Nineties indie band Belle and Sebastian are embracing a dance floor-friendly sound with their latest album. Duncan Seaman reports.
First impressions can be a hard thing for bands to shake, especially in the case of Belle and Sebastian, the Glasgow group whose wry, literate pop songs lit up the British indie scene in the late 1990s.
That they’ve gone on to do many things since – including working with Trevor Horn, the A-list producer behind hits by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Seal and Grace Jones – didn’t shake their popular image as sensitive, bookish types.
A brief listen to their ninth studio album, Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance, however suggests a band keen to embrace more electronic, dance floor-friendly sounds.
“It wasn’t so much creeping in, it was like, ‘Let’s make a disco album’ – that was the first thing we said,” says guitarist Stevie Jackson of the band’s new dance party and Euro pop direction. “It was almost like other things crept into the disco concept so it’s not really a disco album, it was a kind of feeling of it.
“It’s like anything, there was always a feeling in the air. I think the songs – or the majority of them – have an in-built rhythm element.”
He explains that where once the band’s vocalist and principal songwriter Stuart Murdoch would play a new song to the rest of the band on piano or guitar then the others would play along, “for this record Stuart would walk in, walk up to the microphone and just start tapping the microphone, the rhythm, and usually it was a four-on-the-floor bass drum kind of thing, the next thing a bass line, then we’d go from there.
“All of these songs were written with rhythm in mind, as opposed to just melody and lyrics.”
To produce and mix the album, the band turned to Ben H Allen III, who had previously worked with R&B and hip hop acts such as Gnarls Barkley, Cee Lo Green and M.I.A. “As we go along we’re always looking to stir things up slightly,” Jackson says. “That’s why we worked with Trevor Horn and Tony Hoffer [the former Beck, Goldfrapp and The Kooks producer]. At the time, it was like, ‘Well, this is different’.
“Ben was really appealing to us because he came from a different sensibility. His whole background and training and experience was making hip-hop records, he’s a big part of the Atlanta hip-hop scene so that immediately was very appealing because he loved the sounds of those records and it’s just a different thing – those were the main reasons.”
In a recently published interview with a music magazine, Jackson was quoted as saying that Belle and Sebastian was “Stuart’s band”. Today the 46-year-old “doesn’t remember” saying that, but he does shed light on how the band works.
“I don’t believe in democracies either. It ebbs and flows. It’s not like every decision we sit down and vote on it. We tried that in the early days, it was so depressing.
“I think with the group people have different interests, people have different concerns, people have different skills. People generally think of Belle and Sebastian as a kind of collective where you can express yourself any way you want within that collective.
“Certainly Stuart’s the main guy, he started the band and it’s his voice, his poetic story lyrics which made us what we are today. But Stuart’s very long-sighted. I didn’t really see it at the time but 18 years ago I remember him saying to me, ‘I need help’. I said, ‘We can’t write songs like this, what are you talking about?’ But he said, ‘No, no, I need help. If we’re going to survive and go on I can’t keep doing it all the time, I need contributions from other people’, so that’s kind of what happened.
“And he was right – I think that’s why we’ve been around so long.”
The fact that the band has never been a “strict format” and that it has had a few changes of members has allowed “people to rise up and contribute more as they go along as they got more confident and more experienced,” Jackson says.
“Our new single was written by Bob [Kildea, the band’s bass player], it’s his first song, so there’s an example of it. No doubt after this triumph he’ll right some more. That will continue to give us another element or another angle on stuff.
“As you go along you want to go deeper into your influences, you can’t just keep making Tigermilk [Belle and Sebastian’s lo-fi debut album, recorded as a college project in 1996]. So, I don’t think we are Stuart’s band,” he reflects. “I think the word that sums us up best is ‘collective’, like a little Socialist community.”
Building a spirit of togetherness within Belle and Sebastian has taken a long time. “It took years and years,” Jackson admits. “We are a collective and we’re good friends, we have a good working relationship and we’re good colleagues and we like each other and we have a laugh and it’s all great, but God, it’s been earned. It took a long time to get to that.
“Initially we were formed to do a college record, and it was just people slung together who didn’t know each other and they’re a band. It’s not the usual people at school, mates hanging out, it wasn’t like that and it was complicated.
“I was a veteran, I was 26 at the time, I’d been playing in bands for ten years, but there were other people in the band who were just out of teens, they’d just turned 20, and it was like dealing with kids. It was a very wide variety of experience and age.
“At that age, the difference between 26 and 20 is a lot, not like 36 and 38, it’s exactly the same, but back then it was a different thing.
“It took a few years, people to join and people to leave, it evolved to get to its current idyllic state.”
• Belle and Sebastian’s new album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is out now. They play at Leeds Town Hall on May 19. For tickets details visit www.leeds.gov.uk/townhall