Over The Edge: An Interview With Sea Power

As the band prepare for the release of new album Everything Was Forever, Sea Power's Jan Scott Wilkinson discusses the influence of his "kooky but endearing" family, dropping 'British' from the band's name, and the pros and cons of chaos

All photos by Hollywood

Jan Scott Wilkinson and his brother Neil, co-frontmen of Sea Power, grew up near Kendal in the Lake District. Most of all, Jan recalls a gentle dullness — the jumble sales and the way that everything would be shut on Sundays — and simple pleasures. “Trying to get a cow to lick our face or something.” He remembers, too, their “slightly kooky but endearing and lovely family.” They grew up on a post-war council estate, raised by older parents Ronald – who had himself grown up as one of nine children in a poor Sunderland household, and enlisted to fight in the Second World War on his eighteenth birthday – and Margaret, who had left Northern Ireland for London alone at the age of fourteen.

Until recently Jan hadn’t thought all that much about his upbringing, but his parents’ deaths — Margaret two and a half years ago, and Ronald at the beginning of 2017 — prompted a new period of reflection. Speaking about the past doesn’t come naturally, he says. “I feel like I’m not operating in my natural first language. Like I’m trying to bridge some sort of gap.” But when coping with loss, “you can’t really escape from thinking about it.” Sea Power began their new album Everything Was Forever not long after their father’s death, and their mother died during its creation; although it wasn’t written in direct response, or as an effort to process their grief, this period of reflection inevitably found its way into the record’s content.

Take the elegiac ‘Lakeland Echo’, named after the now-defunct Cumbria newspaper that all three Wilkinson brothers, as well as their father “for some reason,” used to deliver once a week. The song’s lyrics can read like little snippets from a youth whiled away: “Turn the tape on / that’s a grand track / that’s a good one / think I’ve heard enough.” Its video also makes deeply moving use of old footage of their father.

Ronald was a keen writer, Jan says. “Although he never finished his book. For as long as I remember he’d be typing away, boxes and pages of typewritten manuscript, revisions of the same few pages, honing it and honing it down.” It was an artistic household, “but from within the family, rather than the environment.” Their older brother Roy was an enormous music fan – and later a music journalist – and his love of alternative music rubbed off on his siblings at a young age. When Roy left for university, Jan and Neil made good use of the record collection he left at home – Can, The Stooges, Joy Division, Underground Resistance, Manowar and The Prodigy.

“Our parents had a massive effect on what Sea Power became as a band,” Roy tells tQ. “They were eccentric people, in an understated way.” He describes their father as “a real autodidact. He’d have books like Sartre’s Road To Freedom series, Simone de Beauvoir, a Penguin boxed set of Orwell’s essays — books that weren’t that far out but which would have been the only copies ever seen on our council estates. Because of our mum and dad it was easy for all of us to go to university or art college. They encouraged us, made books seem natural as TV — an environment many people in council homes don’t have.”

Roy would manage the group in their early years, and their mother and father threw themselves behind their sons’ careers. “If some parents would tell their kids to forget music and get a proper job, our parents were a total opposite — they were Sea Power’s biggest fans, utter jihadists in the cause,” Roy continues. “Dad would literally approach people browsing in record shops in Kendal and give them a Sea Power single: ‘You don’t want that, you want this.’” Once, Ronald wrote to U2’s management to try and land a support slot. “I think in Dad’s mind, he was the real manager of Sea Power.” Their parents were regulars at shows, becoming well known among the band’s particularly devoted fanbase. “Sea Power have some extremely keen fans, but no one could ever match mum and dad’s utter commitment,” Roy concludes.

When Jan first heard the songs on the album that were written by his brother Neil – who gives little away even to his bandmates in terms of their meaning – little phrases and images would jump out. “I’d keep picking at things, thinking ‘I’m sure that’s the sort of thing my dad used to say…” He takes Neil’s composition ‘Fear Eats The Soul’, a haunting song in the middle of the record, as an example. Its lyrics are anxious and edgy. “Turn off the lights check the locks / where have all my buddies gone?” “It reminds me of [my dad] a lot,” Jan says. “He used to go around switching all the lights and sockets off at night-time.”

