The Boy With The Happy Clap
Daragh Downes here with your second monthly instalment from The Ticket Album Club. For November we gave a copy of Belle & Sebastian Write About Love to:
-O Emperor frontman Paul Savage
-Musician & music buff Paul Clarke
-Fight Like Apes frontwoman Mary-Kate Geraghty, a.k.a. MayKay
-Ross O’Carroll-Kelly author Paul Howard.
All four spent some serious quality time with the album before coming into us and sharing their thoughts with one another. As you will see if you dip into the extended highlights below, these guys were way too interesting to reach anything as silly as a unanimous verdict on the thing. They also had some pretty thought-provoking things to say about the current state of the music industry.
As ever, we’re interested in hearing your own take on the album. Did it make you tingle with pleasure or were you left wanting to tear your hair out? Where would you rank it in terms of Belle & Sebastian’s back catalogue? Let us know!
P.S. Next month we’ll be putting John & Yoko’s Double Fantasy (Stripped Down) under the microscope. Happy listening (war is over)…
ALBUM CLUB #2
BELLE & SEBASTIAN WRITE ABOUT LOVE
JACK CLARKE: Initially I didn’t like the album at all. First time I listened to it, the only song I really warmed to was the title track, Write About Love, just cos it was sort of jingly-jangly and I liked the lyrics. I actually thought at the start that a lot of the songs on it sounded like Christmas carols. For example Read The Blessed Pages and The Ghost of Rockschool sounded like songs that could be sung at a midnight mass. However as time went on … I think the first four songs on the album are quite interesting. Calculating Bimbo is quite nice. And Come on Sister, I like the counterpoint, when one guy sings one thing and then the female voice sings the other part. I thought that worked really well. I don’t think that the album is going to draw any new Belle & Sebastian fans at all. I think it’ll just sort of pander to the ones that are already there. The Boy With The Arab Strap, Fox in the Snow, all those songs that you sort of associate with Belle & Sebastian, I really don’t see any of these songs being held in the same sort of high regard as their previous stuff. Although that said, the album is growing on me. It started off very poor but now I’m starting to like it a little bit more … I’m sure in a few months’ time if someone was to put on this album I actually probably would hum along to a few of the songs and tap my foot. So yeah, it is a slow burner, it does sort of grow on you but it’s not class, it’s not world-class, it’s not a show-stopper, I don’t think anyway.
PAUL SAVAGE: At the start I knew what Belle & Sebastian were about and I kind of knew to expect a lot of sugary kind of pop moments. So that was fine … This is Belle & Sebastian so you can take it or leave it kind of thing. Which I don’t mind. So again, the fans of Belle & Sebastian will kind of eat this up and take it – and some people may not. On first listen, there’s a lot of melodies where you’ve definitely heard them before, like, even subconsciously you’d go, I know that tune. And there’s actually some moments, one of them sounds like All I Want Is You by U2.
MAYKAY: Or Cat Stevens covering All I Want Is You!
DARAGH DOWNES: Which one is that?
PAUL HOWARD: Read The Blessed Pages?
PAUL S.: Yeah. But there’s moments where …. definitely you’ve heard it before, but they’re kind of like, fuck it, we’re just going to sing this melody.
DARAGH: Are they aware that they’re being derivative, do you reckon?
PAUL S.: It’s hard to say. Some of the melodies are so simple & so catchy, and that’s what they do a lot. They play it down the middle. It is what it is. When I actually started to read into the lyrics and get more in depth because of this – I may not have done that if I’d just bought it in a shop and wasn’t coming to this, I may have just taken it as it is and gone grand. I may not have listened to it again. But when I listened to it more it did definitely grow on me. And there are some moments of real brilliance, even in the lyrics as well. And then there are some moments where it’s like a little bit too cheesy, a little bit too college diary kind of stuff. I can do without that. Musically there’s some great moments. Really good production on the actual rhythm section. On I Didn’t See It Coming there’s a great change toward the middle until the end. Come on Sister, the chorus of that really kicks off. There’s a couple more as well.
