BMX Bandits Forever: Duglas T Stewart interview
The Belshill indie-pop icons are back with their tenth full-length – frontman Duglas T Stewart talks us through it
Duglas T Stewart is one of indie-pop’s great survivors. Glasgow’s collection of bands and artists that fall under that description have always upset the odds, whether it was Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian fending off M.E. to produce two classic LPs in 1996 or The Pastels emerging from years of hibernation in 2013 to return with the glorious Slow Summits.
Stewart is very much from that type of stock. The Bandits are the very definition of a cult band – their fans are feverish in their devotion, but outwith that base, they’re not especially well-known. Since starting out in 1986, they’ve encountered just about every peak and trough you might imagine a group of their ilk could, from being billed as Kurt Cobain’s favourite group to spending time on a major label, even though they always seemed as DIY as it’s possible to get. When I request a copy of their latest release ahead of this interview, Stewart emails it to me himself.
The line-up of the Bandits, who were born out of the ashes of other bands that counted The Vaselines’ Frances McKee and Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake among its members, has waxed and waned over the years, with Stewart the mainstay and chief creative force. Next month, they’ll release their tenth full-length, BMX Bandits Forever, and first since 2012's ...In Space. It’s every inch as bright and buoyant as the name suggests, but one that – beneath the gently-presented melodies – retains a deep, underlying vein of emotional exploration.
It’s also the first Bandits LP since Stewart, now in his fifties, finally made the move to Glasgow from Belshill, the gritty industrial town 12 miles south-east of the city he'd called home all his life. “I think one of the reasons I was in Belshill for so long,” he relates over the phone, “is that my elderly, widowed mother was there. Also, I was a single father at one point, and had a child at school. So there was a family element to me staying there that wasn’t as strong once my mother died a couple of years ago. I didn’t need to check in on whether the bulb needed changing, or whatever. I did end up moving to Glasgow for love though, as well. It was a no-brainer, as they say.”
Such circumstances explain the protracted gestation of BMX Bandits Forever, as well as the blend of contentment and melancholy that defines it. It’s clear, though, that Belshill helped to shape both Stewart’s outlook and the Bandits themselves, particularly in their early days; Stewart attended the same high school as Blake from Fanclub, and it informed his attitude which, for all the Bandits’ cuddliness, was pure punk.
“That school was regarded as one of the roughest in Scotland,” he recalls, “and that sort of thing tended to make people want to keep their heads down, and try to fit in. For me, it was the opposite. I seemed to want to irritate people, so I’d do things like turn up at smoker’s corner with a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe. When that stopped annoying them, I swapped it for a pinch of snuff. There was a period where I kept telling people my name was Nancy. We’d play a show in a club in Belshill and I’d be up there on stage eating a banana.”
That kind of behaviour was the making of both Stewart and the Bandits, though. “It sorted out the mice from the men, to a certain extent. If you were unafraid to be like that in Belshill, you could cope with doing it in Brighton or Glasgow or wherever. Bands like us, The Pastels and Orange Juice might not sound confrontational, but we really were, because not only would you annoy the guys with perms and sleeveless t-shirts wanting to kill you, it also wound up the harder punks, because they were a bit like, 'it should be all-out destroy – why have you got a little satchel and an anorak? We don't like this!'”
Years later, the Bandits live on and are presently a six-piece, although much of BMX Bandits Forever is Stewart’s own work. He’s well-connected, though, and agrees that the sense of community within Glasgow’s music scene has been handy for the group over the years.
“I mean, the nature of the Bandits is that it’s a bit of an extended musical family,” he laughs. “I think it’s always felt like everybody’s on the same side. You’d pop up on each other’s records, and play your new songs for people in other bands before anybody else. When something really great would happen for somebody like Teenage Fanclub, or Belle and Sebastian, or Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, there’d be a sense of everybody going, 'great!' instead of 'you bastards!' People like Bill, Norman, Stevie Jackson – these are all people who’ve been involved with the Bandits.”
Plus, even if the album’s taken a while to wing its way into the world, the songs weren’t necessarily drawn out in terms of their recording – Stewart says that none of them took more than six hours to cut from him turning up to the studio to them being mixed.
“I was thinking a lot about David Bowie after he died, and his working processes tended to be along the lines of, 'let’s go in and do it, we won’t do another take – let’s try to capture something special.' A lot of my favourite records do that – they end up feeling authentic. It’s nice to embrace happy accidents, like a door slamming in the background, or whatever. It’s a bit like you’re eavesdropping on something, and you know it’s not been overworked.”
The next chapter in the history of both this collection of songs and the band themselves will be for them to whir back into live action, with Stewart promising that there’ll be plenty more shows than there have been over the last couple of years, with setlists that’ll span their entire discography. As a new generation of fans are turned on to the band, Stewart’s noticed that the crowds are getting younger – something that clearly delights him. That's not least because, as much of a nostalgist as he might seem, he's a huge advocate for young bands making their way up in the world in Glasgow – he namechecks both Happy Meals and Spinning Coin, for instance.
“After shows, I’ve had people in their late teens and early twenties come up to me and say that they really love the Bandits, which is nice,” he says. “Sometimes they’ll even name other bands that don’t exist any more but had friends of mine in, like Swell Maps. It seems like they’re looking at us not in a nostalgic way, but because they feel a connection with us because there’s something there that feels quite authentic. That’s all I can really ask for.”