British Sea Power singer/guitarist Scott Wilkinson took a bit of shore leave from the band’s three-month North American tour to swap tales with QRO.Wilkinson covered the tour, making their latest record, Do You Like Rock Music? (QRO review), playing Letterman and even odder places, why they sing about such unusual things, the Czech Republic, hero wrestlers, and much more…
QRO: How has this North American tour been going?
Scott Wilkinson: It’s been going quite well, thanks. Enjoyable, you know. Small places, but they’re pretty full.
It’s quite long, you know; we’re just settling into it, really. It’s good to have a chance to properly acclimatize and get used to the place, not feel like such an alien.
QRO: Is this your biggest U.S. tour to-date?
SW: It’s our longest one, yeah – almost three months.
QRO: Why such an extensive schedule?
SW: I guess just ‘cause it’s a big place, innit?…
You really get a chance to see some of the smaller places or some of the places not New York, L.A., or whatever. It’s more fun for us – you get a better picture of what the country’s like.
If someone asks you if you want to go to America for three months, travel around with your mates and play songs, it’s a quick, “Yes!”
QRO: Are you worried about the potential for burnout?
SW: No, not really. I’m sure there’s much harder jobs. You have a gig every four in a row, and you get a couple of days off, driving.
QRO: Have you brought Ursine Ultra and your stage decorations along?
SW: Nah, we couldn’t get a visa…
He’s kind of semi-retired now, really.
QRO: Was that him in the video for “Waving Flags”?
SW: We were all stuck down in the fort, where we were doing some recording on our own, and Martin [Noble, guitar] would get bored while me and my brother [Neil, vocals/guitar/bass] would mix these songs together. He doesn’t like sitting around doing nothing, so he’d dress up in the bear outfit and go and fly a kite in front of some soldiers to amuse himself.
It was just sort of goofy things that happened. It seemed like a pretty funny building, this big fort, nineteenth century Napoleonic fort we ended up in, just the five us. Enormous place…
QRO: Was this when you were making Do You Like Rock Music??
SW: It was after we’d come back from Montreal, where we’d done our basic recording, but we’d been unable to mix the thing. We went there, just on our own, and re-recorded a couple of songs on our own equipment, did a lot of kinda amateur ‘sound stage recording’ to go with the tracks we’d already recorded.
QRO: How did making Rock Music differ from making your last two full-lengths, Open Season and The Decline of British Sea Power?
SW: I think we thought, ‘Perhaps we’re quite lucky to be on a third record, here.’ We wanted to make sure we had a go at doing one where we give it our own way, how we think a bunch of records should be made.
Our main ambition was to have an adventurous time, sort of follow our own rules on how to make a record. So, you know, getting away from home – we started by rehearsing in this old, disused water tower full of pitchers and a leaky roof, and I think that inspired us to keep going with the slightly more unusual locations to record it. Beginning in Montreal to the summer in Prague in that fort I told you about.
QRO: Is there any less pressure, in that it’s neither your debut record, nor your follow-up?
SW: I’d say… I didn’t realize it, but there was quite a lot of pressure, not from the outside, it was more, ‘Are you going to peter out and make worse records as you get older? Or are you gonna sort of find a new lease on life and maybe take a few risks doing it, and see what happen.’ It’s more personal pressure.
We weren’t really worried too much about what people who might buy it would think or people who might review it might think. I think the pressure comes from ourselves, really.
QRO: Did Abi Fry (Bat For Lashes) play viola on the recording?
SW: Yeah – she sang on there a bit, as well. Her and Phil [Sumner, keyboards], who are on tour with us, both play on the record quite a lot. They were both on the last record, as well.
QRO: Is it true that [Phil] hurt himself recently by stage diving and nobody caught him?
SW: Yes. I don’t know if it was a ‘dive’ or a ‘tumble’…
He was playing his d-flat French horn and he got quite excited, just kind of fell off the stage, knocked himself out. We didn’t really realize on our end of the stage, we just carried on playing, and then the next thing I knew, he was off in hospital.
He was all painted in black-and-white stripes, because he was happy about Kevin Keegan being appointed the manager of Newcastle [United Football Club]. That’s what’s to blame, really. It was quite funny, when he was in hospital, he had all this make-up – well, not make-up, but face paint, washed off his face, but still looking pretty stupid in hospital. Sort of getting over his booze and that, with all these nurses looking at him like he was a bit of an idiot.
QRO: How was South by Southwest last week?
SW: It was pretty good, busy as always. Didn’t get to see as many bands as I’d hoped, but that’s normally the way – you always end up just bumping into people and having a laugh.
QRO: Do you do anything differently at ‘industry showcases’ like that or CMJ?
SW: No, no… Our last gig, [we] just ended up inviting anyone who was at the side of the stage onto the stage and climbing on each other and singing on things, making a lot of noise. Descended into kind of a happy chaos…
QRO: Right before SXSW, you played Late Night with David Letterman. What was that like?
SW: Playing Letterman was quite relaxed, really.
