All hail the Lakeland echo sounders – talking Sea Power with Noble

I often wonder when talking to musicians deemed to have ‘made it’ how much of a part fate played in their success. There’s more often than not plenty of toil and heartache en route before that perceived rise to a higher level, but still there are key moments in the band biog suggesting it could have gone another way entirely.

Take for example Martin Noble, or in the parlance of his bandmates in Sea Power – the band formerly known as British Sea Power – simply Noble. What were the chances of this Lancastrian guitarist heading 200 miles south to take up his university place in Reading, then getting to know a Lakeland lad by the name of Scott Wilkinson, aka Yan (vocals/guitar), his brother Neil Hamilton Wilkinson, aka Hamilton (bass/vocals, guitar), and their schoolmate Matthew Wood, aka Wood (drums)?

Noble was at home in Brighton when I called, the band’s base since 2000 after formative days in Berkshire. Is he a believer in fate? I mean, if he hadn’t chosen that uni course, perhaps he would never have met this trio from 70 miles up the road from him in Natland, Kendal.

“It’s one of those funny things. I think even before we got to university, me and Yan were probably thinking that we were going to go and join a band. But we didn’t know who or what.”

Did you take your guitar down to Reading?

“Yeah, I played keyboards in a school band. then I’d just started playing guitar. I had a couple of guitars at uni, thinking, ‘I’m moving away from keyboards now, I’m going to be a guitar man!’”

Were you fairly studious, or did the music quickly take over?

“The music took over too much, straight away! I failed the first year of exams. I was studying zoology and psychology. But I got stuck back into it, because I didn’t want to waste that. I finished my degree while Yan dropped out halfway through. He was doing typography and art.”

Ah well. It was meant to be.

“Yeah.”

Did the fact that you had that Northern identity give you something else in common at the beginning?

“I used to go out with friends to the Lakes. That was my kind of thing. And when we first played together, I spent a summer over there in Kendal. Yeah. And that kind of cemented the whole thing.”

I guess those big landscapes up there go with the kind of epic feel of the music you make together.

“Yeah, it’s weird how that’s sort of happened. It must be something to do with that.”

And was that move from Berkshire to the south coast a fairly natural progression? My mum’s side of the family hailed from Reading, so I have an emotional attachment, but I could imagine that Brighton would have seemed a far more happening place at the time.

“At the time in Reading, loads of venues were closing. There was barely anywhere to play. And Yan and Hamilton’s older brother, Roy, who went on to manage us for a couple of years, lived in Lewes, just outside Brighton, and was like, ‘Some of you can stay with me’. And Woody’s older brother lived in Brighton, so me and Woody went to stay with him, kind of on a whim. It was pretty crackers relocating like that.”

It’s been quite ride so far, the band Mercury-nominated (for 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music?), BAFTA-winning (for the 2019 soundtrack to million-selling, multi-award-winning computer game Disco Elysium, two tracks from which turn up in a new format on the new record), and having composed music for Football’s UEFA Champions League. And those singing their praises down the years have included late greats David Bowie and Lou Reed.

What’s more, their lyrics became part of a permanent installation at London’s National Maritime Museum, alongside Shakespeare and Coleridge, and when the band hosted their inaugural Krankenhaus festival in 2019, in a 12th-century castle in their native Lake District, they managed to attract a diverse bill that included poet laureate Simon Armitage, fellow Mercury nominee Hannah Peel, the upcoming Squid, Scafell Pike, Snapped Ankles, eagle owls, Bo Ningen, and Rozi Plain, snooker legend and prog rock lover Steve Davis, and New Order’s Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert.

Then, last August, the band announced – to much media debate and rather predictable furore in certain flag-hugging corners – they would henceforth be known as Sea Power rather than British Sea Power, due to ‘a rise in a certain kind of nationalism in this world – an isolationist, antagonistic nationalism that we don’t want to run any risk of being confused with’.

However, what was somewhat lost in the glorifying headlines that followed was the band also making clear their deep love the British Isles and pride and thankfulness at having been born and raised across these lands – in Cumbria, Yorkshire, London and Shropshire (the band members now living in Sussex, Cumbria and the Inner Hebrides).

