With ‘The Decline Of British Sea Power’ album, they have charmed the way into the nation;s consciousness. Andy Barding takes up preceding’s and in the middle of a BBC TV studio manages to take a focused snapshot of the band firing on all cylinders.
It was always going to b a safe bet that British Sea Power’s network TV debut would exceed the national entertainment average.
The ‘Later with Jools Holland’ production team have allowed the band to dress their stage in the traditional way, with plastic owls and herons, and all manner of flora and foliage nicked from the Blue Peter garden.
Singer Yan and bass-playing brother Hamilton are kitted out in their regulation off-white fatigues, garnished with Puffin Club patches, homemade leafy garlands and trousers tucked into red socks. No shoes. Guitarist Noble is in an arctic twitcher camouflage jacket, drummer Woody – concentration etched onto his face – has an aviator scarf around his neck and a t-shirt depicting British birds of prey. And Eamon….Eamon?
Eamon has gone AWOL. Midway through a powerful and poetic TV rendition of last single ‘Remember Me’, the boy in the UN-blue tin hat has jumped off the stage and is wheeling around studio 2 like a naughty boy on his sister’s skates. With his tatty marching drum flapping at his waist, he saunters from stage to stage exchanging salutes with REM, nods with Yoko Ono, bows with bluesman Buddy Guy, and a polite kiss with the lovely Jamelia.
Handset-clad women clutching clipboards trot nervously behind him, men with cameras do their best to dodge out of his way, and Jools Holland grins and claps like a loon. Across the nation, armchair rockers watch Yan’s brown sugar-tinted eyes reach through the screen to close the song, while the Patrick Mooreheads (a trio of glamour girls from the south coast ) sit at the side of the stage in their elegant BSP designer dresses, playing cards for coppers. In future years, this moment will be remembered as the time that "Britain’s best band" (Sunday Times) came to life in the national consciousness with a song about creeping, brillantine mortality. The BBC, in a very real sense, has been BSP’ed.
Afterwards, in a corner of the sixth floor green room at Television Centre, the band seem pleased and a little bewildered by the whole affair. Eamon is recounting his Jamelia encounter to anyone who’ll listen, Yan is politely accepting the compliments of the gushing production guests, and Hamilton (still shoeless) is reminiscing about naughty school boy antics with Woody: "We used to make shotguns, didn’t we? With metal tubes and fireworks and ball bearings…"
"Michael Stipe gave us a lots of tips on make-up. In fact, these were even more useful than the advice on eye shadow that we got from Paul out of Interpol. He swears by Rimmel Matador No 26 and Superdrug wet wipes for the day’s end…" NOBEL
"That was good fun, " says Nobel, tucking into what seems to be an undiminishing supply of free BBC beer and crisps. "We were offered make-up and haircuts, but we didn’t think it was right to make the TV licence-payer cough up for this kind of stuff. We cut our own hair without using mirrors."
"The BBC catering was excellent. We ate in the Classics restaurant and they had pasties, pies and chips for everyone. We we the only people in apart from one other table, which had Carol Smillie, Lovejoy, Louise, Bill Oddie and Theroux Jr planning a charity tennis tournament."
"I must admit, I was wary about the TV. Containing, as they do both words and music, we were even in awe of the multi-media content of the long-playing record. TV’s have words, music AND pictures…so just think about that."
"In the end, it went fine. Everyone was really pleasant. REM said hello. Jools lives in Greenwich and told us some great anecdotes about Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beafort, who invented the wind-speed scale."
A few days after all the TV fun, the upstairs function room of a central London boozer is heaving with anticipation and excitement. A chocolate cake decorated with toy biplanes is on the top table, while a large plastic owl stands guard by the door.
Some 80 to 100 people are playing with Astrojax (a bizarre Pondstretcher toy similar to the seventies phenomenon of clackers) and talking in excited tones about the upcoming main event…a sold out gig at the nearby ULU by British Sea Power.
These are the ‘Third Battalion’, BSP’s fanatical and well- groomed followers. They are solicitors, journalists, bankers, dope fiends, artists, comedy actors, social workers. Some of them like to wear false moustaches, camouflage coats and bits of tree in their hair.
The cake is in honour of one of their core members, a cheerful shaven-headed chap called Northern Pete, who will tonight chalk up his 52nd BSP cap.
