Belle and Sebastian

Bands in Peacetime Want Daddy D’z (In Moderation):
Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, Talk About Atlanta

This just in – Sarah Martin’s cell phone has an Atlanta number.

The Belle and Sebastian multi-instrumentalist and occasional vocalist got the phone when her band took up temporary residence in Atlanta last spring to record Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance, and figured they’d continue to spend enough time in the States that she might as well hang onto it. And it certainly came in handy when I caught up with her in Los Angeles, the morning after the band had performed their new “Nobody’s Empire” on Conan. It sure beat trying to navigate a wonky hotel switchboard, as I did to get in touch with guitarist Stevie Jackson.

The band has plenty of connections in LA, having recorded their prior two albums there (2006’s The Life Pursuit and 2010’s Write About Love). In fact, Martin recalls talking with friends after a summer 2013 LA show, tentatively setting social plans for when they came back to record. “One of the label bosses said ‘I don’t think so – you guys all have too viable an existence in LA; you need to go somewhere where the reason you exist is to make a record.’”

Enter Atlanta, which hadn’t been on Belle and Sebastian’s radar. “We used to have a lot of friends in Athens, but initially the idea of Atlanta wasn’t that appealing to me,” Martin admits. But the prospect of working with producer Ben H. Allen III proved to be more than enough pull. According to Jackson, “We’re always looking for someone to mix it up. The fact that Ben’s training and background isn’t in pop music so much as Atlanta hip hop was appealing to us. Our manager also works with the Kaiser Chiefs (for whom Allen produced last year’s Education, Education, Education & War, a UK chart-topper) and after he met Ben in Atlanta he came back and said ‘he has to go to the top of the list – he’s so imaginative and amazing.’”

The admiration is mutual. “I’ve worked with a lot of nice people, but these are the nicest,” says Allen, who first met Belle and Sebastian over Skype and soon after flew to Glasgow to sit in on a week of rehearsals. “If seven people are going to fly over here we want to make sure we get along first,” he rationalizes. “My studio’s not very big, but it never felt cramped. (Even when they weren’t needed) they all stayed around, just wanted to hang out in the studio reading books or watching music films on their laptops.”

Although best known for his work with the likes of CeeLo Green and Animal Collective, Allen says it was already clear which of B&S’s new songs lent themselves to a beat-heavy approach before he got involved. In other words there are no acoustic versions of the synth-heavy “Enter Sylvia Plath” floating around, as Martin assures me. Allen, an Athens kid who “grew up steeped in indie rock and sneaking into the 40 Watt with a fake ID,” saw his job as to “help everything globally relate” across a stylistically disparate batch of songs.

The band arrived in Atlanta last March with plans for six of them to set up camp in a Cabbagetown rental. However it quickly became clear the house wasn’t quite big enough, so Martin joined leader Stuart Murdoch in getting a studio apartment at the Georgian Terrace, across the street from the Fox Theater (“Stuart needs a bit more peace and quiet so he was always going to stay at the Georgian Terrace,” she explains). “At first I was kind of jealous – the boys had this nice porch and were out drinking beer and watching movies while I had to drive back and forth. It became a kind of monastic retreat kind of thing for me because it took me several weeks to get over my jet lag.”

Although today’s Cabbagetown is a far cry from the grimy neighborhood Benjamin Smoke described as the kind of place where young boys sniff glue out of Sunbeam bread bags on the street, it still made an impression on Jackson. “It’s sort of a funky neighborhood, isn’t it? There were always a few guys sitting on steps, drinking hard liquor – they were very friendly though.”  They were situated just a couple blocks from Daddy D’z BBQ – “really lovely food but you couldn’t do it every day – I feel like it already shortened my life by a few months.” And surprisingly, no one expressed much curiosity about what these blokes with the odd accents were doing in the area. “I think it’s more of an Airbnb place with a steady stream of people flowing through.”

Meanwhile for Martin, “it was probably the most clean living time of my life. I’d walk the BeltLine, stop at Arden’s Garden on Monroe every day. I ended up coming home and buying a juicer. Chris (keyboard player Geddes) kept giving me a hard time, saying I’d never use it – but I do all the time! Most mornings I went running with a woman from LA named Sharon who was here working on a film. It’s nice because so many people (at the Georgian Terrace) are longer-term residents. It’s very quiet during the week, then on the weekend it becomes this crazy wedding central.”

On one of those weekends the boys – as Martin calls them – made a road trip to Athens. “I was the designated driver, which was new for me,” marvels Jackson. “It was kind of weird – Athens has changed so much” from the town they recall from 1998, when Belle and Sebastian played the 40 Watt Club years before they made it to Atlanta. They went to a post-show party, fell in with peripheral Elephant 6 band Great Lakes, and established some long-term friendships. “I used to visit them, wake up early from jet lag, and sit on the porch in the morning listening to the train in the distance,” Martin recalls. “That’s something I don’t have access to in Glasgow.”

