With their propensity for foliage-covered stages and a large bear mascot that wanders through the audience at their gigs, Sea Power are used to people getting the wrong end of the stick. “The word ‘oddball’ has been put around, and that can put people off,” guitarist Martin Noble ruefully admits. But, 20 years on from their debut single, the band’s recent decision to change their name from British Sea Power marks a new beginning at a time of creative revival. The wacky bear is retiring and the band are fizzing with a new sense of purpose, fresh from finishing their new album Everything Was Forever, winning a Bafta for their soundtrack to the video game Disco Elysium, and performing their first gigs in two years. Noble has missed playing live so much that he compares going onstage to “coming up on an E”.
Their new name has been enthusiastically chanted by fans, and the sole complaint they’ve had came from “some fellas who had to make their own Sea Power T-shirts because we’d not brought merch out quick enough”, says Yan Scott Wilkinson, the band’s co-frontman, with brother Neil Wilkinson. In the end, the only truly negative reaction to dropping “British” came from social media and the rightwing press. The name British Sea Power “had become a monkey on our backs”, in the words of Noble, and the band had become uncomfortable that some people were wrongly interpreting it as nationalistic, even antagonistic – although to do that they would have had to ignore the band’s history of writing songs such as Waving Flags, a pro-immigration anthem.
“The people who gave us the most grief basically explain why we changed our name,” Yan says. “They were bitter and angry, wanting to relive some glory that never existed. Anyone who was on the verge of liking us not for the music but because they thought we might help shore up some kind of strange ideals they had, we got rid of.”
Even without concerns that people were getting the wrong idea about their politics, the shift to Sea Power feels apt, reflecting their longstanding obsession with the elemental strangeness of the natural world that was first heard in their debut single Fear of Drowning. They have also written odes to collapsing ice shelves and seabirds, and once played a gig on a vessel sailing down the River Thames in support of a renewable energy campaign (one noble lord drank so much free wine that he had to be helped up the gangplank to go and vote in parliament).
Today, Neil lives in a croft on the Isle of Skye, drummer Woody is in the Lake District, and keyboard and trumpet player Phil Sumner near the South Downs. Noble enthuses about watching fulmars and peregrines take to the air from chalk cliffs near his home on the south coast. It is one of the few remaining undeveloped stretches in the area and “if they ever try and flatten that bit I’m going to fucking tie myself to it”. All of them have a creative relationship with nature that’s never twee and whimsical; for Noble, ecology is as aspirational as it is inspiring: “There’s a response that you get from nature that sets a bar, a level of awe that’s what you’ve got to achieve with your music.”
Yan agrees, “but I don’t believe that you have the ability to write a meaningful song because you went somewhere beautiful; I like wild places but I’m equally a fan of the National Trust, and if I’m down some rubbish bit of Brighton with shit on the walls, it’s equally as good.”
There’s only one side of us represented on the radio. There’s an unhinged element that’s quite exciting when it comes out
As kids in a council house in rural Cumbria, Yan and Neil were acutely aware that the stunning landscapes beloved of tourists seeking nature cures weren’t everything. “Although the Lake District is a beautiful place to grow up in, it’s pretty boring,” Yan says. “Time goes so slowly, and in that boredom you dream of going somewhere else. We created our own worlds, almost like a tribal thing. And the best season in the Lake District for several years in a young life is when the magic mushrooms come out.”
Discovering bands through their older brother was an escape for the two boys – not just from mundanity, but the feeling that their life came with limitations. Although he insists he is “not a class warrior”, Yan says he and Neil were always conscious that they were less well off than other kids, riding to school on girls’ bicycles in clothes many sizes too big: “You feel embarrassed, but after a while you go, ‘Oh well, fuck it’.”
The brothers were also marked out as different for having parents of a far older generation than their peers; their father, Ronald, fought in the second world war and “told us the world was crackers to start with”. Sadly, both Ronald and their mother Margaret recently died. “I’ve discovered that makes you think about your first memories, why am I here, basically my whole life,” says Yan. “It’s a very reflective time.”
While he didn’t bring this grief directly into the new album, he sees moments in Neil’s lyrics that remind him of their dad, Sea Power’s biggest fan. “Two Fingers is the kind of song my dad would have said we should make,” says Yan. The “two fingers” is both an offensive gesture and a victory sign, a refreshing embrace of complexity in binary times. “I hate how everything’s polarised: you choose your gang, everyone who agrees with you is right and everyone on the other side is wrong,” says Yan. “There’s no friendly chat, there’s no change your mind. I’m not into that at all.” On Everything Was Forever, Two Fingers coexists with a decidedly unhinged stomper called Doppelgänger, the euphoric electronics of Folly and more languid moments that hark back to Yan and Neil’s childhood, such as Lakeland Echo. It’s the band at their best, the Sea Power sweet spot of combining the accessibly anthemic with the expansive and reflective. “There’s only one side of us that’s represented on the radio and I think if people have just heard the singles they may have missed that,” says Noble. “There’s an unhinged element to us all. It’s quite exciting when that comes out.”
Noble and Yan attribute the album’s vigour and vim to producer Graham Sutton, who had previously worked on their Mercury-nominated album Do You Like Rock Music? and their acclaimed soundtrack to the 1934 film Man of Aran. “Graham is fantastic,” Yan says. “He’s the ultimate master of Sea Power and what we need to do sonically.” It’s certainly Sea Power’s most focused record in a decade. While they might have ended up commercially eclipsed by more conventional indie bands who once supported them, such as the Killers and the Libertines, the passing years of relative struggle haven’t fazed them.
“I don’t feel that different to when we started, to be honest,” Yan says. “When we sit down and start making songs I still feel like an excited child.”
Everything Was Forever is out on 11 Feb; Folly and Two Fingers are out now.