PAUL H.: I kind of had the opposite experience to Jack. It grew off me! I have listened to lots and lots of albums that grew on me over time. And I actually really liked this on first listen but found it counter-infectious almost. The more I listened to it the more kind of dull and bleached out it seemed to me. So now I only really have strong opinions about two songs on it. Calculating Bimbo I think is an absolute masterpiece. I think it’s a superb song. I love the lyrics. I love the way the tune is a sort of counterpoint to the sentiment being expressed. I love bittersweet love songs like that. And then the song Read The Blessed Pages just reminded me so much of Nick Drake that I just lost the will to live. There’s something about Nick Drake that makes being alive a little bit less appealing, it just made me really really depressed! It had that ring of Nick Drake to it. Absolutely eveything about it, even the way he sang it. Like I said at the start, I didn’t know a huge amount about Belle & Sebastian but from people I’d spoken to who were huge fans, they talk about the really sort of clever, tart, sassy lyrics and melodies you can’t get out of your head. So I suppose, there was that but for me apart from those two songs there were moments of brilliance. There are some beautiful string arrangements in it. There’s the occasional line, you go Jesus, that’s really clever. But I didn’t think it was sustained through any of the songs. There were three songs on it that sounded like The Beautiful South to me. Especially the male and female vocals. That’s what that reminded me of. Things I’ve heard about Belle & Sebastian and then having listened to this, I got the sense from listening to it that it was a band reaching into middle age who were perhaps sort of tailoring their act to suit their age profile, the ageing profile of their listenership. That’s the sense I got. It’s a little bit like when Elvis Costello did the Burt Bacharach album, I think that’s what it reminded me of. It was just, you know, accepting now that we’ve reached this point in life. I liked one song, I despised the other song. Everything else I’m just indifferent to. I can’t imagine myself ever listening to it again.
DARAGH: And on the first listen you got a little bit of a sugar rush from it?
PAUL H.: Yeah, I quite liked it, I thought this is good. Every listen subsequently, like I listened to it everywhere – I had it on in the kitchen, going out for a walk at lunchtime, I had it on in the car when I was driving to and from work, I’d say I probably gave it 15 or 16 listens. And I’d say the last 5 or 6 I didn’t hear a thing. It’s just background music to me now. Just indifference is my feeling towards it now. I think indifference is a perfectly noble emotion! Can I just add lastly, the thing about the band reaching middle age. I think that’s summed up by the fact that Norah Jones is on the album. Snorah Jones. It’s a particular low point.
JACK: I don’t know why that track is on the album. Doesn’t belong there at all. Doesn’t fit in with any of the other tracks.
PAUL S.: The girl is a perfectly good singer.
JACK: Yeah she has a great voice.
PAUL H.: I think it’s also that thing I mentioned about Elvis Costello, kind of celebrating middle age. They’re early forties. They ain’t raging against it, you know? There’s a certain… I think there’s a certain virtue in that. They’re not 40-year-old men dressing like they’re in their early twenties, which is even sadder … There’s no studied cool about this album. There’s no attempt to hold back the years or anything. They’re just sort of accepting.
PAUL S.: I think that’s what made them cool in the first place. Even having them reading Yeats and Keats in the photo … That’s what they go for and it’s like there’s this nerd chic that people kind of get into.
MAYKAY: Same word as wanker, nerd chic.
JACK: In the notes that Stuart Murdoch writes himself he even describes himself as a nerd, he says that two girls wink at him as they go by because they want to hold on to a nerd in the winter. So he’s describing himself as that.
DARAGH: He’s playing up to the nerd image?
JACK: Mm, I think so.
MAYKAY: I will forever hold a grudge against you for making me listen to that. That is the most boring… And they tricked me! They had the nerve to put those two songs number one and two on the album to make me think they’d written a good album. And I’m sorry, but Calculating Bimbo it’s drivel. It’s like they’re sitting around a room over a board table saying, what should we do next week, write an album? Oh I don’t know about that… Don’t worry we’ll ask Norah Jones and Carey Mulligan, we’ll be grand, they’ll sell it, everyone will buy it. Lull is too soft a word for what happens in the middle of this album. This is like a cliff-jump in the middle. I think one & two are gorgeous, that key change towards the end of the first track is beautiful and I love the way it’s almost a discord with the vocals. She keeps on with that lovely… absolutely beautiful. I get really angry about Belle & Sebastian sometimes because songs like The Boy With The Arab Strap and Sleep The Clock Around are so brilliant. I think they’re capable of absolute brilliance. And they do this! Like, what the hell are tracks 3-6 and 8-11 about? Nothing! Fish or some shit! … And I’ve a crush on Carey Mulligan and I still don’t like Write About Love. Like you said Jack exactly, it’s not going to attract new fans. It’s almost to the point of arrogance, I find, that it’s like, we’re not actually going to attract new fans. These guys are going to lick it up. But who’s anyone to say that they have to attract new fans? They might have actually thought, this is what we like to do, and this is what we’re going to do. But it does nothing for me whatsoever. I think at the basics of my favourite music is just pop, great pop music. And I feel like they tricked me with one and two. And I really felt like it was onto something brilliant. And I couldn’t decide either if I was going to look at it relative to the band. Like you were saying, Paul (Savage), you know what to expect from Belle & Sebastian, you’re not expecting 2-minute pop hits thrown at you. You are expecting those slightly overindulgent, acceptably overindulgent bits of Belle & Sebastian that they do so often. I couldn’t decide if I was going to listen to it that way or listen to it just as an isolated record. But at the end of the day it’s just lounge music. It’s gorgeous lounge music, love to have that in the background, but never… just really annoys me.
