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Interviews, Music

Interview: Belle and Sebastian: A Fresh Start for Old Friends

By: Laura Beaulne-Stuebing –

Belle and Sebastian.

F

ive years may seem like a long time between records for fans of Glasgow’s Belle and Sebastian. In almost two decades since  Tigermilk debuted in 1996, the band has never waited more than 3-years to cut and release a new LP. The band has never surprised their fans and critics alike as much as they have with this year’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

Stevie Jackson is the guitarist and sometimes singer for the twee band feels that the time since 2010’s Write About Love wasn’t really all that long. They have been touring, writing, working on new material, and touring even more. He put out a solo album in 2012. Then they recorded and finished their ninth in 2014, for a 2015 release. They stayed busy, Jackson especially.

“The last couple of years in Glasgow, I’ve been playing in a disco band,” he says on a trans-Atlantic phone call. “I can’t help but be influenced by things like that,” he adds.

And it’s obvious on Girls in Peacetime…a record with a heart beat, synths, and bass drums from the dance floor. Few would think that Belle & Sebastian’s sacrosanct Wes Anderson-styled twee sound would be influenced by disco and Europop, but the stereotypes of the past don’t correlate to present-day Belle and Sebastian. Girls in Peacetime… opens with “Nobody’s Empire,” a moving tune about Murdoch’s experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, but with the healing powers of pop. “The Party Line” comments on the very thing that it beckons: dance music and “Enter Sylvia Plath” may be the only Europop song to ever be written about the American poet and novelist.

Jackson says Girls in Peacetime wasn’t really an evolution of the band’s sound as much as it was a deliberate choice to change directions.

“Like any given time, it’s kind of what’s in the air, you know? I think [for] our previous album Write About Love, what was in the air was more of a reflective vibe…it was less making a big noise,” he says.

“With this record I think we had a sense we wanted to do something kind of up-tempo…a sound [that] we hadn’t had before.”

Much of what’s heard on those twelve tracks from Girls in Peacetime is thanks to Ben H. Allen, the producer behind Animal Collective and Deerhunter, but Jackson says the band’s new collaborator is really a hip-hop man with his heart in Atlanta.

“We hired him because we wanted something different and we wanted a different approach. And we certainly got it, because he’s from another world.”

It was an education for Belle and Sebastian as Allen altered the band’s methods of construction.

“He would have us record the song, and take it to his room and just mess with it, mess with the sounds, sometimes mess with the rhythm. You know, really go to town on it,” Jackson continues. It was a collaborative process that took the veteran indie musicians out of their comfort zone and created something still Belle and Sebastian, but danceable.

Belle and Sebastian - "Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance"

Much of what’s heard on Belle and Sebastian’s new album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is thanks to Ben H. Allen, the producer behind Animal Collective and Deerhunter.

“The thing that I kind of aspire to…[is] being surprised. Unexpected in a way,” Jackson adds. “I tend to chase that… that’s what I always want to do. [Allen] definitely supplied that, which is great.”

Cutting the record in Atlanta with Allen was a collaborative process, but so was creating the songs. Amongst most of Belle and Sebastian’s  more lauded and successful albums, Stuart Murdoch’s penchance for creating characters and telling stories through his lyrics have been pivotal. But Girls in Peacetime incorporates other members in the songwriting process. Sarah Martin wrote a few, and Jackson wrote ‘Perfect Couples’ with keyboardist Chris Geddes.

The current makeup of Jackson, Murdoch, Martin, Geddes, bassist Bobby Kildea and drummer Richard Colburn isn’t what Belle and Sebastian has always been. Other members have come and gone over the years, but the ebbs and flows is a good thing, in Jackson’s eyes.

“We can only see this as positive,” Jackson says. “I think as long as you’ve got a situation where everyone wants to be there, it’s easy.”

“We all like each other, and we’re going to like each other… [and] over time you get to know people and become, you know, best friends,” he adds. “It becomes part of your identity after a while, and they become your family.”

And although Jackson says he’ll be working on material for himself in the future, probably writing while on the road, he’s always thought of Belle and Sebastian as a little collective that will keep going, even after these many years.

“It’s a bit like a marriage in a sense…a feeling of calm or serenity, or just the ability to play music together, it just gets easier,” he says. “It just works.”

When asked how he expects fans will receive the new album and new sound, he says jokingly that he expects the record will get five-star reviews. “My expectation is that people will say it’s a masterpiece.”

But then he adds that he hopes the album—so different from the others—is simply listened to and enjoyed. One of the best reviews he’s ever read, Jackson says, was for Girls in Peacetime… suggesting that the new album feels more like a fresh start for a group of old friends.

 

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