Many bands seek to break the mould. British Sea Power refuse to even settle in with their own name. ”On the last album I wanted to become Galactic Sea Power or Universal Sea Power to stop being so British. I got fed up because everyone would always go on about how quirky and English we are,” says frontman Jan Scott Wilkinson as we sit down for a pint and a chat at a Greenwich pub ahead of the band’s performance on board seventeenth-century clipper ship the Cutty Sark. ”I wanted to go in the opposite direction. Go off on a space journey and dress up in silver, but it was probably impossible and a bad idea.”
Then why compose the soundtrack to From the Sea to the Land Beyond, a documentary about the British seaside? Penny Woolcock’s film, comprising mesmeric footage from the BFI National Film archive, chronicles life by the British coast through modern history, and the gradual transformation and decline of what were once majestic holiday destinations. We meet the stocky shape of a bearded captain at the helm, soldiers attacked by gunfire on a faraway beach during the war and excited 1980s Brits boarding cheap flights to escape the rain and wind of Brighton seafront. British Sea Power’s intensifying tones carry these scenes, the music entwining with the incessant murmur of grey waves against rocky shores.
The band was asked to create the soundtrack to a film that was yet to be made and Scott remained sceptical, worrying that the project might confirm the quaint stereotypes manufactured by the press. ”I thought it might be one of those things when you’re looking at history and the recent past and it being all nostalgic and rose-tinted.”
Instead, From the Sea to the Land Beyond tells a story devoid of explicit plot lines or defined objective, permitting the mind to wander freely among loading ships and smiling sailors. ”The first time I watched it— after spending the first ten minutes worrying whether the music would be rubbish—I started relaxing. By the end of it I was as relaxed as if I had had a real break. In most TV programmes and films, there’s a voice or subtitles telling you what to think or mediating a story. This film is just pictures, music, a few lyrics, and it’s like having a little dream.”
The haunting music seems connected to the historical images, to the sea itself and its people, echoing the lives of men and women that have worked, lived and played along the water’s edge. ”We wanted to keep them as real people,” Scott says. ”Since it’s in black and white and they look a bit funny and they’ve got different clothes on, it’s easy to think about them in a certain way. Some of it is very rough; you see people running up a beach and getting shot down. It’s not an action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. They are just normal people, really scared and getting shot. We wanted to reflect that, but at the same time not react to events too strongly, so that viewers can settle in and make their own minds up about it.”
But then British Sea Power have always been comfortable with ambiguity, espousing semi-professionalism as a catch-phrase: ”Professional like you mean it; semi-professional as in we don’t want to be too boring.” They are unafraid to mix in the odd stupid idea. ”We haven’t done that well in Europe and I think it’s because we’re too confusing. They like serious artists who know what they’re doing!” Once, while on tour in Germany the band’s manager went out for a stroll and happened to meet some people in chain mail with swords, who he promptly placed on stage during the entire British Sea Power set. Scott describes it as like something from The Lord of the Rings.
”Being massive isn’t really us and instead the band’s become more of a long distance endurance,” he chuckles. What did he envision British Sea Power to be when they first started out? ”I thought we would sell millions of records and enliven the world of music and art,” he laughs. ”I had crazy ideas.”
Scott, hunched over an almost empty pint glass as darkness descends outside, is adamant to try out what he calls stupid ideas and never submit to a generic rock band formula, aspiring to realise some of those drunken and irrational plans discussed over empty cans and cigarette butts on early Saturday mornings. Writing a soundtrack to a film about British seaside was a move so in keeping with the band’s image that it could have made the clichés come true. Instead British Sea Power have created a mature album that strays from their previous work.
This interview was originally published in issue 19 of Oh Comely.