On a scale of eccentricity I give us a 6 or 7. I’ve never really understood the concept of eccentricity myself. It’s a coverall for all kinds of things that could be better described.
Stepping out from Brussel Noord station onto the Aerschotstraat can be a shock if you’ve never done it before. You walk through the less salubrious part of Brussels, centred round a red light that makes Amsterdam’s look like a well-scrubbed holiday camp. And believe me the area’s cleaned up considerably in the last decade or so. The day – one where Incendiary were here to hang out and interview our good friends British Sea Power - was one of mild disorientation anyway, (on a Saturday there’s also a booming (as in deafeningly loud) and crowded Turkish market to negotiate your way through which adds considerably to the dizziness), but Brussels is like that; one second you’re being followed by very threatening beggars demanding your spare coin, the next you’re surrounded by the well groomed, water sipping urban elite, “The Clean Boheme”, as my mate Paul calls them…
I suppose this sense of surrealism is a thing we could associate with BSP, and on many levels too: after all this is a band fêted and talked about in the most ridiculously glowing terms by the media, but the simpering publicity never really translates to widespread acclaim from the punters. They must be the most talked about band that no one’s really heard. The most analysed band that no one really gets. They’re the shadow over your shoulder, the pauper whispering into the emperor’s ear. A band more known for misinterpretations and blindly accepted half-truths… World War One costume, stuffed animals, branches… take your pick, add a few, go on I won’t stop you. Very much like Simenon writing in his glass cage, famous for what didn’t happen. A ferocious and talented rock band, a band that can - when on form and in the mood - make other acts sound like total amateurs, but one that still manages to baffle an audience. A band with a reputation for wanton onstage behaviour whose members are more interested in puppy training and ping pong. Iggy with his golf mania is probably the only comparison.
But I’m in danger of boring you with all this theory.
The scene shifts to the beautiful Botanique.
Gear out; the band lope about the sunny gardens, monosyllabic and drowsy after driving straight from the UK. Neil Hamilton Wilkinson and Abi Fry tell me of their winter up in Skye. I can confidently report that it’s bleak, but okay. Martin Noble’s mildly concerned that he has to write a piece with “local colour” for a well-known British paper, (more of that later) but more concerned as to whether the Botanique’s catering tables are suitable for ping pong. He’s brought his bats and net and everything.
Fill yer boots
Once settled backstage we start. Given the band are relatively whacked, I realise the best thing to do is to tag around and ask questions when they’re in the mood. Charming and accommodating as they are, there’s a limit. I promise to keep out of the way. But first some thoughts on their new LP, Machineries of Joy.
IN: I like the LP because of its gentleness, its sense of grace.
Scott: It was definitely a personal aim of mine to tread lighter on this record and to not let the subtler emotions be overrun by bombast...
Martin: This means our idea worked. We all thought we should back away from “Epic Indie Bombast”. It can be a bit of a default setting if you’re not careful. You can make a point in subtler more gracious ways.
Scott: And it’s easy to get focused on problems with the world, yourself, your football team, or your relationships. It’s easy to forget the many beauties of the world which are ever present and resilient in the background always patiently waiting to be rediscovered and ready to reward and nourish.
Martin: I remember when we played The Lonely at Krankenhaus and thought what a mysterious and beautiful song it was and made a mental note. I like the way Woody plays with brushes and hot-rods on a lot of these MOJ songs. We appreciated subtlety a bit more, but there is always space for a bit of wham bam thank you mam…
IN: And for once it sounds like a record without any (artistic or personal) agenda... You seem to have hit your stride.
Martin: I love it when I'm surprised by an amazing thing someone has done. Sometimes when the band gets their hands on a demo it weakens the style and art of the thing. I tried to take care to make sure that isn't lost and confused.
Scott: I think of this record as adding emotional substance between the ideas on other albums. A kind of fleshing out… Room for the subconscious which has learned to be more in sync with the other stuff.
IN: It's all clicking as a band now?
Scott: As a band it was very much more of a natural group effort in terms of the playing and recording. I kept it as simple as possible regarding the recording side doing it quickly so as to keep it more human, and certainly less contrived and as they say fresher. Less perfect and therefore better.
Martin: …I think some of it comes down to actually making decisions rather than putting your head down, blinkers on, and full steam ahead. There needs to be an element of that, but you probably need a bit of discipline in your art, especially when 6 people are involved. So we were all involved, playing together and whipping the songs into shape.
IN: I also thought it was very brave of you to put out demos first…
Scott: There’s no sensible way to make and release records now. This could be good and/or bad.
