Few bands relate music to their native land in quite the way of British Sea Power. And though the title of their third album, Do You Like Rock Music?, implies a change to their outlook, we sought the opinions of guitarist Martin Noble to prove this is emphatically not the case.
Noble is often known by surname only, seemingly reflecting a shared wish through the band to shun the world of celebrity identity and be known for their collective achievements, rather than their individual egos. Throughout the interview he comes across as a man contented with the achievement of the new album, and his enjoyment of life appears to reflect a greater satisfaction with people bonding and natural phenomena rather than record sales.
Recording of the new record took place in Canada, the Czech Republic and Fort Tregantle, on the Cornish coast. A diverse trio of venues indeed, and Noble has vivid memories of the sessions. “In terms of the songs and lyrics they were launched before, as with anything we do, but the three locations were completely different. When we recorded The Great Skua it was winter in Montreal and was freezing, a lost space. We were playing it with hats and scarves on, so consequently it’s a lot slower than we expected, with the brains numbed! We recorded Waving Flags and Atom in Fort Tregantle, we took a multitrack down with us.”
The reminiscences gather pace. “On Atom Yan was doing his vocals and we looked out to see a Chinook helicopter landing right in the middle of the fort! That sort of thing happened a couple of times, you would look out from where we were recording and there were suddenly a couple of hundred soldiers there.”
The location had its musical uses too. “What you can hear also is the piano we found in the officers’ quarters,” says Noble. “There were loads of empty dormitories there, and eventually we found our way down to the bar. There was a broken piano there, and we threw it down the stairs in order to get a better sound out of it!”
Noble admits that “the number one priority was not to do the recording in London. You get a Travelodge and it all ends up a bit like Alan Partridge. We were actually supposed to get it all done in Montreal, but the fort was really cheap to rent. We set up a studio in there and it worked really well for us.”
“There was a broken piano there, and we threw it down the stairs in order to get a better sound out of it!” – British Sea Power guitarist Martin Noble recalls unconventional recording techniques for the band’s new album
Since a lot of the band’s lyrics deal with pertinent issues rather than romantic wrangling, is it fair to assume their connection with the countryside is a genuine one? “Yes of course, although it’s easy for me to say that as the other three are born and bred in the Lake District – one from Kendal and the other two from just outside, while I’m from Yorkshire” (Leeds in fact). “I think it’s just country boys looking into the big world – they were born in it, and then they go to London and think ‘What’s this?’ It’s like Canadian bands looking into America, perhaps even Scottish bands looking into England.”
The band have a keen awareness of English history, both past and immediate, manifested most clearly in the song Canvey Island. Noble explains how these songs come about. “I think Yan listens to a lot of Radio 4, takes notes over a period of time and looks back on it for inspiration. He started getting interested in the story of Canvey Island, and the floods of 1953, and was working out what would make a good song. It was also there that he heard about the H5N1 strain of bird flu, and how that killed a wild swan (described in the same song). He loves listening to the shipping forecast as well, he calls it ‘climate porn’!”
The band will shortly unite for a UK tour, and Noble is excited by the prospect. “It will be good to get out playing again, it seems like it’s been a while. The last tour we did we played the Tan Hill Inn, which is the highest pub in Great Britain, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that at least once a year. When we were there they kept it open until 4:30am, and there were sheep, ducks and chickens all around. They had a big barn that we played in. We’re also hoping to be able to play on Canvey Island at some point.”
The locations are carefully chosen, their natural potential often fully exploited when the band are between soundchecks. Noble recalls a summer gig in Thetford Forest when the band supported Jarvis Cocker. “We spoke to one of the guys managing the forest, and he told us there was a real possibility of us seeing some nightjars. We asked if we could come along, and asked Jarvis as well. We all went into the forest at dusk, just as the sun was setting. We heard it first but it was a while before we eventually saw it, as they’re difficult to spot against the leaves! Jarvis really enjoyed it though, it was something special about that night.”
For a band so in touch with their ‘Englishness’ it’s interesting to note that on Do You Like Rock Music? the band address a pertinent issue of the day, that of the increase in population of Eastern Europeans in the country. Noble talks passionately about this. “It happens especially in the song Waving Flags, and we’ve always tried to incorporate that love of Eastern Europe into some of our songs. We did an exchange once with a Czech band called The Ecstasy Of Saint Teresa, and they did our song A Lovely Day Tomorrow. That song had references to Friedrich, and we ended up doing a kind of band swap between us.”
He continues. “The point about Eastern European cultures, though, is that they’re not coming over here and snatching our jobs away. It’s history in general, isn’t it, people going from one country to another. We did a show at the Scala quite recently, and I’ve got a friend who’s Ukrainian, who came along to the gig. She saw two Slovak people out in the street, and they were moaning about Polish people taking all our jobs away!”
A sign of the times perhaps, and as Noble bids farewell he faces the year ahead with optimism and fortitude. With British Sea Power continuing to let their songs do the majority of their talking, it looks as if 2008 will see them reach still further, to a bigger audience.