Over two decades in and Belle & Sebastian don’t look like letting up any time soon. Their latest record, How to Solve Our Human Problems, split into three EPs, showcases the best attributes of the Scottish six-piece in a delightful 15 song piece. From the solemn ‘Poor Boy’ to the majestic ‘The Same Star’, they haven’t lost that pop gravitas that made everyone fall in love with them all that time ago.
They played the Brighton Dome on Thursday 15th March in a show that we said made fans feel involved in an evening that covered each area of the band’s discography. Before the show, Brightonsfinest caught up with band’s multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin for a chat about the new project, the chemistry the band has with their fans, and the legacy of the band.
Hello, how are you doing and how has the tour been?
It’s been really good actually! Yeah, we’re just over a week into it now and I think it’s been going quite well.
You released How to Solve Our Human Problems as the full project last month. How have you found the reaction to that?
It’s been quite interesting. I think people seem to have caught on to it by the third EP and album version. I think people seem to have been more ready for it or something than maybe they would have. It’s been quite interesting, people seem to have, sort of, understood it somehow. They’ve been quite forgiving about the fact that it’s long if you listen to it as a 15 song thing. People are getting the fact that it’s a three part thing. It’s really nice.
So, you released it as three EPs to start with. Where did the idea for that format come from?
Well, I think the idea actually initially was not to try and do an album at all, but to try to kind of release it a little bit piecemeal. Not in a slapdash, unfocused way, but just to be able to do a small glutch of songs, and put them out, rather than doing an album project as such. It sort of takes over your life for three years really, by the time you’ve written all the songs, gone away, recorded it, mixed it and everything. Then you come home and learn to play them again and go on tour and stuff. You know, I just think it seemed as though people’s lives were [busier]… a couple of folk were having babies and stuff and it seemed like maybe folk had their hands full and couldn’t really put their next three years in one block. So it was really just initially meant to be a way that we would be able to work from home, do a track or two at a time and when we had a few that went well together we’d just put them out. But then, obviously, the record company (Matador Records) were then like “Well, we’re going to need to plan things a little bit” and even just getting stuff manufactured, I suppose, they need to plan things, so it was a little bit less ad-hoc than we’d envisaged, but it was quite nice to go into a studio and come out with something finished that weekend.
You used to do this with EPs and singles, when people were still buying EPs and singles. Do you think streaming has helped this work?
I actually wouldn’t be surprised if it has. It’s crazy, I don’t have any streaming services. I think I’m a bit of a unicorn really. I buy vinyl sometimes, but mostly I just buy things from the iTunes Store and apparently that makes me like one of the very few luddites. I don’t really have any streaming stuff so I don’t really know, but people keep saying the new songs are doing really well.
It’s a project that, all together, seems to incorporate a lot of different Belle & Sebastian musical traits. Did the three EP structure help explore different themes and musical strands, rather than a rigid album structure?
Yeah, I guess that is true. When you’re thinking of something as a cohesive album, you’re already thinking of it as its potential track-listing and this is the point where it requires a moment of stillness or whatever. We weren’t really thinking about that as part of the whole thing. It was definitely a way to make things a bit more sprawling, and there was less discarding things because they might not work in the context. There was no context so it didn’t really matter whether things were in and out.
And you recorded in Glasgow this time instead of the US. How did that change things?
I think the main change was really just, at times, it felt as though we could have finished things a bit faster if we went away somewhere. When you’re at home you can work shorter days, I guess, and you try to do your day to day life as well as the studio stuff. It felt at points like, “Oh god, this song’s been nine days so far”. If we’d been in America we’d have knocked this off in two days and been done. So in a way it allowed things to roll on and on and on, but as well as that on a lot of songs there wasn’t a producer determining a direction to take things in. It was a bit more exploratory, and you can’t really do that when you’ve got the whole band off in America because if things run over it’s costing the label money everyday and they don’t like that! [laughs]
Do you still find that you’re learning even this far into your career?
Absolutely, yeah. We learn from everybody we ever work with. Even things that a couple of folk might have found awkward, you still learn from it.
You spent pretty much your entire career mixing things up and trying different things. Is that important for longevity in a band?
I don’t know, it probably is. I don’t really think about throwing new things into the mix or whatever. I think the most important thing for longevity in a band is to kind of get along really.
