It would almost have been Shakespearean if it hadn’t been so deadly: the night British Sea Power had to exit pursued by a bear. “We started off with a grizzly bear,” says Scott Wilkinson – aka Yan – of the person in fancy dress who, for many years, would appear during the band’s famously chaotic encores to add a bestial frisson. “He used to come on the stage a bit and interact with us, usually quite slowly because the inside of the thing was like a metal cage, which was quite scary to wear.
“Someone thought it’d be funny if we gaffer tape two bottles of Newcastle Brown to his claws. He didn’t know he’d smashed them and he just had these big shards of glass and he’s going, ‘Roar!’ No-one got hurt but it was like, ‘Woah!’. He was thinking he was doing some kind of interactive play-acting thing with it. He must’ve been thinking: ‘I’m doing a really good bear here – they’re all quite scared of me’.”
Wild and hairy times indeed. Yet, in a laid-back and conversational Zoom dispatch from his home in Brighton, Yan speaks a little ruefully of such antics. “The bear’s gone now,” he says. “It’s like a novelty thing – kinda goofy and predictable now.”
Like a host of similar gimmicks – playing amid foliage, in caverns or embassies or accompanied by live wrestling – the guest bear feels like the knockabout business of a different band. One whose larks and eccentricities reflected their roots as mushroom-munching teens in Kendal, Cumbria and their imaginative club nights and escapades as they established themselves as key movers on the ‘00s Brighton scene, but threatened to distract from the standing and respect they’d earned as frontliners of the UK’s millennial indie rock explosion with 2003’s ‘The Decline Of British Sea Power’, and as some of the UK’s most artful weavers of mood and melody since.
As a band familiar with working at distance – six-strong, they live between Sussex, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands – finishing their eighth (non-soundtrack) album ‘Everything Was Forever’ at leisure during the pandemic was an opportunity for reflection and reinvention. “I think the record we made, we decided to leave any of the gimmicky icing elements if there were any,” Yan explains. “It didn’t seem to fit. It’s a bit more emotional and thoughtful, probably; a bit friendlier, in a weird way.”
His mindset shifted after he worked on “serious, mood-based” film soundtracks (including 2009’s ‘Man Of Aran’, written to fit a 1930s movie of the same name; 2013’s ‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond’; and 2019’s celebrated video game Disco Elysium, for which they won a BAFTA). Yan had been growing tired of the novelty anyway.
“It seemed quite fun early on,” he says, “but then I’ve started thinking that there aren’t many bands who have a comedy element who I really rate and want to listen to that often. Maybe it’s not an actual marriage, those two things, really. We used to come up with quite good songs and for some reason we’d get a bit bored towards the end and put a gimmick on it. It was a brave move to throw it in now and again – [to] spice things up – but [we thought], ‘Let’s try it without that for a bit.’”
Same band, new era. And to mark the transition, British Sea Power decided to shed the ‘British’. After making their initial announcement, the group made a statement clarifying that it was the rise of “isolationist, antagonistic nationalism” that they wanted to separate themselves from, rather than old Britannia Herself.
Yan had felt uncomfortable with the band’s name for some time. “I was just sort of suspicious of it,” he says. “It felt awkward in my mind or in my mouth when I was talking about myself or my band, especially to people I was meeting for the first time. I’d feel like I was having to explain myself, for some reason. I don’t know if I’m being a bit paranoid. It just felt like a bit of a weird thing hanging over that was colouring the meaning of songs and the world of our band in general.”
They weren’t seeing a nationalist streak turning up at their shows? “No, we hadn’t had any Joy Division issues. We weren’t fighting off any Nazis down the front row. It always was a slightly complicated name, in a way, but it was meant to be something you’d maybe think about, find fun and discuss, and the current climate just isn’t good for things like that. There isn’t open discussion and stuff. It’s just people arguing, not listening and being weird.”
So it proved when the news of their retitling stirred up a hornet’s nest of Brexity bile among Flag Shag Twitter. “The thing that’s made me think, ‘Well, I’m really glad we did it, actually’ was the reaction,” Yan says. “The weird, polarised culture war-style Twitter arguments. You’d become this little tool that they want to use to express their own viewpoints. And it being a pretty bitter and nasty and small-minded kind of argument where no one listens to each other. There’s some pretty dark comments, and you’d look at the people making them and it’s like, ‘God, yeah, I do want to be distanced from people like you – 100 per cent.
“The thing that really swayed me was when Dan Wootton did a spiel about it on GB News. He sounded like something out of Harry Potter or something. I just thought these are people who didn’t really know anything about us or care about us anyway.”
Did GB News ask Sea Power on? “Yeah. I sorta half fancied going on in a clown outfit or something and honking a horn. But we just decided to stay out of it… it’s so easy to look like a prick on those sort of things… A couple of people have said, “[We’re] sort of giving up this word to the people you disagree with,’ but what difference are we gonna make to that discussion? It’s a massive thing, and we’re just this little band; all we’re gonna do is argue with people and be sucked into that circular Twitter argument.”
The Sea Power Twitterstorm lasted a few weeks. “It sounds like a really good thing that everybody’s got a voice,” Yan notes, “but then you can’t listen to everyone, right?”. Does he think it’s quite embarrassing to be British in 2022?