All the same, I suggested to Noble, you might have saved yourself a bit of later soul searching, by going with either Club Sea Power, like your early club nights in Reading, or just Sea Power as a name back at the start.

“Yeah, but I’m glad we did it {now}. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for 10 years or so, and I think with things that have happened in the world, that sort of gave us that extra nudge. We always got to another album going, ‘Are we gonna change our name?’ but bottled it a couple of times.”

Incidentally, do you reckon I should catalogue all your LPs and CDs under S, or keep the earlier ones under B?

“Ha! We don’t look back at the name on all our albums and think it’s bad. It’s kind of part of our history. And especially the first record, that was the band name and the album, all part of one artistic vision. Then it was like, ‘It’d be good to just change our name with every album’, in a way.”

Four of you were there from the start in 2000, then came Phil Sumner (cornet, keyboards, since 2006) and Abi Fry (viola, since 2008, also known for her work with Bat for Lashes). How much do you think your remit’s changed over the years? Was there a clear vision or band manifesto of what you wanted in the first place?

“It wasn’t written down, but when we were doing our club nights, it kind of grew. We knew things that worked together. A song would come up and that would feed into it. It was like a machine that we weren’t fully in control of! We were wide-eyed and wanting to make some sort of impact.”

Well, you certainly have. I was listening back to first LP, The Decline of British Sea Power, this morning (having only heard four tracks off of the new LP when I got the chance to speak to Noble), and just concentrating on the opening songs, you could never be criticised for being one-trick ponies, wherever it was that kind of Weezer-like first single, ‘Fear of Drowning’, the other-worldly choral opening, the Pixies-like ‘Apologies to Insect Life’, the more Captain Beefheart-esque ‘Beetroot Fields’ … Need I go on? It’s all in there. But maybe the more mystic ‘Something Wicked’ was more a sign of where you were heading.

“Yeah.”

And the awesome, guitar-driven ‘Remember Me’ is the one that’s had the most listens by far online, it seems, and for me that’s something else again, like Bruce Springsteen fronting Dinosaur Jr. In short, you were pretty mixed up from the start.

“We had lots of things pulling us in different directions, that sort of post-punk thing. But we were big fans of certain atmospheric things like the basics of Galaxie 500, Twin Peaks, and I love the shoegaze stuff, so it was always going to be a mix of that. And Hamilton’s got quite an ethereal voice which kind of lends itself to that pastoral side.”

It was 2005’s Open Season where I properly came in. At least that was the first of your records I shelled out on, hence its chart success, of course …

“Yeah, thank you for that!”

No worries. And I can’t recall if it was hearing that LP’s opener and fellow UK top-20 single ‘It Ended on an Oily Stage’ or just the fact that a mate had been banging on about you in feverish whispers for a while already. But if there was a clincher that you were my kind of people, it would have been seeing your appearance on 2006’s Betjeman and Me documentary with Griff Rhys Jones.

“Ah, that was a good period, the John Betjeman centenary stuff. It took us a few places. We went to Cornwall and did an event there. We were off our heads a bit and made this giant human fruit machine where your arm was in Bacofoil and you had to pull that. Three of us were in the machine and we had loads of bananas and apples and stuff that we just put up randomly. Martin Clunes was walking through the car park, and we were like, ‘Martin! Come and have a go!’. It was 1p a go and he gave us a pound. He tried to get away after three goes, but we were like, ‘You’ve got another 97 goes!’ Oh, the horror on his face, my God!”

As the years advanced, my appreciation for Betjeman’s poetry and love of architecture (as well as the railways and his Cornish haunts, which were always a draw) increased. I could never admit loving the LPs he made with Jim Parker while growing up, my Dad playing them so much when I was younger. But now I do, and I think hearing you cover ‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract’ was a defining moment in that respect, a track I always secretly loved, not least the electric guitar on there.

“Jim Parker’s music for that’s incredible. I was like, ‘This is like The Velvet Underground with a bit of brass on!’”

