- 25 May 22
Belle and Sebastian’s Sarah Martin discusses the indie-pop heroes’ new opus A Bit Of Previous, as well performing on a cruiseliner and - yes - helping construct a motorcycle wall of death.
Sarah Martin, one of the seven-strong Belle and Sebastian cast, sits in her Glasgow flat, laughing about preparing to ride a motorcycle around a Wall of Death. More of that anon, but that’s very Belle and Sebastian – they never do what you expect them to do.
Sarah is promoting A Bit Of Previous, their 10th album and first in seven years. It’s a banger by the way. Raging against the dying of the light, they deliver their standard masterclass in classic pop. On lead single ‘Unnecessary Drama’, the main character experiments with being human again after a forced hiatus - it’s a pertinent theme for these post-pandemic times, but it’s always been a primary concern of Belle and Sebastian.
A Bit Of Previous is the first full album the band have made in Glasgow since 1999’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. Self-producing in their own studio, in their hometown, resulted in a record running the gamut of Belle and Sebastian influences, which is some gamut. It takes in ‘60s baroque pop, Northern soul, Motown, folk-rock, ‘70s soft-rock and AM pop - all intricately arranged to a Vermeer standard of detail.
In addition, the Europop synthesisers and funk-dance grooves continue from the last outing, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, resulting in tracks that cross ABBA with Daft Punk. Was recording in Glasgow rejuvenating?
“Although we’ve never not done our bits and bobs in Glasgow,” Sarah says, “it’s the first long-form thing we’ve done. And it was good. I mean, it was kind of the only thing we could do. But it was a good thing to be able to do during lockdown. To be able to rustle up something in our own studio, we were under no illusion that we were incredibly lucky.”
Did they arrive at the studio with songs in hand?
“There was a combination,” Sarah continues. “The ones that came from being in the studio were the collaborations – ‘Come On Home’, ‘Unnecessary Drama’ and ‘Talk To Me, Talk To Me’. Most of the others probably came into the studio, even if they were still getting worked on.”
Containing several different songwriters and voices, Belle and Sebastian are the most democratic of groups. How do they go about creating music?
“When I’m writing, I tend to put a little demo together just for myself,” Sarah explains, “but I probably wouldn’t ever play that to people. It’s just a notetaking exercise for me. I don’t think most folk in the band really do demos at all. It is usually just showing people a thing and sometimes it’s more what you don’t want it to be, than what you actually do want it to be. And sometimes it’s just uncharted territory.
“That was one of the benefits of having our own space. We definitely did explore many avenues with a lot of songs. Some songs like ‘If They’re Shooting At You’ began straight out of the gate. But those ones can be tricky, because you’ve got such lofty ambitions. You wonder why is it not as good as you imagined it would be. That one took quite a long time before sense was made of it.”
The upcoming tour includes dates at the iconic Greek Theater in LA and Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Belle and Sebastian’s world tour in 2019 (the last time they played live) included a fans-only cruise in the Mediterranean. Will there be boats involved this time around?
“It was really special, actually,” Sarah enthuses. “I was feeling a huge sense of guilt. We didn’t have very long to decide, and we’re like, well, of course, we’ve been wanting this for years. Front and centre in our minds weren’t the environmentally catastrophic aspects of cruising. As soon as it was announced, dozens of folk in Barcelona told us how they hated cruise liners, that they ruin their city. You realise that these things come at a pretty huge cost.
“Also, it was not a terribly inclusive thing financially, you don’t really want to do something that only loaded people can go to. But in the end, literally hundreds of Glasgow folk were there. I remember as we walked onto the boat, folks would be looking at their shoes. Then by the next morning, because there were literally hundreds of people we knew, we were just walking around going hi, hi, hi!”
I ask what Sarah misses when on the road, and intriguingly she recounts her escapades on a mid-20th century style Wall of Death – motorcycles defying gravity, speeding inside a giant wooden sphere. What is this madness?
“I’ve ended up spending four or five months helping the artist, Stephen Skrynka build a Wall of Death,” she laughs. “Have you seen Eat The Peach?”
Of course, I have. Peter Ormrod’s 1986 movie about constructing a Wall of Death was required watching for all young bucks in rural Ireland.
“I think Stephen tracked down the two guys that Eat The Peach was based on. The three of them built a wall a few years ago. Then Stephen decided he wanted his own, so he started it while everybody else was making sourdough. He just lives around the corner from me. I only met him last year but it’s completely in my blood now. He’s the only guy who has ridden it so far.”
Are you tempted to try?
“I’m thinking about it. We bought a couple of little 1978 Hondas a few weeks ago and one of them works. I had never been on a motorbike, I got up to 20mph in an empty carpark and I’m just like, shit! Stephen hadn’t ridden a Wall of Death for five or six years. He had to ride it for a film crew. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life, being in the middle of this wall with this guy going into his own headspace, like nothing else exists. Not waiting for things - the band is very much like that.”
A Bit Of Previous is out now. Belle and Sebastian play 3Olympia Theatre, Dublin (November 9) and The Telegraph Building, Belfast (November 10).
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