You can’t please everybody, but you can sure try sometimes. That happens to be something that the U.K.-based band British Sea Power realized going into their fifth full-length album, Valhalla Dancehall, last year.
Its fourth album, Man of Aran, epitomized the sort of jagged post-punk rock ‘n’ roll popular in the British Isles, yet it only reached No. 68 on the U.K. charts. Ironically, it reached No. 48 at the same time in the United States. The album before that, Do You Like Rock Music?, peaked at No. 10 in the U.K. and No. 5 in the U.S.
But making chart toppers was never really the goal for British Sea Power — as vocalist-guitarist Jan Scott Wilkinson told The Daily Texan, it was always about the music. Trite as that may be, it happened to be true for the band, which plays its live shows with bombast and seemingly limitless energy.
The Texan spoke with Wilkinson, better known as Yan, about the success of Valhalla Dancehall, British stereotypes and Marmite sandwiches.
The Daily Texan: OK, I’m going to seem like I’m crazy right now, but I’ve wanting to ask this question for five years. I saw British Sea Power play here in Austin in 2005 at Emo’s, and it was the first show I ever saw — I was 17 at the time. I remember Feist opened up for you, and this was right before she got famous. Anyway, I always thought it was interesting that at the time, you had an album called Open Season that had just come out, and about a year later, Feist came out with an album, also called Open Season. Was that just a huge coincidence?
Jan Scott Wilkinson: [laughs] Well, that’s a good question, but she never talked to us about that. It’s kind of weird now that I think about it, isn’t it? That’s really funny, but I’m not sure what to say about it. There wasn’t a pact formed to make the same album or anything like that. [laughs]
DT: So I wanted to talk about your latest album, Valhalla Dancehall. I thought that more than any of the previous albums, it was a step in a sort of experimental direction, at least when it came to recording. Can you tell us a little bit about what “Valhalla Dancehall” means and what it took to record it?
JW: [The album title] was kind of a way to describe...well, the whole thing was a bit of experiment really. They aren’t really far-out songs, but there’s a lot going on and it’s kind of experimental with the way we recorded it. We held up in a farmhouse in the countryside on our own and not in a studio, and in the end, I supposed, it was to keep our spirits up. The farm turned into the Valhalla Dancehall, where you could bring any idea or instrument —and not just traditional ones — so it as a way to have a space for all these people to bring their ideas to the table.
DT: On the same note, I know that you recently added a keyboardist, Phil Sumner, and a violist, Abi Fry, to the lineup. This happened after almost a decade of working with the same people, so I’m curious if this affected the dynamic of the band or how you guys came together to make music?
JW: We would have had to have a massive rethinking without them — they are an integral part of the group. They ended up staying because they make good music and they contribute a lot to the group.
DT: We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of British Sea Power’s very first single release, “Fear of Drowning”...personally, how have you seen your perspective change about music in the last 10 years?
JW: Mmm. Wow that’s a big one. I don’t know, really. We were pretty idealistic when we started off but now we’re a little more cynical — but not too much. Everything’s still about music and the way it works, and I suppose the best thing is I enjoy writing songs much more.
DT: I feel like a lot of Americans have a lot of preconceptions about the English from TV programs like “Skins” or “Misfits.” Are there any sort of annoying stereotypes you feel like you have to dispel when you’re touring the United States?
JW: Generally, the good stereotypes are okay. I think it makes us seem slightly more intelligent than we might be! [laughs] Americans generally think if you have an English accent you’re more proper or intelligent. But then that’s about it. It depends on the kind of things we get lumped in to really, but for the most part it’s been quite positive. I’ve watched “Skins” a bit and I know a lot of people put it down but I really do quite like it. There’s a lot of good music on this show like Broadcast and Electrelane. Our song “Waving Flags” was in “Skins” actually, which is pretty good for us, yeah?
DT: I understand you’ll be playing in Marfa a couple of days before British Sea Power comes to Austin, which kind of a strange choice for a rock band, no? Especially considering that you’re in Los Angeles about to play the Troubadour right now.
JW: Yeah, you’re right, I think that comes between Austin and here I guess. We’ve never played there and you don’t always plan on going to places like that, and there might not be as many people there. But there’s always a few surprises getting to see new towns and slightly off the-mark places like that.
DT: OK, just a few quick questions to get to know you now. How would you describe your perfect sandwich?
JW: Do you know what Marmite is?
DT: I know it’s the name of a dubstep song by Caspa, who’s actually from London, one of your brethren. [laughs]
JW: [laughs] Well it’s this gooey black spread, the slogan for Marmite is “you either love it or hate it.” But I’ve had it since I was 6, so I honestly would just go for marmite with margarine on brown or French bread. I put some people up to it sometimes to eat it, and they sometimes actually like it.
DT: What was the first album you purchased with your own money?
JW: Someone asked me that the other day, actually. Bossannova by the Pixies. My brother had about a thousand records and I had already heard about the first ones at the time through him.
DT: What are you reading right now?
JW: I just finished a J.G. Ballard book called “Hello America,” and it’s a good book. It’s a good thing to read when you’re actually travelling around America… it’s just about America being devastated.