By Brian F. Johnson
Every story, review and introduction to Belle and Sebastian’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance talks about how the new album is such a departure. The disc, which came out earlier this year, is indeed a stark contrast to the band’s debut Tigermilk which was released 19 years ago. But to the band, Girls in Peacetime makes perfect sense right now and has more than a few tunes which remain classically Belle and Sebastian.
“I think that’s why maybe it works,” said drummer Richard Colburn during a recent interview with The Marquee. “There are some things that are really new there, but they’re bound together with the old stuff as well, so it’s not such a big jump.”
The newness comes in the form of infectiously danceable electronic elements inspired by lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s 1980s and 90s fascination with dance clubs. But while Murdoch may have brought that inspiration to the studio when it came time to record, Colburn said that it was producer Ben Allen (Cee Lo Green, Bombay Bicycle Club, Diddy) that really punched it up. “Getting Ben was a real catalyst for how the album sounds,” he said. “His past is dotted with electronic music and hip-hop and all of these various things we had dabbled with, but we have never taken it to this limit — Ben took it all the way.”
Colburn said that Allen’s approach really shook up the way the band is used to doing things. He explained that on several occasions they hit the studio in the morning and ran through a few takes, thinking that they’d spit and polish the track later in the day. “We’d come back in the afternoon thinking that we were warmed up and ready to get at it and he’d go, ‘No, I have everything I need.’ Then, not on all of the songs, but on the more electronic ones he would just lock himself in the studio for two or three hours and just go nuts. We’d come in and all of a sudden there’s this completely whole different thing going on.”
Colburn went on to explain that while Allen was happy to take the reins it certainly wasn’t a dictatorship and that the input he got back from the band, in particular Murdoch, lead to a give and take that helped to balance the sound. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” Colburn said. “Some of the things that Ben did weren’t what Stuart had in mind originally. But that meant that there was a bit of negotiation to bring it back in a little bit.”
So while Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is centered around a danceable beat and poppy, summertime choruses, the band is far from casting away its serious side. In contrast to the rollicking opening track “Nobody’s Empire” tracks like “The Cat with the Cream” is haunting, dramatic and builds to bowed crescendos.
When the band performs this month at Red Rocks, they’ll be able to emphasize those string arrangements, as well as the arrangements of older Belle and Sebastian material, since they are being joined by the Colorado Symphony for the show. “We did the Hollywood Bowl several years back with the L.A. Philharmonic, and we did one in Glasgow actually on this tour, so the good thing about that is that we have all of these scores that are already in place for most of the songs,” Colburn said. “Mick Cooke, who was in the band and still does stuff with us is a fantastic string arranger and since he knows the songs so well it’s really easy for him to just slip in and put an arrangement on things and be the middle man between us and the orchestra and the conductor.”
Murdoch once said that Belle and Sebastian didn’t “fit in” anywhere. The Guardian said it clearly when they wrote that “Belle and Sebastian is music made for, by and about sensitive misfits.” But now, after nearly 20 years together, Colburn said that fitting in was probably never the point. “I think it’s funny because we’ve managed to build a little place for ourselves that people can fit in with us rather than us fitting in with whatever it is. If you’re never in fashion, you’re never out of fashion and that’s definitely been the way with us. And now we’ve created a role for ourselves and a place within music where people come to us instead.”
Belle and Sebastian
with the Colorado Symphony
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Go If You Dig:
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