Belle and Sebastian emerged out of the modest bedsits of Glasgow in 1996 as an enigmatic antithesis to the bloated excess of Britpop.
The group was founded by Stuart Murdoch, who recruited various friends and fledgling musicians to help him get the sound he was after. The ramshackle twee group didn’t seem built to last or organized enough to release an actual album. But following the release of Belle and Sebastian’s indie cult classic, Tigermilk, the group was signed to Jeepster Records and began winning the hearts and minds of despondent music fans around the globe.
Over 20 years later, the group is still flourishing and set to return to St. Paul for a show at the Palace Theatre on Tuesday night. B&S are still touring in support of their 2015 record, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, as well as sharing some new material like their just-released single “We Were Beautiful,” from a forthcoming EP.
Ahead of the show, we were able to have a convivial chat with drummer Richard Colburn, who has been with the band from the start. We discussed the group’s new material, how seeing the world has affected their decidedly Scottish sound, and how surprised he is that they are still making music together after two decades.
City Pages: So, how did your brand new single, “We Were Beautiful,” come together?
Richard Colburn: We decided to record in Glasgow this time, so we recorded a batch of around twenty new songs at five different studios, all of them in Glasgow. Which is different than the last few records. And this was one of Stuart’s songs, and we concocted it in the studio with an electronic backing. It was just one that lent itself to that type of style.
CP: So is this a one-off single for you, or is this a track from a future album that you’re working on?
RC: It’s going to be part of an EP. It’s going to come out in September, I’m not sure exactly when. It’s going to part of a group of songs, and this is the first one to go to the radio and whatnot. We recorded a whole batch of songs in different studios, so we’re going to have a few EPs out this year.
CP: How has the process of writing and recording a Belle and Sebastian song changed and evolved over the years? It seemed pretty lo-fi in those early days.
RC: It’s changed because there are more songwriters in the band. And technology also has dictated the way things happen for us. With the advent of music software and iPads and mobile devices that we are capable of writing songs on, basically, that has kind of changed the nature of the sound a little bit. We’ve delved more into the electronic side of things here and there. But generally, on the whole it’s kind of the same, because it’s just us getting into a room and somebody having an idea, and everybody jumping on that idea. Because there are more songwriters now, there are more ideas coming in. Basically, somebody might just have a guitar riff, somebody could have a complete song -- it just depends really. It used to be that Stuart had the song and that was it. He had a clear idea – I want the drums like that, I want the bass like this, and so on and so forth. But now it’s like a blank canvas half the time, and everybody just jumps on it and it ends up how it ends up.
CP: The last couple B&S records have been quite dancey and upbeat. Is that your influence on the band, bringing modern rhythms and your DJ influence and experience into the work? Or is that more a reflection of where the band is at stylistically at the moment?
RC: I think kind of half and half. But much of the electronic part of it comes from Stuart as well, and the other songwriters who have brought songs to the table and have ended up with more of a dancey style. Stuart is a big fan of electropop and other genres that use different technologies. It’s kind of coming from everybody. Sometimes you write a song and it just begs to have a certain style, and quite a lot of these songs straight up suit themselves to that type of backing.
CP: The sound and style of Glasgow is so ingrained in Belle and Sebastian’s music in the early days. Now that you’ve traveled the world over the past twenty years, how has that exposure broadened the scope of your sound and shaped your influences?
RC: That’s a good question. The last three records were recorded in America – we did two in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta. So that obviously changes the face of everything, because your direct influences are right in front of you. And especially in L.A. where it’s such a music town, and so much history has happened there. The studio we worked in [The Sound Factory] is really famous, and so many amazing albums were made there. You’re quite inspired by it.
Just for the recording part of it, that kind of changed everything. But we still write and rehearse and demo and do things in Glasgow, so that part of it has not really changed. But having been very fortunate enough to tour the world for the last 15-20 years, you definitely are exposed to different kinds of music and different ways of doing things. And that definitely has influenced us more than the early days where we were strictly in Glasgow and that was it.
CP: You recently rereleased all of your Jeepster singles, and in 2015 you celebrated the 20th anniversary with some specials shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall. What are your thoughts and feelings when you allow yourself to take a look back at your career? Did you ever think the band would have made it 20 years?
RC: Absolutely not! [Laughs] No chance. It’s kind of funny, because when we started it was really just Stuart, and for Tigermilk we were kind of like a backing band that had been thrown together. None of us knew each other, basically, when we first got together. Stuart had been trying for years prior to that to put a band together, and putting adverts in shop windows and so on and so forth. And every time he hit a dead end with people. So he thought, I’m just going to let people come to me, rather than me try and entice people into his music.
So, one by one, we were in situations that just by chance we were in his company or whatever, and we heard the songs and said, ‘That’s great, let’s do something.’ So, when we got together to do Tigermilk, we were all delighted that we were on vinyl. That was that box checked, if you like. Now we can move on, and do something else with our lives. And the second we got a record deal, and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Do you want to do another one?’ And so, every step of the way it was like, ‘God, the people like this. It’s insane.’ [Laughs] There was no big pipe dream or anything, it was thrown together in kind of an odd manner, and then things took their own course.
CP: I first got into Belle and Sebastian with the Lazy Line Painter Jane EP. And part of what I really loved about the band was your anonymity. I didn’t know if the people on the record covers were in the band. I didn’t know anything about you other than the music and whatever short story was written on the record sleeve. Was that an intentional move by the band, to make obscurity part of your aesthetic?
RC: Completely. Yeah. That was Stuart’s idea from the start. It was all his concept in the beginning. At the time in the UK, Britpop was at its height, in ’95-’96 it was completely at its saturation point. The way the media worked with most of the biggest names in Britpop – it was all about interviews and photoshoots and controversy. It was overtaking the music big time. The music was almost secondary to the headlines. So Stuart just said I’m sick of all that, all people are going to get is the music. If it’s any good, people will latch on to it, and if it’s not, they won’t. Absolutely no interviews, and very sparse media.
The very few things we did do, we were really, really strict about it. Maybe a magazine very occasionally might come up and do an interview, and there would be like seven or eight of us at the time, and nobody would say a word. And I’d be the only one who would speak half the time, because I’d get nervous, overdoing it because I’m making up for everybody else not saying anything. And they’d bring a photographer, and we’d say, ‘No photos. Stuart is going to take the photos.’ And it would just be chaos. The first photo shoot we did was somebody else. We had all our pals in the photos, and everybody thought that was the band. And then the first proper photo shoot with any band member was me, under the van, and I looked like I had been knocked down and run over.
CP: How has your live show evolved over the years, and what can we expect from your show here?
RC: We’ve been going right across the board with all the songs, so pretty much every album is covered by at least one song per album. And I think we’ll do a couple of new songs from the EP, so we’re going to cover that also. It’s right across the board, going way back to Tigermilk and pretty much every record. But generally speaking, there are about five or six core songs that are usually always in the set, and the rest you just slot in different songs every night – it depends on the venue and the night of the week and all the rest of it.
CP: Can I make a small request for “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song”? That’s always been my favorite tune of yours.
RC: Ooh. I’ll put that forward with the band. We haven’t played that in a long time, but I’ll put that forward. Who knows? We’ve always had a good time in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and we’ve always had good shows there. I’m a fan of a lot of the music that came out of there as well. We’re looking forward to coming back there.
Belle and Sebastian
With: Julien Baker
When: 7 p.m. Tue. Aug. 15
Where: Palace Theatre
Tickets: $40-$50 advance/$45-$55 day of show; more info here