"I was in the graveyard in Penrith, sitting on a grave and having a fag when this guy comes over..."
Incendiary interview British Sea Power
It’s a gloomy December day but there is a spring in my step. It’s been too long since Incendiary had the pleasure of sitting down with a member of British Sea Power and actually getting an interview. The protracted birth of their new LP, Do You Like Rock Music? and a dearth of continental live shows has seen the status of British Sea Power in Europe develop to that of an almost mythical presence. To be honest, there were doubts as to whether BSP would actually play over here again, as their muse leaves many continental music fans wondering what the bloody hell is going on… Still - at last - the brothers Yan and Hamilton are sat in Amsterdam Noord’s Tollhuis, sipping beer and making a joyful acoustic racket for some cable broadcast. By the time we got our cue, the pair looked slightly wild-eyed, but obviously on good form. Yan bravely consented to lead a slightly nervous reporter to the conservatory and Hamilton, a quiet, genial chap grabbed Yan’s mini Casio keyboard and sat next to me…
IN: Hamilton, it’s been a very long time, lad… three years. What’s happened? Why so long?
Hamilton presses down a note on the Casio and looks at me with a sardonic expression.
H: Well we couldn’t get it right for a while. We’ve also had a bit of an adventure this time… It’s been a very different experience from the first two albums where we did them in London; where we just quickly wrote the songs, and took them to a studio and kind of bashed them out. This one had a lot more places involved, Czech Republic, Canada, a lot of weird places in England; a water tower in Suffolk, a fort in Cornwall… The main thing was to get away on our own, to work out a plan for what we wanted to do. It started off with long Krautrock jams. At one point I thought the album might just end up as one long Krautrock jam, unfortunately it didn’t! (Laughs)
IN: Do you feel that in some ways BSP are pursued by some demons? I presume you needed to get away to feel comfortable, creatively?
H: Yeah there was definitely that feeling on the last record, (Open Season) where… I dunno; we had the songs and people wanted them out… and we had no time to play with them. Even though some of it turned out all right - in my opinion - at the time the experience just felt all wrong. Because of that, association wise, I don’t like the record. Sitting in a travel lodge, the same breakfast every morning, going to work in Acton, (laughs), and we were separated and each person tried to do their thing as best they could. We weren’t really together and Yan was kinda knackered… We just wanted to get on our own again after that, get back as a gang and have some fun. Art should be fun otherwise what’s the reason for it?
IN: You’ve stripped a lot of mannerisms away from your message in the new work; it’s not as emotionally coy as the last two LPs. This time you seem to be trying to stand up to yourselves as opposed to churning out a formula you know would work. Is that fair?
H: Yeah, it is always in the back of your mind, “thirty years old and what have I done?” especially when I think what my heroes have done, and there was a feeling of we’re not going to put up with this bullshit anymore, really just a fuck ‘em attitude. I think this LP stands up for itself a lot more.
IN: What is it that drives the essential BSP creative machine?
H: I get recharged in certain places. I like walking, just disappearing for a couple of weeks, that’s where I get my energy from, the hills give me room, space to breathe. And then you bring things back to the band… People may understand these feelings through the songs so I hope it gets some significance on a wider scale. I write a lot of my songs walking, and a lot of songs have experience from my adventures. The song on the (Krankenhaus?) EP, Straight Down the Line was a coast to coast walk. It started off quite tough and it was hard walking through the Yorkshire moors, pewits, marshland, it was tough. I ended up making it to the Lakes, got to Penrith and things got strange.
I was in the graveyard in Penrith, sitting on a grave and having a fag when this guy comes over, an old Irish tinker guy; an alkie or a street guy, and I got talking to him. I got invited back to his mate’s gin-house and I ended up spending the afternoon drinking White Lightning. It was one of the strangest experiences, but him and his mate (sic) were the most scarily inspirational people I’d met, I felt I was in Blue Velvet.
It started off nice having a few ciders, having a few spliffs, and he was very open, telling me all about his life… I couldn’t really tell how much was fantasy and how much was real… He’d been a heroin addict for fifteen years and he was celebrating because he was back on it after a time off… He’d been in the Foreign Legion and he slept in the woods, digging big holes to keep warm. He’d been raped by four men when he was a baby…
After a few ciders he began ranting these Irish Gaelic rhymes, it was totally amazing, above my head (laughs). He then started talking to a little picture on the mantelpiece which was his niece… At times I was thinking as to whether I would get out alive. I sang a few songs for them... His mate Jim was completely chilled out, he was a former psychopath, you got the feeling he’d kill you just as soon as look at you. They were a bond those two, they found salvation in each other.
After a while I headed out for the hills feeling freaked out thinking God, I need to think about this! I was kind of paranoid, even though there was no harm; they kept saying “you’re safe Ni”. They kept calling me Ni… I reminded them of their mate Baz (laughs). Then I bumped into some Lake District hippies and I had the complete opposite experience; I ended up staying at their farmhouse and they cooked for me and took me to a rave in the countryside. I ended up taking acid… woke up in the morning, stepped over the hill and there’s Lake Bassenthwaite. It was fantastic. Complete opposite end of the spectrum, adventures where they are least expected!
IN: You write songs in a different way than Yan. His are stories with a beginning and an end, whereas you seem to create an image for its own sake. How do you see your songs compared to your brother’s?
H: There’s always been a slight battle between the two of us. It’s less these days because we’re both kind of see the song-writing process as mutually supportive whereas in the past it was always a case of getting my songs on the album. There’s a bit more freedom and that gives you confidence. Before it was always if I got one song it would be enough (laughs). Now it’s more Jekyll and Hyde!
IN: As band members I’d guess you’ve never been happy artistically in being just a band, or even a band. Yan and Noble have their artistic, literary side, as do you… Are you all frustrated artists? Did you want to be in a band to do something else?
H: Erm… I have always seen BSP as only one way of expressing myself. I’ve always drawn and I make secret movies. And there’s a bit of salvation in being in the band. Otherwise I’d sit on my own and degrade! It’s a way to get more energy and interaction. Art can help you!
Click here for part two, in which Hamilton explains the joy of karaoke in Skipton...