Heaven Up Here: British Sea Power Interviewed

From the Arctic to The City, British Sea Power trace the genesis and gestation of Valhalla Dancehall for Luke Turner and John Doran

TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO, on arriving in Valhalla, the ancient Norwegian dead congregated to discuss Ragnarök, the epic series of events they feared were due to beset humanity. Was Valhalla the Viking equivalent of heaven? Not quite but close enough.

Two thousand years later when they arrive in Traena, a Norwegian municipality of islands just inside the Arctic Circle, British Sea Power are driven by Landrover to the wooden house on stilts they’ll be staying in. Is Traena Heaven? Yes. Yes, I think it might be. Are British Sea Power dead? No. But the Quietus do nearly manage to kill off a few members accidentally in the course of a weekend on the roof of the world with them. (And this is also despite guitarist Martin Noble’s attempts to cash his own chips in by sailing off in search of sea eagles at 4am after drinking for eight hours. Luckily he is so drunk he cannot find his way out of the harbour.)

Of course if most of these skerries, grassy islands and jagged mountain peaks jutting out of the briny constitute a droplet of angelic afterlife fallen to earth there are still some sunburned punters trapped in a boozy purgatory of their own making. They dance to bad festival reggae under an eternal cherry sunset the same colour as their cheeks and necks.

After sticking it out for a while the band, manager Dave Taylor, a photographer and The Quietus head back to their Scandinavian Baba Yaga’s Hut and get stuck into the rider. Noble becomes obsessed with a bottle of pure alcohol which he claims is "fisherman’s poppers" and can be seen surreptitiously inhaling mighty drafts of its toxic fumes for the rest of the weekend. Dapper BSP manager Dave attempts to leap from his hut on stilts to the hut on stilts belonging to his charges but misses and falls down a ravine. In a few hours time he will also ride a bicycle into the sea.

The trouble is: it’s all daytime drinking. Because of the latitude, the sun won’t set here for another six weeks. There is nothing to precipitate a slightly rueful and slurry exit for the bus and a ruined tea. Things just get more and more unhinged.

At 1am the next morning we commandeer motorboats to go exploring.

Within seconds of setting off, the so-called quiet one, singer and bassist Neil Hamilton Wilkinson has been pulled over by the local coast guard and chastised for piloting a sea bound vessel after an enthusiastic single malt tasting session. Quietus co-pilot John Doran, as the only teetotal member of the dissolute band of coves, becomes the designated driver for the weekend, despite lacking any hand to eye co-ordination or even the most basic levels of spatial awareness. Within minutes of taking the wheel he drives at full speed into the side of a 200ft long, moored ferry. He crashes into the same parked ship two more times in the next day and a half.

When the group finally reach the island after crashing into a faux-longship owned by a man called Olaf and reversing into a pier and breaking the engine we head up towards the spy base in the mountains. A large golf ball shaped structure on Traena’s highest point – a relic from the cold war – can only be reached by walking up a perilously steep tunnel in pitch blackness, drilled straight through the mountain. It takes a panicky fifteen minutes to reach the peak, but in this land of the midnight sun, the darkness inside the tunnel feels like a balm.

The next day, after playing in a local stave church, the ranks of BSP are swollen by two more – fans Geordie Mark and James, who get everyone sorted out with life saving life jackets and energy drinks. For their efforts, they too are nearly ushered into the soggy void by the Quietus’ inept boatmanship and an inability to stay sitting down in a moving coracle on the high seas. We decide to take the long way round the islands, a sea lane that no one else is using. After driving our sputtering tin baths into the choppy North Atlantic we are given a very visceral lesson in why no one else is using this particular route. After the coast guard comes out to get us, we sail the right way round the islands in our soaking wet clothes and get off at the other end to watch a concert in a cathedral sized cave.

We last saw British Sea Power battling Norse airline staff at Oslo Airport. They didn’t make the plane. Six months later, they release Valhalla Dancehall, which was written and recorded in a Sussex farmhouse and on the Isle Of Skye. This time, we leave the fisherman’s poppers at home and instead take British Sea Power to a café for tea and sausages as they guide us through their new LP.

John Doran: We’ve not done a joint Quietus interview before. This is our version of good cop bad cop, except he’s the good cop, and I’m the sexy cop. I though that I should ask you about the title of the album first. You’ve mixed Norse mythology with Jamaican Dancehall, but it certainly doesn’t sound like Mayhem meets Shabba Ranks.