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of The Decline of British Sea Power. And later that year it will be a decade since From the Sea to the Land Beyond, another defining moment. That got its BBC Four premiere in late 2012, a few months after I first heard Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘The War Room’ EP, in time belatedly getting into King Creosote too, on hearing From Scotland with Love’s soundtrack. And there are three great examples of the creative marriage of quality archive footage with wondrous scores. Was that From the Sea to the Land Beyond soundtrack something you saw the vision of before writing the music?

“I think it started with us doing the soundtrack to Man of Aran. The Edinburgh Film Festival got in touch with us as they’d heard ‘The Great Skua’ {2008} and felt we could do a soundtrack to a film for the festival. So we went around the houses and landed on Man of Aran. Even after that, we didn’t consider recording it. We just thought it was a one-off. But fans were saying, ‘Oh, you’ve got to record that’. We were just oblivious to the fact.

“Once we’d done that, we got a taste for it. And From the Sea to the Land Beyond was a commission from the Arts Council {England}. They got {director} Penny Woolcock to go through BFI footage and she picked some brilliant stuff. In other hands it could have been a completely different story. She got some wonderful stuff in.”

That certainly piqued my interest, and soon I was checking out – good timing again – Erland Cooper’s work with Simon Tong and Hannah Peel for The Magnetic North, something else that truly inspired. And while the initial project there concerned Erland’s Orkney roots, I suppose again we’re talking big landscapes and themes that maybe crop up in your work too.

“Definitely. And I think now Hamilton and Abi are up on the Isle of Skye, the pace of his songs has … it’s sort of got more expansive and weird. They get a lot of wind and rain up there. and it’s definitely got that in there!”

The way you say that, I get the feeling you’re maybe reeling him back in now and again.

“Yeah!”

‘Two Fingers’ was the first single to be aired from the new LP, a ‘potential anthem for these troubled times’, the words taking in ‘mortality, defiance, HP Lovecraft and V-signs’, its chorus centred on the gesticulation that can signal both contempt and resolution (V for victory), a ‘rock song that seems to send a righteous FU to sundry self-serving figureheads of this era – but which also rides forth with hope and oppositional vigour’.

Yan explained at the time, “The song is part inspired by our late dad. He was always giving a two-fingered salute to people on the telly – a kind of old-fashioned drinking term, toasting people or events: ‘I’ll drink two fingers to that’, to some news item or to memories of a childhood friend. In the song it’s a toast to everyone, remembering those in our lives and those sadly no longer here and to making the world a better place. The song is ‘Fuck me, fuck you, fuck everything.’ But it’s also ‘Love me, love you, love everything’ – exultation in the darkness. If you say ‘fuck you’ in the right way, it really can be cathartic, a new start.”

It was also the band’s first under their shortened name and hinted at the strength of their first new music in five years. And the first songs I heard from Everything Was Forever suggested a broad church, as ever, but I could also hear why, for example, ‘Green Goddess followed second single ‘Folly’ (tackling ‘a sleepwalking world of procrastinators with our eyes on the short-term’) on the LP’s running order. In a sense it turns it into a seven-and-a-half-minute epic, putting those tracks together. What’s more, after our chat I got to hear the majestic way the Revolver-era Beatles meets Can surge of the trememendous ‘Transmitter’ surges straight into ‘Two Fingers’.  Is that the way the LP came together? Could it only have been sequenced the way you’ve done it, in your head?

“We tried a lot. It’s getting the balance right between Hamilton’s real slow-burners and … There are two duets on that I’m really pleased about. One called ‘Doppelgänger’ that the brothers both sing on, then my favourite, ‘We Only Want to Make You Happy’.”

That’s the last track. As for ‘Folly’, the Pet Shop Boys would kill for that, surely. Not as if they’re known for their murderous antics.

“Ha! That’s hilarious. Even my Dad said, first thing, ‘Oh, it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys’. I said, ‘Oh, that’s just my Dad being daft, with his old references!’. Then I heard it on 6 Music and was like, ‘He’s right! It really does.”

Meanwhile, ‘Lakeland Echo’, built upon a sea of 10cc’s ‘I’m Not in Love’-like atmospherics, is more pensive, deeper, dreamy.

“Yeah. I think ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ is another in that mould. Sort of claustrophobic but kind of epic. Like a softer ‘Cleaning out the Rooms’.