PAUL H.: They did manage in the lyrics to rhyme Bach and Balzac. Blur once rhymed Balzac and Prozac in a pop song, in Country House. I thought, that’s amazing, we may never ever see that again. And then I was reading the lyrics of this and yeah Bach and Balzac – and mentioned Brookside.
JACK: You said there that you liked pop songs, Maykay. Do you not think that I’m Not Living In The Real World and I Can See Your Future, to me they sounded like Beach Boys songs.
MAYKAY: Not Living In The Real World I love. Numbers one, two and seven I thought were just brilliant.
JACK: I thought they sounded like they were from the late sixties.
PAUL S.: Write About Love is just like She’s Not There by the Zombies.
MAYKAY: I love that song!
PAUL S.: Right down to the organ solo. But that’s what I was talking about earlier. They must know, like, they obviously have an engineer or assistant engineer in the studio going, ‘Do you think that sounds like The Zombies?’ And they go fuck it, it’ll be fine.
MAYKAY: The singer sounds perpetually underwhelmed, just constantly… Maybe that’s just me, maybe I …
PAUL H.: But isn’t that a stylistic thing?
MAYKAY: It definitely, definitely is a taste thing, because I think for a lot of people that’s what they get into about the band is just … it’s predictable in a really good way, in that you get to know him so well, you know his voice so well, and he has an incredibly distinctive voice. It’s just for me I suppose and again it’s a taste thing, I just like to hear a singer, and not in terms of screaming or anything, but just someone who lets their hair down a bit. And I just feel like with him I’ve never heard a deviation from that hum that he does. That’s just an opinion thing. It’s really not meant to sound like a criticism of his thing, because it is a stylistic thing.
PAUL S.: You could compare it with Morrissey … Do you ever hear Morrissey raise his voice, like? It’s the same with Stuart Murdoch, can he leave his hair go cos he’s in Belle & Sebastian? That’s what they’ve kinda got themselves into with this niche. We’re kind of a slippers rock kind of thing. People come to our gigs to enjoy that, and if they wanna go and see a punk band or a rock band they can go and there’ll probably be a show on tomorrow night that they’ll probably go and enjoy as well. So this is what we do. I do appreciate that’s what they do. There’s a place in the world for this kind of music. To a certain taste. I’d definitely get a very kind of English college feel off it. You’re obviously sitting reading.
JACK: It’s red wine music.
PAUL S.: Yeah.
PAUL H.: There’s nothing challenging about it, that’s the thing that got me. I disagree about Come on Sister being a great song, it’s nothing I haven’t heard before. In fact about halfway through it turned into The Lightning Seeds, I thought – you know the way it takes off and he takes over the vocal and just…? Yeah it was The Lightning Seeds. There was another song that I actually scribbled down a note about sounding like The Zombies – I’m Not Living In The Real World. It’s a very, very sort of sixties song.
MAYKAY: That’s probably why I liked it.
PAUL S.: That was a particular low point for me. I was actually listening to it this morning while walking to the train in Cork and it just started to rain as that song came on.
PAUL H.: I’d say the two things weren’t unconnected!
DARAGH: God was crying!
PAUL S.: This very chirpy song in my ears and I wanted to punch anyone that came near me.
MAYKAY: If you played the song for me now I’d say, meh. But relative to that album it’s one of my favourite songs.
DARAGH: It’s only pretty shit?
MAYKAY: Yeah! Kind of, even, we’ll say!