“If anything I feel lucky, possibly, to be British,” he says, “because you’re born into quite a nice place. There’s a lot of good things about this geographical area and a lot of the people, and you’re unlikely to have a famine or something. But I don’t really understand the [pride]. I could be proud of some kind of hard job I accomplished, but I didn’t choose to be born in this place. It wasn’t like I had a personal choice in; it’s just pure luck. I don’t really understand that ‘proud to be a nationality’ thing.”
“It sounds like a good thing that everyone has a voice online, but you can’t listen to everyone”
Boasting an Irish passport and a German wife, Yan is more melancholy than angry about Brexit. “I liked being part of Europe in many, many ways. I can see there were a few downsides or issues that could potentially have to get solved for things to work better – just bureaucratic things – but I just liked being a part of it all: travelling easily and I’m pretty sure, since we became part of Europe, things like food got nicer.
“I like hearing foreign languages in the street and stuff. It’s just nice, a little bit of colour and culture. I felt a bit sad to leave all that… Something like that, you should take about 10 years to do it. You can’t just be like, ‘Oh – we’ve left’. All the problems come out later with Ireland and borders.”
If that sounds alarmingly reasonable, ‘Everything Was Forever’ is rather more ferocious. The album is a sophisticated, expansive piece of future-rock, shifting between dream echoes as glacial as prime Lanterns On The Lake (‘Scaring At The Sky’, ‘Fire Escape In The Sea’, ‘Lakeland Echo’) and driving storms of motorik psych-rock worthy of a semi-gothic Spacemen 3 (‘Transmitter’, ‘Doppelganger’, ‘Green Goddess’). Behind fantastical impressionist imagery of bodysnatchers, doppelgänger, demons and sea monsters lurk moments easily interpreted as biting polemic.
‘Transmitter’ (“I thought we were in this all together”) and ‘Two Fingers’ (“two fingers for the dead / Two fingers for the living”), meanwhile, could certainly be read as a withering appraisal of Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. “I’m not his biggest fan,” Yan admits. “As much as he’s the comical fucking villain like Trump or whatever, I’m pretty sure he’s just a horrible, self-serving feller. It’s pretty shambolic, isn’t it, really. He’s just covering up and doing things from one thing to the next… People have thought ‘Two Fingers’ was a critique of the Government. I can understand why and in a way it is, but I’m not a fan of leaders in general. He’s just a particularly moronic one.”
The title itself, taken from Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, a 2005 book on the end of the Soviet Union, seems to have been repurposed into a comment on the ticking clock of climate change. The pounding electronic Greta-rock song that contains it, ‘Folly’, takes some small solace in the fact that those responsible through inaction will burn too: “The creeps are gonna cook along with the rest of us on this weird rock”.
“A lot of things seem like they’re nearing some kind of natural end,” says Yan. “either society or global warming or technology. There’s a lot of things you could probably apply [the title] to. America, Trump, the end of the world. There’s a long list for you to think about.”
The ‘British’ incarnation of Sea Power, which is now nearing its own end, enjoyed crazy times beyond the Newkie Brown Bear. Like the many gigs played in bizarre locations, from Polish and Czech Embassies to museums, sea forts, Cornwall’s Carnglaze Caverns and the Great Wall Of China: “We managed to cobble together two acoustic guitars and there’s a load of Chinese tourists wondering what was going on; there’s about 15 of them. It wasn’t really like David Hasselhoff playing the Berlin Wall.”
There were the decidedly eccentric festivals they put on: one in 2010, at the Yorkshire Dales’ Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in Britain (the site of their Tan Hill Festival was also the scene of a recent four-day snow-in for Oasis tribute band Noasis), and one in 2019: Krankenhaus at Muncaster Castle in the Lake District.
Yan explains of the latter: “It’s sort of in a cattle shed but also you could go around the castle or the steam train and look at some bird displays and stuff. At the same time you’d have [snooker player and DJ] Steve Davis and Snapped Ankles and Hannah Peel and Squid. I think we’re gonna do it again. We lost loads of money, but it’s meant to be better this time. We’ll see.”
“I’m not a fan of leaders in general. Boris Johnson is just a particularly moronic one”
Then there were the life-threatening parts. Yan recalls the night in Leeds in 2008 when keyboardist Phil Sumner painted himself in black-and-white stripes in honour of Kevin Keegan and climbed a speaker stack to stage-dive onto a patch of non-existent crowd: “There was no one there – he landed on the floor and he was basically knocked out and did his teeth in a bit. It looked pretty scary. After the gig, when I got in the ambulance and had a look at him, I was like, ‘Fucking hell!’. And then I saw a photo of it and he looked like he could be dead on the floor there.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Yan says of the pandemic: “As horrible as it is at times, I quite liked some of the quiet”. As he looks forward to launching Sea Power into the post-pandemic waters, there’s a sense of relief to putting the quirks, capers and political presumptions of British Sea Power behind them. No doubt they’ll forge ahead as the respected art-rockers that were always hiding in the onstage undergrowth.
– ‘Everything Was Forever’ is released on February 18 via Golden Chariot Records