It’s been 17 years since Belle & Sebastian released Tigermilk, the band’s seminal and career-launching debut. In the time between, Glasgow’s biggest indie act has released seven additional studio albums, toured the world countless times over, and attracted lifelong fans with their potent and pretty blend of baroque pop orchestrations, long and twisted melodies, and frontman Stuart Murdoch’s famously eccentric lyrical characters. And they’re not slowing down, either. Earlier this year, the band’s breakthrough sophomore album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, was made the subject of an hour-long documentary by Pitchfork TV. Last week, Belle & Sebastian returned to North America for its first string of shows in two years (which includes a stop at the Santa Barbara Bowl this Wednesday, July 17). This August, the band will release a compilation of B sides and rarities called The Third Eye Centre. And following that, all seven members will head back into the studio to begin work on album number nine.
We recently caught up with Belle & Sebastian keyboardist Chris Geddes to talk about getting nostalgic, making new music, and the joys of Turkish psych rock.
Between the compilations record and the Pitchfork film, you guys have been doing a lot of looking back lately. Yeah, I guess it’s a little bit because of the nature of this tour. It’s really the first time we’ve gone out on tour and not played a set that’s largely made up of songs from a new record. We’re playing some older songs — stuff from Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister — but we’re playing songs off the last record as well. There’s a little bit of that, though, just because the band’s had this period of inactivity, and just getting back together after a while of being apart from each other comes with a certain element of looking back. But we’ve also got definite plans to work on new music as soon as these concerts are done. We just started working with new management. There’s plans going forward as well as looking backward, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve suddenly become a nostalgia act. At least I don’t think.
Did you watch the Pitchfork film? Yeah, I did. I was really happy with the job they did on it. I thought they made us come across quite nicely. My only reservation is that they were very, very positive about If You’re Feeling Sinister, and I think in our interviews we all would have said slightly negative things, or at least been a little bit critical of the record. I think we all think of it as Stuart’s strongest set of songs, but possibly not the best sounding record we ever made, and probably not the best we ever played together as a band. But I can see why the songs connect with people. That was really the album that got us an audience in North America. But the Pitchfork guys were some of the nicest guys, and I thought it was great that they came to Glasgow and spent so much time with us.
What stage is the next album in?
After we finished the last lot of touring, we did a few weeks in the rehearsal room, so that would have been the summer of 2011. I think we knocked around about half a dozen songs at that point and did a little bit of recording with Tony Dugan, who we’ve done a lot of stuff with over the years. But then we went on break because of Stuart working on the God Help the Girl movie. There are some songs that we’ve knocked around, and it’s hard to say whether we’ll pick them up again or whether when we start again we’ll start on completely fresh stuff.
Do you have musical projects that you work on during the band’s downtime? I heard you’ve been deejaying. Recently I haven’t been deejaying quite as much as I did for a while, but certainly that was something that I did really enjoy getting the opportunity to do. I got hooked up with these guys down in Manchester — a guy called Andy Votel and his mate Dom Thomas who run a label called Finders Keepers. They reissue a lot of interesting stuff, and their whole deejaying philosophy was a real eye-opener to me. I was always impressed by the kind of tunes they could play and make work for a dance floor, like Bollywood stuff and Turkish psychedelic rock. They would go out and do these pub nights and come prepared to do a whole deejay set of music that nobody in the place had heard. On some nights it could fall flat, but on a good night the place would be going crazy to a Turkish psychedelic record, and it would be amazing. Hooking up with them was really inspiring musically.
What got you interested in spinning records?
I started doing it when I was a student. I guess it was just going to clubs and enjoying the music and thinking I wanted to have a go at it. It was kind of the same thing as enjoying music as a fan and then wanting to make music as a musician. There was a club in Glasgow called Divine, and at the time when I started going in the early ’90s they played a mixture of psychedelic stuff and ’60s soul and newer dance music. It was when all the big beat stuff was just coming out, indie records by bands like Primal Scream and Stone Roses. I really liked that mixture of music, so when I started deejaying, that was what I was trying to do, that mixture of ’60s stuff and contemporary stuff. I suppose it was also just liking records and thinking about how great it would be to play a record I like really loud in a club while people dance to it.
Do you have any go-to records when you’re deejaying?
There’s often this expectation that I’ll play stuff that overlaps with Belle & Sebastian, or even play some of the band’s records, which I think is kind of weird. I guess if you’re a big producer it makes sense for you to go out and play your songs, but for someone in an indie band it just seems kind of odd. There are some things you can play almost anywhere, though. At almost any party, if you put on The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” that’s immediately the high point of the night, and everything else after that is sort of an anti-climax.
After 17 years, what do you think is the secret to Belle & Sebastian’s longevity? I think a big part of it is just that we have a good time together. We have a good laugh, and we enjoy each other’s company. I think for Stuart especially, the opportunity to do other stuff like God Help the Girl has been a really big deal. It’s been a massive undertaking, and in a way I think it’s given him a bit of renewed enthusiasm for the group because he knows that making records with the band is a lot easier than making a movie. I think he’s looking forward to being back on familiar ground and knowing that the seven of us are the seven of us, and when we get in a room with a producer, that’s kind of all it takes to make a record. You don’t need 50 people and a catering wagon and a costume designer.
Are there still surprises? The group does almost feel like family these days. I feel like we know each other pretty well, so there’s not too much that comes as a surprise. I still get impressed by things people in the band can do musically, though. Sometimes we’ll play really good, and you think, wow, we really have come a long way.
Belle & Sebastian play the Santa Barbara Bowl with Best Coast on Wednesday, July 17, at 7 p.m. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and info.