JACK: It just sounds like The Beach Boys to me. I’d say Brian Wilson would be delighted with that song. But I don’t think it’s one of the best on the album. I have to say I agree with what you’re saying. It is red wine music, it’s the sort of music you listen to when you clean the house before your mum comes. You don’t really engage with it.
PAUL H.: I listened to it drinking red wine and I listened to it while cleaning the house. And let me tell you Jack, neither did it for me! … But lyrically I think it’s very challenging. Like, there’s some great lines in it. There’s a great line in Calculating Bimbo – ‘A notebook full of the finest creamy, rich-girl parchment pages/ Slowly filled with all your passing days’. But I found the lyrics were more obtuse than edgy. I read the lyrics when I was listening to it a few times and thought, that’s a bloody good line, no idea what it means – but it’s a good line. Not sure of the context. And that’s what I found. I just found that a lot of the lyrics were just obtuse rather than challenging in any way, you know?
THOU SHALT ALWAYS BE EDGY?
MAYKAY: I was talking to someone about this recently, about bands being challenging and stuff. Because the type of music I would generally be into would be technically challenging or edgy or whatever. But then we were kind of talking – we were like, does everything have to be new and different and progressive? Can people not just do what they like doing, do what they want to do and just put out a nice record?
DARAGH: MayKay & Paul (S.), do you two guys always feel you have to do something new with each new record or song you make? Is that the point of making a record for you?
MAYKAY: I don’t think I have to but it’s something I like doing. I’m sure it’s the same with you, Paul. You’d never think of it in a ‘Will this make whatever?’ way. That’s why I feel too judgmental giving out that an album like this isn’t new, it doesn’t excite me. I guess everything doesn’t have to be in your face, exciting pop singles. You know what I mean? Again it’s just taste really. I don’t like to be over-judgmental.
PAUL S.: I do actually like this album. I think there’s some great lyrics in it. I do like the singing from both the girl and the guy. From the actual arrangement and the actual playing on it, I think there’s some brilliant moments. It’s kind of like, on the surface, most people kind of just see it as very simple melodies, sometimes it goes to the point where it just irritates you with the melody, it’s like over and over again. But when you get down to what the band is actually playing, some of the grooves and some of the actual playing on it, I think it’s just brilliant. And it’s incredibly understated, which I think can be a very powerful thing. Instead of actually having it in your face and thrashing out guitar solos. To actually create something that just clicks and it just stays there and then it just toddles along and then it gets off.
MAYKAY: Aw, that’s really sweet!
JACK: I have to say I agree with you there.
PAUL S.: That can be a great thing. A lot of bands get slated for that. On the surface. It can also be a bad thing. Where musicians know what they’re doing themselves. And sometimes they’re playing to themselves. There going like, do you see where I doubled up that hi-hat there? And some people go, yeah, I like that, that’s the kind of thing that people will look into this album and go, that was brilliant. And then on the surface some people will just go it’s shit, the melody annoyed the fuck out of me.
MAYKAY: What you were talking about something clicking and just toddling along. One of my favourite bands, Yo La Tengo who have that similar idea of – the vocals are very predictable and they do just toddle along and it’s often almost psychedelic in its rounding, it keeps going and keeps going and keeps going. But I absolutely love it. But I just think you can do a little trot of a song without it being that predictable. I agree with you entirely that there’s moments in the arrangements and in some of the instrumentation stuff, there’s moments of real genius in there. I just feel like they’re too seldom really.
JACK: I think that’s why the album is a grower, because when you listen to it first you think it’s quite simple and then as you start to sort of dissect the sounds… In some of the tracks particularly when there’s a lot of instrumental stuff going on, you can hear each individual instrument quite clearly. Is that called timbre? They seemed to have that spot on. That’s why I didn’t like it at the start, cos I actually thought it was quite dull and grey. And then when you start to listen and you’re like, oh yeah, I can hear that, and then slowly but surely you actually grow in a sort of appreciation for the tracks.
READY SALTED CRISPS
DARAGH: It’s quite a risk though, isn’t it? Most bands don’t get the luxury of their records getting subsequent listens from people. The download culture and all that.
