INTERVIEW: Belle & Sebastian | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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‘Twee’ is a word that’s unfairly haunted Glaswegian indie-poppers Belle & Sebastian for years. Despite often containing lyrical content that’s a lot darker than their sunny exterior suggests, the band’s light-hearted and often playful attitude towards their music has meant that, though well loved, they’ve never been particularly fashionable. But, as drummer Richard Colburn states, “if you’re not in fashion, you’re not out of fashion either.”

Indeed, their ninth LP, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, isn’t exactly littered with cutting edge, contemporary beats and melodies and can quite easily be described as ‘Belle & Sebastian Go Disco’, but that’s what gives it a distinct charm. Wait. Belle & Sebastian…and disco?!

Lead single The Party Line was certainly a curveball, with an unexpected divergence towards Europop. The theme continues on the funk of Perfect Couples, The Everlasting’s Muse’s klezmer-pop and Enter Sylvia Plath’s Eurovision-lite stomp. B&S had hinted at dance music previously with a smattering of synths on their previous LP Write About Love, but nothing as brash as this.

Some of this can be placed on the influence of producer Ben H Allen, who has previously worked with Animal Collective and Cee Lo Green among others. “His original background is hip-hop and electronic stuff,” Colburn explains, “so we tried to hit something along those lines as far as it can go. It was quite interesting coming to him…that’s his bread and butter so it was good fun.”

The more hands-off approach Allen took with the band also gave them a new sense of freedom. As Colburn explains, “we’d get to lunch time and he’d lock himself in the control room and lock the door more or less, and for the rest of the afternoon we’d go nuts. We’d go in this crazy direction and he’d come in and go ‘WOAH! That’s amazing, who thought that up?’” It was a new way of working, which Colburn and his bandmates weren’t used to at first: “There were quite a few songs that were done and dusted and that’s the way they were gonna be… But quite often we would go into the studio at about 10.30 in the morning, have a couple of goes at recording and [Allen would] say ‘right I’ve got everything I need’ and we’d say ‘what?!’”

Colburn is particularly animated about his time working with Allen, noting that it gave everyone in the band a greater freedom to experiment with various genres. For Colburn’s drumming, this meant drawing on some unexpected sources. He stated recently that he wanted to re-evaluate the classic Detroit techno scene, which nurtured such talents as Juan Atkins and Derrick May, and I wondered if this had also had a bearing on the sound of the album, at least from a rhythmical perspective. “Definitely in the arrangements,” he stated. “The basslines and the mechanics of how they put these things together have influenced me a little bit.” He adds, intriguingly, “I think in the next one more of us will bring these things to the table.”


Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance isn’t exactly littered with cutting edge, contemporary beats and melodies and can quite easily be described as ‘Belle & Sebastian Go Disco’

Curiously though, it’s Enter Sylvia Plath (a typically literate but atypically ABBA-esque romp) that happens to be Colburn’s favourite track, though it took a little while for him to warm to its 70s vibe. “When I first heard it I thought ‘Jesus Christ, what have we got here?’” he admits. “I was thinking, ‘what are you doing Stuart? What is this all about?’ But actually, it’s great and what Ben did with it is fantastic.”

Not everything on the album is sweetness, light and disco, though. Girls In Peacetime… is also the band’s most personal album to date, with frontman Stuart Murdoch presenting confessionals in the shape of Play For Today and, notably, Nobody’s Empire, which focuses on Murdoch’s pre-B&S struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. “We recorded them specially where we all linked together,” Colburn notes of these more personal tunes. “We played them completely live, and that was more or less the take, whereas with the other ones, they were kind of ‘built’ a little bit more.”

The personal aspects to the album are compounded by the fact that it’s a record still firmly cemented in the band’s hometown of Glasgow. Despite tracks like Allie containing references to “bombs in the Middle East”, the album looks much further inward than it does out into the world. “Glasgow has always influenced all the records in its own way,” Colburn explains, “I think the spirit of the records are here. The songs are written in Glasgow but the last three records were recorded in different cities and different countries; that kind of focuses you and it definitely influences the record and the way you’re playing. The spirit of a lot of our stuff is definitely here in Glasgow, without a doubt.”

Nearly twenty years into their career, B&S continue to be highly successful. I wondered what gave them such a universal appeal. “I’m not sure,” Colburn admits. “Stuart writes songs in a way you can identify with,” he muses, “and melodically it’s really accessible as well. The tunes kind of stick in your head.” Despite their slight change in musical direction then, Belle & Sebastian’s consistent knack for writing catchy tunes and memorable lyrics helps them to remain vital. As Colburn eloquently puts it, “it’s music for everyone.”

Belle & Sebastian’s Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is available now. The band will play Newcastle’s City Hall on Saturday 16th May.

Special thanks to fellow contributor Joe Fowler for helping to record this interview.

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