After seven albums under the excellent moniker British Sea Power, last year the band announced that they would be dropping the ‘British’ prefix from their name, citing a rise in what they described as “isolationist, antagonistic nationalism” and a desire not to be associated with those kind of sentiments, pointing out in a thoughtfully-worded piece in The Guardian that the name was always meant to be a sort of ironic statement. In doing so, they unwittingly found themselves as the latest episode in the online ‘culture wars’, declining several requests to be interviewed on the subject on TV news shows. Instead, the band were busy concentrating on crafting their eighth studio album Everything Was Forever, which makes its arrival in stores this Friday (February 18).
Ahead of its release we spoke to Jan Scott Wilkinson about the reaction to their name change and why it represents a kind of renewal for the band, as well as their recent work on the soundtrack to video game Disco Elysium and how that has informed the approach on their new album…
It would be remiss not to mention that this will be your first album under the abbreviated ‘Sea Power’ name – how did you find the reaction to all of that?
“It was on two different levels, I suppose. There was the weird reaction, which seemed to come mostly from people who are not particularly aware of the band, just a lot of weird Twitter-based, social media culture war stuff, which was a few people sticking up for us, trying to help us out, and then a load of other people going ‘let’s get these guys’.
“I don’t normally get an insight into all that stuff on a personal level, but it’s quite weird, this sort of intense hatred and division, these argumentative and narrow-minded people fighting with each other through a computer. And then it got to that weird level where it’s on GB News with Dan Wootton, doing his weird villain-from-Harry Potter impression. We did get invited on a load of morning news shows and stuff, quite mainstream things, but we just weren’t really interested.”
Amongst fans of the band though there was a little bit of mourning almost, just because it’s a great band name…
“Yeah, there was a bit of that too. People just get used to you, so I can understand that, but at the same time a lot of bands and artist change their names, and sometimes that can be be sort of a renewal. But we hadn’t really put any new music out at that point, so maybe they were thinking we’d just lost it! I’d hate to have done that and then have to come out with an album that you’re not really happy with, but we’re essentially the same band, just slightly refreshed and feeling a bit more up for it than we used to. Those people will be pretty happy in the long run, I think.”
Five years between albums is quite a long time by your usual standards – have you had this album finished for a while?
“Well, we thought we had it ready almost two years ago, but in reality I don’t think we did because we’ve changed a lot and we’ve improved a lot of things since then. I don’t want to be glib about it, but that was the good thing that came out of the pandemic, there was no pressure to get it out there or anyone going ‘Have you done it yet?’ Which was quite a relief, I was quite a nice change and I think we made the most of that. We got Graham Sutton involved quite late in the day, and we hadn’t worked with him for a long time. He really brought a lot to the table and helped shape it, as well as mixing it really well.
“The original deadline was to have it finished the Christmas before last, and we were more or less on that deadline, we could have finished but I don’t think it would have been right. And Graham had been involved for a bit from the summer, we’d reconnected with him through Tim Burgess’ Twitter listening parties, because he was commenting about his memories of past albums he’d made with us, then we got chatting to him and we realised that he was the best person we’d ever worked with, for our band, and he was up for it again. We got lucky that it all came together in that way.”
What is it about Graham that makes him a good fit for you guys as a band?
“He’s an odd combination of being technically really good and sensible, and probably being weirder than anyone in the band. I don’t know, he’s just very good, and I don’t think that we’re always an easy band to work with. Not in terms of us being emotional, or our personalities, just in terms of the things that we ask to be included musically.”
Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do at the beginning?
“We didn’t really, to be honest, but we had a few ideas about things that we didn’t want to do. I don’t know if it’s just to do with being older or the emotional state we’re in, but we didn’t really want to put any ironic or gimmicky elements on there, which sometimes we have gone for in the past. Sometimes we’d have quite a serious song and then bring in this slightly strange, slapstick or unexpected vibe, just to see what happens.
“But we wanted to keep it more open and honest, more emotionally direct and human, I guess. That was the main thing. We had a lot of trouble agreeing what to put on this record, partly because we have a democratic voting system, and there’s six of us, so a lot of times it ends up as three votes on each side, or three lots of two all disagreeing. So in the end we handed it over to Graham and he chose. And the funny thing was that it wasn’t all that different to some of the ideas we had, but somehow it just seemed to make sense, he did a good job there.”
Was there any particular song that kicked things off or set the direction for what you wanted to do with this record?
