Scottish indie rockers, Belle and Sebastian, have returned to action with their first in record in five years, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, and stop through the Bay Area with a performance at Berkeley’s Greek Theater.
Stuart Murdoch and company have been making records for a decade, condensing a sound that mixes thoughtful and gentle indie rock anthems with broadening synthesizers and electronic beats. With perhaps their most danceable and vulnerable record in recent years, the band explores a wide range of body jilting sounds (“The Party Line”) while still holding on to their adoration for classic literature (“Enter Sylvia Plath”) and even deplore into personal impediments (“Nobody’s Empire”). We caught up with violinist/vocalist, Sarah Martin, to talk about the new record, playing Coachella and Puppeteering.
Your latest record, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, seems to stay close to its title, featuring quite a few dance tunes. Was this a conscious decision to branch out and experiment more electronically?
It wasn’t really. We had a couple years of a break because Stuart (Murdoch) was making a film, during that time Chris (Geddes) bought a lot of synths and spent a lot of time in the studio learning how to program them. He had a lot more knowledge and equipment to play with, and when you have all that stuff and you’re not just playing piano anymore, that will happen. We’ve always had quite a lot of synths but we definitely kind of moved toward that. Chris was adamant about generating new sounds.
It seems like your past few records have become a bit more disciplined. How much did producer Ben Allen influence this record?
We wanted to make some noises that astonished us and we picked someone that was a match for that. He was on a kind of a long list of potential producers and rose to the top quite quickly. We spent a day in the studio in Glasgow and played a few songs for him and did a bit of work and agreed to work with him.
We made two previous records with the same engineer and producer and I would have been quite happy to go back a third time but other people in the band were getting too comfortable and wanted someone to shake things up a bit. The element of surprise is exciting; you can’t really underestimate how valuable that is.
You recorded in Atlanta, which quite different than Glasgow. How was that experience for you?
It was really good, and I had not been looking forward to that. Even the first three days, I was preparing myself to be a bit miserable. We all got to love and know Los Angeles pretty thoroughly in the past few years since making records there. I kind of couldn’t believe we were going to Atlanta, but it was brilliant.
When we were in LA we had apartments like two minutes from the studio. It was very social and we were close by each other and didn’t need to drive. In Atlanta we were in two separate places miles apart and driving to the studio. I was like “this is rubbish,” but I actually got really into it. The South is a different place but it’s really great. We started living there, not just existing.
You’re playing Coachella again this year. Do you prepare your live set up differently?
We’ve been working on a projection for the stage. That’s quite good when you’re playing big places and you can’t necessarily see each other. I think film really adds something to the show. We have some songs that are popular enough to where people at festivals will enjoy them and maybe we’ll reach the people who won’t come to our regular shows.
We played Coachella in 2002 and again in 2004. It’s just beautiful. I remember the feeling of being on stage with the view of the Sierra’s and Palm trees at the bottom of the horizon. There was a real sense of place to it.
It’s been five years in between Belle and Sebastian Write about Love and your latest record. Stuart Murdoch released his film God Help the Girl. What kept you busy?
I kinda helped Stuart in making the film. He called in as many favors as he could and jobs were there to be handed out. I have quite a few of friends who are animators and did some things with some of them, making soundtracks for short films. Chris and I work on that sort of thing sometimes.
I’m not very technical at recording. I can do stuff on my ipod but beyond that my skill level is quite limited. A lot of my friends are visual artists, filmmakers and puppet makers, so there’s always a lot you can get roped to into.
My friend is a puppet maker and makes her own films with them. It’s such a unique artistry.
My puppet-making friend and his son made this 10-minute film. His son had been telling me about the film they were making, and the puppet was there in kitchen and he operated the puppet. When you see them bring it to life, it’s such an amazing thing.
Have you ever thought about making a solo album?
I don’t think I’d be very good it. It would sort of scare me. It’s so brave to do something so unsolicited. To think of making something that nobody really asked for is a whole different thing. It’s more courage than I’ve got it.