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11 Belle and sebastian Gaelle Beri

Time’s Arrow

26 October 2017, 08:18
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Gaëlle Beri

Belle and Sebastian have never taken the straight road. Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson explain how they’ve kept things fresh in a musical climate that's changed beyond recognition in the last twenty years.

There’s a moment at the end of our conversation with Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson that gets to the heart of Belle and Sebastian. We’re sat in a restaurant of a London hotel when the lunchtime rush kicks in and Murdoch quips “The hip and the beautiful have shown up!”

Responding to our remark that the description could apply to themselves he bats back with “No, we’re the people that look at the hip and the beautiful."

For over twenty years Belle and Sebastian have pursued their own path, creating a body of work that’s maintained their position as storytellers and chroniclers of the human condition and along the way they’ve constantly innovated. They were one of the first bands to harness the power of connecting with their audience online, infamously showing how behind the times the music industry was when they won a BRIT Award in 1999.

Despite all of their achievements they don’t consider themselves to be part of the musical mainstream. Jackson says “It’s interesting, I get confused, I sometimes think ‘What? Oh yeah…’ I don’t know how to define us anymore.” Murdoch adds “It’s a funny thing. We played the Hollywood Bowl but we still get played on college radio in America, it’s a real struggle to get onto the stations a stage below mainstream radio, so you know, let’s not get too excited!”

The evening before we meet, Murdoch and Jackson went to see a Q&A with Robert Forster about his time in The Go-Betweens. Murdoch says “it was great, he was playing tunes and talking about the band and Grant McLennan. They were a really special band, a total one-off.” A similar compliment could be laid at Belle and Sebastian’s door. Having spent their recent history doing what’s expected of a modern band - releasing albums, touring them and then writing the next one - now they’re changing the rules again with a collection of three EPs, each titled How To Solve Our Human Problems.

Coming back to Murdoch’s comment about the lunchtime rush, “We Were Beautiful” from the first EP features the line “We were on the outside looking in” and other songs continue the thread of the bands’ narrative. “I’ll Be Your Pilot” is a beautiful and tender ode to Murdoch’s young son, channelling the elegance of the aforementioned The Go-Betweens, “Sweet Dew Lee” a duet between Jackson and Murdoch, mixes a pristinely jangling guitar with a melody that would have been a perfect fit on the La La Land soundtrack, reflecting on the passing of time and alternate destinies. They’re still telling universal stories, but spread over a storyline on three EPs rather than an album.

"We had this idea of doing a ballet for a while or going away and doing something more interesting...we don’t ever think ‘let’s make another record for the sake of it’." - Stuart Murdoch

At the end of touring 2015's Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance Murdoch felt the band faced a big question. “You get to the end of a cycle and the bands’ been going for ages. You have to ask yourself ‘do we want to make another record?’ We had this idea of doing a ballet for a while or going away and doing something more interesting. We don’t ever think ‘let’s make another record for the sake of it’.”

As to why they’ve decided to release three EPs rather than an album, when we put it to them that it’s in keeping with Belle and Sebastian’s innovative approach of doing things differently, taking a format that pre-dates the digital consumption of one song, Murdoch thinks it’s bizarre that’s the question. “It’s funny isn’t it? Why not do EPs? We used to do them and now we’re doing them again.” Belle and Sebastian are hardly strangers to the format, between 1996's If You’re Feeling Sinister and 1998’s The Boy with the Arab Strap, they released three EPs, Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light.

Murdoch feels the difference in releasing EPs versus a traditional album is semantics, ”at the end of the day you want to make something satisfying and put it in the hands of a dear listener, give them what they want, it just feels good.” For Jackson it was a case of following their instincts. “How do you explain a feeling? It was a feeling to make EPs and it seemed to go hand-in-hand with another feeling of how the music was produced.”

Murdoch adds that they didn’t get bored with albums but took a “little step to the left, we wanted to do something with a different focus.” He’s curious to see which songs from the EPs will “bubble to the top and you can really get behind as the lead track, that’s more important for pop bands than ever. The listening attention of the average punter these days is shorter so the lead track has become more important, I’ve been saying that for years. You should be able to play them on the radio, they should be able to sit up there and sound good.”

Belle and Sebastian by Gaelle Beri

The making of the EPs was removed from what Jackson calls ‘The general model’ of the album cycle, where every two or three years there would be an intense period recording for two months with a producer. “It’s a focussed chunk of your life. For the last few albums we’ve picked producers like Trevor Horn, Tony Hoffer and Ben Allen but we wanted to make records in Glasgow again and not in that concise way, we wanted to check out studios in Glasgow and do individual tracks.”