A direct tribute to their father is the record’s lead single ‘Two Fingers’. The title is an expression Ronald was fond of, in the context of drinking ‘two fingers’ of alcohol as a toast. Yet it’s important to note that this song, as well as the entirety of the album, is more than just a straightforward homage. It was in fact written before Ronald’s passing. “It’s a bit like when you watch a series on Netflix and it says, ‘These events aren’t completely true, but they help tell the story,’” as Jan puts it. The shades of his parents that pop up throughout the record’s lyrics are just one aspect of the release. “Every little bit has a weird reference in my mind that I don’t think would ever come across [to a listener]. Strange little bits of information and physics.” A line on ‘Two Fingers’, for example, that fans have taken to be an environmental reference: “You’re all wrapped up in plastic, you’re all wrapped up in leaves,” is something that makes Jan think more of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, “a dead body that leads you to a long and strange mystery…”

‘Two Fingers’ might also be interpreted as a V-sign, a display of either peace or contempt, depending on which way around the fingers are held up. It’s hard not to divorce the title from a well-placed ‘up yours’ to the idiots in charge of the country. "Though that’s not really what it’s about, that is an element," Jan says. "I kind of think idiots are always in charge but we’ve got some really rancid idiots in charge now. I mean, as comical as they are, they’re a fucking bunch of cunts really…"

The song’s sweeping chorus – “Two fingers for the living / Two fingers for the dead / Two fingers for the world that we all live in” – therefore becomes a delightful exercise in alternate perspectives. It speaks all at once to the past, present and future, through a gesture that, although simple, contains an entire spectrum of emotion. It works as a straight up pop song too. “In terms of ambition I think of it as like ‘Telstar’ or something, a massive hit from a strange place. It’s got distinctive lead riffs, guitar action and a chorus, while also trying to be slightly dreamy and ethereal at the same time… It’s quite a lot of things to try and put into four minutes.”

Sea Power have always been a band who deal in nuance and double meaning. Take their 2008 single ‘Waving Flags’, for example, arguably their biggest hit. “It’s about welcoming immigrants into your country,” Jan says, “but could easily be misunderstood as if we’ve been invited to the Olympics or something. Or ‘Well they must really like Britain’.” Nuance, however, is a substance in increasingly short supply. It’s why the band dropped the word ‘British’ from their name last year.

They did not, of course, originally choose the name British Sea Power as an endorsement of colonialist might. As well as deliberately evoking sea power in a literal sense – the elementary strength of the oceans – it was also envisaged as a wry comment on the way Britain’s naval superiority is now a thing of a jingoistic past. “[It was] intended with something of the spirit of 1950s situationism – turning a slogan back on itself, looking to give it new meaning,” the band wrote in a Guardian essay accompanying the name change last year.

Nevertheless, Jan had been having doubts about the word ‘British’ for some time. “It wasn’t a big problem, not like Joy Division, we weren’t fighting with far-right people at gigs,” but it was uncomfortable all the same. He’d notice the awkward pause from a stranger when he told them his band’s name. He found himself imagining seeing a band called Austrian Power on a gig listing. “You would think, ‘ Er… What are they all about then?’” he says. “All we wanted to do was remove ourselves from all that, and not risk being misconstrued as something we’re not.”

The removal of the word ‘British’ did prompt outrage from certain sectors of social media. “Really horrible people who think they’re patriotic or something, loads of idiots all arguing amongst themselves.” The band ended up getting invited on Good Morning Britain and GB News to talk about the ‘scandal’, but they declined on all fronts. “We didn’t want to be a weird novelty talking point in the culture wars.” Some accused them of a publicity stunt – it was certainly the most attention the band had received in some time – but Jan laughs at the suggestion. “Well we’ve sold no extra concert tickets! I think we got like 300 extra Twitter followers.” He whoops sarcastically. Within a week, the Twitter discourse had moved on to another storm in another teacup.

