Friday, 18 August 2023
The history of Belle and Sebastian goes back to Glasgow 1996. A group of young musicians got together to make music and gradually the right people heard, and they had the chance to make a record. Perhaps thousands of musical journeys started like this one, but few can say that their initial project is still going on more than 25 years later.
In fact, while there have been some comings and goings, five of the lineup who started making their characteristic soft indie pop in the late nineties with frontman Stuart Murdoch are still dedicated to the band today.
One of them, Sarah Martin, speaking to SUR in English on the telephone prior to the band's concert at the Cala Mijas festival this summer, puts the secret down to just that - dedication.
"The five of us that have been in it from the start don't have our own projects so this is our focus," says Martin, 49, who is originally from Blackburn, England.
And focused they are if recent productivity is anything to go by. Belle and Sebastian have released 12 studio albums, the last two within months of each other, A Bit of Previous in 2022 and Late Developers, a "surprise" offering earlier this year.
"We made 27 songs - when we finally were able to get together [in the pandemic] and make the music, we got in a bit of a groove and kept on going," says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Martin, explaining how they converted their rehearsal space into a safe studio so they could keep creating.
Along with Murdoch and Martin, also with the band since the nineties have been Stevie Jackson, Chris Geddes and Richard Colburn. Original members such as Isobel Campbell and Stuart David left to pursue their own projects while Bobby Kildea and Dave McGowan joined later.
But despite being a large band, consensus is not a problem.
"We're quite sensible, we all know each other. We understand what's important to each other," says Martin.
Belle and Sebastian's music stands out not just for its very hummable melodies but also their use of instruments not typical of an indie pop band. As well as singing and playing violin and guitar, Martin is just as likely to pick up a flute, percussion, recorder and, as she puts it, "funny little synthesisers and stuff".
"When Stuart [Murdoch] was starting the band he wanted non-rock instruments to be integral to the creative process, for the trumpet, violin and cello to be as important as the guitars and drums," she says. "There are no restrictions."
"The band came about when he was first recovering; he had been very unwell for quite a few years in the early 90s," says Martin. So just as Belle and Sebastian emerged from Murdoch's ME, his illness dictates the band's pace, but at the same time the band influences his progress.
"When he's got a bit of headroom it's the band that helps him get some energy back. It's amazing," says Martin.
However she points out that there have been times over the years when he has been "too unwell to do anything".
A downturn last November meant concerts in the UK and Ireland were postponed and their North American tour scheduled for early 2023 was cancelled.
"It's just a case of giving him time," says Martin. Patient UK and Ireland fans did just that, and were rewarded with new dates on a three-week tour earlier this summer.
It was precisely Murdoch's initial years struggling with chronic fatigue that fuelled the band's early collection of songs. "He couldn't go out and interact with the world, so writing songs is something he learned he could do," says Martin. "That's what helped him at first, inventing little characters. A lot of the early songs are about imaginary people who maybe were a bit of Stuart and a bit of all of us."
Since then these characters have inhabited the lyrics of songs and albums with intriguing titles such as Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Boy with the Arab Strap, among many others.
Martin points out that the disadvantage back then for new bands trying to release a record was the expense.
"Tape cost a lot of money. And you needed proper studios," she explains. "The democratisation of creativity, the fact that anyone can open [recording app] Garageband on their phone and download for 2.99 or something - that's quite amazing. You can make tunes while you're sitting on the train. The digital stuff does make everything a lot less expensive."
The downside though, as Martin says, is that tens of thousands of new records are being released a day.
"So there's quite a lot to poke through. I guess we're fortunate that we popped our heads out from under the parapet long enough ago - now people are looking out for us. It must be quite difficult if you're starting out now."
Indie pop fans of all ages are certainly looking out for Belle and Sebastian, and finding them - for example among the lineup of the Cala Mijas festival on 2 September and the previous day at the Kalorama festival in Lisbon.
Martin laughs at the suggestion that seeing their name on festival programmes is always a reassurance to fans that some good things stick around, never making too much noise, keeping a low profile, but dependable, there to be relied on to perform and produce good music.
"Like the ravens at the Tower of London?" she wonders. "It does feel good not to have split up. There are so many bands that do split up and they come back after ten or 15 years. I'm proud that we've kept on ploughing our little furrow."
So, how long will that furrow go on for?
"Who knows? Impossible to predict," answers Martin. "I remember when I joined the band straight out of uni and my mum said, 'Are you gonna give it to the end of the summer and then get a proper job?' I said I'll know when it's not right anymore and it doesn't feel not right yet. It's funny, who would have thought? We've done it for so long it would feel like a huge thing to stop now."
That's a relief. Because when the ravens fly, who knows what might happen to the British indie pop scene.
El Norte de Castilla
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