I was in the Kerry Man pub in Digbeth, right next door to the HMV Institute, where British Sea Power (BSP) are due to play the Birmingham leg of their Valhalla Dancehall promotional tour.
England’s cricket team have the wonderful barmy army, and Ferrari have the Tifosi, and somewhere up amongst those loyal fans we have BSP’s 3rd Battalion. I have with me someone who has been following BSP right from the start, Mark Rodgers aka Captain Riot…
SXP: How long have you been following BSP and how did the 3rd Battalion come about?
CR: Pretty much from the start. Maybe a year or so after BSP started out. The 3rd Battalion’s a group of fans of BSP that would exist regardless of the 3rd Battalion identity. The name simply identifies the group – that’s all. There are no entry requirements as such, and the ethos is that if you feel part of it, then you are.
It came about in May 2003, before a gig in Coventry – not far from here. We were in the pub beforehand and a small number of us were discussing other bands and their loyal fan bases. Somebody - Andy Barding - suggested the name the 3rd Battalion and it stuck.
SXP: I have to be honest, the name conjured up the image of an 80s football hooligan firm, and you regularly kick off with the Arcade Fire fans at Reading Festival and the like…
CR: Absolutely not. In fact, there is a fairly strong allegiance between us and the New Order fan base, called the Vikings. In fairness to the Vikings, I’ve produced a number of 3rd Battalion badges, one of which you are wearing tonight. I actually stole that idea from them.
SXP: What is it about BSP that demands such a devoted fanbase?
CR: I think with a lot of us, it’s clearly the music, but also the image, the subject matter…collapsing ice shelves in the Antarctic, references to the Heydrich terror in Prague in 1942 and Dostoyevsky as well as other very interesting subject matter. But above all, it goes back to the band’s music, and I don’t think I’d be alone in saying specifically the live music. There’s something about the live music you get at a BSP gig that makes it really like no other.
SXP: And how many times have you seen them then?
CR: Just over 300 times since August 2002.
SXP: How far have you personally travelled to see them?
CR: China, North America, Australia are the furthest 3 corners I’ve travelled. And Polzeath in Cornwall…
SXP: I suppose you’re pretty well known to the band then?
CR: I’m known to them, yeah. I have little idea of what they think about the 3rd Battalion. Scott once mentioned us in an interview, so we have been acknowledged by them.
SXP: Do you ever see a time when you might not get in the car and see them?
CR: Possibly, there may come a point when I get bored, and I would then simply stop as I have done with other interests.
SXP: Let’s get on to BSP’s music. What do you think of the new album, Valhalla Dancehall? I think it’s the closest thing they’ve released to a live album yet.
CR: I think it’s OK. And that’s being as honest as I can be. I think ‘Mongk II’ is outstanding. There are a couple of good tracks in ‘We Are Sound’ and ‘Observe The Skies’, and the rest of it is average BSP. I think - being honest - there are couple of shockers in ‘Georgie Ray’ and ‘Baby’, which, as much as I’ve tried, I still can’t embrace. What I would say though, is that performed live, I see those songs much differently. They’re a lot better live, but then I think most material is much better heard live than on a CD.
SXP: What would you day to someone who knows BSP’s music but perhaps is thinking of going to see them for the first time?
CR: It can be a really mixed bag, and maybe that’s part of the attraction. You get a few standard gigs, and then you get one that can completely blows you away. I was watching the audience in Bristol on Monday night, and there was one guy who was up on the stage, really getting into it, trying to egg everybody on. Without sounding disrespectful to the band, I thought ‘that’s how it used to be for me’. You do get through that honeymoon period of excitement of course, but it’s still fantastic to see that while they’ve been going for 10 years now, they can still have that effect on people.
I don’t hear the album as being representative of them live. I think it very much marks a change in direction. They’ve matured and they’re drawing on their life experiences more. Their relationships seem to be being reflected in the lyrics. I certainly see it as a turning point for them as people and artists.
SXP: So out of the two, live or cd?
CR: Live always, but as a lover of live music, I’d say that about any artist.
SXP: Over that many years, there must have been some clear highs and lows for you and the 3rd Battalion?
CR: As the group’s connection with the band is so close, a lot of the highs (and lows) tend to go hand in hand. For me, Cargo 2004 was a highlight. It was for me, and for many others, the best gig we’ve see them perform, although I’m unsure if the band share that opinion. Other gig highlights were Cork 2005, Tobemory 2010, Brooklyn 2008 and Taipei (in Taiwan) in 2009, as it provoked the most amazing audience reaction.
The camaraderie within the 3rd battalion is exceptional, many of whom I now class as my best friends. There’s a strong social scene within the group – which would exist with or without BSP. Many close friendships have formed and one or two relationships. Members are now spread across the globe, including Canada, USA, Germany and Hong Kong.
In the UK, quite a few of the London based fans socialise regularly and folk will travel some distance to see each other – for either a booze up, or to attend gigs of other bands, where there is a shared interest. Large 3rd Battalion turnouts are often seen at gigs featuring Brakes (especially), The Pixies, Frank Turner, The Joy Formidable, The Fall and Half Man Half Biscuit.
The group is also well represented in areas including Manchester and the North East, where members will socialise with or without the presence of BSP.
As far as lows go, we have seen the loss of two close friends from within the 3rd - Viv, who came from a small village called Percy Main, near North Shields and Alan from Wimbledon. Both very sadly died prematurely in 2010 due to illness. They were two of the loveliest, most pleasant, down to earth people you could wish to meet.
Other lows have tended to mirror the band going through patchy periods. I have to be honest and say I wasn’t enjoying their gigs in the first half of 2010, but as you know yourself the band always come good. 2010 was a game of two halves for me, so to speak. After a below average start, the summer and autumn brought some incredible shows. The festival set at Standon Calling, Tobemory and Huddersfield all stand out. And then there was the 23 date tour supporting the Manic Street Preachers where the band turned in some faultless performances. That tour spawned another coalition akin to that with New Order’s Vikings. A few of the Manics regulars have started to turn up regularly at BSP shows and seem to have embraced the idea of the 3rd Battalion.
SXP: So if the band stopped tomorrow, the 3rd Battalion would continue?
CR: Yes, I guess it would eventually fizzle out but as you’ve heard, strong friendships have been formed now that will outlive the band anyway.
SXP: On that point, are you not worried by any inference that Valhalla Dancehall represents ‘the party at the end of the world’ might have?
CR: Am I worried about it? On the contrary, I’m quite excited by it. It strikes me as the best possible way to go. Although, insofar as suggesting it’s a hint at the possible end of the line for the band, I’m more likely to think it’s some sort of throwaway comment. I take it with a pinch of salt. I’m not picking up any vibes that it could be the beginning of the end at all.
SXP: A couple more questions, it’s an early start and we both want to get in and see the band. You can’t read a BSP review without the band being referred to as eccentric, quintessentially English or as articulate and intellectual. Are the 3rd Battalion formed in that image?
CR: I’m not so sure about the quintessentially English bit, but there are some eccentrics within the group. Go to see a band this frequently and you’re going to encounter some colourful characters. Some of the professions represented include an employee from a prominent firm of London solicitors, a former website editor for an Internationally well known newspaper, people with good positions within banks, a former museum curator and a number of Architects. So yes some very intelligent and articulate people. And yes, there are also a couple of oddballs in there too.
SXP: Are you following the band into Europe, and over to the US?
CR: I’m doing the rest of the UK shows, and a couple of the shows in Europe.
SXP: Thank you very much, let’s go see the band, I have a gig review to write!
CR: Thank you too, my pleasure