Twenty-one years ago, in a flurry of creativity between their second and third albums, Belle and Sebastian released three fondly regarded EPs featuring a string of guest musicians.
This year they have returned to the format for another trio of related releases titled How To Solve Our Human Problems Parts 1-3.
The band’s keyboard player Chris Geddes says the idea for the trilogy came from the band’s founder and frontman Stuart Murdoch. The suggestion appealed to the rest of the band, he says, because “in a certain sense” it brought them back to their roots, particularly as it meant they could “stay in Glasgow to record and do some of the production ourselves”.
Then there was the “slightly anachronistic format” itself, with each EP containing five tracks (later collated onto a single CD).
Geddes says not having to adhere to the conventional narrative arc of an album freed the sextet creatively, with the results being an experimental array of styles. “That was some of the thinking behind doing it. [The songs] didn’t necessarily have that consistent assigned part to the EPs.
“We also knew we weren’t going to be doing all the recording in the same studio with the same producer so there wasn’t a unifying aesthetic imposed on it other than what arises naturally from the way the band works together and what our whims and tastes dictate.”
Much like their last couple of full-length albums, “just about everybody” chipped in on the song writing side. “Going through them, when you look at the writers, there’s two of [guitarist] Stevie [Jackson]’s, two songs of [violinist] Sarah [Martin]’s, one that started with [bassist] Bob [Kildea]’s musical idea and then Stuart made and song out of it, and one that started with my musical idea and Stuart made a song out of, which is roughly the ratio that it’s been on the last few records.
“I think you try to get the best out of everybody. You recognise that people have different strengths and you’re working towards a common goal.”
One subtle change, however, saw Murdoch resume his pivotal role of old. “It’s funny because actually with this project there was more [of the burden] on him them there maybe was on the last couple of records,” says Geddes. “In a sense it’s been because he’s wanted to do it. I think it’s partly a reaction against the way the last record [Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance] went where he wasn’t as hands-on as he maybe has been, partly because his health wasn’t great when we were in Atlanta. A lot of the time the rest of us were in the studio working with [producer] Ben [H Allen III] and Stuart wasn’t necessarily there all the time, which is not usually the way it’s been when we’ve made a record.
“I think this time he wanted to be in the studio all the time when we were working on these songs.”
Recording in Glasgow, where the band first formed in 1996, was eminently convenient. “People in the band have got families and we’d come off the cycle of going away to record the last album and then going away on tour,” says Geddes. “We didn’t want the band to just grind to a halt for a while. I think we had to figure out a way of working at home again, which is good.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to work at home. Most people have to do it all the time so why should being in a band be any different?”
It wasn’t that Glasgow didn’t have the facilities in the past, he says, citing CaVa and Chem 19, built by Paul Savage from The Delgados. “It’s just that we weren’t always in the right mindset to do it. I think there was a while when we felt that to get the focus we had to get away from the distractions of home.”
The covers of the three EPs feature photographs of fans. Geddes explains: “Stuart put out a call on social media which is something he quite often does, whether it’s asking people what song they want to hear in the set list or just asking for people’s thoughts on things. He’s always come up with the artwork but this time there was more to it than just going and taking a photo. He did try to reach out to the fans and ended up convening a big photo shoot in London where I think something like 80 people turned up, all of whom I think have ended up either on a cover or the inner sleeve of the EPs.”
Geddes says he feels a sense of “gratitude” to all those who have stuck with them over the course of the last two decades. “I guess, like a lot of long-terms bands, some of them have become personal friends as well, but obviously that is a small percentage of the audience, really.
“We feel a responsibility to ourselves to try and keep the standards up in what we’re doing and to always try to improve, but we don’t try and second-guess what our fans want to hear. I think if we did that we wouldn’t have made any of the disco stuff in the last few years.”
As for which records from a now considerable catalogue he feels best capture the spirit of the band, Geddes points to “The Life Pursuit album is one that stuck out as maybe feeling quite successful at the time, in terms of sounding like what we hoped it would at the time”.
Of the new material he picks out “Sarah’s song, Same Star, turned out really well, and both Show Me The Sun and Poor Boy as well, the two that we did with Inflo, he definitely got something out of us that we’ve maybe sometimes strived for and not done quite so successfully before. On Show Me The Sun he definitely got us to sound heavier than we ever have on record before, which I really like.
“Stuart’s one, A Plague On Other Boys, I had that had something pretty special as well.”
The band intend to integrate as many of the new songs as possible into the set on their UK tour. “I don’t think we’ll be packing the set with new ones but we’ll definitely be playing at least a handful every night,” Geddes says, revealing that just before they set off for some European dates they’d been working on reproducing the percussion samples in Poor Boy live. “We been going down to the wire with it in the usual B&S way,” he chuckles.
How To Solve Our Human Problems Parts 1-3 is out now. Belle and Sebastian play at York Opera House on March 20. belleandsebastian.com