British Sea Power: ‘Exceed the national average’

Reporter Andrew Trendell talks to British Sea Power guitarist Martin Noble and former manager Roy Wilkinson who recently penned Do It For Your Mum – a book about the band.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 24th October 2011, 10:13 am

‘ONE BAND, one dad, one world war – a story of British Sea Power, rock dreams and family farce.’ That is the striking blurb that adorns the jacket of Do It For Your Mum – a book penned by Roy Wilkinson: brother, manager and would-be Pete Waterman, in an extraordinary tale about an out-of-the-ordinary band.

“I was reading about Pete Waterman managing the band that would eventually become The Specials,” says Roy. “He fell out with them because he kept trying to give them dance moves, so whenever I was talking too much or being too hands on with the band I’d say ‘choreography by Pete Waterman!’”

But Pop Idol dance moves aside, Roy had one hell of a task on his hands. When he stepped up to manage British Sea Power, not only was he taking the helm of a band more concerned with on-stage destruction and bird-watching than chart success, but he was also managing a band that contained his two little brothers in an attempt to reach the dizzying heights of their eccentric war veteran father’s expectations.

“Here’s a man in his 80s who became interested in his sons’ band, as a lot of dads would,” remembers Roy. “But the distinctive thing was that he wanted to understand the world that they moved in - suddenly you’d find that he’d dug records by The Smiths, Pulp, The Butthole Surfers, The Birthday Party and he became a huge fan of Nick Cave.”

Roy continues: “The book’s title comes from our dad. I was at home one day, feeling a little bit deflated as a rock manager, we were sat in the kitchen and his rallying call to me was ‘you’ve got to keep going – do it for your mum, do it for the Butthole Surfers’.”

The Wilkinson father began devouring as much obscure rock culture as he could in a bid to understand the world his sons were entering into – a world he was certain they’d soon conquer.

“Their dad always has something to say,” laughs BSP guitarist Martin Noble. “He’s a real character.”

Naturally, the heart of the BSP story seems to be a family affair.

“My own dad had his hopes and dreams too,” admits Martin. “He didn’t quite as into the indie rock scene as the Wilkinson’s dad did, but he’d always give us tips on how we can do better.”

“When someone is really passionate about something it does rub off and you do your best.”

And that’s certainly all BSP have ever tried to do – but only on their own terms.

When Roy left his post as BSP manager at the end of 2005, the band were £132,797.75 in debt to their record label Rough Trade. They’d achieved an international cult fanbase, had top ten albums and found fans in everyone from David Bowie and Jarvis Cocker to the National Maritime Museum, but Roy was always pining for BSP to be a household name – something the band themselves were less occupied with.

“Certainly during my time with the band, they never seemed particularly bothered,” admits Roy. “They weren’t lackadaisical, but to my frustration it was just never bigger in their mindset to be more competitive.”

He continues: “The first time that The Killers toured anywhere in the world was with British Sea Power, supporting them in places like The Bivouac in Lincoln. Within a year The Killers were a massive band. That didn’t bother British Sea Power at all – they seemed oblivious to all ideas of commercial success.”

Martin says: “We never set out to be underdogs – it would be foolish for any band to do so.”

“I think because Roy was a journalist he would pander to that side of trying to get success and would write interesting things that journalists would try and lap up – rather than your standard way of trying to get us to write songs that everybody loves.”

Roy would be the first to call himself a ‘propagandist’ – and BSP are certainly a band it’s easy to get into print. With a pre-occupation with wildlife, Czech culture, military history and a whole lot more, their eccentricity often precedes them – as shown in Do It For Your Mum.

Roy says: “On the first album alone they mentioned things that ranged from Geoff Goddard and Joe Meek to Field Marshall Montgomery and Scandinavian Sea Lanes and moths and birds.”

“They’re a digressive band and this is a digressive book – you just have to hope that the digression is interesting.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of BSP’s reputation is their live show. They’ve a well-documented history of draping venues in greenery and foliage dotted with a few stuffed animals, and having men in bear costumes invade the stage before chaos ensues and the boundary between band and audience blurs.

“When we first moved to Brighton we met this guy who let us run a night called Club Sea Power once a month,” remembers Martin. “I wanted to fill the whole club with branches. In those days it was like a mini-woodland inside a tiny 150 people capacity club.”

“We just wanted to bring the outdoors indoors and it smelled really nice too.”

Sadly, their live antics combined with their obscure habits and references has lead to a great deal of distraction from what British Sea Power do best – brilliant, uplifting music. This distraction has often plagued the band.

Martin continues: “Everything was an extension of all of our personalities. For the Open Season tour we stopped using foliage on stage altogether, and now it’s a case of using it if it’s easy to get hold of. If we were in the middle of Paris we’d have to try and pinch some from someone’s garden – we don’t go to those lengths any more.”

Roy also wanted to shift the focus back to the band’s unique and compelling sound.

“You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” says Roy. “If you do something that has some kind of power to it, then there’s that danger.”

“In my mind, a band should always look good as well as sound good. British Sea Power look striking at least, and when it comes down to it they aren’t a band looking bunch of lads – they’re a far batter looking band than Razorlight, who look awful.”

Roy does not like Razorlight.

“They’re as dull as dishwater and who just don’t have it in them to be interesting. That’s the worst type of band you can be – one who are mediocre musically and have nothing distinctive about how they look. But with BSP, it’s more about ‘the world of British Sea Power’.”

So with talk of a long break from touring on the cards, what does the future hold for the weird and wonderful ‘world of British Sea Power’? Is mass success on the horizon?

“We’ve got some ideas,” says Martin. “Once a month we’re going to release an EP of demos that we’ve done on our own label, then once a month we’ll do a club night in Brighton – kind of like Club Sea Power.”

“By the end of that we should have over 30 songs and should have a clearer vision of what the album should be like.”

He adds: “The fact that we’re still making records and that we exist as a band is a level of success in itself and I’m really proud of all that.”

What does big brother, propaganda minister and would-be Pete Waterman think of the band’s future?

“British Sea Power should be making more of an impact in the world – the tragedy is that their ideas, themes and albums didn’t reach a few more people, but I still think they can.”

“After all, one of the band’s slogans is ‘exceed the national average.’”

- Do It For Your Mum by Roy Wilkinson is out now on Rough Trade.

- British Sea Power play The Leadmill, Sheffield on Wednesday 26th October.