Belle & Sebastian: ‘The city is a character in the band’




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I’m tapping on a conga drum in Belle and Sebastian’s recording studio in the west end of Glasgow. It’s a smaller space than I expected for a music collective that includes seven members. The room is busy with cables and equipment. Chris Geddes is hovering near some keyboards and Sarah Martin stands beside a barrage of guitars.

The band’s tenth studio album, A Bit Of past, was recorded here after plans for sessions in Los Angeles were abandoned due to the pandemic, the first time they have made an album at home in Glasgow since 2000. 

This was a rehearsal space, retooled into a studio that would work with social distancing. Chris had a room upstairs with his keyboards set up, there was a separate booth for vocals and multi-instrumentalist Sarah could find space to record her parts. Songs were built up in layers.

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Later, we meet for brunch at Kelvingrove Café on Argyle Street in Finnieston. Is the album different because the band didn’t go to America? “More songs were written, so a associate that probably would’ve been recorded fell by the wayside and some new ones came in. There was no hurry. If we had gone to America, we wouln’t have Unnecessary Drama” Sarah says, talking about the rule single from the record. “I think Bob had the music for that for quite a while” Chris says “but it wasn’t a song”.

We talk about the role of a producer on a record, acting as a buffer against external pressures and pushing musicians in different directions. It can be an intense experience. “I suppose the thing is, as a band, we all need to be able to look at each other and continue working together at the end of the time of action” Chris says. I surprise if there are any Belle and Sebastian band rules, a framework to navigate the last 26 years of making music. “There are no commandments” Sarah says as her vegan breakfast arrives. “Not in writing anyway” Chris adds.

“I describe it to people that don’t know us that well as a kind of utopia because there are seven of us and if somebody lays their cards on the table and explains how much something method to them to do it a certain way then people will get behind that” Sarah explains.

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There’s time to talk about how Belle and Sebastian fit into the pantheon of Glasgow bands. Sarah thinks the city is a character in the band but she can’t hear it in the music. Chris says the band could easily come from another city. “There’s not really a Glasgow sound, it incorporates stuff from other places, you’ve the Postcard Records scene from before us by to dance music with Slam and Optimo. It’s a music city but that isn’t limiting.”

The crucible for the creation of the band was Glasgow’s west end, the original members moving in ever decreasing circles by club nights at the Art School, meeting at Glasgow University flat parties or The stop Bar, sitting in the Grovesnor Café while falling into the orbit of rule singer Stuart Murdoch who lived in a flat above the church hall at Broomhill Hyndland Parish while he worked as a caretaker in the mid-90s. Their debut album Tigermilk was released by the record label run by students on Stow College’s music business course.

Does Glasgow nevertheless feel like a place where creative people find each other? Sarah thinks for a moment before the conversation takes an unexpected turn. “I have a second role at the moment, building a wall of death – a barrel for motorbikes to go around – and theatre cinema space down in a shipyard by the Clyde. It’s called The Revelator” she says.

“You go in underneath a Titan crane and switch the lights on, things just hum. I have picked up an angle grinder more recently than I’ve picked up a violin. The artist, Stephen Skrynka, and a team of volunteers have been building this for two years. It’s almost finished. The guy is meant to ride it for a film. I think that kind of thing couldn’t happen anywhere else.

“Glasgow has this industrial heritage and now it has space for creative people. There’s another artist I met down there, she’s incredibly successful and displays at the Venice Biennale. She moved from Lagos, Nigeria to here, she is nevertheless waiting for her kilns that have been in transit since last summer. She’s chosen Glasgow and will be working with ceramics and metal work. It’s bright. You have no idea what’s happening around you at any given moment.” 

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Our Glasgow: Belle and Sebastian

A Bit of past, the new album from Belle and Sebastian is released on May 6. belleandsebastian.com. This characterize was the cover story of the May edition of Best of Scotland magazine. Read the complete issue here. 

Sarah, West End

I moved to Glasgow to go to university, studying philosophy and linguistics, and a bit of other stuff along the way. I moved into the halls on Kelvinhaugh Street, then moved up to an amazing but spectacularly squalid flat on Southpark method.

