British Sea Power

‘I had a funny dream about a giant trumpet’: British Sea Power talk all things Sea of Brass…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 30 Sep 2014
  • min read
Indie rockers British Sea Power (BSP) could be portrayed as a band of eccentrics as much musicians.

After more than ten years together, and seven albums in, they’ve collected accolades, achievements and experiences from all over the musical cosmos. Loved by everyone from Andrew Weatherall to David Bowie, the group have created their own Sing Ye From The Hillsides festival, received a Mercury Prize nomination for their Do You Like Rock Music? Album and performed atop the Great Wall of China. They’re also the longest serving artists at Rough Trade Records.

This unique group’s latest project is Sea of Brass, a collaboration between the band and brass arranger Peter Wraight to reposition their back catalogue amid a completely different musical context. Debuted at the Durham Brass Festival earlier this year, BSP are taking the project out on the road this October. Vocalist and guitarist Jan Wilkinson let us in on what attracted them to horns in the first place…

What are your first memories of brass bands?

It was a few years ago when I heard a Radio 4 show about a very competitive brass competition that this kind of music made a proper impact.

They seemed to have quite a laugh while getting together unbelievably tight arrangements and playing with great skill. Other than that it was the Salvation Army and Christmas - that kind of thing.

Where did the idea for the Sea of Brass project come from?

It was a commission to do 'something interesting' ideally relating to the local area and/or history to be at the Chocolate Factory in Derby. The idea was brought to us by Kate Walters.

After some time I suggested a British Sea Power brass/combo after a I had a funny dream about a giant trumpet. The idea was to do something modern rather than try and out do Acid Brass. That was a great idea already well done.

Instead we wanted to do something that would show off the versatility and musical range of a brass orchestra and shed new light on our songs. Kate introduced us to arranger Peter Wraight who enabled this to happen. After contemplating several Spinal Tap and Latin sounding monikers I decided on a simple name that described the project well and also hinted at the slightly more relaxed mood compared to a normal BSP gig.

How did the compositional side take place?

It wasn't a particularly planned move on our part to work with Peter. But he seemed nice, interested and keen to try and show off brass music in a new way and a slightly different context.

We gave him a description of what we were aiming for and recordings of the songs in a stripped back style. We tried to be quieter to allow the players to function in their natural way, then let Peter get to work. Afterwards there was some toing and froing and adjustments to try and get the right balance. Rather than have the brass 'cover' BSP, we left spaces for Peter to take things in a new direction and hopefully complement the songs while adding new elements. Much to his credit, he definitely avoided the obvious and often the easy route.

At the start of the project, what did you hope to achieve by presenting your music via brass bands?

It was meant to be an experimental collaboration. We hoped it would be a little surprising and fairly individual rather than some kind of nostalgic ‘brass band does BSP’ style event. To be honest we weren’t 100 percent sure what would happen. We had an idea of mood that was partly suggested by practical musical considerations. We also took the opportunity to visit songs that are often left out when we play gigs too. We’ve only done it once so far but it seemed to go well. No catastrophes and it was warmly received with a strong ovation at the end.

Were the brass players excited about working with music unconventionally brass?

I get the impression they are pretty much up for anything really.

What is the cultural significance of brass bands to you?

I like how they come from an industrial culture and that it was a very modern exciting thing when it started. Metal instruments! It seems like an old fashioned thing now but it was a powerful force in its day and still can be. They wear uniforms, like a drink and are very loud.

There is obviously an ongoing battle for these ensembles to remain relevant - why do you think this legacy is worth preserving?

I think it’s entirely possible for them to remain relevant. Either on their own or through collaboration.

The brass orchestra as a whole is a very versatile instrument. It’s down to the choices of music styles and arrangements perhaps and the ability to break new ground. Saying that though it is a demanding skill and it can’t be easy to keep a group like that going with so many talented people. I could imagine the traditional set up continuing and being a very beautiful thing. It would also be possible to incorporate some modern ideas and technologies. Our own cornet player uses amps and effects and this approach could be taken a lot further in many ways by a full orchestral set outfit.

What does the future of the project look like?

It looks good. We have several shows around October. That could be the end depending on various factors. It’s possible there could be more or a further development or even some kind of recording.

Visit BSP’s website to find out more details on their forthcoming October Sea of Brass tour.

Read our Bold as brass feature on the health of brass bands in the UK.