It was an enforced labour strategy! Committing to an EP a month for 6 months meant less procrastination and more ideas. This combined with the Krankenhaus nights ensured no drifting off into the cloud cuckoo land. I think it’s important at this stage to break habits and force new ways of working.
Martin: Yeah. There are no rules anymore, and our label was happy for us to do it. With that and the Krankenhaus nights it kept us afloat and kept us knee deep in the creative process, creating new EPs every month, listening to loads of new bands, running a club night.
Scott: I hope this is the start of more radical strategies to produce music with more risks.
Martin: And we knew fans would get demo-itis. It happens to everyone. "Ooh I liked the demo better"…. Sometimes it's because you’re used to the version you hear first and don't like the change. Admittedly sometimes the demo is actually better too. At least people have both though.
IN: Or was it (he says like someone about to blow the lid, tabloid style), a "cry for help" in picking the LP's tracks? (I think of getting my coat given the looks I’m getting)
Martin: No! It was interesting to see what people liked. We even did some fan reaction number crunching and Facts are Right was a clear favourite and some other songs which we didn't even play together. You have to trust your instincts though. There was no love for the Loving Animals demo, but we knew it would turn out great.
Scott: We made up our own mind. It was based on what sat together and what the group seemed right playing as a whole. What was best went out the window in an aim to create a piece that made sense together. There were moments of sitting around a white board allotting votes to tracks to try and make sense, but in the end it was fairly non-logical.
IN: Scott, you sound very relaxed, very funny on this record…I'm beginning to think “the lad's got a future in writing a sort of Roald Dahl style surreal tales from the hearth-side compilation, what with Pyrex dishes and all that”. What brought all this on?
Scott: I am quite comfortable in myself right now. I feel like I’m on a new lease of life, and I’m glad some of it shows in the music. Many things have changed in my work and life that I have no need to explain. But to put it simply I do feel like I’m onto something good and have barely tapped its resources. There are fascinating avenues to explore and I am going to do so. Impressing others or needing to be validated has no part to play in this!
The scene shifts to the tent outside, where I watch the band sound check.
Earlier, (whilst Martin was compiling his first “local colour” shots for the well-known British paper that can’t be named), we heard Cold War Kids dust off a few tunes in sound check. Cold War Kids have a song that is, in parts, a complete rip of Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman: other than that Incendiary are struck by the fact that they sound like everything and nothing at all. BSP’s desultory run through is, in contrast, a thing of beauty. Even the bored security guard watches. Lots of muso types saunter in and nod along to the song snatches.
Why can’t a band that makes such beautiful music be more popular?
A man best described as hirsute and very large and obviously deranged walks up to me. With an apologetic mate who seems to be his carer or minder. I am shown an Azerbaijani passport, in an attempt, I suppose to curry favour into watching the band tuning up. “I love the rock music I’m nuts on the rock music. I know you are too. I can see that.” This is mildly disconcerting.
His mate tries to get him to come away. No chance. “Oh my, oh my” he intoned as Wood practised thumping his bass drum or snare or whatever for the millionth time.
“Come on, leave it, let’s go somewhere else.”
“No no, oh my, oh my, I am filming this, it is the best” groaned the gent, rocking on his not inconsiderable haunches, almost in tears, mesmerised by Scott’s song about walking and running around...
“Come on, now, you’ve seen enough. Time to go home.”
The big lad’s gently led away. What is it with BSP and the obsessives, the marginalia?
The scene shifts to downtown Brussels.
“The bar’s shut. I knew we shouldn’t have trusted that lad, he’s cocked up again.” (Flash back to the Botanique Witlof* (*Chicory – as in vegetable) bar where the well-meaning but utterly inept barman –stroke - helper was unable to serve us anything despite promising us everything). Now he’s sent us to a seedy part of town where the best bar in the area is visibly, incontestably, NOT open for any business, anytime soon. Despite Mr Helper promising us it would be open.
We wander the streets looking for a pub in a predominantly alcohol-free neighbourhood. We find something that looks like a gambling den, or a disused hair salon. It’s painted peach and cream, and it’s tough.
IN: I really think people often miss how funny and witty you are as a band.
Martin: Yeah maybe they do. Going back to the song The Lonely, that has some great moments of pathos / bathos. I find Loving Animals amusing too for some reason. The chorus is so honest and pure, which I think gives it some balls. The honesty is disarming. Maybe it's a kind of “kill them with kindness” attitude…
Scott: Funny bands don’t make good music, supposedly. I myself find the Ramones hilarious and brilliant.
IN: I know I sound like I'm contradicting myself a bit given me saying Scott's on a roll with these "surreal tales from the modern home". But I hope I'm not... But... don't you want to ram the eccentric tag down people's throats?