Instead the EPs were written and recorded over a year, as they juggled their domestic lives with their artistic ones. Murdoch says that “kids were happening, people were getting married, it was a good time to be in Glasgow and work around family responsibilities.” They ended up going to six different studios with the ethos on spontaneity rather than planning. Jackson explains the process was ‘We’ve got a song, where should we record it? I know, let’s try here, that might be good.’”

Murdoch enthuses over the idea getting their hands dirty and producing themselves, turning to his bandmate, saying “You loved the idea didn’t you?” Jackson, deadpan as you like, replies with “Well I liked it, sure…” Working without a producer isn’t new ground for them but Murdoch felt he had to remind the band they could do it. “People were wondering ‘Can we go back? Can we be in charge and make something that sounds as good as with proper producers?’ I was confident we could, or at least make something as interesting. If you restrict yourself to making something that sounds posh, maybe it actually sounds boring. So rip it up a bit, have some fun, follow the sounds, take an idea and get it down as quickly as possible.”

They worked with a producer for some songs on the EPs, which for Jackson reflected the anything goes nature of the project. “There was a sense with everyone that it was wide open, ‘if you’ve got a track and want a producer, get a producer in.’

"Matador said 'Don’t make an album: retire for a few years and come back fresh.’" - Stuart Murdoch

Many record companies would baulk at the idea of giving a band an extended period of recording, where the focus is to produce another record to a schedule and it becomes a functional process, with albums made through necessity rather than as an artistic statement. Yet Murdoch says if anything it was the reverse with their label Matador. “They said ‘Don’t make an album: retire for a few years and come back fresh.’ But you’re right, if you don’t have anything to say, you shouldn’t say it, you should do something more useful. Being useful has been a recent theme of conversations within the band and as individuals.”

He defines useful as being “useful as a person, as an individual, in your family, your community and then to the outside world”, adding that the persona of Bella and Sebastian as a band is the last thing they consider. “I don’t think about this stuff until we’re being interviewed or if we bump into fans at a concert, because there’s so many layers. You want to feel useful and that extends to your work within the group. If you don’t think you can give something to the world that’s going to help then don’t do it. We’re not punks anymore, we’re not anarchists in the UK, so be nice, be useful.”

Murdoch considers Belle and Sebastian as part of the broad church of post-punk, describing punk as an explosion, after which “all this interesting stuff happened, anybody could make records and it wasn’t necessarily punk, it wasn’t loud and abrasive. We’re post-punk in the way that we still embrace the ethics, I do anyway and I love that. Punk was the miracle and we’re what came after.”

What Belle and Sebastian achieved at the Brit Awards in 1999 fitted with the spirit of punk, something that today would be the envy of every record company in the land. They won Best British Breakthrough Act, beating the likes of Steps and 5ive, when Radio One decided the winner would be decided by online public voting for the first time.

Pete Waterman was up in arms, claiming the vote had been rigged and his act Steps were cheated. He demanded a recount but it showed that Belle and Sebastian had won fair and square. A large chunk of their votes came from University campuses in Scotland, but that after all was their heartland. For all of Waterman’s nous in breaking pop acts, he was woefully underprepared for the uppercut swung at him by Belle and Sebastien’s fanbase. It was the beginning of bands rallying of the troops online.

Jackson laughs at the memory. “The establishment just altered like that! That would never be allowed to happen again, it was a period where they didn’t understand what it meant and that happened. It was pretty amazing.” He looks back on that time as Belle and Sebastian “riding the initial wave of the internet in a way that seemed quite new.”

Before the advent of MySpace, Belle and Sebastian had a qestion and answer A section on their website, where Jackson would spend a large chunk of his day replying to posts. “I suppose that’s all been superseded with Twitter, but we were quite early with direct interaction online.” As a result, their relationship with their audience still blurs the boundaries between artist and fan, with Murdoch describing it as “We’ve grown up with our guys and there’s a mutual respect.”

This respect extends to the artwork of the EPs, a series of portraits of fans who signed up to have their picture taken by Murdoch. He feels the idea wouldn’t have been possible if there wasn’t such a close connection with their audience. “We had the confidence to do that, we weren’t just giving them a ticket to do something fun, I was looking for something and got it, we got great pictures, great faces. If it was actors or models maybe you wouldn’t get that, they came into it quite artless, it was really nice stuff.”

Murdoch was looking to capture the essence of his subjects in a particular moment, which he describes as “almost stealing something and it’s a little bit sneaky.” When he saw the finished prints, there was one person he felt he hadn’t quite captured, comparing it to the scene in Amélie where her neighbour constantly re-paints a Renoir picture because there’s a girl in it that he can’t capture. “He can’t figure out that she’s not part of the party, she’s outside of the scene. In the film it’s a metaphor for Amélie, it’s really well written and with this girl, I just never got her. She’s still on there, we put everybody on the sleeve somewhere. It’s still great, I wouldn’t have left her off.”

