Richard Colburn of Belle & Sebastian talks with PopMatters about Glasgow's music scene, the lost art of the B-side, and the time his band turned down Radiohead.
It's been a few years since Belle & Sebastian released 2010's Belle and Sebastian Write about Love, but gaps between studio albums are never entirely quiet for the Glasgow band, whose members keep busy with other creative pursuits like Stuart Murdoch's ongoing music/film production God Help the Girl and Stevie Jackson's solo album (I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson (2012). Apart from side projects, another big reason the off years never seem that quiet is the band's history of releasing compilation albums that feature non-album content like B-sides, live sessions, and other rarities.
Belle & Sebastian is unique among bands of its generation in that such releases never feel like cash grabs. In many cases, the non-album tracks are better than their official counterparts. In this way, Belle & Sebastian poses a challenge to the traditional meaning of "a singles band." Their singles have always featured exceptional B-sides, ultimately making their single and EP releases essential recordings in their own right. For listeners who don't have the time, energy, or funds to collect singles along the way, compiled versions offer a way to hear all of the material for the best possible value.
The latest compilation is The Third Eye Centre, due on Rough Trade in the UK and from Matador in the US. At the moment, the band is in rehearsals for a summer tour that will precede its release and the writing and recording of a new studio album. I spoke with drummer Richard Colburn about the busy summer and the state of the band well into its second decade. At this point, he says, the band members are "just trying to remember the songs."
Having last toured in support of Belle and Sebastian Write about Love, the band has only recently regrouped in order to rehearse. "I think we finished the last tour, it must have been about 2011, so no, not too bad. A couple of years, anyway. It always takes a couple of days to get there. To brush the dust off and all that, and try and remember what the hell is going on."
Like his bandmates, Colburn has other musical outlets to keep him occupied during Belle & Sebastian's off years. "I still play with a few other bands. I tour with Snow Patrol quite a lot. And I also have a record coming out quite soon with another band called Tired Pony. I drum with those guys as well. And that's like a made-up band with Gary Lightbody, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and about five others. It's like a seven piece band and we do sort of country-ish kind of songs. We had a record out in 2010 and I think there's one coming out at some point. Yeah, I like to keep busy in the meantime. I hate doing nothing."
Colburn describes the Glasgow music scene as a tight-knit community. He says although Belle & Sebastian is "not always playing together," its members "do see each other from time to time" because they "all live in Glasgow, and it's small enough that people go to the same places and stuff." In addition to keeping his existing band together, the community ensures regular contact with other artists. "Artists, musicians and other creative people tend to hang out at the same bars, clubs, and venues. You're never too far away from a creative person, so it creates a really good scene."
As for the specific style of the Glasgow music scene these days, he says "it's always kind of evolving. There are quite a few good bands at the moment that are coming out. There's a really good electronic band called Chvrches. And they're fantastic. But yeah, there are always new bands popping up because there are so many facilities for them, like small venues. A lot of places, you have to pay to play, but in Glasgow we're quite lucky because there are venues that hold 100 people and various sizes that accommodate new bands and younger bands. So there's always an evolving scene here. It's just one of those places that keep churning out good bands. If you don't go to see any bands for a month or two, by the time you go again, you're lost because there's like five new bands that you haven't heard of them and all the rest of it. I don't know what it is about this place, but it's very good."
The Third Eye Centre is itself a nod to the very tradition Colburn describes, taking its name from The Third Eye Centre, which The Herald calls an "institution that brought the best modern art into the lives of people in the city, and was critical to what is now described as 'The Glasgow Miracle' and the city's global status as a breeding ground for prize-winning artists." With The Third Eye Centre becoming more fondly remembered in recent years, it's fitting that Belle & Sebastian has paid tribute with the name of its own latest retrospective.
The new compilation marks the second decade of the band, much in the same way Lazy Line Painter Jane (2000), Push Barman to Open Old Wounds (2005) and The BBC Sessions (2008) collected songs from the first ten years. Colburn describes this as the difference between two labels: "the Jeepster Years," and "Rough Trade stuff," noting that The Third Eye Centre includes "a smattering of other things like outtakes and things that didn't quite make it onto records. So yeah, it's definitely a distinct difference between the ... first ten years, second ten years."
