At one point on “Cornflakes”, the fourth track on the second entry of Belle & Sebastian’s recent How to Solve Our Human Problems series, Stevie Jackson walks out into downtown Glasgow and is struck by the beauty of the autumnal light. As he conveys this, a jittery tandem of guitars and drums chug steadily behind him – a constant rhythm throughout the song, and one Jackson says was meant to evoke the sound of a passing train.
When I reach the guitarist over the phone in May, fall’s brisk luminance has long receded in our rearview mirrors, but it’s still another wonderful day in his hometown.
“It’s beautiful here right now,” he shares in a tone that’s equally chatty and reserved. “It’s lovely, really.”
Jackson and the rest of his band have just soundchecked for a show at Galvanizers Yard, a large outdoor venue that, as fate would have it, is adjacent to a set of train tracks. As the guitarist talks, the sound of freight vehicles hauling some kind of equipment scores his thoughts.
The subject of our conversation is primarily How to Solve Our Human Problems, three EPs that were released between December and February, then collected in a vinyl box set or one CD, depending on your listening preferences.
The EP format is a significant component of the Scottish band’s storied history. There were the trio of classic 1997 EPs reissued in the States as the Lazy Line Painter Jane box set in 2000. In between, there was This Is Just a Modern Rock Song, a release coveted by fans in part because it never got a U.S. release. Afterwards, there were Jonathan David and I’m Waking Up to Us, technically singles but essentially EPs that marked Belle & Sebastian’s transition from scrappy indie pop to something more ambitious, more polished, and more grown-up. And, finally, there was Books, the 2004 EP that contains possibly the best song of the band’s modern era, “Your Cover’s Blown”.
Since then, Belle & Sebastian has mostly stuck to the traditional cycle of LPs and singles: The Life Pursuit (2006), Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (2010), and Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015). How to Solve Our Human Problems marks a not insignificant return to the format. And even though frontman Stuart Murdoch has admitted that the decision was influenced in part by the logic that a series of EPs would generate sustained interest, it’s also reflective of the manner that these songs were produced: haphazardly, over the course of an extended period of time, in a seven different studios, rather than with one producer in one space in one series of sessions.
Coincidentally or not, this approach has yielded Belle & Sebastian’s liveliest collection of songs since The Life Pursuit and possibly its most varied ever. How to Solve Our Human Problems is a remarkable achievement for a band at 22 years old, but to hear Jackson explain it, it’s just the beginning of whatever’s next.
“There is a part of you that thinks, ‘Oh, you’ve been doing this for 22 years,'” the musician says in his thick Scottish accent. “But there’s another part of you that says, ‘We should really get started now. We should should produce something good.'”
Belle & Sebastian plays Forest Hills Stadium in Queens tonight with Frankie Cosmos and Perfume Genius, and then D.C.’s The Anthem on Saturday. How to Solve Our Human Problems is out now on Matador Records.
There’s a warmth and energy to the songs on these EPs. Even though Girls in Peace Time had up-tempo moments, there was a certain steeliness to it. It felt like a band consciously trying to make a serious and unified statement, whereas this album sounds like a collection of individual songs that each exist in their own universe.
That can be attributed to a definite way of making these songs. It was kind of loose.
The previous few albums all have a cohesive sound from the way that they were made. They were all made with producers, and they were all made in the space of a few weeks. They’re like snapshots of where you’re at for a pretty specific time. And whoever you’re working with brings a certain cohesiveness to it because they’re producing the record. And that was great, but it just felt like a time for a change.
We hadn’t recorded in Glasgow for a long time. We had this loose notion of recording songs in different studios on a more ad hoc basis. “I’ve got a song; let’s go and record it.” “Where do you want to record it?” “Oh, let’s try this studio.” Glasgow is full of studios.
It was kind of fun to do it that way. I can’t remember if we said at the start, “They’ll be EPs.” I don’t remember that conversation, but it definitely wasn’t for an album. It was just, “Let’s follow our own nose. Let’s make it more relaxed and follow the music rather than being in a position where you’re producing it.”
There was definitely a freeing feeling to it. I’m glad that comes across.
What’s the benefit of recording certain songs in certain studios? Why mix it up?
It was just for fun, really. There was a studio that I’d always wanted to go. It was an analog studio, and we hadn’t recorded to tape for many years. We’re quite a big band, and it was a tiny studio, and I thought, “Well, I want to record here.” So, we just all piled in. I remember Bob [Kildea] going, “Oh, this will be great!”
