What do international soccer club FC Slavia Prague, urban “light pollution,” Canvey Island (just off the English coast) natural disasters, large European seabirds and emotional distress have in common?
Well, almost nothing. Each played a role in inspiring British Sea Power's new, rousing third album, Do You Like Rock Music?
BSP singer/guitarist Yan Scott Wilkinson explained as much during a recent phone interview, his ragged voice sounding extremely fatigued.
“It was a pretty full-on day yesterday,” Wilkinson said. “We even had a half-hour football match with the local team and, consequently, I can hardly walk today. I have a lot of respect for those guys now.”
Sport aside, 2008 has already been an exhausting year for the band. Besides playing a number of shows in the U.K. and stopping for an appearance on BBC2 staple Later with Jools Holland, BSP are currently on a short European jaunt before kicking off a U.S. swing at The Casbah.
“That's the first one, innit? Well, I hope I'm not too jetlagged,” Wilkinson quipped. “I'm trying to take in this year one day at a time.... If you think too much in the future, it gets a bit overwhelming.”
Then again, for someone intent on living in the moment, Wilkinson and his mates have clearly spent time studying the past. Ever since the band's 2003 debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, Wilkinson's lyrics have balanced a hyper-literate awareness of European culture with a distinct sense of the absurd.
This might explain why past shows have seen BSP donning old military costumes while also employing stage props like large plastic birds and fake foliage. Or maybe it doesn't. Either way, there's an undeniably playful undercurrent running through the band's songs, no matter how intellectual they are.
Case in point: Former touring keyboardist Eamon Hamilton (now of country-punks Brakes) was brought on not just for his musical skills, but also because he was a kick in the pants to have around.
“The first gig he ever did, he dressed up in this funny, very short shirt and [played] this huge drum and just decided it'd be fun to go around the audience and try to excite them a bit,” Wilkinson recalled. “We thought, That's the kind of spirit we want, you know? He wasn't just a keyboard-playing session musician; he was a good spirit.”
With British Sea Power's latest album, the band still applies some cheekiness, but with more majestic aspirations that adopt a larger international consciousness not necessarily in vogue with today's insular indie-rock faithful. Not coincidentally, the wider scope of Rock Music can be attributed to its relatively unconventional recording process.
The first two albums “were fairly standard recording scenarios—London and cheap hotels—and we just thought that's not really the way rock music should be,” Wilkinson said. “That's pretty much one of the first decisions we made, really, was that we wanted to have an adventure and some good memories in making the record, and that would probably make it a better record as well.”
After initial rehearsals took place in an abandoned water tower in Sussex, recording sessions moved to Montreal, then to various locations in England, and the record was mixed in the Czech Republic.
Shaped by that experience, Rock Music's first single (“Waving Flags”) is a crystalline reflection of how the band's world-weary mindset is spiked with insight on the absurd minutiae of daily life. While the song is about the westward migration of Eastern European immigrants, an observation by guitarist Martin Nobel at an FC Slavia Prague football match prompted one of the song's non-sequiturs—“You are astronomical/fans of alcohol.”
“He was impressed by the size of this banner that said ‘Fans of alcohol' on it in big capital letters,” Wilkinson said.
“He just found this hilarious…. We wanted to bring in a few slight tangents and slightly funny but interesting things, as well as any kind of message that was in the song.”
Reflecting on the themes of Rock Music, Wilkinson said, “We're trying to think that rock music should interact with the world outside of the music world—the real world,” he laughed, “foreign countries or stories about geography or ecology or just funny, stupid stories. But it should kind of reach outside your own small personal sphere a little bit and make some effort to interact.”
And while the singer isn't without ambition, he certainly isn't Bono or Sting, either. But the effortless way he manages to strike an unpretentious middle ground between grandeur and humility has got to be harder than he makes out. As far as larger-world issues are concerned, Wilkinson is game, but he's also very cautious about becoming too preachy.
“We don't feel like we want to tell people how to live,” he says.
But this is rock music, after all, and a little purpose never hurts. British Sea Power plays at 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 25, with Colourmusic at The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd. 619-232-HELL. www.britishseapower.co.uk.