"When I was a kid there was Radio 1, Radio Clyde and the NME, you were open to a very specific channel and now everything’s wide open. The downside is you don’t get that concise feeling anymore.” - Stevie Jackson

Such face to face interaction brings us to the changing nature of Social Media in the artist/audience relationship, where a reply from an artist on Twitter is akin to a digital autograph. How does that play with the intimacy Belle and Sebastian have with their audience? Murdoch says “It’s just the difference between being a person and being an arse. The people that are listening to your music are people. Social Media has changed how everybody acts, speaks and proceeds, it’s deeper than the medium of music, it’s everything, it’s about the way people get up in the morning and immediately getting angry or frustrated.”

Talk of the nature of online interaction prompts Murdoch to return to the question of what the music mainstream means now and Belle and Sebastian’s place in the wider scheme of things. “Who really cares about bands anymore? It’s not the mid-'90s, there’s a wider world out there and our kind of music, our little pocket of post-punk is getting smaller, it’s not so mainstream. Where’s the NME or Melody Maker? That was the medium by which our world existed, for good or for bad. It’s all gone and that’s totally fine. There’s still great music around, I hear great sounding music but I’m not sure if there’s as many ideas and interesting lyrics as there used to be.”

Jackson feels the changes in the musical landscape means that opportunities for musicians are healthier in the current climate. “When I was a kid there was Radio 1, Radio Clyde and the NME, you were open to a very specific channel and now everything’s wide open. The downside is you don’t get that concise feeling anymore.”

But alongside the advent digital channels, there’s also the resurgence of vinyl – Liam Gallagher’s As You Were recently had the biggest first week vinyl sales for twenty years. Jackson observes seeing vinyl “going from one box in Fopp and now it’s a whole floor, you see people in there looking at it.” When Murdoch worked in a record store in the late '80s he’d cherry-picked second-hand records, often based on the artwork. “I’d be ‘I’m having that Young Marble Giants record, The Pop Group? I’m having that.’ You can tell, you just get a feeling and it’s thrilling, there’s nothing like brilliant artwork and you usually got it right.”

He recalls their guitarist Chris Geddes saying that one of the key draws of vinyl - that it sounds better – has changed through modern manufacturing and production. “It isn’t going to sound like it used to, records get mixed and mastered digitally and pressed digitally onto vinyl, it’s a digital print on vinyl and it’s maybe not terrific quality.” Nonetheless, even as a lover of vinyl, Murdoch is more concerned with making “a great sounding, digital, pristine record. I know that 98, 99% of the people that hear our music will stream it and I want to get it right for them.” Jackson chips in that his songs were recorded in an analogue studio, “Although they did inevitably go digital somewhere down the line.”

The importance of how their audience listens to music prompts a question about the way Belle and Sebastian listen to music themselves and the impact on how they make their records. Murdoch says it doesn’t but wonders if it should, “You should probably go to the finishing line and consider how you listen to music, whether it’s cushioned earphones you listen to in bed or while you’re walking around, that’s what I do, it’s quite an intimate thing.”

Given how much music has changed since their inception, what it would be like if Belle and Sebastian were starting now? He says that if they formed in the '70s they’d be “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or something, maybe we’d be a mainstream concern.” Jackson wonders what would happen if someone of the calibre of Joni Mitchell came out now, “Would she immediately be that successful or is it a product of its time? I get the impression that there’s just so much more competition these days.”

Murdoch cites an article given to him by a music academic friend, written by Simon Frith fifteen years ago about how the music industry would change and the impact it would have on musicians. “I was trying to convince the record company about something we were doing, because you have this backwards and forwards about things, if you want to do something and they say no. Simon Frith wrote ‘in the future people in bands are going to have to be much more humble to get on and to make it all work’ and I think that was quite astute.”

Murdoch thinks that music, like other creative arts, has been demystified with the accessibility of sharing content and the means of production. “The internet came along and suddenly everybody’s a journalist. It’s the same with photography. Why not music? Let’s demystify it a little bit, lots of people can produce some kind of music these days and they do. There’s a range of quality, but there’s much more of it because it’s easier to do. It’s not a rare and magical thing, only for the people that happened to get a record deal back in the day.”

