I thought I’d write a bit about the record sleeves. There’s not that much to tell, but I guess since the first one was made almost exactly 20 years old, I could tell you how they ended up the way they did. I never need much of an excuse to reminisce!
I may have to tell you a bit of background to the scene at that time, obviously a bit about the state the band were in, and a bit about the various friends, musicians and total strangers (most of which became friends) that ended up on the sleeves.
When we made Tigermilk, the band, as you were to know them, was a fledgling group. I mean, we were just out the egg, as far as bands go. We just got together to record that first LP.
I don’t think the whole ensemble ever played once together before we went into make Tigermilk. The most I remember is Richard, Stuart, Stevie, and myself in the same room playing, a couple of times.
With the rest of the guys at that time, it was a case of having them stand by in the studio, suggesting parts for them to play, piecing the thing together like that. (Though I do remember Chris tracking live with us on most things. Perhaps he was improvising!)
That’s not to take anything away from Tigermilk week. Few groups probably get to bond over actually making their first LP. It was pretty intense, but in a good way. By the end of that 5 days, we were a group, no question. It was Genesis, but not in the prog rock sense – on the seventh day we rested. (but on the sixth, we did laundry, and went to the Grosvenor Café)
The idea of the group, however, was in flux. I had been using the name Belle And Sebastian for music since I had written a short story with the same title the summer before, 1995.
At that time, I was pretty convinced I would never be part of the kind of ensemble that I desired. Nobody seemed to want to play with me. People used to have a couple of rehearsals with me, then make excuses – that they needed to buy trousers, or visit an aunt.. and I never saw them again.
So I got used to the notion of putting the music together myself. I split my ambitions between programming my own tracks on an antiquated system called Cubase (such as “Electronic Renaissance”) and getting up to perform at our local open mic (The Halt Bar, Saturday afternoon/evening)
The Halt Bat in particular was a kamikaze effort. I was desperate, and I think the people there could tell that. I didn’t have much at all going for me. I would write a song during the week, and I would be bound to perform it on the Saturday, no matter how badly I played guitar, no matter how weak my voice was compared to the squadrons of Springsteen cover men that came before or after. I just didn’t have anything else going on, so it was the focus of the whole week.
But I did have a girlfriend! I had a really great girlfriend called Joanne. She supported me in all my foolish endeavor, the only one at the time who really did. She kind of got it, or seemed to get it, or seemed to see something good in what I was trying to do, or wanted to do. Maybe she just liked me, but she did have good taste, so that was an encouragement to me.
So she was my buddy in creativity, and she was in fact String Bean Jean and all that. She was super photogenic, and I used take pictures of her and use them in many of my schemes and posters at the time. I think at one point I liked the idea that Joanne and I could be a group, even if all she did was dance, take a great picture, and tell me which songs were ok. We could be a two person gang, in the absence of a gang that actually played instruments.
So this was the idea that was still in my head when we went in to record Tigermilk.
Soon after the recording therefore, I had a friend of a friend take pictures of Joanne and I in the snow. I blacked over one eye for some reason. (I liked that in the inner sleeve of “Talullah” by the Go Betweens, that Grant McLennan had a black eye – like he had won it in a brawl, fighting to defend his band mates or something.)
So Joanne and I wandered the halls of the old Stow College building in Glasgow, and outside, the hills of Garnethill near the Art School, getting snapped – my first experience of getting my picture taken.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t like not being in control. And when I saw the pictures back they didn’t seem to sum up the essence of what was in my head, or the essence of something i thought i could love as a record cover (though it’s a nice recollection of me and Joanne as a couple). Guess i just didn’t like being in the picture.
So I ditched that and thought again.
The idea of how the tiger picture came about is a bit vague. I think we were just sitting about in the church hall, where I lived, one Friday night. Maybe I said “what if we do a sleeve that involves someone getting naked?” I think we both thought that a lot of the ‘indie’ music around was virginal and boring. (and just to show that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that it might be joanne, I’ll include a picture of me here below in that same cold bathroom. Not very revealing, but I’m bet you’re still glad joanne is on the record cover..)
I put ‘indie’ in inverted comments there. It never occurred to us that we had made an ‘indie’ album or that in fact we were an ‘indie’ band. And I know that sort of statement always has a certain sort of person, usually a journalist, saying, “Oh, come off it!” But it’s true.
Not that it matters too much. It certainly didn’t matter to us. The only people in the then group that had any regard for ‘indie’ music at all were myself and Isobel, and Isobel only slightly.
You have to understand that the ego and the drive of the first time album maker was off the scale! I’m sure I wasn’t eating or dressing or housing myself properly, I was just completely obsessed with getting my songs onto a record.
When you’re actually making stuff, you are not conscious of history or style. (at least, we weren’t) You are struggling in that moment to make your own little piece of musical beauty.
I mean, who has time to think about that stuff? Who has time to ‘adhere’ to a style. The very idea was detestable to everyone in that room!
To an extent that remains to this day. And that’s part of what bonds us and keeps us going – just the joy of being able to step into a studio with the notion of ‘anything goes’, as long as it’s a part of us, and hopefully contains some hint of optimism and originality and beauty therein.
But I’m Meant To Be Telling You About The Sleeve
Joanne, to her credit, was my partner in art. She thought it would be fun to be in the picture. I mean, no one was going to see this record anyway. No one knew the two of us, no one took any notice of us. We were shadows on the Glasgow landscape – might as well have fun with the record cover.
So she hopped in the bath, using her toy tiger to cover her nipples. I suppose it was the obvious thing that she might breast feed the tiger. And that was it.
I took the picture to my friend Andy Symington, who ran a club called Divine. He designed some great posters for his club, so he figured he’d be able to layout an album cover.
Doing that stuff on computer was still pretty new. There was no place in Glasgow you could just show up and do it. Andy pestered some guy at the University to show him how to use photoshop.
The guy was a bit snooty. He took us so far, then turned to us and said
“Why should I show you any more? This could be my living. You’re just going to go and do it yourselves!”
Damn right we were! But Andy was tactful and bashful, and got enough information. We pretty much ran out the building and up the street when we got what we needed.
We repaired to his place, to his clunky Mac. We tried putting text on the colour picture of Joanne, but it looked rubbish.
Andy had lots of good books around. Crucially, he had “The Cover Art Of Blue Note Records”. I would peruse this while he struggled with the software. Why did their sleeves all look so magical?
People have written books about why they are so magical, but at that time, the one thing that struck me was that all the early sleeves were not colour pictures. They were great black and white pictures.
They were often very contrasted. A lot of them were shot with flash in dark places, on stage, cafes, etc. Then they would often put a wash of colour through them, a layer of blue, light green, whatever.
So we tried it. Get rid of the colour. Bump up the contrast. Put a wash of colour through. We were getting somewhere!
‘Course, where we were getting was something closer to a Smiths’ record sleeve, but we didn’t mind. I was happy enough. It looked like a record.
The main thing for me was that it wasn’t some icon of style on the cover. It wasn’t cool and remote. It was just Joanne. Perhaps she was the icon of our post code area at the time. But that was about it.
The record was still going to be called just “Belle and Sebastian”. To name a record something else would be to suggest that you were confidant of making another one. And I wasn’t. But the tiger was getting his milk, so it became Tigermilk.