The band have not disowned the seven studio albums or four soundtracks they released under their old name. Nor are they disowning their homeland. Though ‘proud to be British’ is a stretch – “I struggle with the concept of being proud of being born somewhere, I didn’t get a choice,” – Jan says he retains great affection for their native country. “As a geographical region of the world, I think there’s a lot of really good things. I feel lucky more than proud to have been born here. You get a lot of privileges and a lot of access to beautiful things.”

Those ‘beautiful things’ in nature, whether in the UK or beyond, have always been a towering influence on Sea Power. They have written songs about the collapsing Antartic Peninsula ice shelf Larsen B, and close their live sets — usually performed amid thick artificial foliage — with an instrumental barrage named after a seabird, ‘The Great Skua’. For a time, they were famed for the unconventional setting of their live shows — on a ferry across the river Mersey, in front of the diplodocus skeleton at London’s Natural History Museum, or down a Cornish slate mine, for example. At one point, their support act was a talk on local birds of prey.

What’s most interesting about Sea Power, however, is the way those eccentricities have always been entwined with an accessible streak. ‘Oh Larsen B’ might ostensibly be about an ice shelf, but it’s also a swooning, radio-ready rock ballad. They’ve played arenas as personally-requested support of mainstream acts like The Killers, The Strokes and Manic Street Preachers, as often as they’ve played in provincial town halls. When they were starting out, Jan says, they saw no need to separate the two strands. “We didn’t see any problem in including ideas that weren’t normally a part of pop or indie or rock music, like the sublimeness of nature.”

Nor were they afraid to embrace all-out chaos, particularly when performing live, where a gigantic bear mascot would groove its way around the crowd as the band went crazy onstage. “I saw an old video today from when we were supporting The Fall at Brighton Concorde, and it’s like some kind of Charlie Chaplin circus, but with a punk element. Me and Eamon [Hamilton, former Sea Power keyboard player] were doing a human wheelbarrow, holding each other’s feet to make a circle, Martin was climbing around with weird tape all on his head… that must be quite a strange thing to walk into, even for a Fall fan, and yet we’re asking people to take us seriously as intelligent artists!”

It’s why Sea Power are so beloved, but also perhaps why they’ve only ever skirted the mainstream, despite the immediacy of their songwriting. As older brother Roy Wilkinson puts it, “I’m still slightly amazed they aren’t bigger, but I’ve come to understand that this is largely due to the way they’ve always done more than one thing at the same time. Most nights they will play this sombre, moving ‘landscape music’, like a rock Sibelius but then mix that with gonzo rock and kamikaze stage antics like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. They play a show where they jam with Faust and then have a split single with The Wurzels. It confuses rigid minds.”

Later in the band’s career, says Jan, “I cottoned on to the fact that maybe there’s a reason that complex ideas aren’t always put into music, that it’s hard to do without it seeming up its arse, or just confusing. But then Frankie Goes To Hollywood did it really well, so why shouldn’t we have a go?” It wasn’t that the band were never concerned about their image, and how they were sold, “it was more of a case of failing at it! We would all pull in different directions. If I could go back I would want to think about that stuff. We had a lot of naivete and enthusiasm, and a weird but natural outpouring of overactive energy [on stage], just wanting to make it the best thing ever, somehow.”

Being in Sea Power can be chaotic. Sometimes they’ll put decisions to a vote, but with an even number of members it often leads nowhere. They couldn’t agree which of the 20 or so songs they had half-finished to include on their new record, for example, so left the editing process down to producer Graham Sutton, who has worked on some of their finest records including 2008 masterpiece Do You Like Rock Music? “I wouldn’t trust many people with that decision,” Jan says. It is notable, however, that there was one thing on Everything Was Forever, on which all the band could agree. “Just to be a bit more emotional,” Jan says. “Maybe not put a silly thing on top of an otherwise lovely song.” The dancing bear, for now, has been retired. “It had become like an ice hockey mascot. I started to find it a bit annoying, a predictable novelty. It could come back occasionally, or it could end up on a bonfire.”

Sea Power’s new album Everything Was Forever is released on February 18 via Golden Chariot

Roy Wilkinson’s Dark Lustre series of books is out now

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