Disco Inferno: Belle & Sebastian revisit 'Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance'
Kicking off our series to recap the ten shortlisted Scottish Album of the Year Award hopefuls, Belle and Sebastian keyboardist Chris Geddes walks us through the making of their most dancefloor-friendly record to date
Belle and Sebastian, by their own once prolific standards, have had what you could reasonably term a fallow decade. This is a band who put out their first two albums – and arguably some of their best work – in the space of six months back in 1996, and yet, since they released The Life Pursuit in 2006, there’s only been two more LPs to follow it: Write About Love in 2010, and Scottish Album of the Year nominee Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance back in January.
The primary culprit, when it came to these egregious delays between studio releases, was God Help the Girl. Frontman Stuart Murdoch was struck by the idea of what essentially amounted to a female-fronted Belle and Sebastian album back in 2004, on a run around Sheffield, but he didn’t get the chance to make it a reality until after the band had wrapped promotion for The Life Pursuit.
God Help the Girl finally surfaced in 2009, and after Murdoch found a bit of spare time to record Write About Love, he threw himself staight into the film version of his pet project. The movie – starring Emily Browning and Years and Years singer Olly Alexander – was a triumph, a gorgeous throwback to the French New Wave of the 60s, but it was hard to escape the feeling that, by now, a new Belle and Sebastian record was well overdue.
“We kept ourselves busy, working on bits and bobs,” says Chris Geddes, the keyboard player better known as Beans to the B&S faithful. “Stevie put out a solo record [the gloriously-titled (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson] and a few of us did quite a bit of work with Tony Doogan, who’s produced a lot of our stuff down the years. We were all involved with Stuart and the film, too – I had a walk-on part as a referee. The main things we were focused on were myself, Stevie and Bob [Kildea, guitarist] playing on an album by an American guy called Matt Costa, and myself and Tony working on a lot of disco-based stuff, some of which actually made the Belle and Sebastian record.”
“I worked on the Withered Hand record, so I suppose I actually had two horses in this race” – Chris Geddes
To say that Murdoch is the band’s primary songwriter would be to underplay it; it was his everyday stories of riding buses and walking across Glasgow that came to define the band on those early records as he recovered from chronic fatigue syndrome. Whilst he was making the film, though, his bandmates had to occupy themselves somehow – Geddes had ideas, but understood the uncertainty of the situation. “You can’t really predict what’s going to happen,” he explains. “Personally, I can’t sit down, write a song and say, “right, this could go on the next album”; Stevie and Sarah [Martin] both did that, but it’s beyond my remit, really. I worked away on a few things; I had demos of loops and synth sounds saved on my laptop, but you have to go into the sessions knowing that if they don’t work, then that’s that. I think we’ve all gotten better as we’ve gone on, though, and the interesting thing about this record – for me – is that everybody brought something different to it.”
Eventually, the band found themselves in a position to go out and record; they travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, with the songs “probably half-finished. Some tracks we had more or less nailed down – Enter Sylvia Plath, Nobody’s Empire, Allie – and others still needed a structure.” As with the last few B&S records, songwriting duties were split, with Jackson chipping in Perfect Couples and Martin behind The Book of You and The Power of Three. As disparate as the writing process might have seemed, though, the result seems homogenous; whichever way you look at it, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is clearly Belle & Sebastian’s dance record.
“Stevie joked that we should make a disco record, and it ended up happening!” says Geddes. “It all started with Bob writing The Party Line; that was very much intended to turn out as a dance track. Usually, it’s a case of the songwriting coming first and the musical direction being second, but that was a rare example of it being the other way around. Bob had that as a disco instrumental from the very start, and it’s funny; I think more and more of us have embraced that sort of thing in the last few years. There’s definitely an element of people being more into pop than the odd, leftfield stuff that perhaps they used to listen to.”
It’s something especially true of Murdoch; after all, God Help the Girl had him channeling 60s girl groups. “I think Stuart summed it up,” says Geddes. “He made a Spotify playlist that was just full of all these great pop tunes that everybody knows. There were no obscurities, and that’s what he was aspiring to, in terms of the writing; he wanted to write pop songs.”