I ask him about his band's reputation for issuing such memorable singles and EPs. Were the B-sides recorded strictly for those releases, or were they album tracks that didn't make the cut? "It's definitely a combination of both actually. I remember there being a few that we definitely had in mind for an EP or for a single and there have been so many other ones that maybe haven't made it on the album or whatever it may be. Just whatever's lying about, putting it together and it just kind of worked out quite well. But with the advent of not doing that anymore, at some point you end up with a big bunch of songs that you have nothing to do with, so therefore the compilation comes out."
Does Belle & Sebastian, which excelled with CD releases during the last era of physical formats, see the CD single as a lost art in the time of digital/online music consumption? Colburn observes, "In the UK singles have kind of gone up again, although it's digital. People are buying them in a huge amount. But the B-side, I do miss it, you know. That was always a big thing for us, whether it was an LP or a single, making it a good package. So there was a good B-side and at least two other good songs, like on an EP. So I kind of miss that and I think you're right. That could end up being a bit of a lost art, because who goes in a shop and buys a CD single? Maybe a 7" but certainly not a CD single. It's an odd one."
It's not just the music industry that has changed. Belle & Sebastian has undergone a sonic transformation. The hushed quality often associated with the band's early recordings has been replaced by a bolder style of production highlighting Colburn's drumming and a more prominent rhythm section in general. "Definitely on the last two records, working with Tony Hoffer, I think the types of songs they were lent themselves to being a little more outspoken on the rhythm part. And Tony, the way he records and the way he mixes things, the rhythm section is a lot louder.
"We used to mix things almost like records from the 60s, where the rhythm section would be way, way down and the vocal would be way up. But I think Stuart, as well -- playing live has helped his vocal technique and the way he sings. So he can sing way up front now and accommodate the band being louder or the arrangements being a little more brash, which is good. There's definitely more of a swing to things, in the last two records, without a doubt. There are quite a lot of songs that swing a lot more than maybe in the past. It's good because it means you can play up a bit, you know? You can express yourself better also, which is good."
For a drummer, this development must be particularly gratifying. "Yeah, for sure, I remember the first two, three records I just more or less played with brushes. Because Stuart, the way he sang and the way the songs were anyway, it didn't require huge bombastic drums or anything liked that. So I remember playing so lightly for years. It's good now. It's kind of like ... being unleashed." As for whether the band is likely to backtrack or to continue in the present direction, he says "I think we'll continue with that. I think we're used to playing like that now so I can't really see us going back, sonically."
Colburn enjoys the opportunity to share the stage with a variety of bands during the summer tour. "We're doing about five or six shows with Yo La Tengo as well as festivals. We're doing a couple of shows with Blitzen Trapper and a show with Here We Go Magic. And Best Coast I think are going to do one as well. So we plan to combine things so we have different bands playing shows to make it more interesting for everybody. We do tend to get people that come to multiple shows, so it's good to change it up a bit. We're looking forward to it.
"Festivals are great but I love good venues. I always love meeting other musicians as well and all the bands that I mentioned are fantastic. I'm a big fan of Blitzen Trapper. I'm looking forward to doing a couple of shows with those guys." I ask if there are any notable bands remaining that Belle & Sebastian hopes to join in concert. Rather than give me a wish list, he tells a story of a missed opportunity.
"I remember years and years ago, in fact when we first started, Radiohead wanted us to play with them. But we didn't. For a long, long, time we never really supported any bands. 'A,' because there are too many of us. 'B,' because at that point it took us ages to get it together. You know, it's like military precision, when you go on and how long you play for, and all the rest of it. We kind of missed out on that one. That would have been pretty amazing to play with those guys. Radiohead -- that was one that kind of got away."
Though a studio album is at the planning stage, currently it takes a backseat to the tour. "What we're concentrating on just now is getting the live situation worked out. And as soon as we're finished that, in September, we'll be straight onto working on a new record. But I'm pretty sure that people have been writing already. Just in their own time, so by the time we get together, there will be a rough sketch of the thing so we can start work straight away." Colburn reckons several band members will have songs to contribute. "Sarah [Martin]'s been writing some stuff, Stuart obviously, and Stevie I'm sure will have a few songs because he did a solo album not long ago. I think he's been writing some more also. I'm sure various others, Chris [Geddes], will probably have some ideas also. So there will be no shortage of ideas kicking about. I'm looking forward to it. It's been a while since we've kind of written anything, so it should be fun."