Martin Noble: The album title is a bit of a red herring. It doesn’t sound like a cross between Viking and Jamaican music. It’s more of an aspiration really.

Yan Scott Wilkinson: There will be more Shaggy on the next album.

JD: I watched an interview recently with The Skatalites, who pioneered the ska sound in Jamaica, and they said the liquor that fuelled these dancehall parties was a home-brewed rum called Rude To Your Parents, and I was wondering how much of this album was powered by low-grade alcohol.

Abi Fry: This album was powered by high grade alcohol.

YSW: I got into cider from Meadow Farm near the house I was staying in.

MN: They had cider brandies, things like that.

Phil Sumner: But the alcohol was more of a treat than a necessity. After going there, you came away knowing what cider was all about.

YSW: Jungle Juice, that was one of them. 8 per cent.

JD: A lot of bands would hit the bottle immediately when secreted away in the countryside… did you not feel the need?

YSW: I think I’m a bit afraid of boozing on my own. I’m a bit scared of what I do or become. I might become desperate you know?

MN: We only drink a lot when we’re on tour together because otherwise I think we’d become alcoholics.

YSW: What do you do when you get drunk on your own? Most people do it to get over their inhibitions. I don’t need to get over my inhibitions with myself… ‘Ooh, I’ve never touched myself like that before…’

Luke Turner: Are you sure drinking on your own didn’t provoke the nude sunbathing you talked about before, Scott?

YSW: It’s a normal thing to do! I was sunbathing naked [during recording Valhalla Dancehall]. It’s not weird to sunbathe naked, it’s weird not to do it. There was no-one round. I wasn’t risking some kids coming past or some old ladies. It was entirely safe. It was non-sexual. [rest of band laugh] In continental Europe, they all do it.

JD: They also throw goats off the top of church towers, it doesn’t make it right.

PS: I wondered why he was strimming small circular sections of grass near the house… To lie down in. There wasn’t just one, either.

YSW: I made myself a bed, I had the radio to listen to Radio 4, I had a pot of tea, snacks, a load of weed… with all the sunshine coming down, listening to all the animals and things… that’s when you start drifting off and imagining you live in a dancehall.

LT: You were listening to Woman’s Hour nude and stoned, weren’t you?

YSW: Valhalla Dancehall is the kind of party where if you doze off for a second, you’ll come round wearing fishnets and someone will have painted your nails.

MN: But it’s alright, you just keep on drinking.

Who’s In Control?

YSW: What inspired the song? Well, Noble had pretty much finished the music when he played it to me. I just had to do some singing on it… Er, I’m just trying to remember… some of the answers we’ve been giving to this question were not really true… we can’t do that to you! [band laugh] I’m quite an apolitical person really. I’m not really a protester. I’ve never joined anything other than British Sea Power… but even I’m a bit pissed off nowadays, there are so many daft things going on. You see the situation with the banks… I saw a professor of economics on the TV recently who said, ‘We’ve conducted a study and if we were to tax everyone in the country who was rich a one off 25% tax we could solve a lot of problems. The majority of the people who would be taxed would be ok with this.’ It seems like such a good idea and common sense, why isn’t this in the paper every day? But you never hear about it again.

MN: One of our fans brought my attention to the petition against the sale of the forests that is going on at the moment, which is all about short term gain. Chopping down forests for short term financial return is such a closed mind way of thinking about things. But I’m not so much trying to be political or even trying to reach people to make them protest so much as I’m describing something that I think is going to happen. I’m interested in the psychology of people in the modern age. People are so bored they like a bit of psychosis, they like a bit of danger…

YSW: We started the album with this because it’s rousing. Before this it was meant to have a chant, which I stole off a programme about Ibiza, called ‘The Ice Cream Chant’. It went: “Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream, ice cream. Doorbell, doorbell, doorbell, double doorbell. Double doorbell, double door bell, double doorbell. Feed the pigeons." So it was sort of slapstick in a way. But it turns out someone actually wrote that song. I wasn’t sure if Noble was going to let me sing those words over his song anyway…

We Are Sound

JD: When I saw you in Cambridge with the Manics, you were shredding like you were in Judas Priest, Martin. Do you feel British Sea Power don’t get the credit they deserve as a proper rocking band?

MN: We are a rock band, and when you hear the drums at the beginning of ‘Heavy Water’ and ‘Take On All The World’ by Judas Priest… there is a very strong similarity. Well, they’re identical.