Scott: On a scale of eccentricity I give us a 6 or 7. I’ve never really understood the concept of eccentricity myself. It’s a coverall for all kinds of things that could be better described.
IN: I personally think my old mate W***y is more eccentric than you. You lot are just looking for a good time, albeit expressed in many exciting and varied ways. W***y takes suitcases of cornflakes on holiday. Just in case. That's bordering on obsession.
Martin: Eh?????? (Incendiary just gets looked at, like I’m mad…)
IN: Anyway, I think everyone else is getting increasingly dull. I wonder if that’s because of the way the artist has to be the promoter, manager, salesman etc…
Scott: I used to think the same way. However I’ve become convinced that if any half decent band came along with a complete disregard for all this nonsense and had a modicum of freedom and some music in them the world would be at their feet. They certainly wouldn’t need Facebook or Twitter and all that.
...If I managed a band I would suggest they ignored the internet entirely. Ignored turning up on time and doing one’s own accounts and business. If another who came along now I think they’d be bigger than The Who and richer to boot. Everybody’s scared of something nowadays. It’s all a nonsense.
Martin: Even we've found we are more involved in the day to day running of a band… It's definitely changed a lot for bands. Our driver Paul says if there is one thing he's going to do while he is alive, then he's going to find the internet and turn it off. That might be easier than getting people to sort the sorry mess out. There is a lot less mystery these days too because people use social media so much, and it seems there are an infinite amount of websites wanting a slice. If you’re not on the web interacting, licking and scratching then you’re almost forgotten. We're fairly casual with it. Maybe we need a pro-active social media whizzkid to help us. It's difficult when people would rather buy a KFC mega bucket or 3 pints, and then download your music for free. We should maybe go into food and drink before you can consume that in 0s and 1s. “Buy a BSP mega meal and pint deal and get the new album for FREE!!”
The man who will turn off the internet
Martin Noble’s decided we’re going somewhere else. We find a cosy pub without looking (always the way, isn’t it) and settle down over a glass of Orval and a bowl of nuts. The owner wants us to stay… Martin’s quest for local colour has, up to now, been made manifest by taking pictures of plastic bags in trees and strange road crossing signs. Now it involves snapping a weird, slow playing, and uninteresting pinball machine. It’s so incongruous we spend a fair while checking it out. If these pics don’t set Fleet Street alight, nothing will.
IN: You are more Odin than Loki aren't you? I’m guessing, of course, and if I’m talking piss on the Odin Loki comparison say so, but anyway, tell me, what is “a BSP state of mind”? How do you see the BSP “thing” in this new brave marketplace?
Scott: Who knows… Not I! I prefer to think about the next work to be done. Perhaps we fit just between the butchers and the knick knack stall.
Martin: Oh I dunno. I've no idea what our state of mind is. I'm 1/6th of us and I don't even know my own state of mind most of the time.
IN: I sometimes wonder how you keep going.
Scott: (Laughing) Three of us are Cumbrian you know!
Martin: It's funny, I was doing a clear out the other day and found some old wage slips from 12 years ago when we first moved to Brighton and saw I earn less now than I did then! Definitely not keeping going for the big bucks! But there are so many things to enjoy. I get excited when I hear great demos, tunes and ideas from nowhere. Writing and playing live are mysteries. Some shows are crap and it's hard to know why. Some shows are brilliant and almost transcendental though, and that's hard to know why too!
....Sometimes when you’re writing and you’re not happy with what you've done it can ruin your day, or days. But when something great comes, that moves you in some strange way; it lifts you like nothing else.
…Err, I think I've drank enough Chimay now.
It’s time to go to dinner at the venue.
The scene switches to the restaurant. Now I’m going to ask you all to make a mental note. We all did. Next time you’re in a rock venue café or restaurant, you may notice that there’s a hell of a lot of funk / groove / urban jazz / soul / Latin, etc., played when you’re eating. Why?
The scene switches to something more boring and equally depressing as the soul food music.
Scott, Woody and Neil are mildly bored with the bar and the people with clipboards and the security and the artist’s area in general. It IS boring. We sit around not doing anything much apart from drinking Mort Subite. Living your life backstage is akin to being at school. It’s crushingly boring and run by time tables. No wonder the most successful acts that don’t end up ingesting huge amounts of stimulants are often the most anaemic. They must have incredibly high boredom tolerance, or they loved school. I bet Coldplay and Editors revel in checking schedules and talking to the local sound guy and the like. Not for BSP. We decide to walk out to see what’s what on the garden grounds. There’s a deejay playing. We can hear it.
