Mike Atkinson

Interview: Yan from British Sea Power

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on January 19, 2008

It has been the thick end of three years between your last album (Open Season) and the new one (Do You Like Rock Music?) Why such a long gap? 

It wasn’t going to be quite so long, but it turned into a bit of an epic recording adventure. The new album took about two years to make. After touring with the last album, we ended up going from Canada to Cornwall to the Czech Republic, trying to finish this one off.

You recorded in three different locations, all starting with the letter C. The letter C is the third letter of the alphabet, and this is your third album. Was this a significant factor?

You’re the first person to bring that up, actually. It must be pretty meaningful! (Laughter) We started in Montreal, basically because we were a bit suspicious of clean studios. We worked with Howard Bilerman [drummer with the Arcade Fire], and Efrim Menuck [from Godspeed You! Black Emperor], and they ran the studio more like a musician would. It was a way of getting away from the technical sort of people, to have a bit of an adventure, and to live in a foreign city for several months.

As regards the album’s title, I’m intrigued as to why you feel the need to ask the question. It feels like you’re saying: put up or shut up, either you’re with us or you’re against us…

Yeah, it’s a bit like that. I also thought it was quite funny; it’s a different kind of title than we’d normally go for. Maybe it’s asking what rock music is, and what it should be nowadays, and whether it’s capable of expanding and taking on a few new subjects.

You’ve also hinted that the theme of the album is a kind of Good versus Evil, where you’ve equated rock music with Good, and non-rock music with Evil. It’s not as clear-cut as that, surely?

Well, we’ve kind of redefined “rock music” there, and we don’t mean a lot of the things other people might take as “rock music”. To a lot of people, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are rock music, but to us they fall completely outside that category.

I’ve noticed a little game developing, in which you’ve been deciding what “rock music” is, and what it’s not. Looking through your list, I see you’ve got Iggy Pop and Little Richard down as “rock music”, and U2 and the Chili Peppers as “not rock music”. OK, I can see what you’re getting at there. But then you’ve also listed dominos, Bill Clinton and soap as “rock music”, whereas malnutrition, George Bush and shower gel are “not rock music”. So there are some interesting criteria at work!

(Laughs long and hard) It’s confusing isn’t it? But yeah, it is up for some debate, and that’s part of the fun of it.

Another emerging theme is economic migration, particularly from Eastern Europe. Apparently the album contains, and I quote, “uplifting odes to Slavic beauties and Polish taxi drivers”, and your current single Waving Flags is apparently a tribute to Polish plumbers. I guess this must have been partly influenced by your stay in the Czech Republic, when you were applying the finishing touches to the album, but how do you view the current situation? Are you suggesting that it’s a positive development?

Yeah, I’m suggesting it’s a positive development. I’m interested in migration in general. Birds do it with no trouble at all, but people seem to have a lot of trouble migrating. They put up all kinds of barriers and rules and stuff, and I’d prefer to do it a bit more like the birds, really. It seems to not be quite so bad at the minute, but certain people seem to be verging on a kind of “keep these people out” attitude. It just seems pretty ignorant, so we thought we’d redress the balance a little bit.

You have also been quoted as saying “The East is maybe the future of all of us lot in the West”. What did you mean by that?

I think it’s possibly that we’ve had quite a long run of new ideas, and of changing things dramatically. Maybe it’s time to swap over, and take ideas from the other end of the spectrum. Eastern Europe is a place that’s changing a lot, and modernising. Maybe they’ll do it in a slightly better way. And then there’s China, which is obviously economically the future of the world.

OK, so you’re not exactly shy of covering big, ambitious themes. You’ve got a track called Atom which even touches on quantum theory – but it also sounds as if it’s describing the dangers of trying to analyse everything to bits. Is that a danger with your music?

They’re the kind of songs which have several levels to them, and if you have that kind of mindset then they probably do attract you. I wouldn’t like to analyse them, because I’d just be analysing myself, and that would lead to all kinds of bother. And I think I did enough of that! (Laughs)

In terms of musical style, are you aware of any significant changes in the sound of this album? Tracks like Atom certainly sound thicker, fuller – more aggressive, if you like.

Yeah, that was generally how we wanted to approach the whole thing, even if it was a slower song: to keep it kind of rusty. Not to have everything too hygienic and clean and perfect.

Your tour is just about to start. Last year, you played some notably less conventional venues, including a ferry across the Mersey, and Britain’s highest pub. Is returning to the regular gig circuit going to feel like a bit of a comedown?

There are pros and cons. The ferry was a fun evening, but musically it was almost impossible. It had a seven foot high ceiling, and we couldn’t even fit the speakers in properly. Whereas the highest pub in England was a success on both fronts: it was fun, and it was good musically. There is always that risk, so there’s something to be said for being able to play our songs properly.

What happened with the pub? Were your supporters shipped in, or were you playing to bemused regulars, nursing their pints?

There were about thirty regulars, and a hundred others – but to be honest, the regulars were much crazier and stranger than even our most obsessive fans.

Isolated villages can be very “rock music”, in my experience.

Yeah, and they keep the bar open all night. At about three in the morning, they had us doing a charity singalong for the mountain rescue!

During the course of the interview, I challenged Yan to a game of “rock music”/“not rock music”, using a pre-prepared list. Here are the results:

Rock music: Morrissey, Pete Doherty (“against my better judgement”), Girls Aloud, socialism (“but it depends on who’s spouting it”), Dolly Parton, 50 Cent (“but I’m not sure why”), Robin Hood, Torvill and Dean (“but I hoped you were going to say Eddie The Eagle, because he definitely is”).

Not rock music: Morrissey fan David Cameron, Coldplay, V-necked sweaters (on boys), polo-necked sweaters, Buxton Spring Water, Bacardi Breezers, free market economics (“it’s just money, that’s no good”), the “Rock & Pop” sections of regional newspapers (“but there are probably exceptions”).

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