Belle & Sebastian address their ‘Problems’
Scottish indie pop stalwarts Belle & Sebastian are headed back to San Diego. Their long sold-out show at the Observatory in North Park Friday night marks the first time the Glasgow-based collective has performed here since selling out the Spreckels Theatre in 2004.
Then, the band was touring on their 2003 Mercury Prize-nominated album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a release that saw their trademark lo-fi folk evolve into polished pop.
Now, the band returns to San Diego amid another transition — or at least as much as they can have after playing together for more than two decades.
After 2015’s synth-heavy Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, this year found the band releasing a trio of EPs that continue to push the definition of what these one-time kings of twee can do.
From last December through February, Belle & Sebastian released one 5-track EP a month under the name How to Solve Our Human Problems, as well as 15-track collection showcasing all three. And while all of this happened to coincide with the band’s decision to release three consecutive EPs 20 years ago, it’s no milestone marker — just a continuation of their gradual but steady evolution.
PACIFIC recently spoke with guitarist and co-vocalist Stevie Jackson, from his home in Glasgow, about it all.
PACIFIC: It seems like it’s been a bit of a process around these three EPs. Did you play any of these songs ahead of their release?
STEVIE JACKSON: Yeah, the first song on the first EP (Sweet Dew Lee), which I sing, came out before anything was released. I think there were maybe one or two others as well. (Band founder) Stuart (Murdoch) likes the record to be out before we start doing them. But now we’re doing a bunch of them live. It really depends on the show. But we’re doing about four or five each night.
And as you move along, your back catalog moves with you. So it really depends on which night you come to see us. There is some structure to it, in the way of momentum, but the songs within that structure changes.
And sometimes I forget. They’re all just songs to me. Sometimes after a show I’ll go, “We did a lot of Dear Catastrophe Waitress tonight.” But it’s gotten to the point where I can’t remember which record is which. It’s just a bunch of songs that we play.
But that’s the goal, right? Having hundreds of songs to choose from each night? You just always have to be ready to play any of those hundreds of songs.
Oh, but that’s the easy part (laughs).
The new trio of EPs comes almost exactly 20 years after your first trio of EPs. Was that intentional?
It wasn’t. There was no exercise in nostalgia. It was just a natural flow and the way that the stuff came together. It was looser and done at different studios in Glasgow. Our previous four or five albums were all done outside of the city. It was focused work for like six weeks or something in America. Every couple of years we’d make an album — a snapshot of where we were during that time.
And I just don’t think anyone felt like doing that again. This time, we were just doing tracks in Glasgow. And that made it a lot more fun and with far less pressure. We made it more a part of our every day life as opposed to a “thing.” So it was quite relaxed. And I think you can really hear that in the songs.
Recording in the city where everyone lives has to make things a bit easier.
Sure. But we used to make albums in Glasgow. The first four or five were made here. But they were kind of drawn out — and probably not in a good way. They just took too long. That’s why we ended up getting producers — to just get focused and get things done. And that’s why we ended up leaving Glasgow to record — no distractions, no dental appointments. So it’s like we went back to the thing that we were trying to get away from in the first place. But we’re more experienced now, so it made it easier.
Was the idea of the EPs based upon being able to make three cohesive 5-track offerings rather than making one cohesive 15-track album?
I think so. The sequencing of a record can be a nightmare. We never really argue as a band unless it’s about sequencing. We had 18 songs. Stuart sequenced them into three 6-track EPs. Matador suggested taking a song off each of them and I think that was the right thing to do.
But I’m a bit confused in the modern age. I still haven’t gotten my head around CDs, to be honest. When CDs came out, albums, including ours, got longer. A vinyl album gives you something like 41 minutes; you can actually get to the end of one. When I got this first EP, I played it, flipped it over, played side 2, flipped it over, and started it again. It was the first time in a long time that I’ve actually started a record over again. That was a good feeling. It was very satisfying.
Will those three omitted songs get released?
I suspect they’ll find a way out. One of them was a song with a guest singer, one was a remix of our song, Cornflakes, and the other was a song we did for a movie that didn’t get used. But as a band, we don’t have too much unreleased stuff — mostly just other versions of songs. But those things seem to find a way of coming out.
Moving forward, do you go the EP route again?
I think, at the minute, the idea is probably to go even more left of center. In the sense that, Stuart has said things like, “Let’s make it instrumental music or music for other singers.” So that kind of loose thing still seems to be in the air. But at some point, I’m sure Matador will want us to produce an album, and that will be great. And when we do, I don’t think I’ll be pushing for something shorter. But that remains to be seen. We’re still in live mode.
Belle & Sebastian w/ Japanese Breakfast
When: 8 p.m. June 22
Where: Observatory North Park, 2891 University Ave., North Park
Cost: Sold out
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