Belle and Sebastian Just Want to Dance…Not

girlsinpeacetime sqGuitarist Stevie Jackson expounds on Kristin Scott Thomas and an uncomfortable recording process.

 

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At 19, Belle and Sebastian are seen as an indie institution here in the U.S. Their fans look forward to each new album and concert tour. With the release of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, their ninth, the band created a minor stir with some claims that they were going political or, more disturbing, disco. Stevie Jackson, the band’s guitarist, is having none of it. “I saw one review online that we had mastered the dance thing. We didn’t set out to master a genre. I would have loved to make a disco album, because that’s what I’m feeling, but we are not reinventing the wheel, we are just finding ways to express ourselves.” Speaking from Glasgow, Jackson assured me that he is a big fan of more danceable music. “I’m a huge ABBA fan. If you were here, I would show you my wall of records, and there is a big stack of ABBA albums.”

The band, formed in 1996 in Glasgow, was a somewhat of a fluke. Singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch, along with Stuart David, recorded some demos as part of a class project at Stow College. These recording were picked up by a Music Business course at the college, which released one single each year on the college’s own label. The demos garnered such attention that the label allowed the now-band to record a full-length, which became Tigermilk. What was classwork became a full-time career.

Jackson joined the band soon after the initial recordings. His distinctive style of guitar playing has helped to give the band its sound. He talked to me on a wintry night in Scotland about the band and its creative process. Jackson, like most musicians, is a huge audiophile with a wall of vinyl and other recordings. When I ask if meeting a famous musician ever awes him, he responds, “I don’t really get in awe of  people. If I saw Patti Smith [near whom they were just slotted at a recent festival] walk by I’d be quite impressed, but oh, come on, she’s flesh and blood like the rest of us. Maybe it’s because I’m older. When I see a great performance, I’m totally in awe of that. I get impressed by content and not celebrity.” Jackson does, however, admit to being awed by one person: Kristin Scott Thomas. “She’s my favorite actress,” he gushes. “I go to see all her movies. especially her French movies. She’s played some extraordinary characters.” [I promised to keep this part in the article to promote Mr. Jackson’s adoration, so Kristin Scott Thomas, please take note.]ksthomas

Murdoch is the creative center of the band, handling most of the writing and singing. So when it comes to the feel of the album, Murdoch’s views often set the stage. “The content is always there in the lyrics, the stories; that’s what made us famous,” says Jackson, and then, “It depends on what we feel like when we go into the studio.” The journey with Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance was somewhat different than previous B&S records. The band had a heavy hand in the production, or worked hand-in-hand with producers Tony Hoffer and Trevor Horn. “In the past, we’d be in the studio with take after take ’til the magic happened.” Production on the new album was put in the hands of Ben H. Allen III from Milk Money. Allen has worked with a Who’s Who of recording artists, and most famously recorded and mixed “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. Jackson described the new process as, “We’d go in and record a song and be done within 45 minutes and he would say ‘all right.’ Then he’d take it away and screw with it, put weird noises on it and God knows what.”

Allen’s methods were a big change for the band. “It was uncomfortable, for sure,” according to Jackson. “It was good and uncomfortable. It was probably more painful for Stuart because he wrote most of the songs. When we would start changing directions, Stuart would say, ‘Where’s the fucking song?’” Jackson laughs a bit at the memory, but notes, “the rest of us were going, ‘This is great.’ I just loved it.” Allen’s process took the reins off the production and allowed the band to expand its boundaries  “More things were getting out there and there was a real difference to how we played. We would allow the music to get as far out there as possible, and then rein it back to a nice, good place.“ Jackson also explained that there was a sense of shared ownership with the producer. “We’ve worked with some great producers, but Ben, during the recording, kept referring to it as ‘our record.’ I thought that was interesting and very telling. “

The album, released in January, has received strong reviews across the board (except from Pitchfork.com, which I foolishly bring up, causing Jackson to blurt out “Bunch of bastards. Fuck them.”), and its North American release is being followed up with a tour across America. Jackson mentions that they are probably more popular in America than in Europe. On their stop in Denver, the band will play the venerable Red Rocks Amphitheatre accompanied by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and, as the guitarist assures me, “oxygen masks” to accommodate for the altitude.

As the interview winds down, I ask Jackson what I think is a slightly risky question: Do you think you will ever have a breakthrough in America? I backpedaled a bit to explain that it is obvious the band has an adoring fan base, but I wanted to know what he sees as success. “Every record, a breakthrough is what we have been trying to do for the last 20 years. We’ve done fantastically well and we’re popular and we make a living. I don’t know if we’ll ever play a stadium. Bands like Coldplay or Snow Patrol: We’re just not like them.”

I mention that their audiences often have a good cross section of ages, especially lots of younger fans who were probably not even alive when Tigermilk came out. “I was always hoping that we would be like the Rolling Stones; we would carry on and the kids would come and see you. I always worried that one day I would look at and see a sea of middle-aged guys.” He laughs. I volunteer unmarried guys in their 40s, to which Jackson enthusiastically says, “Yeah yeah,” then pauses to point out, “but I’m a unmarried guy in my 40s. Not putting these guys down; I am one. It’s just good to see young people.”

With that in mind and the band’s 20th anniversary fast approaching, I ask Jackson where he see them going. “Don’t know. I live in fear of not having a job; I’m not qualified for anything else. Luckily, the stuff that we have been doing has never been based on youthful good looks. It was more about the stories and the songs our audience liked. Nothing lasts forever, though, and it will end eventually, but I’d like to keep going ’til we drop dead.” | Jim Dunn


Belle and Sebastian are currently on tour in the U.S. and will appear at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Wednesday, June 17. After a brief stop in Europe for some festivals, they will return to North America for more dates. Check their website for more information. 

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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