Stuart here. I’m continuing with an illustrated trawl through the story of the Belle And Sebastian album artwork. It’s 1997, and our minds turn to..
The Boy With The Arab Strap
Things changed after Sinister. And I don’t mean about how the band were perceived, or that we were getting on jet planes and such. Things changed because folk in the band, myself included, thought that perhaps the last record didn’t sound as good as the first one.
This was the start of our little musical round trip, out to the sonic backwaters, before coming back to our senses around the “Jonathan David” EP. I don’t regret any of it though. Sensible is overrated sometime.
We played a few gigs around that time, but pretty much the main project was recording. We recorded almost an album worth of stuff at the start of 1997, but the idea was that we were looking for singles, so the tracks eventually came together on a sequence of EPs.
When it came to the next LP, the idea was that we’d carry on recording in the Church Hall where I lived. So that summer, when the drama society, the bridge club and coffee mornings were all off on holiday, we parked a broadcast mobile studio in the street outside, and began our third LP. The process turned out to be quite different to the previous two..
We’d had a lot of fun making those singles, making our first videos, and of course, I got to do the art too, which was rapidly becoming my favourite part of the whole business.
The original idea for the band was lost in time by LP3. That’s because the original idea for the band was only in my head, and as soon as I was confronted with a room full of real people, things became amorphous.
I think one of the first things that happened was that Isobel decided she was going to play bass on Lazy Line Painter Jane. The bass was a stringed instrument after all, and was roughly in the same register as the cello – so that was that.
Stuart, the regular bass player, didn’t seem to mind at all. He readily embraced the unexpected chaos of this “16-legged ensemble”. He was happy to watch that particular butterfly flapping her silvery wings, and the chain reaction that followed. He just moved one seat over, opened his book, and rubbed his chin.
I think this was around the time that Stuart suggested he might become a ‘non playing’ member of the group anyway. I scratched my head at that, thinking, ‘how would that work?’ He only really picked up the bass charitably to help me with my tunes, when we were on the previously mentioned government music course called Beatbox.
A Rich Period
I could run though the personalities of everyone in the group at this point, but I don’t think I will. I’m meant to be telling you about the cover art! But suffice to say that it would be a positive thing, and that this was a particularly rich period for me, it being suddenly full of these 7 others where before there had been only dreams and a few lost chords.
There was a need for these personalities to be expressed – that was clear enough. Expressed through their own compositions. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be a bad thing for the band, and I never changed my mind about that – even though it took me a while to see it.
The next thing that happened along these lines was that Stuart took the backing track to a song called “A Century of Fakers”, and narrated a shaggy dog story about a cat called Elvis. And that worked fine, we all liked that.
So Stevie and Isobel were encouraged to contribute songs to our next recording plans. Now, instead of the previously ten songs authored by me, we had a mix. I wasn’t sure how I would proceed with the art work, so I left it for a while.
That was ok, because the record took months to make, a far cry from Sinister and Tigermilk. That’s what happens when you experiment. I think I felt bad about it at the time, always apologising to the label for spending so much money. But we weren’t really to know.
In essence, we were producing the records ourselves. There was no one around with great experience to say “you could save yourselves a lot of grief if you did this..” But that was part of the fun of it. We had our engineer Tony Doogan, who, to his eternal credit, went to crazy lengths to realise our daft requests on the road to higher (or in some cases, lower) fidelities.
On second thoughts, i think Tony did sometimes try to say “you could save yourselves a lot of grief if you did this..” but i was pretty determined to find out the hard way. Even when Stuart made the pronouncement “this strikes me as fucking stupid”, one frustrating day at the church hall, still was i obsessed in ‘truthful’ recording.
Looking back, that sounds like a philosophy that may have spring from a bolshevik uprising – maybe it’s no fluke that “Marx And Engels” was the epitome of this style of recording around that time.
A Section Marked “Whimsical”
It’s nice thinking back upon those days, and reminding yourself what was driving us. It was, I think, just the chance to create music – that was enough for us. We were given this great chance, we had fallen in with each other quite unexpectedly. Without wishing to sound like a naff 80’s American teen movie (which I would probably love) we could do anything!
It’s a feeling I find myself trying to engender in the collective once again, almost 20 years on. In the last 15 of those years, since around 2001, we started to take record companies and the outside world more seriously. We fit in much more with a standard record/tour pattern. All of that was great, I wouldn’t have changed any of it (mainly because touring the band properly was such a delightful revelation) But it does make it harder to come back to where you started.
And where it starts is waking up with a groove, or a dream, or something that you feel you have to say, that gets wrapped around a tune, that gets taken to the band, that gets tossed around in the room, then taken into the studio before it feels old.