“I don’t know if there is, really, I mean there are some songs which are more obvious singles, but I don’t think there’s any one song that says ‘this is what the album’s all about’, there are quite diverse moods on there and it’s a bit of an uneven journey through those songs, I’d say. They come from different times, as well. There’s a really old song on there called ‘Fire Escape in the Sea’, which was originally called ‘Whirling in Rags’ and didn’t make it onto Machineries of Joy, but then it was used in this soundtrack we did for a game called Disco Elysium, which sort of brought it back into focus.”
How was that experience, by the way? Is it something very different to making a film soundtrack?
“I don’t really know what soundtracking a game is normally like, but for us it was brilliant. Robert, the writer who first got us involved, he was pestering us for a while and we were thinking ‘It’s a game, surely that’s not going to be very good’, because we were thinking in old-fashioned terms about what game music is like, I think. But he just kept convincing us. It became apparent that he knew more about our band than we did, he’s a really big fan, and this game has a lot of depth to it. I think he wrote well over a million words of dialogue for it, and the look of it is really beautiful, it’s really atmospheric.
“He took a fairly strong role in asking ‘can we do something with this old song’ or ‘can you come up with a new bit for this’. We’d send him demos and stuff, he was quite active and it was always enjoyable. He was always twisting things to make them more atmospheric and strange.”
Was there anything you learned from that process that you’ve been able to apply on the new album?
“I think mainly we learned that we can actually trust other people to make some pretty big decisions, that it might come out better than us voting on it, which maybe meant that we trusted Graham a bit more when he started co-producing this one with us and mixing it. It helped that we’d worked together before as well, especially now when it’s all Zoom meetings and emails.”
Were there any particular musical reference points for what you wanted to do on this album?
“I think there was a sort of left-over feeling from the game that we’d done that we’d been talking about, of enjoying music which isn’t necessarily pushed into a verse and chorus sort of format and allows it to have ambience, to have slow build-ups and do its own thing. But at the same time there’s songs like ‘Two Fingers’ and ‘Green Goddess’ which are still trying to get the best of pop music and also be otherworldly and different at the same time.”
Are there any lyrical themes that have emerged amongst all of that?
“There probably is, there was no kind of plan or concept, but I guess there was obviously that strange mood that everyone was experiencing in different ways through the various lockdowns. A bit of fear, but also that thing of people really thinking about what they’re doing in life. That seemed to be a common thread, because all of a sudden you can’t go out and you’ve got all this time on your hands, experiencing time more slowly than normal.
“But in amidst all of that there were personal things going on as well, my mum passed away during that first lockdown summer, and it was sort of expected but you can’t really hide from that sort of event, of course it’s going to have an influence. She’d had dementia for a while, and then she got Covid. It was strange because you’d see all of these statistics on the news all the time, then suddenly you’re living one of them. It made me quite reflective about times gone by, about growing up and how you end up the way you are. So that has fed into it a bit, but there was no overall concept or anything.”
Have you been able to play much of the new material live yet?
“Yeah, we were quite lucky, last October we managed to get out for about 10 days, in that little window when you were allowed to before Christmas. It was quite funny, none of us got Covid but I think just because of everybody meeting up for the first time in a while, everyone got really ill. But it was still fun, beforehand I was slightly nervous because we hadn’t done it a while, but once we all got together it just clicks back into place, suddenly you’re a unit again and everything’s good.”
What are your touring plans looking like for this year? Anywhere you’re looking forward to?
“We’ve got some in-store shows coming up, although most of them aren’t actually in record stores, and then the main tour is in April, which is what I’m most looking forward to really because it’s the full deal. But the other one I’m really excited about is that we did a festival in 2019, Krankenhaus, which we’re doing again in August this year. We haven’t got all the line-up together yet, we’ve only just announced it, but the first one was so much fun, we had some very good bands on, poetry, games of bingo.”
Are people still dressing up as bears and stuff at your shows?
“The bears have been retired. Yeah. I don’t really have an objection to them but I’d started to think of them as weird, ice hockey team mascots or something, it was too much of a novelty. It was fun, but if you do it every night, I don’t know. It did my head in after a bit to be honest. We’ve done bears as much as they can be done. Time to move on.”
It must be a bit of a challenge putting together a setlist these days? There’s a lot of material to choose from.
“We always have done quite a lot of mixing it up, but we’ve started focussing on a new thing for a while where we play the same thing each night, but we put a lot of work into crafting that beforehand. It’ll change later in the year maybe, but for that period it’s a new challenge for us to create an interesting set which somehow combines the best of what we do, but in different sections, rather than just doing a sort of hopeful mash-up of our songs.”