Back at the break of the millennium things weren’t going too well for the humble indie band. Britpop had bored itself to death and The Strokes had still to get people excited about rock’n’roll again. The NME hadn’t invented The Libertines yet, and Coldplay were the group influencing young musicians. And then a band called British Air Powers, a band full of ideas and energy, moved down from Reading. Brighton was saved. A slight name change and 13 years later they are – mostly – still here and still resolutely on top of their game. Last year alone saw their Krankenhaus club residency at The Haunt, a lauded soundtrack, a gig at CERN and 30 new demos released.
Those demos have been whittled down and polished up into a new album that could easily be argued to be their most enjoyable, certainly their most accessible and concise. ‘Machineries Of Joy’ rattles along full of melody, charm and emotion.
The title track soars, with alt.country slide guitar and soft, positive vocals over a motorik beat. An instrumental version should soundtrack the ‘success and failure’ montage of every British sporting event this year. ‘What You Need The Most’, meanwhile, is like a fairy tale musical produced by Dave Fridmann, before ‘Monsters Of Sunderland’ squeals with its foot firmly on the monitor.
Another song to shake you by the lapels is ‘K-Hole’ which sounds like – despite the title and subject matter – a lost classic of some 90s indie disco you remember vaguely (or it might just be the ketamine confusing things again). It’s all riffs, screams and singalong ‘oooh’s and more fun than one song ought to contain.
Noble titled the demo after the drug and when it came to Yan to write the words he thought he’d stick with that name, and “get into that mindset as much as I can.”
“It’s based on an evening with our sound engineer who did all the Krankenhaus nights – tequila with ginger beer, and ketamine,” admits the hungover Noble with a cracked smile.
The whole album has a lightness that’s certainly a change of pace from the hour long ‘Valhalla Dancehall’. Yan says that he felt like some of their previous songs seemed like the band were “telling people off”. He reckons that things are confusing enough at the moment, that people need a break.
“When we started I felt like the world was kind of getting better, almost like a progression,” he laughs, like a man who has to otherwise he’ll cry. “But it seems like it’s all gone round in a big circle and it’s probably worse than it’s ever been now. So I felt like it would be nice if the record left you feeling better about yourself or about your life. It’s quite challenging for me to do that.”
It’s not the only music they’ve made recently. Following their brilliant soundtrack for Man Of Arran, BSP re-imagined and re-recorded some of their songs for the highly acclaimed documentary From The Sea To The Land Beyond, a stunningly moving and charming film of old seaside footage put together by documentary filmmaker Penny Woolcock. It blew everyone away when it was shown on BBC4 at the end of last year. With no narration, British Sea Power’s music took centre stage.
“I think it’s enjoyable because you get a bit of time to have a daydream and a think,” reckons Yan. “You’re not being constantly subjected to ‘This means this’ like in a normal narrative documentary. It’s a bit more poetic and your mind can wonder. It’s quite relaxing.”
But they don’t only do sea-related soundtracks. They’ve also created music for Andrei Ujica’s Out Of The Present, a film about the international space station Mir, even playing the music at CERN – just before the discovery of the Higgs Boson.
“I think it was that screwdriver you dropped into that hole,” Yan jokes to Noble of the Higgs find. “It’s a different world to the other films. It’s colour and it’s technology. But it’s still about people and their emotions at the end of the day. It seems like they change when they see the world from a distance for so long. They go a bit hippie-fied in the end. Go a bit soft.”
As unusual as it was to see the band materialise at such a high profile science event it was nothing to seeing them appear at No.9 in 6 Music’s listeners’ poll of their favourite songs. ‘Remember Me’ – the band’s raucous second single from 2001 – popped up ahead of Radiohead, Arcade Fire and countless other big name bands.
“For a band our size we were punching above our weight,” says Noble. “There’s someone out there that loves us.”
“It’s obviously a very good song,” deadpans Yan. “I remember writing it. I thought it was good when I did it. I remember being very happy with the introduction.”
It’s not a song that’s trying desperately to be popular, but then British Sea Power have had a decade of success by doing things their own way. Last year rather than trek up and down the country they played six residencies in Brighton, at The Haunt, an idea that harked back to their classic Club Sea Power nights at The Lift (now The Hope). But did it match up to the old days?
“Yeah, definitely,” says Noble.
“I don’t know if I ever enjoyed it originally,” says Yan with a smile. “They were mostly fear-based nights.”
The Club Sea Power nights had Earl Brutus do a radio show, a 1940s fashion show and a 200 year old folk troupe (“they sound better than they actually were,” claims Noble unconvincingly) but the Krankenhaus nights were no slouches either. Savages played their first ever gig at the first one, Bo Ningen and Palma Violets took to the stage, as did a Japanese Queen covers band called Queer.
“We had quite a high standard,” Noble says. “Loads of bands who could do that venue on their own now. Plus raffles, choc ices and communist table tennis.”
“It was halfway between something very arty, like an Andy Warhol Factory event, and Saturday Swapshop,” reckons Yan.
Which pretty much sums British Sea Power up. “Enthusiastic amateurism” is their term for it. Having too many ideas to sit still is how we’d describe it. Brighton has been lucky to have their chaotic energy for so long.
GIG: Old Market, Mon 25th
LP: ‘Machineries Of Joy’, out Mon 1st April
Illustration by Oleg Pulemjotov at olegpulemjotov.com