Interview: Belle and Sebastian

Glaswegian indie veterans, Belle and Sebastian, release their ninth album, titled ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’, on January 19th. With a corresponding world tour beginning the week after, seeing the band coming to the UK in May.

Two sixths of Belle and Sebastian, guitarist Stevie Jackson and violinist/singer Sarah Martin, chat with Spindle about the secrets to long and successful career, what it was like working with a hip-hop producer on their latest album ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’ and how they visited the Church Belt of America for further Southern inspirations.

1996, 18 years, almost 9 albums, what is the secret to such a long and successful career?

Stevie: What’s the secret? Don’t break up. Don’t fall out. Don’t have lawsuits. Remain friends. Have a good time.
Sarah: All the time.
Stevie: That’s the secret.
Sarah: It’s like any relationship isn’t it, don’t break up and you wont break.
Stevie: I suppose our band was slightly different in the sense that, a little bit unusual, that we formed and started making records, we didn’t really know, we were people thrown together.
Sarah: We didn’t really know each other before hand, so it wasn’t very organic. I think there was a point with Stuart that anyone that would be in his band, was. He’d been let down by so many people, he was delighted to have.

There have been a lot of you…

Stevie: There was six, then there was seven, then there was eight, then there was seven, then there was eight, then there was seven, then there was six.
Sarah: I don’t know if it’s been eight more than once…

So what’s everyone’s role in the band, musically and personality wise?

Stevie: Well Stevie just said that Bob was the pitbull on the flight down.
Stevie: Bob’s the shop steward guy, who’s kind of hard edged and takes care of any nasty business. He’s a tough guy, and he’s really strong willed. It’s kind of lucky to have someone like that, it comes in handy.
Sarah: I’m quite organised but I need to try to be not quite so organised. I’ve kind of figured out that I need to not be there with the clipboard all the time saying “you need to be there, you need to be there”. It’s sometimes counterproductive. I’m naturally quite, “this would be best”.
Stevie: Stuart is the gaffer. It kind of changes over the year, 18 years, things ebbed and flowed. There was the initial period when we were still getting to know each other, then people either rise up or they leave. In terms of their contributions or creativity. What’s happened over the years is people rise up and contribute more. It’s one of the benefits of having a big group that can happen. So [the dynamic] has changed.
In the early days, I was Stevie the guitar player in the early role. My morals have changed quite a lot, in the early days like live, I was the MC in a way, Stuart was always tuning his guitar and being erratic and I was always just trying to keep the whole thing from falling over.
Sarah: Well you’re the one, out of all of us I think, the most ‘in the blood’ performer. With you’re long past of being in bands and stuff. You definitely were the one that could do it before anyone else could.
Stevie: That’s true. When the band formed, I was the veteran.
Sarah: You’d retired already hadn’t you?
Stevie: Yeah, I’d retired. At that point, I’d been playing gigs for ten years being 26 at the time. I felt really old at that point, the youngest were just turned 20. There was a bit of a gap you know? I felt like the experienced one. We’ve all just grown up now. And Stuart now commands the stage, I don’t have to do anything, I just stand back and play the guitar.

Does it get easier through time writing and producing music? Does it come quite naturally?

Sarah: Things comes quite quickly I think. Well when we get going things come quickly. I think we get a lot of inspiration from each other. So as soon as something starts it does seem to generate quite a lot of momentum. It’s not one person that has to write ten songs in a bubble anymore, although I don’t doubt that Stuart couldn’t do it if he had to or wanted to do something different. But with a bunch of us, if one person comes in with one thing, not only that thing reach through quickly with the band but it will usually spark something else as well. When you start working on one album its like little stars building in a galaxy.
Stevie: Yeah it starts as a molecular cloud, then gravity…
It’s a good point that when you’re asked, “what were your big influences when making the album”, it’s always other people in the band. Everybody’s got what they like and everybody’s quite strong musical people.

Do you wanna give us an insight into the album? I’ve heard a lot about political influences and the power of pop, were these topics you wanted to get across from the album?

Stevie: Kinda. Some of the contents of the lyrics were quite powerful and hinting at things, but our stuff is never… it’s more subtle, like a feeling you get. A lot of the time when we’re making a record I don’t notice these things, you’re too busy making it. I do think there’s a sense of things bubbling under, politics in the sense that everything is kind of political. Back home, I guess it’s been a very poltical period.
Sarah: It only really started to become unavoidable in every conversation after we got back from making the record. I think the album might have been a little bit different if [it was before]. I think the political situation really did become so present in everything. you couldn’t open your mouth without it being about it, it was the biggest thing everywhere and it still is really.

And Stuart wrote a song for the album, called ‘Nobody’s Empire’, about before his time in the band and his battle with Chronic Fatigue disease.

Stevie: It’s been brought up a lot, part of me is like I can totally see it but I didn’t totally see it the first time.
Sarah: Did you not?
Stevie: I’m not like that with Stuart’s songs, I hear the whole thing, I ingest it in a different way. It’s just the way I hear music. In a way it’s pretty good, because a lot of Stuart’s songs are still unfolding for me, I like them more and more as I get them. When I got the lyric sheet, I’m right ‘how does it go’ (mimics working out the chords), that part of my brain working, I never go “that’s about him being sick”.
Sarah: I went home from practice that day and went out for dinner with Julie, and I was just telling her all about it saying “you’re not going to hear this from Richard because he’s playing the drums and not probably freaking out about the lyrics, but honestly, this song, it’s just so heartbreaking and really amazing”.