There’s this other guy Brian McNeill, who did a lot of Stuart’s tunes. He’s got a small studio in Glasgow, and Stuart was comfortable there. And there’s a place called Green Door, and we also went to Chem19, which is Paul Savage’s studio – we’ve done some stuff there, as well. It’s just fun going to different places.
I guess because it’s not a concentrated thing, it becomes more part of the fabric of your life to a degree. Sometimes when you’re recording an album it’s like being in a hospital. That’s a terrible analogy, but you are stuck in this environment for weeks. We’ve never had a bad experience, but it’s nice going home at night.
Back in the day, we recorded our first four albums like this in Glasgow. At some point, around 2002 or something, we decided that we should have a producer because we’d lost the plot and wanted to be more focused or something.
In a way, we’ve gone back to what we’ve always done, but for cheaper. We have to be quite disciplined.
Your two tracks – or, the two with your lead vocals, I don’t know how credit is or isn’t assigned – feel particularly grand. “Sweet Dew Lee” is obviously the longest on the record, but “Cornflakes” covers a lot of ground in four-and-a-half minutes. What was the genesis of each?
Well, “Sweet Dew Lee” is a collaboration. You have to understand that all over our songs are collaborations. But with that one, the bit that Stuart sings is what he brought to it.
As with all songs that I’ve written, it kind of all came at once. I think I stuck my phone on and just started singing something, and then I went back and edited it, and that’s the song. It was just there. You know, you refine it after that, but essentially it’s just sort of there.
Stuart did have kind of a brilliant idea: There are all of these chord changes in the song, and then all of sudden he just holds one chord forever and sings something else. It’s a nice switch. Its almost a comment on what I’m saying, and then it builds up, and then it’s set free from its chord, and then it starts moving around again. I quite like that. It’s style and content.
Funnily enough, the chords of “Sweet Dew Lee” and “Cornflakes” are sort of… I wouldn’t say ripped off, but they’re kind of from a Frank Sinatra song called “Angel Eyes”. I just like to play that song. It has jazzy chords, and there’s a change in it, which I sort of lifted. I actually stuck it in both songs, so they kind of come off like a little suite; there are some nice similarities.
“Cornflakes” is actually just an experiment, really. I heard that train rhythm, and it just started from there. I was talking to a friend and she said she thought there was a song in there, so I just wrote it then. I said, “What should the title be?” And she said, “Just call it ‘Cornflakes.’” And I went, “OK.”
It’s very random. It’s almost Brian Eno-esque. It’s just random things. I thought, “It should sound a bit unique.” It’s one that I wanted to be fun to play, and Bob can hit all of his pedals and make noises. It’s almost sort of a Teenage Fan Club idea – they record backing tracks and write lyrics afterwards. Normally, I’d be like, “That’s crazy; I don’t know how they do that.”But we recorded the backing track first.
Then there’s the second half of the song, where it rises up and I kind of start yelling. I thought of that later. With the tone of the first half, I was trying to get a Dead Can Dance / Bernard Sumner kind of delivery, but then the second half is more like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons but delivered by a Glaswegian that can’t sing that well. That was sort of some of the inspiration.
And the coda bit – where I sing, “As I walked out into Glasgow City” – is a reference to folk song called “Nancy Whiskey”. So, it’s sort of a mixture of stuff. It’s a potpourri of things thrown together.
Do you place any meaning or importance or pride in having the first song on the album? “Step Into My Office Baby” was a bit of a duet between you and Stuart, but this feels like the first time there’s been a full-blown Stevie song in the lead-off position.
Is there any pride? Well, yeah, sure. When we usually sequence an album, it goes back and forth, and we all kind of get into it, but I don’t even remember having a discussion with this one. Stuart went away, and he kind of sequenced the whole thing. And I went, “Yeah, great.” Originally, there were three six-track EPs, but the label suggested taking one off each of them, which I think was the right call actually. I think it made it better.
In answer to your question, yeah, I was pleased. I went, “If Stuart thinks it’s good enough to be an opening track, if he thinks it’ll work there, then that’s great.” And I liked the song! I have kind of a West Scotland working class thing where you don’t really push yourself forward. I like being in the back. I don’t like to force anything or promote myself in a certain kind of way. So, let’s just say it wasn’t my idea to put it on first, but I was like, “OK, great, it’s a good piece of work.”