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance was recorded in Georgia for reasons of practicality; the album’s producer, Ben H. Allen, is based there. “I was excited about working with him, because I loved the sound of the Washed Out and Animal Collective albums he’d done,” explains Geddes. “We’d had an indirect recommendation from the Kaiser Chiefs; we have the same manager, and he was telling us that they’d raved about Ben.” As far as Atlanta might have seemed to a group who recorded their early LPs close to home in Glasgow’s Hyndland Parish Church Hall, though, there remained a degree of divine intervention on the record itself.
“Stuart, Sarah and I went to a service at one of the huge gospel churches,” Geddes recalls. “We were completely blown away at the music, and we ended up getting some of the local gospel singers on the record. I think it’s something that probably would have happened anyway – I think Ben already had it in mind – but it was a real experience, going to that church. That was the one real way that Atlanta itself had an impact on the album.”
There was another challenge entirely to deal with in Georgia, though; after a months-long schedule on God Help the Girl with little in the way of breaks, Murdoch found himself in the throes of a relapse of his ME – the chronic fatigue syndrome that effectively consigned him to a life of spectatorship between 1989 and 1996 – and the band had to figure out how they could both look after him and deliver the album they’d promised to new label Matador.
“It was difficult,” admits Geddes. “In the end, it became a case of letting him pick his own routine. It was tricky, because most of us were staying in a shared house, and then Stuart and Sarah were in apartments in a different part of town; I think it fell to Sarah to make sure he was alright. We were all worried, obviously, but all we could do was work around his schedule as best we could.”
Nobody’s Empire is far and away the most personal song Murdoch’s ever written about his illness; in the past, he’d project his frustrations onto everyday passers-by, but once you’ve heard this particular track, and the myriad references to hell that come with it, you understand better how profoundly affecting, and how debilitating, his illness really is. “It seems obvious now, but it took a while to click with me,” admits Geddes. “I remember mixing it, and being in the studio with Tony Doogan – we heard that line about being in bed, and both said, “is this about somebody’s parent dying?” It makes sense now, of course, but when you’re working on these songs, they sometimes just become a series of chord changes; you forget they carry meaning.”
On top of that, though, there’s a slew of obviously political lyrics on Girls in Peacetime; take, for example, Allie, which opens with the lines ‘when there’s bombs in the Middle East, you want to hurt yourself / when there’s knives on the city streets, you want to end yourself’. “That was less surprising to me.” says Geddes. “I think, because the subject matter was less personal and more about the outside world, I felt more aware of it. It’s the sort of thing we talk about anyway – when we’re rehearsing, and when we’re socialising. I think we've had songs that have been political in the past, it’s just that they’ve been vague. It’s been great to see that particular side of things made more explicit.”
Glasgow is by no means short of indie pop groups – this Daily Mash article from last year springs to mind in that respect – and yet Belle and Sebastian sit atop the lot; last month, they played their biggest ever show on this side of the Atlantic, in front of 16,000 at the SSE Hydro in their hometown. The Twitter wind-up merchants were out in gentle force – “Warning! Sniffer dogs are looking out for fans smuggling in artisan bread!” – but for the band it was a real benchmark. “I think it went well,” laughs Geddes. “It was almost too much to take in at the time, because it was so different to the shows we’d done leading up to it. I felt like Stuart really rose to the occasion, though, and all the little extras we had – the choreographed dancing and the orchestra – worked perfectly. Personally, I’m still at the stage where there’s so much extra programming and computer stuff going on that I’m just happy to get through a show without that stuff bringing everything to a juddering halt, but it didn’t happen at the Hydro, so I guess it went well.”
Beyond their placement in the SAY Award shortlist – Geddes is backing Honeyblood, Errors and Happy Meals, by the way – Belle and Sebastian have some concrete touring plans in the diary. “We’re going across the States, and then playing festivals over the summer,” Geddes says. “We’ve got South America coming up in the Autumn, and then I think we’ll probably play some shows next year – just not as full on as everything’s been lately. I think most of us would prefer to be busy with the band for a little while. It’s not just up to me, obviously – but if it was, I’d love to keep things rolling.”