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How a Minneapolis String Quartet Got Hired by Belle & Sebastian

L-R: Josh Misner, Jesse Peterson, Erica Burton, and Cory Grossman; cellist Dan Lawonn filled in for the Belle & Sebastian session.

L-R: Josh Misner, Jesse Peterson, Erica Burton, and Cory Grossman; cellist Dan Lawonn filled in for the Belle & Sebastian session.

Glaswegian twee-pop collective Belle and Sebastian just released their ninth album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, this week. Without looking at the liner notes, it might go unnoticed that several songs came together with the help of Minneapolis's Laurels String Quartet playing arrangements by another local musician, Andy Thompson. Their sumptuous additions were recorded last year at Humans Win! studio in Northeast.

Gimme Noise reached out to the Laurels and Thompson to find out how and why they got hired by Stuart Murdoch and co.

Gimme Noise: How did you end up working with Belle and Sebastian?

Andy Thompson: Ben Allen, who produced the album, was the connection. Ben had done some additional production and mixing on Jeremy Messersmith's Heart Murmurs, so he had heard my arrangements and the Laurels' playing up close. Ben dug what he heard, and Jeremy made sure to put in a good word for all of us.

I think Ben was intrigued by the idea that he could send us the songs, I could arrange the parts, the Laurels could track them, and then we'd send back ready-to-mix string stems. A one-stop orchestral pop string shop.

When he contacted me last February to see about my availability, he never mentioned who the artist was. A little while later I was working out some details with Ben's manager over the phone, who casually mentioned the name of the band. Needless to say, I was stoked. I'd been a fan for a long time, and heavily influenced by a lot of the same artists that also influenced the sound of Belle & Sebastian, like The Left Banke and Margo Guryan. Couldn't wait to dig in.

Laurels recording at Humans Win! studio

Laurels recording at Humans Win! studio

What were your interactions with the band like, and what type of sound/style were they after with your arrangements?

Josh Misner (Violin): Because we only had a day to record all the songs, the session was a bit intense -- but we had loads of fun. They were going for a big, orchestral sound, which required layering many takes on top of each other. Getting to play beautiful arrangements on amazing songs made for one of those sessions where you could feel the shared energy and excitement in the room.

Andy Thompson: At first my main interactions with the band were via Ben, who pointed me in a general direction for each song. The songs that needed strings were all very different stylistically, so they all demanded very different approaches, with both the arrangement and the performances. I remember "It's Raining Today" by Scott Walker was thrown out at one point as a reference -- I'd never heard it before, and loved it.

Later on, I worked pretty closely with Stuart [Murdoch] in coming up with the right approach for "A Politician's Silence." He was a delight to work with. Later I worked with Chris [Geddes] to tweak some things for the quintet they use live. I had heard it posited that they were perhaps the nicest band on Earth, and from my experience, I can confirm that hypothesis.

Other than being asked to dial back the dissonance on a couple of the tunes -- they were getting a little too out there -- I had pretty free reign to use my own arranging "voice," which was a luxury and a pleasure.

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Which songs did you play on, and were there other contributions that didn't make the cut or are unreleased tracks?

Andy Thompson: "Cat With the Cream," "The Power of Three," and "Ever Had a Little Faith?" are the ones on the album; "A Politician's Silence" and "Born to Act" are included in the box set. Which is great, because those are two of my favorites of the bunch.

Dan Lawonn (Cello): So glad that the box set includes "Born to Act," because I've had a line from that song intermittently stuck in my head for the last eight months.

What do you think of the results?

Dan Lawonn: Since my freshman year of college, I often used "playing strings with Belle & Sebastian" as one of my pie-in-the-sky goals for the kind of work I wanted to do as a cellist. Watching that dream become a reality, and to be able to do it with great friends, felt incredibly satisfying. I was also intrigued that we were able to tackle this project in Minneapolis -- it seems like so much of this work usually lands in L.A., Nashville, NYC, London, etc., and it was such a pleasure to do this in town at Humans Win.

I can't say enough about Andy's arranging prowess and how much fun it is to play his charts, regardless of the artist (and so much more so for this artist). Listening to the album stream on NPR, I'm still pinching myself that the opportunities and preparation collided in such a way to see this happen.

Jesse Peterson (Violin): I'll say that this really was an "OMG, I can't believe I get to do this for my job" type of experience. Belle and Sebastian's music has been a part of my life since I was in high school. I, like Dan, always thought that they would be the coolest folks to make music with, but I never allowed myself to take that thought too seriously. It was always in the same category as wishing I had this or that super power. Spending an afternoon with my friends recording strings for one of my favorite bands was truly a life highlight, just a perfect day.

I regularly make playlists for my niece Ave, and B&S is often makes the cut. "I Want the World to Stop" was a huge hit with her a few years ago. She learned almost all the words, and did learn all of the vocal melodies. I was (and am) such a proud uncle.

Andy Thompson: Working with Ben and the band couldn't have been a more positive experience, and I'm thrilled with how the songs turned out. The Laurels and I are looking forward to doing more sessions like this.

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Belle and Sebastian's Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is out now on Matador Records.

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