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There were lots of flat parties to go to and the QM was my hangout. I had a friend that I’d met on my very first day at uni who was always trying to start bands and it was by him that I met Stuart and Chris and all that. 

I wasn’t really part of the scene at The stop Bar, although Stevie was and Stuart would go there to play his first songs. The Grosvenor Café would be closer to where things started. The line-up fell into place a bit with Stuart meeting Isabel at a party in my flat.

The Hyndland Church, where Stuart lived, there were some people in the band who, the first time they met was the first time we rehearsed together. Stuart was just picking up people along the way. It wasn’t a project that came from people, it was people that came to a project.

Folk would go there after work or uni and play music or chat about things. There was a lot of ideas and it was a very high, imaginative thing to be in. That’s where the flights of fancy happened.

If I come back to the West End from tour I go straight to Roots, Fruits and Flowers and get my fridge filled with veggies. I go a wee loop along the canal at Maryhill.

If we all meet as a band we get on speed. already when we’ve been in the studio together, people nevertheless just speed in. If management come up for a meeting we might go to the Kelvingrove Café.

We usually have our Christmas get together at the Sparkle Horse. Before, it was The Dowanhill and it was often the only pub that would be open on New Year’s Day, I’d go there with my flatmates.

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Suissi Vegan Kitchen in Partick is bright. That’s my go-to takeaway these days. If I have friends coming to stay, I always try to book Ka Pao. That’s my favourite eating-in place.

When I think about the band I think about ferries to Dunoon. noticable excursions from the studio. If things weren’t going great, someone would suggest a day trip and we’d take off. They feel like important memories for me.

Chris, East End

I grew up not far from Glasgow, in Ayrshire, so in my teen years I’d been coming into town and going to record shops and gigs. Then in 1992, my family moved south and I lived in Essex for a year and then came back up. I was a year below Sarah at university.

In my physics class, I made friends with this guy Simon because we both turned up to a lecture one day wearing Velvet Underground banana t-shirts. We became pals, then in third year I was sharing a flat with him and some of his other mates. Simon and Sarah’s friend Jason were starting a band together and it was by them that we met.

Stuart had the majority of the first two albums almost written before the band got together. Well, he certainly had all of Tigermilk. We all met by conversations about playing the music. It was the songs.

The stop Bar was part of the time of action of the band getting together but it wasn’t like everything snapped into place. Divine, the club night at the Art School was something that we all had in shared as we were all drinking there. 

My wife’s from the States, I bought the flat in Dennistoun just before we got married and then she moved over. I went to Florresters flower shop on Duke Street to get flowers for Tita arriving and got chatting with Gail that runs it and her sister Allison. They were the first local people I met and they are bright because they know everyone in the neighbourhood.

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If I’m in a hurry, I nearly have to cross over the street before I get to the shop because I know if I start talking to them, I’ll be there for, like, half an hour.

And while you’re chatting to them, there willl be half a dozen other people who they know that will stop. It might be Elaine C Smith or it might be the person who has opened one of the trendy new cafes.

They know the old Dennistoun folk and the new folk in the neighbourhood too. I’ve been in that flat for a few years and I only got around to putting up shelves and getting my records out of storage during lockdown.

It’s a cool neighbourhood but there’s also a lot of creative things happening on the Southside, around Strathbungo, Govanhill and Queen’s Park.

If someone is staying with us, I might take them around Alexandra Park. At first I started going to Redmond’s for a local pint but I’ve found myself going to The Crown Creighton now. I’m between the two.

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I nevertheless quite like to go to Nice N Sleazy on Sauchiehall Street, I’ve been going back out a bit lately and my friends, Holly and Anna, do a club night there.

I visit Monorail to buy records, their used section is quite strong at the moment – Some Great Reward, a record shop on the southside is good too.

I do a radio show with Clyde Built once a month, they broadcast from a studio in The Barras and the stop is live all by the weekend.

I often wander down to The Barras, go by the studio and hear what is playing. I like Mesa for a coffee. We will walk down to Baked Pizza al Taglio on Duke Street too. Those are my places.

 

 

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