It’s also a track that grows on you with every play, and feeds neatly into the finale, ‘We Only Want to Make You Happy’, which even carries traces of Sigur Rós for these ears. Dare I use the word majestic again? In fact, Sea Power seem to be mining similar territory to the longer in the tooth James these days, each new album proving a revelation.

As I say, since our interview, I’ve had the chance to hear the LP right through, and I concur regarding Noble’s other observations too. There’s a subtle mix of those different styles, Yan in latter-day Neil Finn-like ethereal mode on a scene-setting ‘Scaring at the Sky’ and then ‘Fire Escape in the Sea’, as well as the afore-mentioned ‘Fear Eats the Soul’.

On the accompanying press release, Noble suggested: “’Folly’ is in the tradition of singalong Sea Power apocalyptic anthems – everyone ambling down the road to a multitude of catastrophes. Party on! You might find yourself standing up on the South Downs, up on the fells or the dales, looking down at the world, a world where we seem to avoid the decisions and changes to stop the rot. It’s all folly, but in this case set to some pretty life-affirming music – good stuff underpinning the donut vibes and maybe making you think it’s not all over, not quite, not yet.”

Over the years we’ve got to know that big sound and those sweeping, anthemic, often bass-driven epics. Was that what you were out to do from the start, or has your remit changed down the years?

“Erm … I don’t think so.”

It just naturally fell into place, perhaps.

“Yeah, we were in a good position where everyone is when they start off in a band, and every time a song comes around, it gets your full attention. There are no other distractions, and it’s one song at a time. They have a lot of time to sort of grow as well. So yeah … and we were younger and angrier.”

Well, we’ve all got plenty to be angry about at present, certainly politically.

“Yeah, and I would say there’s a lot of that in this new album, but we never like to make the music feel depressing as well. You don’t want to be dragged into that position.”

Has that been the story of the last couple of years for you? That frustration? Or did it work quite well, helping you regroup and have a clearer head regarding where you were headed next?

“Definitely. And we got Graham Sutton involved to produce. He did some tracks on Open Season, then he did Do You Like Rock Music?, Man of Aran, and Valhalla Dancehall. We sort of skipped him for a couple of albums, then found out he’d moved to the South East coast, set up a little mixing studio. And after the Tim’s Twitter listening parties we did, we got in touch. We gave him all the tracks we had, and he kind of had the final decision on what songs were going to be on and what he thought went together. We trusted him, and it’s good because it’s hard now. You can imagine, if Hamilton’s kind of slower paced, he’d want that kind of album, it’s really hard to find a balance.”

Now you finally have that chance to get back out on the road. And you always prided yourself on live performance. I see you start on the south coast and end up back in Manchester at the Albert Hall. Is that as good as a hometown gig for you?

“Yeah, I think the likes of Manchester and Leeds. I’ve spent a lot of time in Leeds, and Lancashire. It feels really good up there. You know, we’re northern lads!”

It must give you a thrill, being such a lover and student of great music, to play venues dripping in history, like The Roundhouse in London too.

“Yeah, we’ve done a lot of shows where we’ve done smaller clubs, like on the October tours. That was supposed to be about trying out new songs, and was supposed to be two years ago but got postponed. So it feels really good to get back to bigger venues too.

“And we’ve been putting our festival, Krankenhaus, together today. It’s going to be August bank holiday weekend this year, with tickets on sale from last month, us getting the line-up together now.”

I best hold back on some of that, until confirmation arrives, but it’s bound to be another cracking line-up, not least one involving a few re-bookings. And of course, I conclude, all this keeps you on your toes.

“Yeah, it keeps it all exciting.”

Everything Was Forever is out today, February 18th, with details here, Sea Power having also announced a run of headline UK tour dates in April (with ticket details here), calling at: Tuesday 12 – 1865, Southampton; Wednesday 13 – O2 Institute 2, Birmingham; Thursday 14 – Roundhouse, London; Tuesday 19 – O2 Academy, Bristol; Thursday 21 – Leadmill, Sheffield; Friday 22 – St Lukes, Glasgow; Saturday 23 – Albert Hall, Manchester. For all the latest from the band, including details of 2022’s Krankenhaus Festival when they land, you can also follow them via their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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