It was quite weird: we flew out to South-by-Southwest that day, and we were on the telly on the plane, and we watched it on there. A quite weird but funny thing to do. It’s just, you know, you do your song.
You don’t really think about it too much. You maybe dress up – Martin was trying to get some jokes in there. You know how people walk out of the restroom, and they’ve got like toilet roll going off their foot? He did that one, and left his fly down. He was very disappointed, ‘cause they never showed it on the edits.
QRO: What was written on your back?
SW: It was ‘EASY’, from the song.
This old sort of ‘cult English hero wrestler’, Big Daddy (Shirley Crabtree is his real name), that’s the champ of the song, really. “Easy” – he used to say that all the time, just before he finished his opponents off.
But I covered up the ‘S’, so it just sort of said ‘EAY’…
QRO: Next month, you’re going to be playing the inaugural Norman Music Festival in Norman, Oklahoma (QRO Norman Festival Recap). Do you do anything differently when you play outdoors, vs. indoors?
SW: We just kind of decide on each day, really, what we feel like. See where we’re at, see what mood we’re in, really. No, we don’t really do anything that different.
QRO: Are you playing any other festivals, in America or Europe?
SW: We’re playing a lot in Europe: Poland, Sweden, Latvia, The Roundhouse [in London]… quite a lot of big English ones, Glastonbury and such.
We’re most excited about the Polish ones and Eastern European ones, because we’ve never been there before. Really beautiful festivals over there; they’re the ones I’m most excited about.
QRO: Are you going to be playing anywhere near the River Vistula? ‘Cause isn’t that what “Waving Flags” is about?
SW: Well, that’s a river in Poland. We’re playing in the same country; I’m not sure where the festival is yet. We’ll be in the right part of the world – maybe we can pop over ourselves…
QRO: You guys seem to play some rather odd places & venues (Carnglaze Caverns in Cornwall, a ferry across the River Mersey, etc.). Is that to match the sometimes odd subject matter of your songs?
SW: Yeah, it does match some, which is good, artistically. Most of all, it’s fun and interesting. You get more unusual experiences.
One that springs to mind is that we played the highest altitude pub in England a bit ago (Tan Hill Inn). It was the middle of winter on this freezing hilltop in the moors. It was one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been – they had sheep and chickens in the bar, walking around. Stayed open all night, and then let all the people who’d come to the gig just fall asleep on the floor on the sofas, next to these big, open fires.
Just kind of make up their own rules up there, ‘cause they’re out of the way, and no one’s ever gonna go up there.
QRO: Do you have any plans to play the Larsen B Ice Shelf [in Antarctica] (“Larsen B”)?…
SW: Possibly – not sure, yet.
British Sea Power playing “Fear of Drowning” live @ Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ, on October 15th, 2007:
QRO: Your songs have some unusual subject matter, often historical and/or geographic. Where does that come from?
SW: I think it’s interesting for music to try to relate to the outside world, outside of our personal feelings or the band. I like songs that are rooted somewhere, in a particular place or particular time.
There’s only so many general themes – it’s better to express them when they’re more detailed, really. You could just reach out into the real world and try to interact on non-musical terms, as well as making songs.
QRO: Have you had an ‘obscure song subject matter’ competition with iLIKETRAiNS?
SW: You see, there’s like a ‘history rock’ genre, almost, in England. They didn’t have that when we started.
On this album, we tried to move into the present day, if anything – stories, and newspapers, and things, when we were writing our songs about welcoming Eastern European immigrants into England and things like that.
It’s pretty crazy and interesting thing at the moment, everything that’s going on. So it seemed like a good idea.
QRO: Do you have any material that you’ve written since recording Do You Like Rock Music??
SW: Yeah, a few songs already on there. I try not to think about it, because recording’s probably me favorite thing, and it’s gonna be awhile…
We’ll probably get a few weeks off when we get back from all this. Usually, my holidays just end up being chances to record new music. They’re a bit vague at the moment; they’re more melodies than they are ideas or words.
QRO: Do you play any of them live?
SW: No, nothing like that. They’re mostly in my head in the moment. And I’m sure my brother probably got some songs as well.
QRO: Will you ever put “Rock In A” on record?
SW: It would be a strange one, because it’s meant to be an undefined piece of music, you know? There’s not meant to be one… ‘ideal’ version of the song. It’s really a live thing. There’s loads of them on YouTube; I think that’s probably the better way to have them recorded.
QRO: You guys all are from Brighton…
SW: Well, we all live in Brighton. We’re mostly from north England, but we’ve been living in Brighton.
QRO: How did you all come to Brighton?
SW: I ended up in university in a little town called Reading. It’s a pretty dull place, really, unless you want to work in insurance or throwing bales, not really a place to hang around for a long time.
I moved to Brighton for the seaside, you get a lot of small bands there, there’s new bands every week. There’s a lot of small places to play. It’s what we’re trying to do.
QRO: Have you noticed the strong pound/weak dollar on this tour of the States?
