Music

Open Optimism: Interview with British Sea Power

Dave Brecheisen

British Sea Power guitarist Noble takes us through the in(sides) and out(sides) of recording an album.

In 2003 British Sea Power released their debut album, The Decline of British Sea Power to widespread critical praise. After a long tour that included show-stopping performances at South by Southwest and the Fuji Rock festival in Japan, they had the full attention of the music world and everyone was curious just what the future of this band may bring. After a brief, but much needed break from touring, the Brighton-based quintet reconvened and spent much of 2004 working on an album to determine just that.

"We kind of had a break after touring the first one," explains guitarist Noble about the more mellow tone of Open Season, "and then we kind of just got the band together for a month, just writing songs ... just natural playing and stuff. We were just kind of relaxing a bit." Relaxing and jamming around may not be the approach one would expect from a band whose debut made nearly everyone's best of list in 2003. But they mean it. "We didn't feel any pressure," says Noble. "There was no real pressure writing the songs; it was just choosing which ones all worked together. We didn't want to repeat ourselves ... like do another first album."

To be sure, British Sea Power were successful at not remaking their first album. If listening to The Decline of British Sea Power sounds like being stuck in murky English streets in the dead of a dull winter afternoon, than Open Season sounds more like laying in a rolling countryside beneath the stars trying to take in the entirety of a summer night.

When I talked with Noble, British Sea Power were in Chicago finishing their North American tour. Selling out nearly all of their US shows (including two nights at New York's Bowery Ballroom) had not seemed to place too much added pressure on the band. "When you initially start, you [feel more pressure]," he says of touring. "But then you realize that's just stupid and you go out and have as much fun as you can." On the last day of their US tour the band is starting to feel the effects of ten straight shows. Despite this, Noble maintains good spirits. "We always like touring -- it's good fun. Tonight is our tenth show in a row so we're a bit jaded," he jokes when asked whether it is touring or the studio the band enjoys more. "It's different for different members of the band," he says. "I think Yan actually likes writing the most."

"Generally, it's pretty much one songwriter," says Noble when disucssing the songwriting dynamic. "If it's one of Yan's songs, he'll come with a lot of it already there ... same with Hamilton. [But] some of them were written just playing together and it just develops from that. There is no set way. It's a nice surprise. That way if you catch a nice break, one day working on a few songs, you can write free pretty much there. Like 'True Adventures,' the last one recorded, we wrote that during a big storm in the daytime ... we were kind of making a recording, like trying to make this storm sound, and then that song kind of came out of that."

The songs that would ultimately end up making up Open Season were initially played and demo-ed at a barn on the South Downs in England. Once demo-ed, much of the album was recorded at Rockfield Studio in South Wales, a remote residential studio that has recorded everyone from the Stone Roses to Motorhead. Both locations are surrounded by landscapes that are vast and serene -- an environment that couldn't help but influence the tone of the songs. "Please Stand Up" and "Low Hanging Rock" especially benefited greatly from the atmosphere and spacious recording arrangements afforded the band. "We recorded them live and in the summer as well. We had the drums set up outside, and the bass and the keyboards were played outside, and we just ... just felt really good and we just played the songs over and over, and when we reached the peak we stopped."

The recording sessions (both indoor and outdoor) that yielded Open Season traded nearly all of the claustrophobic punk of the debut for a well-honed sound filled with more pop-friendly melodies. Decline does hint at these melodies. Both "Something Wicked" and "Lately" would not have seemed out of place sonically or thematically on Open Season. However, even at their most agreeable, most of the melodies from their debut are buried in seas of guitar noise. By sharp contrast, the melodies on Open Season ring through. The difference? "We got Bill Price to mix it for us and the first one we kind of mixed ourselves with another guy, but we're pretty amateurs at mixing." However, for all of Price's talent, his work on the album wasn't without some cost. When asked what it was like to work with Bill Price, jokes Noble, "It was real good ... actually we might be quite deaf now. He mixed it at pretty much full volume. We could only listen to it for about half an hour." Price -- who has worked with acts such as the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Pretenders -- brought a far more cohesive sound to the album. The guitars are clearer and both Yan's and Hamilton's vocals stand out much more vibrantly than on Decline.

The other major difference lies at that heart of the subject matter of the two albums. Where Decline was brimming with literary references and the bizarre, much of Open Season is tied together by much more personal topics. Themes of loss and things past recur throughout; however, there remains a sense of optimism that manages to pervade the album. When asked if this was a conscious decision, Noble responds: "That's personal to Yan. But, I think that it's pretty true. It kind of had to do with the time of year as well. You know, when winter's kind of dying back and you can start to look forward to the summer ... That just brings an optimistic feel with it."

Open Season may not have the swagger of Decline, but it certainly has more heart, proving that to brand this band as a one-trick pony may be more difficult than their WWI uniforms and on-stage foliage might imply. As for the future? "We enjoy songwriting," says Noble, "and we just write the songs that we want."

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