main act and then go home. After we played there would be more good stuff.
Does Brighton very much feel like your natural home? What do you love most about it there?
For as much as its reputation for posh posers is true, it is a nice place with many sides. It has all kinds of people who seem to get on in relative peace. The sea, music, green bowling, the Downs. It’s a long way from the Cumbrian life, but it’s pretty decent. I don’t really mind posers myself. Some of them are quite daft really.
I wondered if in part it is a sense of nostalgia, a throwback to a different, more simple time in some ways? I know some of you hail from Kendal, which has its own beauty – but Brighton seems steeped in a kind of nostalgia.
I do come from Kendal yes. It was a good place to grow up but also one I was desperate to leave for a long time. There was mixed with the beauty a sense of boredom. Brighton is a bubble which contains piers, and also a lot of STD’s and heroin, as well as postcards and fairground rides.
The word nostalgia is synonymous with you, and I am particularly thinking about World War II. I wondered about your own relationship with military history, and if you ever thought of pursuing it in a research/academic context?
It is a fairly fascinating period I agree. More of that comes from our long associate and author Roy Wilkinson – aka the Sarge! -who amongst other things has the honour of writing our press releases and newsletters. As is his way, these reflect at least as much of his character as that of the bands, which do have some common ground between them. He’s a clever man but it does lead people to assume the whole band are war nuts! I’m probably next most interested, but comparably much less so. The rest of them have little to no interest in the war at all. I think one reason it tempts the enquiring obsessive mind is that it contains such a range of angles of interest. World politics, savagery, tactics, technology, conspiracy, bravery, cowardice, so called evil and goodness. Racism, profiteering, fashion. It’s more or less all the most extreme behaviours at once. Also it is just modern enough to be documented in a fairly modern way with film and photographs and even human memory still available through some still alive survivors. I doubt I would ever pursue it academically, no. Recently I find the underlying business interests throughout these wars quite interesting. My father was in World War II. His angle was try to avoid anything dangerous, as it’s all stupid and beyond reason. Most of them didn’t have a clue what they were fighting about as far as I can gather. It was as with many, but not all conflicts given meaning afterwards.
Roy’s book Do it For Your Mum is genuinely wonderful. Did the success of that surprise you, and did it feel like a book that really needed to be written?
Roy’s a good writer. It’s very definitely a book of his own vision of British Sea Power, and his own experiences managing the early part of British Sea Powers journey. It was about time he got round to writing a book as he had threatened to do so many times before about several subjects. He has a very interesting way of looking on the world, and a peculiar way of interacting with it. I would think his next book, if it arrives, will be worth reading, whatever it is about.
Space means a lot to you, you choose very carefully places to perform at different turns, and because of this, I wonder what some of the most special places have been? And where are some of your dream places to perform?
When it comes down to cave or carpark, cave wins. As for church or club it is more difficult. Churches are superior atmospheres generally, but clubs often sound better and have a better bar. Occasionally a place has the best of both of these. I haven’t really got a favourite, as I can rarely remember our concerts. Also the worst of venues can be unfairly/fairly elevated by a good backstage loo and vice-versa. Actually I’m beginning to think the Isle of Eigg was the best venue we ever played. it had almost everything a person could dream of.
You are also aligned with a love of nature, is this something you have felt since you were children? England is interesting in that way, because it has some amazing landscapes, yet also is this seat of industrialisation. I read something the other day that said for all its vastness, only approximately 1% of the GDP is agriculture – which seems incongruous, that disconnect to the land. What are your thoughts?
I think it would be better if more people grew their own food and swapped it for other food rather than money. Fact.
Wilko Johnson once joined you on stage when you played Canvey Island, which must have been just lovely, he has been in my thoughts a lot recently, particularly in light of his illness, you must look back on that moment very fondly.
I like him a lot. He was still very nimble and quickfooted too, almost caught me with his guitar lunges a few times but I ducked. He is a very impressive piece of human engineering. An uncommon success.
When you put that festival on in the Tan Hill Inn – was that a difficult thing to do?
My main contribution was to simply be there. Martin and Dave did a lot of the organising. It was a very small but busy world for a few days. Yet again Bo Ningen were there as were Sledge Dogs. I’ve been there four times now including the two festivals and still haven’t seen a werewolf. I believe it was a great success though, except for food being hard to obtain.
You have worked on so many interesting projects, I particularly liked your work on Man of Aran. How did that come about?
I’m really not sure how it came about exactly. I think it is a project that will not allow itself to be forgotten yet and is due a second wind. Really it is as important as any of our albums in understanding our band.
All of these projects seem to flow back into your own original music, and all of your albums are very distinctive, with Machineries of Joy as the most recent, and where you go back to one of your early influences Ray Bradbury, What is it about his work that you most respond to? I often think of Fahrenheit 451 as a particularly frightening novel, because it illustrates the paranoia that can take over reason. In some ways, some of his ideas were so prescient – but I still have to believe that good can triumph over evil.
He was a fascinating man. From gaining his writing powers off of a real character called Mr Magneto or something similar, at a fairground, to self-educating by library. I liked his way of writing which drew on deep forgotten memories and the subconscious. I like his practical advice and hard working attitude. Most of all I like his story titles and beautiful ideas. He kept talking to me until I wrote the song called “Machineries of Joy”, which seems to have satisfied him for the time being. There are some good clips of him talking as an older man on youtube that are worth a look.
Do all of your records indicate a philosophical state? Because you are so reflective, and thoughtful, I imagine that your records are musical narratives borne out of a lot of talking about ideas, books, music, philosophy.
The band hardly ever talk about anything at all. Other than nonsense that is, and jokes. It is 90% an unspoken agreement that we participate in. Occasionally I have tried to enter a conversation alluding to possible ideas and it has generally been unfruitful.
What are your plans for the next year?
I am hoping to finish my shed. I have some artistic ideas, however I wouldn’t like to disclose them at this time.
What are you reading, watching, and listening?
Today I bought Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias. I have just finished One on One by Craig Brown, which was very entertaining. I lost Michel Houellebecq’s new one The Map and the Territory half way through on our UK tour, and was greatly in to it. I am working my way through Top Secret America, and The Secret War With Iran, which are both interesting in their own way. I bought Pete Townsends book, but I’m not sure if I want to start reading it yet. Dark Market – about hacking and cyber-crime was also quite interesting, although not exceptionally well-written. I watch a lot of documentaries – recently a few about South American politics, and most of the films that come out. I’m hoping to go to the cinema to see Iron Man 3 later, and the fighting fantasy/soft porn of Game of Thrones is also pretty good fun – I have seen seasons 1 and 2.
British Sea Power play The Academy on Tuesday May 7th. If you’d like to win a pair of tickets just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with BSPTICKETSPLEASE as the subject by midnight on Monday May 6th.