Hi, sorry, took a bit of a break there. This is the next entry in an occasional series, and it’s a lengthy one. So get comfy and i’ll tell you a bit about our 4th long player, and how the art came about.
Sometimes when we are on stage I will introduce a number from our ‘much-maligned mid period’. As a phrase it just rolls off the tongue, I like it. I guess I’m playing around with an image of the band from a certain period. That period would be around the recording and release of “Fold Your Hands Child..”, our fourth studio LP.
That record, although it didn’t perhaps set the world alight on its release, was a real scene changer for our group, in all sorts of ways – most of them positive.. eventually. At the time though, it was almost a record of a band disappearing. I say almost, because if we’d put out the record we first recorded, the band really would have disappeared, so poor was the quality of what we had managed to get down.
I guess it was inevitable – there were all sorts of strains on this still fledgling band. I think even by LP 4 there was a few people questioning whether they even wanted to be in a band like this. I was still driving the recording forward. I had new songs all the time; and I had a bunch also from the previous years that I had felt were too demanding for the overall concentration level of the group. I wanted to do them this time.
‘Arab Strap’ had been a pretty straightforward record to learn and play. There was hardly anything about the songs that were very challenging. This time round, some of the songs demanded a pop precision that you just couldn’t skirt around. This meant we actually had to practice and practice before we went to record. It was just a ‘harder’ record to make.
Even when we managed to get a take down that was in decent order, it often sounded lazy and unfocussed. If ever we needed a ‘producer’, it would have been on this record. I was too stubborn to give up the reins, however – even to Tony Doogan, our partner in sound. I was determined, as I had been all along, to try to see each song through to its best conclusion.
It’s kind of ironic, we really served our time with this record, learned a lot more about how we shouldn’t record. We actually learned enough to realise that we needed someone to ‘boss’ us. But that was for another time..
Still, there was nice stuff that went onto this record. Probably the most pleasing track on the lp was the first genuine ‘collaboration’ in writing between the band. Built on a bluesy Wurlitzer figure that Chris had, I started singing over it. We were ‘jamming’ it out in practice, and I still remember the moment when the whole group just kind of fell into the chorus of “Don’t Leave The Light On Baby” like a ray of light sneaking out from behind a cloud.
“Waiting For The Moon to Rise” was also a successful recording, Sarah’s first writing contribution. It seemed fun and simple to do.
Stevie’s songs were always strong, and always recorded well. He’d played us “The Wrong Girl” a while back, in fact we’d played it live on Radio 1, I think. Right at that time, I just couldn’t hear any song without hearing sunlight strings dancing around the melody. I was always carrying my manuscript around, menacingly. I asked Stevie if he didn’t mind if I wrote a part for the track. He assented, but I think to this day he’s ambivalent about the efficacy of said arrangement!
“Fold Your Hands Is My Life!”
So we dicked around for almost a year on this thing, recording, then having another go, then adding strings, then ripping it up, singing it again.. you get the idea.
One thing that caused me to stop and think was that around about that time Jeepster wanted to rerelease Tigermilk, including CD for the first time. So it needed to be mastered. So I had to listen to it. It depressed me a little to listen to it. It sounded so fresh and energetic and natural! It was a long way from what we were currently working on.
Another thing was that I had started hanging around with another crowd of Glasgow young types who called themselves Camera Obscura. Hanging off them more like. I invited them to come and rehearse in the church hall so as I could just hear them play. I would help set up the sound, then stick around at the mixing desk. Everything seemed so simple and beautiful in their world. The voices, the instruments, the arrangements, the intention.
There was nothing to do but get our heads down and finish the record. One by one the ‘difficult’ songs checked in, compromised, but just about good enough.
Years later, when we were in LA recording “The Life Pursuit”, we were all drunk. We were in the lift in an apartment building, and we were looking for a party.
This girl got in the lift with a guy. She stood in the middle, looked around her and said. “Belle and Sebastian? Belle and Sebastian!!” It was us, we said. “Fold Your Hands is my life!” she said. It turns out it was Eva Mendes, the actor.
Bob tried to get her to come to the party with us, but she pretty quick realised the mess we were all in, and she declined politely and went on her way with her fellah.
The reason I mention it, is that I’m with Eva. “Fold Your Hands” is my life! It kind of left me fucked after we made it, to the point when my ME came back and we couldn’t work for a year. But I wouldn’t change it. I put a lot of myself into that record.
It sort of became a blueprint for us too. When I got my strength back, and we were ready to make a go of touring properly, it was those songs that we took out on the road. We took extra strings, we took a flute player. Our harpsichord was finely tempered!
It took us a while, but we finally learned how to play The Model, Too Much Love and Woman’s Realm with purpose and vigour.
