In the years since the release of their 1996 debut LP Tigermilk, there isn’t much Scottish indie-pop purveyors Belle and Sebastian haven’t done; in that time they’ve release 10 albums, four live LPs and numerous EPs, as well as curating two installments in the Late Night Tales series and creating two film soundtracks, the second of which arrived in 2019 accompanying a film by former Inbetweeners star Simon Bird.
Since then the band have been busy putting together their 11th studio album which they originally planned to record in America, as they had with its predecessor Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, but the pandemic forced a change of course and instead their new album, A Bit of Previous, was recorded in front man Stuart Murdoch’s native Glasgow.
Ahead of its release we spoke to the band about the new LP, their experiences working on film soundtracks, and what we can expect from their upcoming live shows…
Although it’s been a while since your last studio album proper, so to speak, you seem to have kept busy – the EPs in 2018 and the soundtrack album for Simon Bird’s film Days of the Bagnold Summer – how did you get involved in that project?
“As I heard it when Simon was working on the film he was discussing the soundtrack with the producers, and said he wanted to get someone like B&S, but didn’t think we would be up for doing it. Fortunately, someone said why not ask us, and when we read the book and the script we loved it and were happy to be involved. The timing was good for us, as we were not thinking of making a new album at that point, but had already been working on some instrumental music, some of which ended up in the film, and it sparked some new ideas too.”
You’ve worked on a soundtrack before, with Storytelling in 2002, but we understand that a lot of that music didn’t end up getting used – was it a different experience this time around?
“Yeah, with Storytelling we definitely got a bit carried away, and gave the director Todd Solondz a lot more music than he was looking for. We hoped the music would be as central to the film as in Superfly, but he really just wanted a couple of moments. It was still a fun process though. The music we did was more integrated into the narrative in Days of the Bagnold Summer, but we’ve probably still to have our Superfly moment.”
When did you start putting together the material for this new album? What’s the oldest song on the record?
“We started working together on new songs in the late part of 2019 after we finished touring. Do It For Your Country had been recorded slightly earlier at a studio in the Gorbals so it’s the oldest song on there. “
We understand that the original plan was to record the album in L.A., but that plan was scrapped due to the pandemic? How do you think that has affected the way the album has turned out?
“Yeah, that’s right. We had everything ready to go just when Covid restrictions came in across the world in March 2020. It’s hard to make a comparison because we’ll never know how the record we’d have made in LA would have turned out or what the process would have been like, as we would have been working with a different producer. We certainly ended up with a different selection of songs to what we would have done, as Stuart wrote a lot of new ones over the period we were working on the record.”
Your records are often so different from each other, do you tend to have a clear idea of what you want to do with an album at the outset?
“No, we never really come up with an overall concept or a direction in advance, it’s always led by the songs, and we try to see each one through as best we can in whichever direction it seems to want to go.
“I’m sure for all of us in the group who are primarily players rather than writers you’re always working on new techniques and sonic stuff that you maybe have an idea it would be nice to use, but it only gets on there if it fits a particular song and the writer’s idea for how it should sound.”
Were there any musical reference points for what you wanted to do on this record?
“The Arlo Parks album was definitely a new one that a few of us really liked, and Sault got a lot of love from us as well. Speaking for myself I’m also a big fan of a lot of the current R&B acts with a more of an old school sound like Curtis Harding, Thee Sacred Souls and some of the other acts on labels like Colemine and Penrose, but as group we’ve never fully gone for that vintage sound for our own stuff.”
Was there any particular track that kicked things off or set the direction for the rest of the album as a whole?
“I think the first thing we worked on when we properly got to work on the album was ‘Working Boy In New York City’. The way we tracked it on the first day ended up being quite different to how it turned out, so in a sense that set the direction for the rest of the record. “
How does the writing process tend to work for you these days? Has it changed over time?
“Obviously there was a point in the very early days when Stuart wrote all the songs, but now there’s more collaborations and contributions from other members. Stuart, Stevie and Sarah all write complete songs, and will sometimes have them fairly fully formed before presenting them to the group. Other times we might start playing a looser musical idea, either from one of the main writers or any of the rest of us, and see where it goes.”
What kind of lyrical themes have emerged on this album, do you think?
“In general I think the lyric writers would rather let the words speak for themselves than explain them. But I know Stuart has got deeply into Buddhism in recent years, and tries to drop bits of learning from his classes into the songs.”
You’ve self-produced (or co-produced) this record, was that always the idea or was that a result of the way you ended up recording it? Do you prefer working that way?
“If we had gone to LA we would have been working with Shawn Everrett. He ended up doing some remote recording of the backing singers on ‘If There Shooting At You’ and mixes for ‘Working Boy’ and ‘Sea of Sorrow’, which give a bit of a hint of how a record with him might have gone.
“The stuff we did at home was very much a collaboration with our pal Brian McNeill, who was also crucial in helping us get the studio up to scratch to do the recording. We enlisted some help from a dude called Matt Wiggins on a couple of songs, and Tony Doogan did a couple of mixes too, as he nearly always does.
“I think different people in the band would have different answers on the pros and cons of self producing versus working with an outside producer. It can be liberating to work with someone who will push you out of your comfort zone, but it can also result in tension if their idea doesn’t exactly fit with the writer’s own for the work. In addition, when you work with an outside producer you have the comfort of knowing there’s someone else with an eye on deadlines and boring stuff like computer backups. We’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of talented and inspiring people over the years, so hopefully at least you learn something from their methods that you can keep applying yourself.”
What are your touring plans looking like for the new album? Is there anywhere you’re really looking forward to playing?
“We should have already done a couple of tours this year that unfortunately had to get postponed, but from the the end of May we’ll be off to the US and then busy for a good while after that.
After not playing outside the studio for so long just being anywhere on a stage together will be a bit of a novelty.”
What kind of live show can we expect? There’s a lot of back catalogue to choose from… Is it a challenge putting together a set list at this point?
“There’s always a mix of older and newer songs. The set generally has the same overall shape, and then different tunes come in and out. It is hard to keep everything performance ready. Honestly I don’t have a great memory myself for things we’ve not played recently, nor am I quick enough playing by ear to totally busk it either, but after a couple of practices things start coming back.”
Are you thinking about your next project yet? Or is it too soon for that?
“Yeah, between getting ready for tour and the activities that go along with the album release we’re pretty busy right now, but I’m sure we’ll start looking ahead again soon.”