Interview: Belle & Sebastian – “We like to be led by what’s in our heads and hearts.”

After a period pursuing outside interests, Belle & Sebastian have reconvened for a surprising new record. Violin player and vocalist Sarah Martin tells David Vincent more.

“Responsible pop music in a revolutionary age,” is how frontman Stuart Murdoch describes Belle & Sebastian. It’s a description which takes B&S multi-instrumentalist and co-vocalist Sarah Martin by surprise.

“I don’t have any idea what he meant by that,” she declares with a giggle. “He talks some nonsense doesn’t he? That’s funny. I have no idea what he means. Do I feel responsible? I do feel responsible, but, no…I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him. Or maybe his two-year old.”

What Sarah does know is that the Scottish indie darlings are very much back in action with a brand new album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, that’s brimming with classic B&S and more than a few surprises. It’s also their first studio long-player since 2010 – their longest gap between albums.

“I think it was four-and-a-half years from Write About Love to this one, which I suppose seems a while, but it didn’t seem excessive,” says Sarah of their perceived silence. “The thing is, it was an inevitability that there would be two-to-three years between albums. When you make a record, you have to go on tour for about a year, at least.”

Though B&S may have been officially on leave, the band were far from idle.

“Richard [Colburn, drummer] was good friends with Snow Patrol so was off helping them with extra percussion; Chris [Geddes, keyboards] and I did odd bits’n’bobs, soundtracks for little films; Stevie [guitar] made a solo album – I Can’t Get No Stevie Jackson – and went on tour, so he’s been involved doing all that. So there was a lot of periphery stuff going on, but also, we were all involved in Stuart’s film, God Help The Girl. Bob [Kildea, bass and guitar] and Chris are in the band in the film, so they were on screen all the time.”

Of the musical drama, written and directed by Murdoch which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, Sarah says: “[Stuart] had to draw a line in the sand and just do it. He buckled down and got on with the film, which we were all actually involved in in one way or another. And we were limited with what we can do without Stuart.”

Eventually the band reconvened with “all these songs that folks had been singing to themselves.” Once rehearsals had started, further tracks developed quickly resulting in what is undoubtedly the most stylistically diverse and arguably the most surprising B&S album to date.

“We never set out to do anything in particular, ever. We like to be led by what’s in our heads and hearts,” says Sarah, elaborating on the record that was made in Atlanta with Ben H Allen III (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Bombay Bicycle Club). “We really did want to work with a new producer this time. We did amazing work with the guy who we did our last two albums with [Tony Hoffer], but there was maybe a sense that we felt that we’d gotten a little too comfortable. There’s something said for the element of surprise and that led to the diversity of the record.”

Having explored electro-pop on key album tracks Enter Sylvia Plath and Play For Today, does this mean the next record could see the band fully embracing their dance/pop side? Sarah chuckles at the prospect, but thinks not. “It’s almost like the laws of physics – for each reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. So we think, ‘that’s done well’, but we don’t stick to it, we’ll do the opposite, something different. It’s better to be dogmatic, to do the best thing for the music.”

Fresh from hefty gigging abroad, the band return to the UK for a series of dates that includes a special show at Glasgow’s Hydro Arena accompanied by the Scottish Festival Orchestra.

“We’ve done a couple of things with orchestras before but not for a while. The Hydro Arena is particularly big,” says Sarah, with a slightly nervous tremor. “The SECC was where all the big gigs were, but it wasn’t great. Then they built this purpose-built venue. We went on a site visit when they were building it, we all put on hard hats and had a look around, so it’s been in our minds for a while that we could do something there. There’s not anywhere else really that could accommodate all of us and a big orchestra.

“It’s a one-off,” she continues. “We’ll be doing things that specifically kind of work particularly well with an orchestra. That’s why it’s a one-off. There are a few songs that won’t appear on this tour that we can do, but the [setlist ] isn’t set yet, it’s too soon…”

While there’s no denying the noticeable gap between official B&S studio records, there’s been no shortage of releases. Two years ago saw the arrival of rarities compilation The Third Eye Centre, and the back catalogue was re-released on vinyl last year, with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress getting a new cover image courtesy of Mr Murdoch.

“I think Stuart just wanted to use another picture he’d taken,” says Sarah of the change-over. “The whole band were on the old sleeve, with a waitress, and it was a very cluttered picture, we just felt that another picture would make a better cover. It’s kinda nice. It’s something for the collectors. It’s a better image for a sleeve.”

Nineteen years on from their debut, Tigermilk, and breakthrough If You’re Feeling Sinister (which regularly ranks in ‘best of the 90s’ lists), B&S are still breaking new ground musically and also geographically (their recent dates saw them play Bangkok and Hong Kong for the first time). Reflecting on what has kept the band together and still friends after all this time together, Sarah says: “Just the fact that we all want to be in the band. The times when things feel like they’re going to fall apart, when someone’s heart isn’t in it, those people have left.

“You’re never going to get six people with exactly the same ambitions, but everyone wants to be here, everyone wants to be themselves.”

Belle & Sebastian are live at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on May 10, with support from Lower Dens. UK festival dates include Glastonbury and Portmeirion’s Festival No 6 (Sep 5). Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is out now via Matador Records. Order it here from Amazon. 

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