The perfect pop song. The languid lullaby. The cheeky ballad. Alone-in-your-bedroom disco spinner. From the “Blues are still Blue” to “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” and “Seymour Stein” to “Nobody’s Empire,” you’d be hard-pressed to find an occasion or an emotion that a Belle and Sebastian song doesn’t express.
The first time I saw the Glaswegian natives live was from the back of the crowd at what must have been a sold-out show at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia in 2006. That was three years after my high school boyfriend had given me a gift even more lasting than our first crushing love – two burnt CDs of B&S albums If You’re Feeling Sinister and Tigermilk.
By the time I was cruising the back roads of South Jersey with “Stars of Track and Field” soaring through the speakers, Belle and Sebastian was already six years and six albums into a career as one of the greatest indie pop bands of my generation, and I fell harder for them than I had for the shaggy-haired intellectual who introduced us.
Fourteen years (and approximately 143 mixes including at least one B&S song) later, the romance hasn’t faded. Not one bit. My affair with Belle and Sebastian is constant, comfortable and always satisfying. They
continue to redefine electronic, surprise with the versatile use of female vocals and explore sexuality, religion – all of the big questions.
And as I found out after talking to guitarist/singer Stevie Jackson in advance of the band’s July 30 show at Merriweather Post Pavilion, they are just people, like all of us, navigating life and death and friendships and crises – living their own versions of reality in the place they call home.
On Tap: Can you tell me about the upcoming tour and your show at Merriweather? It’s an interesting lineup with Spoon and Andrew Bird, and locals Ex Hex. What can we expect to hear this time around?
Stevie Jackson: That’s a big bill, isn’t it? That’s a lot of bands! The show kind of grows as it goes along with every subsequent record. You’ve got more choice, but it’s always quite integrated – old songs integrated with the new. It will be a mixture of the last 20 years. Every time you go out, there are things from the past that rise up; some you haven’t played for awhile, then something fresh. We were rehearsing a couple of days ago a song we hadn’t played for years. At first I was holding my guitar and I was like, “I have no idea,” but then it comes flooding back – muscle memory – and it’s like time travel to my 2004 self, and my fingers know where to go.
OT: How do you guys stay fresh, excited and still making music that is meaningful after 20 years?
SJ: You don’t slow [down], basically. It’s actually 21 years we’ll be making records, and I think there was a period about 10 years in when we didn’t do anything for a couple of years. We probably needed that at the time. We’ve never split up. But to be quite frank with you, Courtney, we have to make a living these days. I don’t have any children, but a lot of the other guys do. The impetus is, as working people, they have to provide for their families. I suppose when you’re younger, the whole point of being in a band is to avoid work. You have a romantic notion [of what being a musician is]. Then about 10 years in I thought, “Oh man, it’s a job.” But then it occurred to me: “It’s the best job in the world.”
OT: You have stayed in Scotland throughout your career. How much of a part does your home play in your music?
SJ: The music is infused with [Glasgow]; the characters in the songs and just being here. I think the music’s still got that. For years, we’ve left Glasgow to record. We go somewhere and get it done; no distractions. And sometimes that can infuse – where you are when you record – give a slight flavor. But even still, the music is very Glaswegian as far as I’m concerned.
OT: There is a distinct difference between your and frontman Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting styles. Who are some of your own musical influences and icons?
SJ: They all died last year. David [Bowie] was very hard. I didn’t know him; that’s the beauty of it. He was like the cool big brother you never had. He was really a visionary.And Prince as well, because I didn’t see that coming. It was just a shock. It seemed really unfair because he was so young and worked so hard.
OT: What did your parents listen to? What were the albums that played in your house, that shaped your own tastes?
SJ: Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence LP. There was a Motown compilation, which I wore out. The Mamas & the Papas. Barbara Streisand’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2. I still listen to that. The Four Seasons [here’s where I swoon when Stevie sings “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”]. A couple of Beatles [albums]. A Good Vibrations 45 by The Beach Boys; I played that one a lot. Frank Sinatra – my dad liked that one. A live album of [Wings’] Wings over America. A big one was my mom’s favorite, Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” I still play that lot. After I left home, the ones I didn’t steal I bought myself. Thank you, I enjoyed that question.
OT: Who are you outside of the band? What do you do when no one’s around?
SJ: Another excellent question. I just feel like I am, you know? People have asked me what it’s like to be famous, and I don’t consider myself remotely famous. I’m in my 40s and I’m just that guy who’s in bands. I’m not saying it totally defines who I am, but it does in a way. It’s my job and my hobby rolled into one. When we started the group, Stuart was kind of specific that we’d do this band thing but the stuff we produced would be a representation of our everyday lives. We’re just people living here with flats and bills to pay and mortgages like anyone else. I’m not down in the clubs hanging. I’m a homebody; I like to stay home.
OT: Speaking of being a homebody, the world is pretty crazy in a lot of ways right now. What do you do when things are just sh-t? For example, I sometimes listen to “Seymour Stein” on BBC Sessions.
SJ: The BBC one is the best one, yeah. Well, thankfully my life doesn’t go that badly. There are ups and downs. I like to go to sleep. I either sleep or drink my way out of it. Music always takes me to a place anyway. Especially when I was younger – there’d always be a song. [Bob Dylan’s] Blood on the Tracks when you had a breakup, you know?
OT: One last question before I let you go. Are you a cat or a dog person?
SJ: Dog. The cats generally tend to be girls. I’ve known cat-like girls all my life. They cover the cats. I’d rather the company of a dog when it comes to animals.