YSW: What we do is more day to day though.

MN: But Judas Priest and Queen have both been fixtures on our tour bus stereo.

PS: When you watch old videos of Queen and Judas Priest playing live, it’s immediately clear that it is a show and this is something we want to get across live: this is a show, it is entertainment.

MN: It’s ludicrous, you laugh at and with it. We use visual elements, like when Wood uses two tom toms. Using one is cool but using two simultaneously is a rock thing.

PS: We started off the album with a rouser and go straight into another. We want people to be aroused every time they play it.

Georgie Ray

YSW: The song title is a combination of George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. Does the nature of their writing combined suggest a pessimistic view of the future? I’ve always had a pessimistic view of the future. I’m only surprised it hasn’t happened yet. Even when I was about 11 I was like this. I accidentally saw Mad Max when I was too young. When I was a child I once saw a racial attack on a TV drama and I feared there would be one even though there were only white people in the small village where I lived. At the moment I’m reading Listen To The Echos: The Ray Bradbury Interviews by Sam Weller which is… it’s not crazy but it’s pretty far out. When he was a child he visited a travelling circus where he saw Mr Electrico, a magician and this is basically where he believes all of his power, all of his intelligence, all of his views on life came from. He went to see him for a couple of days and then they left town. Whether or not it’s true… well, I believe him. Writing music, or any of the arts really, is holding on to something from your childhood. That’s why people write music and that’s why people put on plays. You sometimes wonder what people in bands get out of it but it’s just a chance to be a bit daft, a bit free. Even when it’s the most serious of subjects, I’m kind of having a laugh really.

Stunde Null

YSW: Stunde Null means Year Zero. It’s a term to describe Germany just after the war in a positive way really. It was a chance to start again. I heard it on a Krautrock documentary, someone from Neu! I think it was. The phrase just stuck in my head because I guess we wanted a bit of reinvention in some ways ourselves. Having a Krautrock groove to some of our songs is something we’ve always wanted to do but not always done because it’s not that easy.

MN: There are Krautrock influenced sections in the Man Of Aran soundtrack but it’s using that influence without just replicating what they did. It’s not about using whole songs but just elements. In ‘Mongk II’ there’s some of that as well.

Mongk II

NHW: This has got a Krautrock element to it and some drones and a lot of white noise. ‘Mongk II’ came first really. ‘Mongk’ came afterwards. It’s a track built up out of loads of layers. When you’re making drones, there’s so much you can mess about with. There was a lot of distance between Scott and I when we were writing the album and we didn’t even have broadband to send sound files… we had to use the old mind powers. I don’t know how much the atmosphere and the landscape of The Isle Of Skye where Abi and I live affect my songwriting but I will say that being out there feels like being at the end of the world. The line about calling an ambulance isn’t referring to anything in particular. I just wanted to create a feeling. Y’know, like, ‘Call an ambulance! Something bad is about to happen…’


YSW: This song could sum up the album really because it’s very rural and British but also very futuristic and almost sci-fi at the same time. When you’re there [at the British Sea Power studio farm] and you look out of the window you can see for miles across the downs. And it’s so flat down there… it’s quite cosmic innit? And when it snows it looks pretty amazing. And then at night… because I didn’t see anyone for about three weeks it felt a bit like I was in space or I was the last man alive in a zombie film… that and the weed can put you in a bit of a cosmic space. It reminds me of a line I read in a poem once about being “up on the Downs"… How feral did I go living in the house on my own? Well, I did have some interesting conversations with myself.

PS: We did notice a change had occurred when we turned up.

YSW: I did get into this habit. Everyone has a yawn but if you just let it go into a great big roar, it’s the most soothing feeling afterwards. It would be weird if I did it now because there are people around who would be like, ‘What’s wrong with him’, but if you’re on your own you don’t worry about that. It’s just a normal thing. [demonstrates and band laugh] Maybe I’ll just start doing it all the time and it’ll catch on.

MN: When we turned up there was a mad look in his eyes.

YSW: Screaming is supposed to be like John Lennon and [Arthur Janov’s Primal] Scream Therapy isn’t it, where you have a cry at the end but I don’t see why it can’t be a nice thing.

LT: How wild had Scott gone?

Phil: He was like Stig Of The Dump.


NHW: This is another one of mine. It was inspired by a sunny day on Skye really. ‘Baby’ is a sunny day on Skye while ‘Cleaning Out The Rooms’ is a windy day on Skye. Abi learned how to play the saw recently and there’s some cosmic saw on there.