Whiling away time
The scene switches to something incredibly depressing.
The Botanique is crisscrossed by well raked sandy pathways. When the wind picks up it ferries this sandy, gravelly dust round like a Sirocco, spitting it everywhere. My brown shoes are now white. But my main concern is the plight of the rotund, middle aged deejay crew, who are playing what Scott describes as “good African sex music”. Scott and I sit transfixed at this scene of utter hopelessness where two men play Afrobeat records to an empty park whilst being covered in sandy dust. Their records are covered in this shit. They don’t seem to mind; maybe they’re past the point of no return. It’s a modern take on one of Dante’s seven layers of hell. The lonely deejay layer. Their only break is to talk to two security guards who look like they’re from RADA, and pretending to be security guards. Scott laughs and goes inside to do something marginally more interesting.
Good African Sex Music
The scene switches to something much better, brilliant in fact.
Maybe this is the essence of BSP, good clean simple fun, fun with no hang ups, fun with no context.
Martin’s got the ping pong rigged up. The makeshift iphone disco is knocking out Lord Kitchener. The most ridiculous vodka/whisky cocktails are being mixed. Somehow we’ve been given 3 (English) lavender plants and 3 Poinsettia plants by the well-meaning venue dudes. This was supposed to be the basis of a floral stage decoration in keeping with the Botanique’s illustrious horticultural past, but frankly a tent full of a thousand people or so won’t see six small potted plants. Still, they make a charming addition to the mildly addled nonsense that is now kicking off at “backstage BSP”. Paul Tidy is murdering all comers at ping pong. Scott solemnly shows me a knee bending manoeuvre that is a family tradition when it comes to the game. It certainly helps his back slices. Martin is singing along in his best attempt at a Trinidadian accent to Where’s Me Nightie? Abi and Neil laugh along, Neil supine, Abi sometimes looking to give Paul a beating at ping pong. Woody wonders what to do with the plants. I on the other hand have found a medical cabinet from the 1950s full of antique bandages and mad equipment. I wonder what I can do with this stuff. Normally I’d behave like a normal citizen and dismiss wrapping myself up as a Mummy and attacking the stage as behaviour fit for the most annoying sort of children. It’s also at this point when I realise this band are utter magic.
I’ve got lavender in my hair and I’ve spent the last 10 minutes watching two pigeons swoop down to clean their arses in an ornate pool full of carp. Scott, Neil and I have never seen this before. Scott also thinks it’s the best part of the day so far. Scott then observes that there’s a lot of flirting crows in the miniature maze. He’s right. They pop up intermittently only to disappear squawking amongst the topiary. Scott wanders off to look at the rose garden, Neil remains supine, and I go into the tent, and meet up with some BSP fanatics. The sun’s going down and the low lighting makes the place feel suitably Arcadian. Certainly suitable for Sea Power, who open up with the simmering, pulsating Machineries of Joy, a song where pastoral longing and Krautrock grooviness are forever joined in holy matrimony. Then we get a fabulous version of Apologies to Insect Life, which buzzes and snarls, not with the wanton, china smashing rage of old but with a less brittle, more considered cunning.
Their music has a new strength of late; a sinewy element that wraps itself round older songs, ingratiating itself into these battered, crusty old classics, giving them some sap, some vim, some way of escaping their pasts. I miss Phil Sumner’s playing (and Phil himself for that matter, of course) but the gaps in the sound caused by his absence have benefits too: the most notable change is heard in Remember Me where the textured, tessellate guitar interplay between Scott and Martin is much clearer, much more enjoyable. The song has also swapped it’s braggadocio for a more laid back, more powerful menace. Mongk II benefits from the space too, becoming less like a steamroller, more like a curious, groovy trip. Loving Animals is also less strident live than on record, but it benefits from this sweeter softer treatment. It’s all great, grand groovy. I’m really enjoying myself.
The crowd never get going but are obviously into this softer more considered sound. It’s undemonstrative but incredibly powerful and everyone seems to appreciate the fact that the band don’t need to be in their faces. Everything grooves on. We end up with rousing Carrion and a wilting All In It, and they’re off, visibly knackered, and ready to drive to Calais.
Who’d be in a band?
Later, borne on the headiness of sweet wine and good conversation, I end up in a Turkish wedding, and then in a bar where I can pick hundreds of Hungarian pop songs on the internet jukebox.
Deep into the early hours, I get a text telling me of the delights of this hotel in Calais where, (I am reliably informed), it’s warmer than the gates of hell. I imagine an attempt at ping pong will be made. Roll on Amsterdam on June 25th.
Photos courtesy of Yan and the author