PAUL H.: I think I’m the only person here who isn’t a musician so I’m probably at a disadvantage in that. But I would certainly have respect for their songcraft. They know how to write songs. He knows how to write lyrics and he knows how to write very, very good melodies. MayKay, what you were saying about the bland thing. The thing is, there’s an enormous market for bland and, you know, we tend to think of it in perjorative terms. But if you were to do a survey of people’s favourite paint colour for walls, it would be magnolia. If you were to do a survey of people’s favourite crisps, it would be ready salted. Lots and lots of people like bland. The vast majority of people like bland and they like safe. And this album, it just struck me that this band have probably done a lot of what they want to do and I got a sense of them kicking back or something on this, just writing and singing the songs that they want to sing. And I’ve a lot of respect for that. And I don’t think it is a case of, you know, I don’t think every band should be sort of consciously growing its audience, if you like. I think bands should be… like if Bruce Springsteen had done that, for instance, we never would have gotten Nebraska, because he would have listened to the record company telling him, no don’t take that.
JACK: They tried to do a movie soundtrack, Storytelling, which I think was a huge flop. So I wonder on the back of that not being a success were they sort of driven to the middle of the road with this perhaps?
MAYKAY: I think it’s a really enviable position to be in, to be able to sit back and say we’ve made our fanbase, we’re not looking to draw in more people, we’ve got kind of what we want. There’s a real thin line to decide between does it sound contented or does it sound bored. You could look at it that way, that they’re just a contented bunch of people.
PAUL H.: … Lots of artists sort of veer off and they don’t look and say well maybe I have to get back to where I was before. They just follow where their instincts take them. But this to me is their Fat Elvis phase, as far as I can see. I just felt it was just kind of satisfied and happy and safe and bleached out.
KEEP THE KLEENEX HANDY
JACK: I Can See Your Future sounds like it should have been in a Kleenex ad. If you listen to it again, it’s like all those songs in Kleenex and Lenor ads, they’re all the same.
PAUL H.: Well that’s where the money is now, isn’t it?
JACK: There are actually a few songs on this album that I thought could be used in ads. That one just has Lenor, Kleenex, fabric softener all over it. Just the general sound is what they go for in those ads.
PAUL S.: I don’t think, as a whole album, sitting and listening to it bit by bit, like, it does wear you down like, it’s not… If I heard any one of these individual songs, bar the Norah Jones one, and I think Write About Love, if I heard any one of those songs on the radio or in a scene of a film or something, I’d go, ‘Is that Belle & Sebastian? That’s a good tune.’ And then you’d go check it out … From a songwriting point of view and a musical point of view you can’t fault them, you can’t say that that’s a bad song.
MAYKAY: Jesus, I can!
PAUL S.: You mightn’t like the song, you mightn’t say wow that really gets me going as a good song should. But it’s not a bad song.
DARAGH: But what about the problem of melodies being ripped off?
PAUL S.: Some of them are blatantly obvious.
PAUL H.: I don’t know if they’re ripping off. They’re writing pop songs, and any pop song you listen to you can hear echoes of something else in them. There is very little that’s really original out there.
PAUL S.: It is classic songwriting that they’re doing.
PAUL H.: It’s Burt Bacharach stuff.
PAUL S.: They have chord and key and tempo changes and arrangements, it really is just textbook songwriting.
MAYKAY: You were talking about movies, that Piazza, New York Catcher in Juno, I heard it in the film and I thought it was beautiful.
PAUL S.: That’s how a lot of people got into Belle & Sebastian … They’d been going for years before and people heard them on the Juno soundtrack and go, Jesus, that is great.
PAUL H.: But also that’s how music is being sold nowadays. I mean, if you go to iTunes last Sunday morning for instance and look at the ten biggest selling tracks downloaded over the previous 24 hours about three quarters of them will have been on X Factor the previous night. The way to sell a song now to the world is to have it on ER or House or something, when a kid is dying on a hospital bed, the piano comes in…
JACK: It started on the OC. They used to get bands in and suddenly they’re the next big thing.
PAUL H.: But I hear a song and think, that’s bloody good. And I google the lyrics and I find it and I download it. And a week later I hate it. When it’s sort of decontextualised, when you take it away from the film you’ve seen it in, with George Clooney saving somebody’s life or whatever, it loses something, you know?
PAUL S.: When I listened to these songs first, and generally when I listen to music, playing in a band, naturally I go always for what the general song is about. Only sometimes the lyrics rear their head and go here I am. Generally it’s just… it’s a rhythm thing, it’s an instrumental thing. So when I actually went down and got the sleeve out and read the lyrics as I was listening to it. The songs have way more depth than just the really simple melody. And they actually made more sense. And even the one that really annoyed me this morning, I’m Not Living In The Real World, when I read the lyrics afterwards on the train, I was like, actually it’s quite a decent tune, I like the story of what’s going on there, you know, it’s actually telling me something. And a lot of the lyrics are miniature little stories that are going on … If I had just bought this in the shops, I probably would have been guilty of giving it one or two listens and then putting it in the shelf. And then maybe coming back to it in a year’s time listening to the first couple of tracks and going, actually it’s really good, and then putting it back in the shelf for another five years.