The band had a longer gap than usual between albums. Although this was prompted by Murdoch’s God Help the Girl film project, the timing was not by design. “We started writing songs as soon as we finished touring for Write About Love,” she explains. “I think we’d struggle to put out an album more than every two to three years anyway.” God Help the Girl had a lengthy gestation period – Murdoch’s musical side project under the same name was released in 2009 – but the movie financing took longer than expected to come together and the film was finally completed in 2013 and saw release in 2014. One happy byproduct was the connection with the Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny, who trades verses with Murdoch on the new “Play for Today.” “He spent years looking for the perfect leading lady,” Jackson explains. “Stu always loved her voice but the timing didn’t work out (for the film) and he made a note to return. We were really lucky – the Dum Dum Girls played the EARL while we were in town and we recorded her between their sound check and the show.”

The most jarring stylistic shift of Girls In Peacetime is the full-on disco of the seven-minute “Enter Sylvia Plath” with its “Giorgio Moroder galloping horse bassline,” as Martin calls it. “Ben wanted to unseat the Moroder, he thought it was a bit too much of a template,” she recalls lightheartedly, “but Stuart said that’s the way it needed to be.” Clearly the spirit of collaboration had its limits, but by all accounts the recording sessions were tension-free. “Ben would refer to it as ‘our record’ and I liked that statement of commitment, like he wasn’t messing around,” Jackson recalls.

The dance floor touches are more subtly rendered on the infectious “The Party Line,” which Matador released to radio in advance of the album, perhaps to acclimate fans to the pending changes. “Most of the time you can assume the singer wrote our songs,“ Martin explains, “ except for ‘The Party Line,’ where Bob (Kildea, guitarist) came up with the music and title and Stuart added the lyrics.” Some have called Girls in Peacetime a return to Belle’s earlier more collaborative approach – perhaps due to Martin’s and Jackson’s vocal turns. The band made an acknowledged push for broader appeal beginning with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress by enlisting its first outside producer and centering itself on Murdoch’s compositions. However in Martin’s view “I don’t think this one was any more or less collaborative than the last couple.”

Jackson also stretches things out with an uncharacteristically wild guitar solo on the outro to the rollicking “The Book of You.” “That’s me channeling Mick Ronson,” he laughs. “I’m not a lead guitarist. I’ve always been from the Johnny Marr school of playing, so I’ve never really done an improvised guitar solo before – and I think you can hear that.”

B&S’s quasi-hiatus also afforded the chance for him to release his first solo album, the cheekily titled I Can’t Get No Stevie Jackson, in keeping with his rep as the most gregarious of this oft-stereotyped clan of bookish introverts. “I had recorded a couple of songs after our last big tour and stuck them online, it all kind of happened quite quickly. Some of that material goes back to 2009. I also got involved in some art projects in the interim. Someone once asked our bassist Dave about a Glasgow art opening and he said ‘Oh, you’ll see Steve Jackson there – he’s always at those.’”

Unlike a lot of bands that scatter upon the end of a tour, “we still inhabit the same world,” Martin reports. “I live next door to Richard (Colburn, drummer).” Jackson adds, “Glasgow is geographically quite small, like Athens – you can get anywhere in 20 minutes.”

Lest you think Girls in Peacetime reflects a complete reinvention, the hour-long album opens with a pair of tracks, “Nobody’s Empire” and “Allie,” that are the finest examples to date of the early Belle and Sebastian chamber pop sound carried to a polished, mature conclusion. The first of these has been billed as Murdoch’s most personal composition, addressing his seven-year bout with chronic fatigue syndrome that concluded with a burst of pent-up ambition coinciding with the band’s blossoming.

The tale is well documented of how 1996 debut Tigermilk emanated from a university music business course. Jackson traces his relationship with Murdoch back a few steps further. “I met him through music, at a bar with an open mic night. The first time I really listened I think he was singing ‘The State I am In’ (the narrative-rich song that became an early B&S calling card). I got to know him just to say hello, told him I thought he’d be a star someday. He invited me to come over and play and I think we did a couple of shows, just the two of us.” When Murdoch’s demo tape was selected as the basis for the class project he needed to assemble a band in short order, and the rest is history. The continuity of personnel over 19 years is remarkable. Original members Stuart David and Isobel Campbell have moved on (one with a bit more drama than the other), and Martin might be considered a relative newcomer by some die-hards, even though she signed on before sophomore classic If You’re Feeling Sinister.

The band’s eight weeks in Atlanta certainly changed its impressions of the city, especially Martin’s. “When we came back to play the Tabernacle in October it was so much different than before, having our friends there. The night we arrived we finally got to go Taqueria del Sol. What a scene! It’s no wonder it always took ages to get their food to the studio.”

But the visit’s most enduring memory occurred when Stuart and Sarah made a Sunday excursion to Sweetwater Creek State Park for a six-mile nature hike. “We’d been pretty much holed up inside a windowless studio the entire time, and I don’t think anyone even knew we were in town.” And let’s face it, Stuart and Sarah are hardly the most recognizable characters. “These two girls walked past us on the trail and said ‘Sweet – Belle and Sebastian!’ And then just kept going! Here we are out in the woods, and it’s the only time we were recognized.”

Photo by Soren Solkaer.