"I saw them at The Volks Tavern in Brighton supporting Chimp," he recalls. "They were stunning. The moment when Yan and Hamilton jumped off the stage and into the audience and started doing press-ups was the clincher. I was so mesmerised by the whole performance that I didn’t bother staying for Chimp – there didn’t seem any point. I started to go and see them as often as possible, and after two years and 52 gigs later, am still doing so. If it fucked up tomorrow I wouldn’t mind. Nothing can take away the experiences that I’ve had following the band, the memories of some of the best gigs I’ve ever witnessed, or will ever witness; and the friendships that have been formed along the way will last forever."
N.Pete and his mates have travelled all over Britain and Europe in pursuit of their favourite band. Another superfan, Kevo, is about to skip over the Atlantic to see them dismantle Washington and Hoboken.
"The point is that with British Sea Power, every live experience is different, " he said. "The energy, mania and on and on (and off) stage antics keep the audience on their toes at all times."
He’s right. Few who have witnessed BSP in action could deny their theatrical power and poetic prowess. From the lyrical depths of ‘Carrion’ to the amplifier gymnastics of ‘Rock In A’, their live shows are rarely short of stunning.
A visit to the merchandise stand can prove an interesting experience, too. At an early gig in London, the band sold off some old boys’ adventure comics and 7" singles in boot sale picture frames. They’ve also flogged souvenir chocolate, soap, dresses and scout patches. The bars of Kendal mint cake, it seems, come free.
At a gig in Mansfield, 3rd Battalineer Capt.riot brought homemade sandwiches and onion bhajis for band, crew and audience to enjoy. Now you wouldn’t get THAT at a Starsailor gig, would you?
Kevo loves it all: "BSP have created their own integral world, which seems bizarre to the outsider at first but once you reach inside, seems to works with its own strange logic.
"The foliage, birds, historical references, songs about landscape and memory, even the dresses and mint cake, all fit together to form a whole that is really more than the sum of its parts."
"Once you get drawn in there, you soon find it’s a place where you feel at home. It’s like living in a slightly surreal parallel universe – with a blinding soundtrack."
The band are heartened, bemused and fiercely proud of the folks who come to see them night after night.
Noble: "They’re an inspiring bunch. They come to see us play all over the world, which is both confusing and humbling. We think they’re an audience to be proud of. They can form a sentence and aren’t afraid to do so."
Later on, over at the ULU, Kevo, Northern Pete, Capt.riot, and their friends: De Lacey, Doll, Kingfishercatchfire, Clark, The Dunnocks, Mistress Leysa, Dr Jools, and Angela ‘Johnny’ Cannon (to name but a colourful few), bear witness to a truly incendiary set. Handstands, swan dives, poetry, and a giant grizzly bear, are used to illustrate songs about nature, death, bravery, air travel, dogfights in the sky, and death by drowning.
A new B-side, ‘Salty Water’, celebrates – in a dignified and melancholy way – the common chemical denominator of human tears, the wide-open sea and the ducking stool. So what is it with all this drowning malarkey, British Sea Power?
"Not sure, " says Noble. "Some of us have our Bronze Personal Survival swimming awards and can pick up a rubber brick from 10 metres. Others in the band aren’t quite so well qualified, so maybe it’s about that tension and mystery."
"No-one wants to drown, do they? Apart from Virginia Woolf and people like that."
Even the most cursory listen to the album ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’ reveals a lyrical complexity that is quite simply, streets ahead of anything else being written today. The likes of ‘The Lonely’ and ‘Blackout’ bear closer resemblance to the classic poets and the Kings of Leon. The songs have a heroic and heavily atmospheric edge and are wide open to interpretation and misinterpretation. Take new song ‘Moley and Me’, for instance.
"What an atmospheric song!" says Noble. "It could be Bonnie and Clyde redone by the animals off Creature Comforts on telly. Or it could be about roaming down the Leven Valley, past all topiart, and then staring out at the estuary with the land at your back and nothing but the water in front of you. In places like this, thought can still exist."
And ‘Good Good Boys’, the Hamilton-crooned neo-folk song on the flip of ‘Remember Me’?
"It’s a latter-day work song about how we don’t have to get in the hens, but we do have to listen to the NS-10S. As everyone knows, NS10S are the monitor speakers you get in lots of recording studios. There’s also a female version of the song called ‘Good Good Girls’ and, at that time, Jamelia said she would sing on it."
Good value, aren’t they? Wait until you see what they’ve got lined up for the next 24 months. Third Battalion, Start saving your bus fares…
"We are planning a tour by sea for 2005 in conjunction with the National Maritime Museum. We aim to go higher in the charts and play in Prague, Macclesfield, and the Hebrides."
The album, ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’. is available on Rough Trade Records.
For the latest go to http://www.britishseapower.co.uk/