DARAGH: How much does that haunt you two guys when you’re making records, this instant consumption of music, the idea that you’ve got to grab them. Does that put pressure that’s unbearable?
MAYKAY: Well I think with us, we’ve only released two albums so it’s not like I’m an authority on the subject at all, but we released two very different ones. The first one I think was, if I may say so myself, littered with things you could grab onto straight away. And the second one not so much at all. We kept saying, it’s a grower not a shower.
DARAGH: With the first one, were you consciously saying to yourself, gotta grab the listener, gotta grab the listener?
MAYKAY: No, the opposite. Cos I don’t think you can write what you want to write if you are thinking of anything like that, really. I think with us, we all out loud, it was a definite conscious decision that we didn’t want to worry about that. Cos you need to be proud, like. And you wouldn’t be proud if you were in the ‘market’ just making a ‘product’, I don’t think you’d be a musician. Unless you wanted to be a pop star.
DARAGH: Which is a different model.
DARAGH: And yourself, Paul?
PAUL S.: We’ve only released one album, so it’s still kind of in its infancy as to what will happen. We made the album, like your first album is something that you just write over a number of years and you just go in and you play it and you don’t think about singles or any popularity. You just want to put it out and hopefully people might see it in the same way that you first envisioned.
DARAGH: Do you think in terms of repeated listenings?
PAUL S.: It’s always hard to say, because your head is so much in it. You’re thinking, oh will they like this kind of string part, will they like this guitar riff? But most often than not when you listen to an album, they’re listening to something else that you may not be listening to. It’s hard to say. As a musician you listen to different things.
MAYKAY: Yeah, I think you’re almost too involved, aren’t you, to get any sort of realistic perspective on what people are going to see?
PAUL S.: But I wouldn’t feel, and it’s coming in now more than ever, that kind of goldfish mentality, where it’s kind of like three seconds or a three-minute song and that’s it, moving on, you flick on to the next page or you go on to someone else’s website.
PAUL H.: Is that a reflection of people’s shortening attention spans? Cos I really feel that listening to music now, there’s a hook in an increasing number of songs.
MAYKAY: Yeah and almost to the disservice to the song, people do try and inject hooks into it when really the best hooks are just the most natural.
DARAGH: But what about She Loves You?
PAUL H.: But that was an age where people would buy albums and sit down to listen. Cos what we’re doing here is quite unusual, I think, by today’s standards. I don’t think a lot of young people sit down and listen to an entire album because they don’t need to. Just like young people don’t watch ads on television any more because they’ve grown up in an age where you can fast forward, they’ve grown up in an age where you don’t buy an album and enjoy it in its entirety, you take the three songs, the one that was on ER, the one that was on, you know, Ally McBeal, and you download them and you make your own album. So what we’re doing here is quite – it will be – quite unusual.
JACK: I think Belle & Sebastian definitely are a strong opposite to that whole X Factor world with its instant gratification, instant sort of love me love me love me. Stuart Murdoch clearly is just a musician at heart and I think this album is an example of him just putting it out there.
BUTTON UP YOUR CARDIGAN
PAUL H.: I wouldn’t say I don’t like this album. I’m indifferent to it … I think the fact that an indie band that asks Norah Jones to guest sing on the album is making a statement. Norah Jones is a bellwether for bland, for easy-listening, hospital elevator music. To ask her to guest, I think they’re making a statement, they’re saying, Well we’re grown up now. I know that they’ve always been a cardigan band, but maybe they’re buttoning up their cardigans or doing up the third button on their cardigans.
DARAGH: Is it possible that the Norah Jones track is meant as a parody? That they’re taking the Mickey a little bit?
PAUL S.: There is a good bit of wit in some of their lyrics, and throughout their career they have those kind of sassy, quirky, highbrow little jokes. So yeah, sometimes you’d wonder, going back to the picture of him reading Yeats and Keats and the little short stories at the front. I did actually wonder… They know that they’re a cardigan band and that they’re like a college kind of a band so maybe they’re actually kind of slightly taking the piss out of themselves.