Those songs became stalwarts of the set, and kind of lead the way for the B&S sound live for the next ten years. I have had some of my happiest moments playing The Model live. I love the way the arrangement locks together, and by the last verse I feel I’m just riding along on a rich spinning wheel of sound. It was just about worth it.
You’d think by the time we’d finished the album that I’d just want the sleeve to go away, or I’d ask someone else to do it. But as I explained before, the art had become the best part for me. It was easy: think of a picture, then take it. Then get Andrew Symington to do all the hard bits.
It was a chance to escape the group for a while, and what better place to escape to than Iceland?
First of all though, the name –
I used to always be jotting down bits of graffiti I saw. The more obscure and would-be literate, the better.
I was always hanging round the university. I’d been enrolled there three times, when finally health had forced me to give up for good. I was still living around there however, using the facilities, like a ghost. I had struggled so much when I was there; I just assumed everyone was smarter and groovier than I was.
I even used to sit in on the odd class – “They don’t seem to mind!” said Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate when he described his similar circumstance. Similar, apart from the fact that he was obviously, erm, a graduate.
I used to hang out in the basement of the reading room, using those early Mac computers they had, printing out my lyrics. I was always real busy. It set me apart from the rest of the students.
In the toilets, someone had written, “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it had a nice ring to it. So I jotted it down, and moved on. My notebook was full of such titles, some nicked, some made up.
Fast forward to 1999. We’d taken a break in recording the lp to put on our own festival, called The Bowlie Weekender in a holiday camp in the south of England. We were all of us staying in ‘chalets’, which were tiny apartments arranged in long terraces, or ‘lines’. (Hence The Chalet Lines, which was a song based on experiences a colleague had in such a camp, in the 80s)
One of the fun things about this festival, and part of the point of it in the first place, was that band and fan, living quarters and party quarters, should be mixed up and intertwined.
That’s when we all met Gyða and Kristín Valtýsdóttir, the girls from Icelandic band Múm. They weren’t playing at this festival; they were just down, checking out the scene.
It was late on the last night when I met them. By this time, the whole chalet line felt like a student house party, with people walking in and out of strange bedrooms. Not much chance of sleep.
Everyone was drunk. I hadn’t had time to catch up, so it was fun to watch various people trying to latch on to one of the twins (they’re identical twins, I forgot to say) then one would go to the bathroom, and the same drunken guy would seamlessly continue his attempted seduction with the other twin when she happened to pass by.
After we got back home, I had this idea for the sleeve. Can’t remember if it was directly inspired by meeting Gyða and Kristín, or whether it could have been any twins. Probably the former. Their mum memorably asked me when I first got to Iceland –
“So, they don’t have twins in Scotland?”
Well yes, but not quite like your two.
It was perfect though, they were perfect. The idea was that they would copy each other through the frame of a ‘fake’ mirror. I wanted one of them, the reflection, to become a monster, applying gothic make up, monster teeth, blood, monster sideburns! The other twin would just match the movements at all times without becoming a monster.
It was a little performance they gave, balletic and artful, and I just had to take pictures. I pretty much got exactly the picture I had in my head, I got the ‘feeling’, which was the main thing. From this point onwards I would ‘set up’ the album covers based on an idea, but it was quite rare that I actually got the picture I wanted, or the picture I expected to get. This was one time.
I’m not sure if I had the album title in my head at that time – I think probably yes. I admit there didn’t seem to be a connection with the name and the picture, but sometimes that doesn’t matter. I was just feeling it.
If you look at the whole sleeve, if you have the vinyl for instance, you’ll notice that there are a few clashing ideas and themes that appear. I don’t think we would do that now; I’d usually try stick to the one theme and elaborate.
On “Fold Your Hands” you got the girls on the front. You’ve got the band in the middle, for some reason dressed up as a rich and gruesome Edwardian family. Then on the back you have a line drawing of the view from a launderette window.
The launderette was in the student union at the university. This was place I frequented a lot. I wrote Marx and Engels in there while waiting for the dryer. That song was meant to be on this album, so I asked our friend Laura to draw me the view from there, and we stuck it on the back.
Andy always laid out the vinyl first, and everything flowed from that. He cared slightly less for the CD. Laying out the cassette tape always bemused him “who still buys TAPE!?” This time round we had a minidisc to do as well, which would have incurred his complete derision, but for the idea that he was making something that he knew no one would buy, hence it was an instant curiosity, and he quite liked that.
This has turned into a pretty exhaustive post. Thank goodness Storytelling was a relatively simple affair. So lastly i’m just going to put a picture up of the first of many fake books that littered Belle and Sebastian photoshoots, record covers, videos from this point onward. If i loved making record sleeves, then i really loved making fake book covers for some reason.
Thanks to Andy Symington for digging up some of these images.