They’ve changed their name – a bit – and returned with their most emotive album in years. As Sea Power set course for new horizons, frontman Yan Wilkinson explains why they had to drop the “British” from their moniker, and how grief and video games inspired their new record.
After his parents passed away within a few years of each other, Yan Scott Wilkinson started to think about his childhood differently.
“Things would pop into my mind, either about them or about myself in relation to them, or being a kid or something,” says the singer with Sea Power, the voraciously uncanny English indie avant-gardists previously known as British Sea Power.
“Peculiar similarities. Wondering about life and stuff. And feeling very emotional about it. You start appreciating things a bit more, maybe. And you feel weird.”
“Weird” is one of the sensibilities Wilkinson and his brother Neil Hamilton Wilkinson, the group’s other songwriter, poured with mystical aplomb into the band’s new album, Everything Was Forever. The record is, in part, a meditation on grief following from the siblings’ experiences of losing their father in 2017 and mother in 2019.
But it’s also about moving on, letting go, and giving yourself over to the turning of the seasons. It’s one of the best things they’ve ever done – a glorious calling card as they push on with a new chapter in their careers, which began when they recently expunged “British” from their name.
They announced the name change – Wilkinson prefers to think of it is as a “tweak” – in August 2021. Expecting a fuss they very purposefully dropped the bombshell several months out, so Everything Was Forever would not be overshadowed. Nonetheless, and as they fully anticipated, the internet went mildly apoplectic, with people who had previously scarcely heard of British Sea Power suddenly highly irate they would dare to muck about with their moniker. A similar hoo-ha would engulf Dublin’s Gilla Band a few months later, when they explained they were moving on from “Girl Band”.
“It wasn’t anything to do with our fans or anything. It was more like, in everyday life, it felt a bit weird,” say Yan. “You’d be in the pub or meeting family at dinner or something. And you do that, ‘What do you do?’ thing. ‘Oh, what’s your band called?’ ‘Oh, British Sea Power’. And it suddenly sounds weird. It [changing the name] wasn’t intended as a big statement. It was more a step away. A clarification.”
“British Sea Power” was always intended ironically – a commentary on the decline of Britain as an imperial force and on the fact the group regarded jingoism as the last refuge of the morally bankrupt. That was in 2003 when irony and nuance still had a place in public discourse. Those days, it is safe to say, are long behind us.
“It’s an argument: which side are you on? We’ve a song, ‘Waving Flags’, which is about welcoming people. And about enjoying culture and stuff like that. If you don’t know that and you see it’s called ‘Waving Flags’… And someone says, ‘Oh, they’re on about the navy or something – and they’re called British Sea Power…’ What’s that adding up to in a new person’s mind? I can see why it’s confusing. I can see why it’s a contentious or a weird name to have.”
The announcement of a name change became a hotly-contested talking point online. And, just like that, they were swept up in the culture wars. Which was fascinating – and also low-key distressing.
“It was interesting in a sort of slightly intense, stressful way. Seeing these strange viewpoints and how divisive subjects and words and stuff like that can be. And getting accused of all sorts.”
You start to feel like a bit of a human piñata, in other words.
“You’re this weird novelty or gimmick to be used by one side or the other for 10 minutes. And then they move on and find someone else to have a go at or support or whatever. We knew that would happen, which was partly why we did it in advance. We didn’t do it this week, before the album.”
Sea Power are one of the most consistently eclectic and surprising outfits of the past 20 years. They arrived as intense indie weirdos, with their early shows marked by spasmodically angular rock, and stage design that included copious onstage foliage and the occasional stuffed squirrel. Later, they would dress in cult robes and generally wax eccentric even as their songs often ticked all the best alt-pop boxes (you could always count on them for a knockout chorus, delivered in Wilkinson’s yearning croon).
The strangeness put an upper ceiling on their popularity. Yet it shielded them, too, from the backlash against guitar bands. And so when the downfall of “landfill indie” duly arrived, Sea Power were spared the worst.
“There were quite a few good bands going. You’d get The Libertines, Interpol, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand and that kind of thing. As well as more alternative stuff,” says Wilkinson. “In terms of buzz and stuff they were pretty good. I’d prefer them to Britpop or whatever. Not a bad time. We almost fit into that. But never did. Which is good and bad.”
Sea Power’s first two albums – 2003’s The Decline Of British Sea Power and 2005’s Open Season – were instant classics of British alt-rock, which drew on the outsider sensibility the Wilkinsons carried with them from their working class childhoods in the Lake District. From there, they took the route less travelled –recording their own score to Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 “ethnofilm” Man Of Aran, and releasing long-players of varying quality and commercial impact (though never less than thoroughly solid).
But since their last studio project in 2017 they’ve had a bit of a reset. The catalyst was extraordinary cyberpunk video game Disco Elysium, for which they provided the soundtrack in close conjunction with the game’s creator, Robert Kurvitz .
“There’s definitely people who weren’t aware of us in any way who liked the game. And liked the music from the game. Which normally I’d be a bit dubious about,” says Wilkinson. “But I think the game has got depth and, like, artistically, it’s quite beautiful… It wasn’t Mario Kart.”
With tracks uh as ‘Victorian Ice’ and ‘Oh Larsen B’ – “a love song about an Antarctic ice shelf” – Sea Power were ahead of the curve in exploring mankind’s fraught and emotion-bound relationship with nature. That same sense of living cheek-by-jowl with a deeply mysterious world has since informed an entire movement of naturalist writing by authors such as Robert Macfarlane and Cal Flyn, whose Islands Of Abandonment feels like an early Sea Power recording in book form.
Wilkinson appreciates where Hot Press is coming from with these comparisons – but adds that, personally he’s moved on. And that, with his material on the new LP (the other tunes are largely written by his brother), he wanted to look inwards rather than out.
“Does it make you feel, like, better? Happy?” he asks of the album. “I think it does. After we finished it, it’s the only record I’ve wanted to keep listening to for a while. Normally I can’t face it. But this one, I enjoyed it.”
• Everything Was Forever is out now.