And it would probably be a really inspirational topic for other people suffering, if it were the most honest thing he’s ever written it will connect to a lot of people. It’s also been mentioned that this is the most open album you guys have written as a band too. Do you feel that about the album?

Sarah: I feel it is. I remember Stuart after, I think there were things that maybe he felt to write about love, there were a few lyrics that he changed, tightened them up, when we played them live. I think he felt not everything had been absolutely worked out and he thought with this album every word, every syllable, if it doesn’t mean something, it’s out. I was like “ahh” because I find lyrics the most agonising excruciating bit. But I do think every song on the record is pretty straight up.
Stevie: There are still songs that are written in character. Which Stuart still does.
Sarah: But you can still be honest…
Stevie: Yeah sure. But back to ‘Nobody’s Empire’, I was moved by this song and I got but… “Now I look at you you’re a mother of two/ you’re a quiet revolution”. I didn’t realise just quite how literal that was, now it’s so obvious. It’s incredibly specific. That’s the thing, whether things are from yourself or written in character, it comes down to your own feeling anyway, or certain aspects come through. He told me ‘The Cat with the Cream’ written from the perspective of the Allie character which was really interesting.
Sarah: It’s funny because I figured that out as well. Because we’d done ‘The Cat with the Cream’ years ago and then when we started playing ‘Allie’ I said that’s ‘The Cat with the Cream’ person.

The teaser for your album, of you guys talking and some previes of the songs, and it said that you worked with a hiphop producer and that there are Southern aspects. What do you think these elements brought to the album?

Stevie: Well certainly, completely the hip-hop producer. We’d never worked with a hip-hop producer before, but the sensibility is completely different. It was less about capturing the performance of us as a band and it was more constructing things, taking a bit of this and a bit of that.
Previous records we’ve made we could have been in there all afternoon doing takes until we get the magic one. But this time, if we got the drums down he was happy. Three of four takes and he was happy.
Sarah: There were a couple of times when he was like “yeah, I got what I need” and you’re like “really?!”.
Stevie: “We’re just getting warmed up”.

So it was a different recording experience?

Stevie: Oh definitely. Fundamentally different.
Sarah: It was a good shot in the arm; it was a leap of faith as well. The Southern singers that came in, with ‘Nobody’s Empire’ it kind of is like a gospel song really, so it was entirely appropriate to get some gospel singing on it a little bit.
I kind of didn’t feel like we totally immersed ourselves, but we were there for a couple of months…
Stevie: But you get there and you start working as soon as you’re off the plane and you’re essentially going to work everyday.
Sarah: Other than the people in the studio, we didn’t meet that many other people, but it was really good.
Stevie: It’s great when you’re making a record, it’s great for the experience, it enriches your life with the band. Waking up and driving to work everyday somewhere else, it was interesting because it was the bible belt, churches on every corner, and the food was interesting and all that stuff. So as an experience it’s really really good. But as Sarah said, there are a couple of things that are consciously quite Southern. Because we were there, we were able to get some American singers to give that Southern, gospel edge.
Bob and Chris wrote a horn arrangement for a song that is on the bonus of the album called ‘Piggy in the Middle’. It’s quite New Orleans, so it was quite a conscious thing. It was a wonderful time.
Sarah: Yeah. The craziest thing was Stuart, Christ and I one morning, Chris had been asking where the churches were with good music and the engineer sent us to this place and it was crazy. I think the church could seat 7000. There were ushers in the aisle with box of tissues for when people get overcome by the spirit. We went in like “the service won’t be too long will it?” and they were like “Oh no, it’s not too long…”. It was three hours. The guy was a showman. It went from the sermon being in our time, a real in depth heavy weight intellectual debate, then he’s dancing and doing fancy footwork and going “Oh Jesus!”. He was just such an amazing showman. We were totally blown away by this. It was one of those things that isn’t repeatable, even if I found somewhere like it.

Going back to my first question, in 1999 you won the Brit Award for ‘Best Newcomer’ which beat bands like Five and Steps. Obviously, Five have reformed as a four-piece that is still called Five (won’t mention that one…), but how do you feel about those bands that are reforming now that were once around at the same time you began?

Stevie: There’s quite a lot isn’t there, certainly all the Britpop guys. Ride are reforming. But they were before us, late 80s. Anyway… When you think about it, why not? I think performing is great. I’ve always been quite open minded about that. When rock and roll was young, you kind of pack it in when you’re 25 and people were like, “Oh you’re reforming, when the kids need money for college”. All of these attitudes were going around, I don’t really understand it. They’re musicians, what else are they supposed to do? Why not, it’ll be fun. Then people argue they’re doing it for the money, well why not?

You’re touring next year after the album release, are you going to any new places where you havent performed before?

Stevie + Sarah: Yeah!
Sarah: We haven’t been to China before and we’re going to be playing in Hong Kong, and we’re going to be playing Bangkok, never been to Thailand. Never been to New Zealand, we’re going to get to go there which is really exciting. It seems kind of crazy to go all that way and have a day there then go to Australia. It’s just the nature of it I suppose.
Stevie: I’m excited to go back to Iceland.

To end, it’s going to be a ‘most likely to…’
And the first was most likely to keep everyone organised but I think we know that one…

Stevie: Yeah, that’s Sarah.

Most likely to forget what their doing on stage…

Stevie: I think we’re all quite professional unless there’s been a bit of heavy drinking the night before. Probably me, Bob or Richard.

Most likely to play jokes when you’re touring…

Sarah: Nobody’s really a prankster are they?
Stevie: Nobody pulls pranks, that’s why we’ve been together so long.

Most likely to propose the most ridiculous ideas…

Sarah + Stevie: That would be Stuart. (Said in exact unison).