It’s always a nice feeling. “Step Into My Office” wasn’t my tune, but that opened an album. “Act of the Apostle” started an album, and I wrote the music for that. It’s quite a nice feeling. It makes me feel useful. I’m not the most useful member of society after all.
Given that you trimmed a song off each release, I’m curious about the decision to give the instrumental version of “Everything is Now” real estate on the first EP. What do you think it brings to the project?
Oh, I just liked them both. It was originally an instrumental. And I thought, “Well, maybe it’s just an instrumental.” But then some words emerged. That piece was around for the last album. Chris Geddes, the piano player, wrote it. It was just a piece, and we tried to have lyrics on it at that point, and it just didn’t quite stick. But I always thought it was a great tune. I think we just thought at the start, “Well, let’s just go and cut an instrumental, it’ll be great.”
The great thing about EPs, which I think we all quite like, is the kind of freeing feeling to them. You can put on instrumentals or anything you want really. That’s how EPs feel to me; they’re slightly less formal. I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that, really. We liked both versions. We thought both should come out. You have the first version, but if you buy the third EP, there’s something else to say – there’s an unfolding.
The EPs have now been released as one record. Do you consider How to Solve Our Human Problems a compilation or does it exist in the canon of Belle and Sebastian LPs? Does it even matter?
I don’t think it matters, really. Originally, we were kind of pushing the record label to make three EPs, but that means you have to manufacture it three times and promote it three times and all of that stuff. Then we thought, “OK, well, you can compile it at the end, and if anybody wants it, they can have it.” I guess I just see it as a compilation. You can buy the three vinyl EPs in a box or there’s a CD version of the whole thing. For me, it’s a compilation. That’s how it feels. The three EPs are its formal presentation.
But it was quite nice when the third EP came out because it was getting good reviews as an album, which I was quite happy about. I didn’t expect that to happen. I was kind of worried by the time that the third EP came out that no one would care or they’d be bored with it, but the whole project got reviewed at that point.
Belle & Sebastian is over 20 years old, but you’ve just released this vibrant collection of music. Do you feel like the band could go on for another 20 years? Is there any reason to doubt the fuel left in the tank?
Being in this business and being around a long time, there are a couple of considerations existing at the same time. It’s like, “How much fuel do you have in your tank?” But it’s also about how the music is perceived. Some artists make some of their best stuff later in their careers, and it gets ignored. I look back so far and I think, “That was a great album. The other one was OK. I don’t know about that one – it wasn’t so good.” But you love them all. At the end of the day, they’ll just be one piece anyway.
My own personal inspiration is [Mick] Jagger. If you see him in 1964, he’s just standing perfectly still and claps his hand a bit. By ‘69, he’s doing little spins and moving a bit more. By the times he’s 75, he’s all over the place. He moves more and more with every passing year. It’s this weird thing. He’s not just fighting slowing down – he actually speeds up.
There is a part of you that thinks, “Oh, you’ve been doing this for 22 years.” But there’s another part of you that says, “We should really get started now. We should should produce something good.”
You have your initial burst, which a lot of groups have. There’s a lot of groups where people just like their first two albums. There’s an explosion there, but you can’t sustain that. An explosion is an explosion. So, it becomes something else, and you try to stay creative and sustain. And things go up and down, but when we all walk in a room, we’re still happy to see each other, and we’re all still trying to improve and get better as players. I’d love to write a decent song – that’s all that’s ever in my head. I don’t think I can, but that’s what you have to overcome. But with Stuart, it just flows out of him. With him, it’s just turning on a tap. I’ve seen it happen: He turns it on, and it just comes. He can write music that easily. Or that’s my perception. That may not be his.
The reality of the situation is that we have to make a living. At this point, we’re just working musicians, and like anyone else we have to pay the rent.
We just soundchecked and the support bands are turning up, and they’re, like, 20 years younger than us. It’s hard to feel current in a certain context, but I feel current in the sense that we’re not an oldies band. We’re not touring If You’re Feeling Sinister for all eternity. I think we’re playing one song off that tonight, and we’re doing five new ones. I mean, the audience might prefer if we were playing If You’re Feeling Sinister, but that’s not what they’re going to get. Maybe we’ll play another one in the encore, if we get one.
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