The horror, the horror. We fall out into Arezzo’s football stadium, yet to cool from the day’s intense heat. Shell-shocked and lost for words. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the British Sea Power interview experience.
It starts with the introductions, which are perhaps the most comprehensible element of the encounter. Yan, the singer, dressed with a haircut that Edward Fox would be proud of, friendly in a somewhat diffident way, sitting legs crossed, wears what appears to be an ironed and clean shirt, and, in the best tradition of Brits abroad, sports a pair of thick wooly socks to protect his Northern feet from the Italian heat. Next, brother Hamilton, the bassist and sometime singer of the band, a fraction more engaging, and cute (according to TMO’s photographer), who posseses a dreamy look that may just be due to the long bus journey from Brighton to Tuscany, or not. And finally, Noble, the band’s guitarist, dressed in the proud kit of Arezzo F.C (currently languishing in Serie B), and positively brimming with enthusiasm – leading one to suspect that he’s been introduced to the interview process as a concession to journalists.
In fact, all three, after the introductions are made and the interview is under way, are friendly. They are, though, by no stretch of the imagination communicative. But part of that, it seems, is simply that being a ‘rock band’, with all the attendant duties and clichés, doesn’t much interest the band. From the name, through to the songs, they are England’s least conventional rock band.
The group, described once as ‘militant pastoralists’, was formed in Brighton by brothers Hamilton and Yan (who, as with the other members of the band, avoid mention of surnames), and childhood friend Woody (drummer), all Cumbrians by birth and possibly inclination, and Noble from Leeds. During 2001, the band developed their own typically eccentric club nights in Brighton, which rapidly gained a notoriety (on-stage shrubbery accompanied by D.I.Y cleavage tattoos were a regular occurence) and attendant record company interest. In 2003, they released the highly acclaimed album The decline of British Sea Power, and won critical acclaim and a gaggle of celebrity fans ranging from David Bowie through to Jarvis Cocker. “Even Elton John likes us,” cracks Noble. “but he likes everyone now, doesn’t he?”
Their lyrics are suffused with nature, to the point of writing a song for the cracked Atlantic shelf Larsen B. A sample lyric:
“Valleys drop, mountains rise
Lift your head, brave the skies
All of the forgotten names
Lakes are forming on the pockets of your brain [True Adventures]
Are they, then, the ‘militant pastoralists’ of repute? “I can tell a sheep from a cow,” responds Hamilton firmly, while the other two nod sagely.
There must be a strange equation, no doubt calculated by the late Frank Zappa, that takes an inverse relationship between the quality of a band’s lyrics against the willingness of the author to talk about them, producing a number on a scale between one and ten, with ten being the least likely to discuss. British Sea Power would score ten out of ten, in this interview at least, were it not for Noble’s eponymous interventions. He gamely talks about the roots of Be Gone, the song with a chorus of “Oh Floreal, oh Guillotine”. “Floreal was the name for one of the months of the revolutionary calendar brought in after the French Revolution,” he explains. “I like the old folk songs. Silly old songs like blues songs. Those are the best songs,” responds Hamilton smiling. “It’s nice to get people thinking about stuff that you’ve read or stuff, references and the like, but it can get a bit…” he pauses. While we wait for a conclusion, that never arrives, Yan pipes up, “I’m going to go Japanese in my lyrics. Keep it simple”.