Breakfast with Belle & Sebastian: The meaning of pop

In the first of our two part conversation with Glasgow's best loved indie exports,Belle & Sebastian debate modern musical innovation and... Taylor Swift?

Article by Katie Hawthorne | 17 Jan 2015
  • Belle & Sebastian

The Skinny’s breakfast date with Belle and Sebastian, just before Christmas, ran way over time. Warming up from the frosty, bright morning in Glasgow’s Hyndland and fuelled by strong coffee and french toast, Stuart Murdoch, Chris Geddes, Sarah Martin, Richard Colburn and Stevie Jackson bickered affectionately, describing the recording process and inspiration behind Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. They talked with so much care, detail and warmth that it seems only right to show (part of) their discussion in full: This first installment examines just how “pop” are Belle & Sebastian, really? And, come 2014, what does innovation mean to the band?

The Skinny: Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is markedly different; with previous Belle & Sebastian records you could imagine some tracks fitting in on other albums, but you definitely can’t this time.

Stevie: Well, that’s great. That’s a really great thing to say.
Chris: It’s kind of weird, because I think on the one hand, a song like Ever Had A Little Faith?... I do really love that song, and I think it’s one of the best things on the record, but that song sort of could have been on any of the previous records. I mean, you don’t want to say that there’s a line in the sand, but at the same time you do hope that the record you make in 2014…. that there is going to be something about it that you couldn’t have done in 2001. 
Sarah: And also, you like to think that a record hangs together, and has its own cohesive identity. It’s nice when you can see continuity in things, but it’s also nice when it’s part of a whole, you know?

We had a few ideas about what that specific “identity” could be. Firstly there’s a kind of 1940s vibe, but also… robots? And Europop?

Stuart: Well, as long as it adds up to something that doesn’t seem completely contrived. As long as it seems enjoyable and doesn’t make you want to be sick, then that’s okay! A forties/Europop mashup sounds about right...
Stevie: I wonder what Europop would have sounded like in the forties?
Sarah: If Alan Turing had synths?

And then the artwork has these vintage, sepia tones…

Stevie [to Stuart]: I liked what you said, that the artwork’s like the fifteenth song. I think that’s true. It’s another dimension, or something like that.
Stuart: It is a funny time for music though. I feel a bit out of it. You know, back in the day when I was listening to music, I would see music as quite innovative? Pop music was innovative, always moving forward. Pop music just now - I hear the kind of innovative stuff, and I don’t like it. I don’t like it so much.
Chris: But people our age probably didn’t like plenty of stuff in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s either. For a lot of people it was just a noise, it was just people shouting…
Stevie: Now there’s nothing left to do, though! White noise?
Richard: Silence? It’s already been done…

To be fair, Taylor Swift accidentally topped the charts with a track entirely made of static this year.

Stuart: Genius. And it lasted for 4 minutes and 33 seconds? And talking about there being nothing left, if you look at the ‘40s and all that, classical music – it got to a certain place after the moderns and [...] innovation stopped. But then, the public didn’t really care because they were getting into jazz or whatever, music hall, and eventually rock’n’roll. So maybe it’s to do with technology, and sociological shifts as well?
Stevie: I thought there was a real change in the ‘80s and ‘90s with techno and all that.
Stuart: Nobody saw that coming.
Chris: With hindsight though, that was just a continuation of disco.
Stuart: But.. when I listen to these bands now, it just sounds like the ‘80s to me. Has music really changed that much in the last ten years?
Chris: Yeah, because the records all used to be really linear and now it’s all about the big drop…
Richard: It’s moved from self expression to doing it for the dancefloor. It’s two different places.

So where do you see yourselves on that spectrum, then? Your music is often described as having a kind of… nostalgic atmosphere. How do you balance that with trying to push forward?

Richard: We don’t!
Sarah: I don’t think we do. We’re not precious like, “Oh, we want to sound like this.” We’re almost never trying to achieve a specific sound. We write the songs and then we play them, and we sound like us. And then we get a producer and hopefully they… approve? They… get it, and it’s like the dressing on the salad. Same salad, different dressing.
Stevie: And it’s nostalgic because we’re old. To be completely honest with you, I’m over forty and pop culture… its not my department any more, you know? 
Stuart: But saying that, we’ve got great music at our fingertips. I’m always confident that we can produce great music. That’s the only thing that drives this band to the rehearsal room year upon year to make a new record. And I don’t feel old when I’m writing a song, music is ageless that way. I do quite often tap into younger characters, to write the songs for me. I’ve often said, it’s a young man’s game so simply be a dramatist about it, you know? It’s a trick that works again and again.
Stevie: I disagree with you there. The question was, where do you see yourself on the spectrum? I don’t even see myself on the spectrum.
Richard: But the ironic thing about pop music these days, is that people in the band are over thirty, in their forties. The co-writers, the producers… They’re working with kids who are eighteen, nineteen. Jake Bugg, One Direction, everybody has that. It’s the way it is...
Sarah: Even in the ‘60s they weren’t children either. They were like, 30 year old writers. 
Stuart: Alright, so listen: What if we’re just puppets and in fact, our puppet master is like… teenage kids, you know? Like Bugsy Malone? The funny thing is, it is getting a bit like that… our management team, and everybody at the label. Suddenly they all look like children but they’re telling us what to do. 

The idea of “pop” music is important to the album; on The Everlasting Muse you sing, “If you want to be popular, play pop.” Would you even consider yourselves a pop band?

[Silence]

Chris: We… argue. ‘Cause for me, I would say not. Because if you do self-identify as pop, you’re putting yourselves in the same categories as bands like One Direction and people like that. And to me, we’re absolutely not… but…
Stuart: I’m just glad that we don’t self-identify or whatever too much. Or you’ll get on the stage like Kings of Leon! [in reference to an earlier conversation about the catastrophic KoL headline performance at Reading Festival 2009].
Richard: Yeah, how dare you like our most popular record?! 

But, is there ever an element of “Ooh that’s too out there, we need to rein it in?”

Chris: With this record, it’s definitely the time we went, “Well, there are no rules. Nothing is going to be too out there.” Basically, this record is us going as out there as we can!

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"It could become church music, it could become reggae; believe me, we can do these things" – Belle and Sebastian on their electronic renaissance

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is released via Matador on 19 Jan. Playing Manchester Albert Hall on 14-15 May, Glasgow Hydro with the Scottish Festival Orchestra on 22 May and Liverpool Sound City on 24 May http://www.belleandsebastian.com