It’s by far the most important thing that we do, but I feel that it gets relegated to a section marked “quaint” or “whimsical” by the wider forces surrounding the band. Like we’re just kidding that we actually want to make new music. Well, we’re not kidding. At least, I’m not kidding – my life probably depends upon it.
I suppose the impetus to encourage new tracks has eroded because recording doesn’t necessarily turn out anything that people can readily sell these days. I’d still argue that new tunes and projects are what drive the band though, and therefore, what drives the touring too. We could never be wholly a ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ band. Please remind me to kill myself if that’s what happens to us. Or just tell me to go get another job.
I can report that the drive to make new and terrific music is thankfully alive and palpable, and I will never stop fighting to get it made.
But I digress..
A Summer Wasting
There we were back in ’98, lost in Glasgow, lost in summer and lost in music, with really no one to bother us, apart from a weekly phone call from the record label, that usually went to the answer machine in the church hall.
Isobel had written and sung “Is It Wicked Not To Care” and had an idea for a video she wanted to shoot – a sort of lost in time, pastoral backdrop. We were all about band days-out back then, so we jumped in cars and drove down to deepest Ayrshire. It was one of those rare days that makes you feel that Scotland is the best place on earth. (warm, sunny, verdant in the extreme)
Some of us were wearing kilts – can’t remember how that idea sprang up – but we also brought swords and shields so we could mess about with ‘bygone age’ scenarios. I brought my camera as usual, still my little Olympus OM-10. I didn’t have anything officially to ‘do’ that day apart from picnic, so I thought I’d record the event.
We went to this place on the banks of the River Ayr that I liked when I was younger, near Auchencruive. There was massive rocks sticking out in the river that you could sunbathe on, and the swifts whipped about your head in the evening, snapping at flies and screaming.
There was a huge wall built on different levels. It looked like the ramparts of some huge castle, so Chris and I went up and pretended to be errol flynns in kilts. The fight must have become quite keen at one point, because he swung his sword and broke my sword in half.
Mick picked up the broken sword and held it to Chris’s chest, and it looked like he’d ‘run him through’. I was there to take the picture of course.
I got the pictures back from that day and lazily thought, maybe I could get a sleeve out of it. I also thought that it was time that at least someone from the band should be on a record cover, as the record had been much more of a ‘band’ effort this time.
I think it came as a bit of a surprise in some quarters that there were other writers and singers on this album. I wonder how some people think a band works – it is a tricky business! You really do have to like the other people in the group, or at least be able to tolerate their presence in a room! It’s more than that though. It’s like a family on a long car trip – you may be the driver, but you have to consider the comfort and needs of your fellow family members or you ain’t going to make it too far.
Thing is, I was really happy that Stevie and Isobel and Stuart came forward with songs. It moved the whole thing into a realm that I’d never imagined, it made it fun and interesting, it took a certain pressure off me to always come up with the goods, and, to be frank, it ensured that there was at least some continuing interest in recording the songs I was writing.
I should explain that. I’d been shovelling songs at this bunch of people that I’d just met, almost constantly for 2 years. Their enthusiasm was definitely waning. I remember being very selective around that time about what songs I’d bring in, because I knew unless it was something ‘a bit different’, it was going to be a difficult to get people interested.
I think this ultimately was a force for good, and kept the whole thing moving, even though we had a good deal of ‘unravelling’ to do first before we returned to more positive cohesive music.
I mean, what’s the point in being in a ‘band’ if it’s not a forum for taste, or a wellspring of forces? We were the producers, the designers, the authors of our own little world. Not to everyone’s taste, but you couldn’t mistake it for anyone else’s world at that point.
So I looked through the photographs of that day. Can’t remember if the picture or the title came first. It was a bit silly calling the record that. It just seemed the most ‘title’ like song on the record. And I didn’t know what an arab strap was. I didn’t ask, and I didn’t have internet. I just liked the sound of it.
The title of the song does apply to Aidan from the group Arab Strap, that had toured with us, and thoroughly out-partied us. It was a song about not being at the party, as my Chronic Fatigue made me the recluse within the travelling group.
So the title was a tip of the hat to that group. We admired them, and they were somewhat influential on us (see A Space Boy Dream, A Century Of Elvis) .
I didn’t really think that using that name would be problematic for them, I suppose I thought they might be chuffed with the extra publicity. Still, I never thought enough to ask them if it was ok, which is perhaps telling. We never asked anybody anything back then, we just did it.
From this point onward, the record sleeves, inside and out, back and front, perhaps more on the EPs and singles, would feature pictures of the group somewhat randomly and sporadically. They kind of trusted me with this, and of course I asked their opinion every step of the way.
Andy, who was designing the sleeves with me, was always a good barometer of taste anyway. He kept us right.
post script: haven’t written the next entry, might take a bit longer because i am happy to report we’re RECORDING something this week!