SW: For us, you know, it’s a good thing. It helps get by. It’s weird – the dollar keeps going down, dunnit?
QRO: You don’t worry that your receipts, when you get back to England–
SW: Oh, we won’t be making any money ‘ere. It just makes the debt a bit smaller.
It’s not a ‘money making’ outing, this one.
QRO: Back in January, you played the Czech Embassy in London. What was that like?
SW: It wasn’t quite what I expected. I expected big, historic rooms, or towers – it was more a giant modernist building; a big, concrete place.
They were great; they were all up for it. They were the only embassy that would let us do it, out of all the ones we approached. Now I have even more respect for the Czech attitude…
QRO: Do you feel a special bond with The Czech Republic, because of “While We Kept On Dancing” (about the assassination of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich by Czech agents) and the split 7” you did with (Czech band) Ecstasy of Saint Theresa?
SW: Yeah, I guess that was the first part of a sort of story between us and them. We’ve always liked going there. It’s a really interesting place, good countryside, forests… That’s why we ended up mixing our album there, this time.
QRO: You released The Spirit of St. Louis EP in Japan in 2004. Have you played Japan?
SW: Yeah, we played in Japan. We had a very enthusiastic guy who was helping us with Japan, as part of Toy’s Factory. He was so desperate for things to release that he just made this compilation of b-sides and put it out, which we thought was a great thing to do. You know, rather than thinking that he should of asked us, we thought it was good that he was so enthusiastic.
QRO: You’re planning on making a DVD?
SW: It’s on the shelf a bit, at the minute. It’s more just a large archive collection, really, than anything else, with musical stuff, and jokey stuff. Just a collection of anything, just a video collection, really.
Any excuse to dress up and have a laugh, really…
QRO: What was making the videos for “No Lucifer” like?
SW: For me, it was easy, because Neil did all the work. It’s his song, and he made it. I’d just see him every few days, and he seemed to be collecting more and more of these puppets, keeping them down in his cellar. He’d show me little bits of a film he’d made, of these puppets moving around that were nice.
The only time the rest of us got involved is where we dressed up to try and look like these puppets, look like some evil puppets, and some good puppets. We did some Nazi puppets; we did some ‘hero wrestler’ puppets. He put that whole thing together.
For me, it was just one night of dressing like a puppet and goofing around.
QRO: Who had the idea for the video of “Remember Me”, where you’re all talking statues?
SW: That was one of the two videos which we haven’t made ourselves. A fellow called Dougal Wilson (Goldfrapp’s “A&E”, Bat For Lashes’ “What’s A Girl To Do”) – it was his idea.
QRO: Are there any songs you really like playing live?
SW: My favorite’s “Rock In A”, or whatever other key we decide to play it that night.
I enjoy playing bass a lot at the moment. I like the freestyle bits, really.
QRO: Are there any songs you don’t like playing live, don’t play anymore, or can’t play live, because of the arrangement?
SW: There’s a lot of songs we can’t really manage to play live, lots and lots. Normally, just because we haven’t got the instruments.
We’re trying to work out a way to play “No Need to Cry”. It’s the only song off the album which we can’t do at the moment. Well, we can play it, but it doesn’t sound right; we can’t work out why. I’d say that would be our most favorite to play that we haven’t managed.
QRO: What cities or venues have you really liked playing in?
SW: I enjoy this little town Visalia [California] quite a lot. It was a pretty basic gig in a wine bar, with a little PA on a stick, but the people there were so excited, because I don’t think they’ve hardly ever seen a band before.
It was just funny, watching all these varieties of different forms of dance going on in front of you, from sort of punk to dirty dancing to a bit of maybe, line dancing. Really entertaining…
QRO: Are there any particular special cities and places upcoming on this tour that you’re looking forward to visiting?
SW: Well, we always look forward to getting to New York, and that’s the end of the tour as well. It’s a double bubble, eh? We always have a good time in New York. It’s an exciting place. You meet all kinds of weird people; you never know what’s going to happen. There’s just every kind of person…
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
SW: I don’t really have a favorite anything, actually. I can never do a ‘favorite’.
Sometimes I pretend I can choose a favorite; I seem to have a problem with favorites…
QRO: What about just on this tour, so far? Has anything gone horribly wrong or anything?
SW: Well, we did have one disastrous gig – which doesn’t really make it a ‘favorite story’, but I’ll tell ya anyway…
It was our first gig, and this ‘mysterious pint of alcohol’ fell into… We have U.S. and U.K. equipment. The first thing that happened is, when we went on stage, instantly took out half our equipment, all our U.K. equipment. So we were left on stage, not really able to do any kind of music.
Phil tried to cover us by improvising a ‘techno-mood’ piece. It probably helped, but we were there for ten or more minutes. And then the monitors weren’t working – I had to swap my monitor with this amp that’s about six inches high; it’s like a practice amp. You couldn’t even hear it. Completely technical failure, basically.
British Sea Power playing “Carrion” live @ Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ, on October 15th, 2007: