Arts Desk

British Sea Power: An Interview

Two members of British Sea Power are missing from this picture!

British Sea Power isn’t your average touring band. Over the past 10 years, the UK eccentrics have staged concerts in libraries, amid museum displays, floating on the Thames, and on windswept islands. The group likes to decorate the stage with local foliage and taxidermied animals, crowd surf, and stamp through venues banging on marching drums. Sometimes there are sound effects piped in between songs—maybe a dive-bombing kamikaze plane or the keening wail of an unknown bird.

Since the release of 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music?, BSP expanded from a quartet to a six-piece and now includes vocalist/guitarist Yan, guitarist Martin Noble, bassist/vocalist Hamilton, drummer Wood, keyboardist/cornetist Phil Sumner, and violaist Abi Fry. This adds a more orchestral feel to the sextet’s already epic shows.  Noble took a break in between two such gigs on the band’s current American tour to chat about how Akon, ornithology, and a handicapped horse inspired the band’s latest album, Valhalla Dancehall. The band plays tonight at Black Cat.

Washington City Paper: The cover of Valhalla Dancehall is of a three-legged horse rearing up, which is such a defiant image. Why did that seem to sum up this body of music?

Martin Noble: Because it has its flaws, but it’s still magnificent. It reminds you that even the greatest things have imperfections.

WCP: The new single, “Living Is So Easy,” is the poppiest thing you’ve ever done. What inspired it?

MN: I wanted to write a song without any guitars and I had just gotten in to Kraftwerk’s Ralf und Florian, which has this song on it called “Tanzmusik.” The feel of that instrumentation loosely inspired the beginning and then it evolved from there. Other parts of the song sound like ABBA and Akon to me.

WCP: Every one of your albums has included an ornithological sound bite of some kind—“True Adventures” on Open Season ended with the crying of gulls and pigeons added their coos to “Lights Out For Darker Skies” on Do You Like Rock Music?—but I’m hard pressed to find one on Valhalla Dancehall. Where is it hiding?

MN: I’m the only major bird watcher and the rest of the band gets a little irritated that we’re called the bird-watching band. They want me to tone it down a bit, but I still got the birds in there. During the recording of the album, I went up to the Shetland Isles in northern Scotland, where I taped storm-petrels. They live underneath the rocks and make this really weird, ghostly, almost mechanical noise. I managed to sneak in a few recordings of them into “We Are Sound.” You can hear them all bubbling away in the transition between the faster part and the slower part of the song.

WCP: With all your lyrical references to nature, literature, and science, did you ever think you were too intellectual a band to survive?

MN: Everyone expects to be huge after the first record, but success sort of crept up on us. This summer marks the 10th anniversary of our first single, “Fear of Drowning.” It’s quite strange, yet there’s people all over the world who are massively into it. It’s good meeting people at the U.S. shows, because we don’t come over here that much.

WCP: What are British Sea Power fans like?

MN: They’ve been bringing us tacky porn to watch in the van and chocolate to snack on. One guy in Vancouver gave us all these old Kubrick films, so we watched The Killing today. Since we’re playing big cities where there’s no foliage, fans are missing it on stage, so they’re bringing it to the shows. People brought a couple of life-sized plastic birds as well, but we want more. Bring more birds!

WCP: What’s been the oddest show of recent memory?

MN: Recently, we did a gig on the Isle of Eigg, which is off the coast of west Scotland. Only 80 people live there and there’s no police. It’s like there are no laws; it’s quite wild. It was a great; people were climbing the tent poles and going nuts. Then someone gave us magic mushrooms, which was quite nice of them.

British Sea Power perform at 8 p.m. at Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. $15.

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