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Belle And Sebastian - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 24 / 9 / 2009

Belle And Sebastian - Interview


Ben Howarth speaks to Chris Geddes, the keyboardist with Belle and Sebastian about how their own one-off 1999 festival, the Bowlie Weekender had a crucial impact on the All Tomorrow's Parties festivals, and, after a long absence, his band's own plans for the future

In 1999, Belle and Sebastian’s fans voted in their droves to ensure the band won a Brit Award for best newcomer - despite the fact that they were on their third album, they were on a tiny indie label, they hadn’t had any hits and didn’t do any interviews. This prompted a year or so of heavy debate about the merits of the band in the pages of the music press. These debates split into two camps - those of us who felt that acoustic folk-pop with quaint lyrics was something we’d always wanted and those others who dismissed the band as naïve, twee, unadventurous and backward-looking. Gradually, as a fair portion of people stubbornly insisted on buying the records whatever the supposed tastemakers felt, the debate died down. And yet, I wonder what those naysayers now make of the fact that Belle and Sebastian’s idea for a music festival entirely cut off from the tradition of mud, tents and terrible sound has lived on for a decade, and been celebrated by a lively documentary film. That first festival, the Bowlie Weekender (named after the stubbornly unfashionable bowl-cut haircuts sported by the typical fan of the band), curated by Belle and Sebastian, has given the model for the UK’s most adventurous and least compromising festival, All Tomorrow’s Parties. An energetic version of ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ sits proudly on the documentary next to Nick Cave, Slint, Patti Smith, the Stooges and Sonic Youth. Belle and Sebastian keyboard player Chris Geddes performed a DJ-set at the film‘s launch party. Pennyblackmusic spoke to him about the festival he helped to create, and about the changes in his band since. “I really enjoyed the film,“ he began.“The way it was edited, with a mixture of fans footage and clips of bands had a really good energy. I think it worked particularly well in the venue where they launched the film. It was played with a really loud volume - just like a gig.” The idea for the Bowlie Weekender gradually evolved from a plan, developed by then-manager Neil Robertson and Belle and Sebastian front man Stuart Murdoch to take the band on a tour, by boat, of British ports. Although Channel 4 had expressed interest in filming and funding the tour, gradually the more practical notion of a gig at a holiday camp was finalised, based on the Soul Weekenders that had been held regularly in the 60s and 70s. Murdoch, who had worked at a Butlin’s Holiday Camp in his youth, aimed to host an event that made the audience part of the action, with the same chalet facilities allowed to ticket-holders as were provided to the bands. “We wanted a fans event,” Geddes stresses. “Not like Glastonbury, where bands play their set and then hide backstage with their own private toilets”. From there, Murdoch and the rest of the band began to put together their ideal line-up. “So many of the bands said yes - we were pleasantly surprised,“ Geddes explains. “I remember the atmosphere, both in the music hall and across the chalets. But, for us, it wasn’t much different from being in our local pub - there were so many Glasgow bands and people - I just have really great memories.” The calibre of bands that performed at the Bowlie Weekender was, by any standard, particularly high. Playing just before Belle and Sebastian were a band who had just won near universal acclaim for their masterpiece, 'Deserter‘s Songs'. “Mercury Rev were there, in black sunglasses and denim, when we getting ready to do our set, playing right before us - I thought, ‘Oh my God’. How do you follow that?” Belle and Sebastian’s headline set went across very well - Radio One DJ Steve Lamacq was watching, and as soon as he got back to his studio, delivered listeners a passionate review, focusing particularly on an epic take on ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’. But Geddes remembers the performance slightly differently - “the only bad thing was that we weren’t, at that time, a touring band and we didn’t know how to play live. We had to get up at 5 a.m. for a soundcheck, which was painful, stupidly long”. I ask whether the success of the festival marked a turning point in the band’s career - the moment when they ceased to be a cultish hobby and became a professional outfit. “Possibly with hindsight,” he answers. “But I’m not really sure we felt like that at the time. It was still a long time after that, a couple of years, that we began to tour. But that show gave us confidence in our audience. It really felt like the crowd there were on our side”. Nevertheless, he believes that the change in the band’s live performances has been gradual, with the band gradually learning to trust other people’s judgement. He notes, “Stuart had to be pushed to sing nearer the mike. We’ve got better, and now we’re able to tour with a bigger crew. It's technically better and less stressful.” After the Bowlie Weekender, the band completed work on a fourth and final full album, 'Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant', for their first label, Jeepster, and then moved on to the better known Rough Trade. The band’s sound on recent albums and singles has been noticeably different, with sixties pop, disco and even Thin Lizzy edging out the band’s earlier folk-indie influences. Given that, I wonder if the ‘Bowlie’ character that the band described as the typical model for their fanbase was still a fair reflection of the people that listened to the band. He pauses, “I’m not sure… I think there is still that element. Maybe the odd older fan has moved onto other bands”. The band have been on a hiatus in recent years, although Geddes confirms that there are plans to re-group and begin work on new material for release sometime next year. He makes it clear that he would be very disappointed if this didn’t happen, saying, “I’d hope after so long off, everyone’s quite committed. I’d hope Belle and Sebastian will be our full-time thing for quite a while yet.” In the meantime, he has recorded and produced bands, and done some DJ-ing. Although he found producing bands rewarding, and would be keen to do more, he sees these activities as “stuff to fill in time“, saying that he has been “maybe not as busy as I would have liked”. “At the moment, Stuart has recently released his 'God Help The Girl' album, where he has worked with lots of different singers, while our drummer Richard Colburn still has some touring to do with Snow Patrol. As soon as he’s done with that, I’d like to think we will all regroup. I’m really not sure, until we do get together, what Stuart’s approach will be - how much input he will need from the band on his new songs.” He does slightly regret the fact that some of the aspects that defined the band in its early years could not be continued, in particular the regular release of EPs with tracks not included on albums (now compiled on the 2005 ‘Push Barman To Open Old Wounds’ album). “We really liked the EP format, we were thinking of the way that My Bloody Valentine released theirs between albums. But then they changed the chart rules, which meant we could only include three songs on a single.” Certainly, however, he is sure that the move to the larger Rough Trade has not been responsible for the band attempting a more commercial direction. “They have been really supportive - there is no pressure to achieve any kind of success. If anything, they’ve encouraged us to go in a less commercial direction. Geoff Travis said, after the last record, that it might be ‘time for a left-turn’, and there does seem to be the feeling that we have taken the poppy direction as far as we can.” What direction might that left turn take? “I’m not too sure, actually. Actually, I have been thinking about that today - I half wrote a song, which is built around a reggae rhythm. Maybe that’s the new direction for us - Bowlie Raster”. It has been nearly fourteen years since Belle and Sebastian released their debut album, 'Tigermilk',on a limited run of 1000 vinyl copies. I finish the conversation by asking what have been Chris’ highlights during that time. “Bowlie - that’s an obvious highlight. Also, the time we spent in LA making ‘The Life Pursuit’, our last record. Generally, I never expected back then that I would have been able to make a living out of our records.” “Now, I get the feeling more people have heard of us. I get that from travelling about in taxis. In the first five years of the band, taxi drivers who’s ask what I do had never heard of us. Since 2001 and 2002, generally the taxi divers in Glasgow have been aware of the band”.

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