And you’re still getting along?
You’ve said that with the likes of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, you wanted to record and release as soon as possible in case the keys to the studio were taken away. You obviously don’t have that problem any more obviously.
You never know though!
Yeah, I think we have a really positive relationship with our record company, Matador, but things change really fast and it takes a quite a long time to make a record so it’s entirely plausible that you could start something and over the course of the project things could all just change.
So is there the same amount of pressure making an album as before?
I think so. The pressure is always just to make it count, really. Because of the amount of touring you do on the back of putting a record out, it can be quite a long time until you can get to do another one and you never know if there’s going to be another one. There was an album we made, the first album we made in LA and I didn’t contribute any songs and I kind of hated myself for it. Other things get in the way, and things make contributing harder and, when you don’t, you think “God, that’s me blown it for a period of many years”. Then you build up this backlog where you’re like “I really need to do this now”. So yeah there’s always pressure, but the most pressure comes from ourselves.
You’ve got quite a different chemistry I’d say with your fans. They’re quite passionate. You photographed them for How to Solve Our Human Problems and put it on the EP covers. How did that idea come about?
That was really Stuart’s (Murdoch) idea. I think there had been another idea to get a graffiti artist in Glasgow to illustrate all three, but that fell by the wayside. To be honest, I don’t really know where photographing the fans came from, other than just wanting to step away from directing. Stuart’s directed the art of all of the records and I think he does really enjoy dressing people up and putting them in a position and creating a scene. I think he wanted to do something that was more letting people’s faces speak for themselves, rather than dressing people up and telling them what to do. I think that’s good. I mean, I hate being dressed up and being told what to do!
I think ‘The Same Star’, in particular, is probably one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s a slice of dream-pop that is just really lovely to listen to. How did that song come about?
I had been humming the chorus-y bit to myself and I didn’t really think it was a vocal melody. I have a Wurlitzer at home and it kept popping back in my head. I thought maybe it was an electric piano part and it would have something else over the top of it, but then I was like “aAtually, I can write words for that”. Yeah, it was just a sort of moving on with your life song I suppose.
Does the music always come first?
Not really, usually I think the kernel of what makes something you’ve hummed to yourself into a song is when a phrase goes along with it. A little melody, and then the universe expands from there. That’s your big bang moment.
You’ve been doing this for over two decades now. Did you realistically see it lasting this long?
No, I joined the band straight out of university. I remember, not just my parents but friends, being like “Oh, don’t be stupid!” and “How long are you going to give it, a couple of years?” and I was like “I don’t know”. I know that people have asked other people in the band if they would have been surprised and in a way, not really, because I think Stuart’s songs were the absolute centre of everything and when I first heard a tape of his songs I was blown away. You know, everyone I knew was in a band. It was like being in a computer game, having to dodge everyone asking you if you wanted to be in a band. If anybody found out you played anything they would want you to be in their band. It was like hazards in a computer game and then all of a sudden I heard Stuart’s tape and was like, “Actually that’s amazing, that’s the real thing” so in a way I’m not surprised Stuart’s still doing it, but I’m surprised and happy that the band is still going and has lasted as long as it has.
So do you think it will carry on for another 20 years, or will people go their separate ways and start venturing solo?
I don’t know, I don’t think so. People do bits and bobs on the side but I don’t really envisage anyone doing a whole album, or setting up a whole project, because it takes a lot of energy. I hope the band can accommodate everyone, I mean there’s six of us in the band and that’s a lot of ego and ideas to accommodate. If every idea that everyone had was acted upon we’d never get any sleep.
Finally, you supported Radiohead last summer at TRNSMT. How was that? Because that was one of your biggest gigs ever wasn’t it?
It was one of our biggest gigs. I loved it actually, yeah I really, really enjoyed it.
Are you Radiohead fans as a band?
I’m not really. I don’t really know that many of their songs, I’m pretty pop you know? I did go and see them in 1992 I think in King Tut’s in Glasgow and they played ‘Creep’. I didn’t like it, it was like seeing a stadium band in Tut’s. It seemed so wrong, maybe that’s just not what I’m into. I don’t hate them, but I don’t really know them. I’m pretty singalongy pop.