"It's definitely a part of what we do, and we've always looked at it further than simply the idea of a band who just writes songs and performs them identically to the record," said British Sea Power guitarist Noble (no surname, please) recently from his home in Brighton when asked about the visual elements. "There are a lot more ways to have fun, and we like to utilize them. ... We want to captivate people."
But if the nonmusical sideshow -- KISS, after all, used the same rationale for their rock-'n'-roll kabuki -- threatens to brand the act as precocious, there's also plenty of earnest, imaginative spirit fueling the ambition in British Sea Power. Who can blame the band for taking advantage of the opportunity to communicate with the audience in multiple ways, rather than just stand up there and stiffly sing like so many others from the U.K. have done over the years.
"The difference is obviously that KISS was a joke," Noble says with a laugh. "I don't think we take ourselves too seriously or take it too far. The really great bands that we like, from the Velvet Underground to Julian Cope, all had ideas that stretched beyond just writing a bunch of songs."
The members' stoical-sounding nicknames ("Hamilton" on guitar, "Wood" on the drums, "Eamon" on keyboards/ percussion and "Yan," the frontman) started off as funny one-offs, dangerous contructs in this age of one-name celebrities. British Sea Power just isn't that assuming, unless factoring in the group's desire to turn on a new generation to influences such as Echo & the Bunnymen or Yo La Tengo. The group is the new Pulp with better hooks and less pretension; the Flaming Lips minus whimsy as performance art.
But the popular and critical splash the group made overseas has brought the kind of recognition that spurs attention from college radio here, the kind of buzz that either creates the next Radiohead (critical acclaim, commercial success) or the next Idlewild (critical acclaim, commercial irrelevance). If this little run on success keeps going, it won't be long before the pressure to have a bona fide hit will run into the wall separating commerce and art. Not that Noble's worried about it much, given that the band has enjoyed full support from its record label, Rough Trade/Sanctuary Records, while the band employs direct creative control.
"You have to make some concessions," says Noble on overcoming "artistic guilt." "But if we do everything our own way and it takes a little bit longer than if we feed the beast, then we'll come out of it better. When we started, we thought we were just doing what we wanted to do, but the more you look, then you can see you are quite a lot different than other bands." That's one way to explain the nearly 14-minute, Coldplay-to-Sonic Youth carnival called "Lately" on the group's debut album.
But it's that indulgence, that sense of adventure, that urgency to say or do something different, that makes British Sea Power exciting. Plus, the group has a handful of great songs to balance out the ones that stray. "For some people who haven't seen us before, you can't always hear the words that well," says Noble with a glance of irony. "But if you give them things to think about just by watching, it kind of helps remove them from where they are. Some people come out of the gigs totally confused, but that's because something good has happened!"
Good, that is, if somewhere in the confusion you've been entertained and, perhaps, even enlightened.
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