AF: Some people buy a ‘special’ musical saw but I didn’t. I haven’t really learned any songs as such, I just use it to make ‘Awooawoooo!’ noises. Once you hit a note you just bend it to the tone you want it at. We’ve been making a lot more of the abstract noises up in Skye and bringing them down to Sussex. A lot of tape loops and a lot of drones.

Living Is So Easy

YSW: What’s wrong with being sexy? Nothing. No one got hurt… We’ve had a few people saying this is our comment on consumer society but it isn’t. I don’t think that singing about sex in a celebratory manner is necessarily opening yourself up to ridicule in 2011. You only have to tune in to Radio 1 to realise that. It’s more of a genre thing really. I’m not being that explicit either… I’m not saying, ‘I wanna do it all night’ am I? Well, you know, indie music is more of an English thing and English people are generally more uptight about these things. We’re still quite uptight in some ways.

MN: We made field recordings and once you join in [playing along to] that’s really good fun. There was a guy up in Shetland who recorded Storm Petrels up on the rocks, and we used that that noise bubbling away in the background. It just kind of adds to it.

YSW: Last year we got invited up to Kurt Schwitters’ [Dadaist artist] barn up in the Lake District and we were shown round there. People seem to be talking about him now… he’s certainly due some kind of retrospective or rediscovery. I’ve been asked to do some kind of piece for the Tate… I know what I want to do… I wanted something with all these voices and noises coming out in semi-random ways in an art gallery or space or whatever. Big fog horns next to little voices but constructed so it never repeats itself. It would be an ambient sound installation.

MN: This influence you can hear on ‘Mongk II’, lots of drones and noises which you can cut up and do real hard edits with.

Observe The Skies

YSW: Woody will tell you about this song as he’s the biggest astronomer amongst us.

Matthew Wood: Just through the kitchen doors and out into the back garden I had a telescope set up. There wasn’t much light outside so you could see a lot. We saw the International Space Station go overhead. It takes thirty seconds to go from one horizon to the other. We saw a good asteroid shower.

Cleaning Out The Rooms

NHW: This is a lot more mundane than it sounds. When we [Abi and Neil] moved to our place in Skye it was full of junk. All the rooms were just full of bits of metal everywhere. I don’t like cleaning particularly, it’s just that you can’t on with anything until it’s done. I guess the song is really about us moving to Skye. It’s about the idea of gathering up the old stuff and getting rid of it.

Thin Black Sail

PS: It’s quite a shock when this one comes in. It’s quite a fast, discordant one. A ‘Spirit Of St Louis’, heavy, nasty Sea Power one.

YSW: Noble and Phil were talking about this earlier. They said they were going for a submarine kind of sound on it but they never told me.

PS: We were messing round recording Scott and sticking him through a load of effects. And I said it sounded like a submarine. It just had that effect on it. [makes noise like sub’s diving klaxon]

YSW: It sounded like a cross between a siren going off and a little tin can and that says submarine to me. So I made up a story like Dr Strangelove about a mad nuclear submarine operative who decides to blow up all the hippies. For no reason really. He just wants to.

Once More Now

YSW: It’s a slow burner, as suggested by the title.

PS: I think this is my favourite track on the album. I’m not sure what it’s about but every time I hear it, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

MW: I remember when we’d just got it mastered and I was listening to it walking through a shopping centre in Brighton on headphones.

YSW: Did it make you dizzy?

MW: I was in a daze with all these people walking round me and then you get to the end and it’s: “Fuck ’em."

NHW: The song was originally called ‘Fuck ‘Em’. It was about a man at the end of his tether. He’d had enough of the world.

Heavy Water

YSW: Some people say we always stick an extra track on after our album closing epics. The way I see it is you have the epic end of the film and then you get the bloopers as you’re leaving the cinema…

PS: Is ‘Heavy Water’ an out take?

All: Yes!

MN: I dunno, it’s just back to earth, isn’t it?

YSW: I just don’t know really. I always think I’d sooner the album ended on, “Fuck ’em." But then I’m never bothered when this starts. Heavy water’s been mentioned in our lyrics before. We love water… as you may have already noticed. And I like the idea of heavy water or rock water. Also, I’ve always been fascinated by radiation. So it’s two of my favourite things in one. It’s a very natural thing but involved in nuclear power and bombs.

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