I put it to them that longevity is about enrichment and joy. There’s a line on “Sweet Dew Lee” - “I didn’t think, after twenty years, I’d be right back here” – that rather than sounding rueful or melancholic, has a palpable joy. Murdoch thinks ‘joy’ is good word, albeit one he’s not explicitly expressed before. “I’ve never really thought about that, I’m maybe too coy to actually come out and say it.” He recalls reading an interview with Bruce Springsteen about wanting to put the joy he experienced growing up his family life across in his music. “It’s a difficult thing to sustain but it’s a good thing to aim for, people deserve it for their twenty quid on a Friday night, that’s what they’re here for.”

Belle and Sebastian by Gaelle Beri

Creating a sense of joy and energy isn’t the easiest thing to sustain for a band that’s been together for a long time, I mention R.E.M as an example of a brilliant band who trailed off on their latter records. Murdoch contends that because they have six members, the chances are that one of them would speak up if the quality control, and indeed, the joy of playing together, slipped.

“We’re quite perceptive as people and we’d knock it on the head before that happened, we’d just know. Also, we’re more fleet of foot than R.E.M., they took about $8 million off Warner’s, they probably had to make those records, we don’t have to do anything.” Jackson adds that R.E.M’s contract was probably ten times that amount to which Murdoch says “Well there you go, the pressures off. We were never such a big band so we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do, including putting out records that we don’t like. We still do it because it’s thrilling.”

The word thrilling prompts Murdoch to put a question to his bandmate. “Stevie, was there a moment when we were doing the EPs, in rehearsals, writing or recording that you got a real buzz? I’m interested to know.” Jackson says he felt it when they recorded in an analogue studio at Green Door in Glasgow. “It’s tiny and we were practically on top of each other” and the recording of “The Girl Doesn’t Get It”, where he felt the same connection with music he had as a child. “I got the feeling when I was 10 years old and fantasized about being in a band, it sounded quite 1979, like “Turn It On Again” by Genesis! There was something about the structure and the feel that made me feel like a child, I had a feeling of real joy, it was a real buzz.”

The song took a long time to complete and Jackson says he felt the joy sap away from him until he heard the final mix “I sat there and closed my eyes and went ‘there it is...” Murdoch brings his friend out of his reverie. “’The Girl Doesn’t Get It’? The band doesn’t get it! That one took a long while to do, some songs are tricky. We only finished mastering a couple of days ago, suddenly we could breathe a sigh of relief and realise how much fun it was.”

Comparing live performance to recording, Jackson returns to the idea of joy, that their live shows are “fun, a night out, they’re joy! Its entertainment, hopefully with a few laughs and enlightenment and the group and the audience will feel better at the end of it than they did at the start, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Murdoch loves the live element of Belle and Sebastian but his bias comes back to recordings. “I always feel, especially in the last five or six years, I’m trying to convince everyone that the record we’re making is as important as I think it is. I love records and making recordings, there’s still nothing like it. It’s magical but it’s maybe not so revered now, there’s so much other music out there and it’s all free.” Consequently Murdoch feels an album release lacks the impact of old. “Once the record goes out it’s not so thrilling to the outside world, it’s kind of all over by the end of the weekend. Back in the day, when an LP of an artist you loved came out you’d be buzzing and effervescing through the whole summer with it, it would grow and grow on you.”

“I feel like I’m telling a story, stories that happened to me, to Stevie, to the band, the people around us and they’re still valid, they’re alive and it feels good to tell that story." - Stuart Murdoch

So what’s the role of Belle and Sebastian today for their audience? Murdoch says it’s a question they’ve been thinking about recently and wonders if it’s changing. “We’ve been around for twenty years and as many people come to see us as they ever did. It’s not just the music, because they can get music anywhere, so why are they coming? They’re coming for a sense of comfort, to get out of the house and be in a community of like-minded people, there’s lots of different reasons.”

Jackson feels Belle and Sebastian still resonate through the simple joy of writing affecting music. “When the first records came out it was the songs that drew people in. Those songs still have meaning and hopefully the songs we’ve written subsequently have meaning, they still have meaning to me. We can play anything off of Tigermilk or If You're Feeling Sinister and it’s not like a band reforming and playing past glories. Those songs are very alive to me, we play them and they resonate.”

Murdoch agrees, reflecting on the inclusion of their earlier material in their sets he compares playing them to the feeling he gets reading his son a bedtime story. “I feel like I’m telling a story, stories that happened to me, to Stevie, to the band, the people around us and they’re still valid, they’re alive and it feels good to tell that story. A lot of people understand that as well, the songs are still alive because stories stay alive.”

However music changes in its creation and consumption, the best exemplars of the art will always be founded on beautiful stories that merit retelling, that have meaning and provide connections between artists and their audience. Regardless of how time’s arrow moves, Belle and Sebastian, usurpers and trailblazers of the mainstream, like their stories, stay alive and grow more resonant with each read.

The first How To Solve Our Human Problems EP is released on 8 December via Matador

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