Tidal change

The frontman of the band now just known as Sea Power talks about dropping the “British”, why his dad was the group’s best salesperson – and how they make decisions from across the UK

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When British Sea Power announced in August that they were dropping the word “British” from their name to avoid being mistakenly associated with “antagonistic nationalism” and would henceforth be known as Sea Power, the band’s six members anticipated it would provoke a reaction among their fanbase. What they weren’t expecting was that the news – revealed with little fanfare on the group’s website – would be picked up by media outlets around the world, briefly become a top trending topic on Twitter, and see them field (and turn down) television interview requests from the likes of GB News, Russia Today, Channel 5 and Good Morning Britain.

“The experience was a bit more intense and odder than I expected,” reflects Jan Scott Wilkinson, known as Yan, the band’s joint frontman and songwriter with his younger brother Neil. “It’s not something that we’re used to. You might get certain reporters or famous people who express certain opinions who get dragged into this kind of thing all the time, but it’s not really something that we’re part of. We have a fairly minimal online approach to things, so it was a bit weird, but it was interesting to be a token element of a culture war for about a week or so.”

The name change was something that Wilkinson had been advocating for a long time, he says, but had always previously been strongly knocked back by his bandmates.

“I guess maybe times had changed and there was enough of a swell of support to make everyone go: ‘Actually, yeah, it would make me feel happier if we changed our name. It would make life seem nicer.’”

In a statement explaining the “recasting” of their name, the group said that when British Sea Power was chosen two decades ago it was meant with “wry humour”, but following the recent rise in nationalism the moniker had come to feel constricting, “like an ancient legacy we were carrying with us”. Stressing their continued love for Britain, the six-piece said they were making the adjustment as they didn’t want to be confused as being supporters of isolationist politics or doctrine.

Seven months on, speaking to Big Issue North over Zoom from a guitar-filled attic room in his home in Brighton, Wilkinson likens the process to ripping a plaster off. “You’ve got to go through that [pain] to take a few steps away from it, which was the intention – to be separate from that kind of binary, argumentative, polarised thinking.”

In a literal sense, the change of identity marks a new beginning for the widely admired alternative rock group, who formed in Reading – where Wilkinson and guitarist Martin Noble were students – at the turn of the millennium and released their acclaimed debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, in 2003.

A succession of strident, quietly celebrated records followed, including 2008’s Do You Like Rock Music?, which was nominated for that year’s Mercury Prize. Sea Power have also proved adept at writing movie soundtracks, composing atmospheric scores for a 2009 reissue of Man of Aran and feature film documentaries about the British coastline and Mir space station. Their work on the computer game Disco Elysium won best music at the 2020 Bafta Games Awards.

Throughout it all, the group have stayed steadfastly true to their own beliefs and interests, writing impassioned songs about collapsing ice shelves, seabirds, the natural world and pro-European idealism (2008’s brilliant single Waving Flags), while performing gigs in unusual, off the beaten track locations – Grasmere Village Hall, a boat on the Thames and Cern in Geneva, to name just a few – and, in their early reputation-making years, having an eight foot-tall crowdsurfing bear called Ursine Ultra join them onstage.

Their latest album and first as simply Sea Power, Everything Was Forever, was released in February, reaching number four – the band’s highest ever chart position – and receiving strong praise from fans and critics alike. One of its best tracks is euphoric lead single Two Fingers, which pays homage to the Wilkinson brothers’ father Ronald, who passed away three years ago.

“My dad always thought we were meant to be the biggest band in the world and he was a fanatical salesperson to random people in the streets or shops. I tried to write an alternative pop song that he would have liked. It’s not specifically about him but he was on my shoulder influencing it,” he says.Other standout moments on the LP include a frenzied post-punk style Doppelganger, the shimmering synth-pop of Folly and an elegiac Lakeland Echo, written by Neil and named after the local newspaper the two brothers used to deliver in their home village of Natland, on the edge of the Lake District.

“When you’re a kid, it feels like: ‘How long is this afternoon going to last?”’ says Wilkinson, looking back on his upbringing as one of six siblings in rural Cumbria. “But as you get older you start to think I really like that slow beautiful pace of life.”

He smiles as he recalls foraging for magic mushrooms once a year in a nearby field. “Suddenly it wasn’t boring at all.”

Today, Neil lives in the extreme wilderness on the Isle of Skye – “where it looks like Lord of the Rings”, jokes his brother – with his partner and Sea Power violinist Abi Fry. Drummer Matthew Wood is in Cumbria, with the three other band members based on the south coast. Despite being located at opposing ends of the British Isles, Wilkinson says the group remains a tight unit, even if getting all six members to unanimously agree on something is a rare occurrence.

“We’re a little artistic group of co-operative people and we have votes on things,” he laughs, looking mildly embarrassed. “It often comes out 3-3 and we just go: ‘Oh, well. Shall we vote again next week?’ It’s a very inefficient, useless system which has developed over the years. There’s very little communication about actual important things – just lots of chat about being silly. It’s just survival of the fittest in terms of ideas or songs.”

Asked what the secret to the group’s longevity is when so many of their early Noughties peers have faded into obscurity, Wilkinson shrugs and says he hasn’t given it much thought.

“I guess we have never really fallen out and there’s nothing else that we’re good at. We started in the old-fashioned world at the point when people stopped buying CDs and everything slowly transitioned to where we are now, where it’s all streaming and you don’t have to sell that many albums really to be number four. I don’t know if we’ve really adapted, but we’ve just gone through that weird arc of things and kept going.”

This month, Sea Power embark on their first full tour as a six-piece in over two years. The band minus Abi did play a small run of shows in October when they successfully managed to avoid catching Covid-19 but were instead struck down by a variety of flu viruses.

“We all got incredibly ill. It was painful fun by the end of it. We were dropping like zombies, but it was still good.”

The new shows will be even better, enthuses Wilkinson, combining new album material with songs from their extensive back catalogue in the type of thrilling high-energy concerts the group is renowned for.

Looking further ahead, he’s keen for Sea Power to keep on exploring new approaches and different sounds.

“EPs or albums based on a more certain approach, whether it’s very ambient and atmospheric or full of synths and fast stuff,” he ponders out loud. “Just being open minded for a while.

“I’ve always dreamed of doing something where you completely shift into a brand-new area, but it’s very hard between six people to ever agree strongly enough to ever do anything like that,” he says sounding momentarily frustrated.

Nevertheless, the positive response from fans to the group’s name change has shown them that it is possible to break away from the past, he reflects, throwing the doors wide open for whatever creative avenue they decide to go down next.

“Inviting change, even a small element of it, makes you think differently and prompts you to do things differently,” he says. “That can only be a good thing.”

Everything Was Forever is out now. Sea Power play Sheffield Leadmill on 21 April, Manchester Albert Hall on 23 April and Long Division Festival in Wakefield on 11 June

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