PAUL H.: If most people don’t know that they’re taking the piss out of themselves, then the joke is on them. I mentioned The Beautiful South earlier. I think they had an album called Carry On Up The Charts and the idea was we’re taking the piss out of pop bands. And they wrote that song, Song For Whoever – and it’s taking the piss out of the modern pop song, but it became a modern pop classic that everybody knows now and nobody knows that it was their satirical take on the charts. And I think it got to number one or two in the charts.
JACK: It’s interesting, all their big songs were sort of satirical and all managed to do well off the back of it.
A PASSAGE TO INDIE?
DARAGH: Everyone talks about Belle & Sebastian as an indie band. Could an argument not be made that they’re actually pop to their core, only they’ve somehow managed to get themselves branded as indie? But fundamentally they’re just rewriting pop songs?
PAUL S.: It’s true. To be honest, if someone brought that album up to a record executive, they’d shit their pants cos there’s a load of fucking really catchy tunes on it. I don’t think there’s any song over four or five minutes … Everything is just like there you go, that’s a song and there’s the next one and everything is nice.
DARAGH: But that’s a pop ethos, isn’t it?
MAYKAY: This almost is poppier than their other stuff.
JACK: Certainly I’m Not Living In The Real World and I Can See your Future, I think they’re very poppy. But overall I wouldn’t describe them as pop.
PAUL H.: I can see that, as a songwriter, Stuart Murdoch’s a master craftsman of the pop song. And I’m interested in what they’re going to do next, because my theory is that he’s going to become a songwriter now. And that all of his future output will be as a writer of songs for other people, in a Burt Bacharach kind of way.
PAUL S.: It is kind of funny how they have quite a big reputation amongst any kind of indie heads or any kind of muso people. And it is quite funny that they do have albums like this – and again I haven’t listened to the big ones that everyone kind of reveres them for. Because a lot of what indie kids get into now is something a little bit edgy, a little bit different, pushing the boundaries. But these guys are just like this is what we do and everyone likes us for it, we’re actually cool because we’re uncool.
DARAGH: Could I ask a stupid question? What exactly is indie?
MAYKAY: Indie is such a ridiculously broad phrase now.
PAUL S.: It’s funny cos they’re on Rough Trade, which are one of the biggest indies, so they’re kind of on a major indie ticket. You know Rough Trade, if they signed any of us in a room, they’d sell a couple of thousand copies just cos they’re Rough Trade. Same with Domino. They just have this thing where people will check out whatever they’ve put out. Indie made sense in the 80s when your band copied their own cassette and gave it out to people.
PAUL H.: Indie now is mainstream, isn’t it?
PAUL S.: Yeah, because mainstream is X Factor, that’s another ocean away, and indie has its own pop within that, you have some bizarre indie that’s way off the beaten track, and then you have something like this. Or then you could call Snow Patrol or something indie as well.
DARAGH: Are Fight Like Apes indie? Or would you describe yourselves as pop-rock or alternative?
MAYKAY: No. It’s so difficult … I just think indie is a nothing word anymore. Once you push pop up to where X Factor is now, where is indie left at all? Indie can be everything from below that to us, you know, if you think we are.
DARAGH: What about O Emperor?
PAUL S.: I always get asked the question and I don’t actually know. Yeah, we are an indie band, insofar as we’re not Susan Boyle. Yeah, we’re an Indie-Alternative band – at least that’s what it says on MySpace!
MAYKAY: The best description of us before was Fight Pop.
PAUL H.: That’s what I heard your mum (Irish Times journalist Kathy Sheridan) say on the radio. She said, my daughter told me she was dropping out of college to do karate rock! I nearly crashed the car laughing. Daragh, what did you think of the album?
DARAGH: I came to it having a bit of an allergy to Belle & Sebastian, to be honest. For me they’ve always been a pretend-indie band.. But I actually really like this album. It’s grown on me. The first couple of listens were dominated by the unoriginality of the melodies & chord progressions – this bit sounds like that Wings song, that bit sounds like The Zombies, and so on. But after a while I either forgave or forgot, and started to just enjoy the thing. But it was hard not to get caught up in influence-spotting at first. I kept thinking of something Bono said when he was plugging the Pop album back in 1997: some songs are great while other songs merely sound great because they remind you of songs that were great. There’s definitely a bit of that going on here. But the songs did get under my skin after a few listens, I have to admit.
MAYKAY: I think that’s why it’s a great thing to do the living-with-it kind of thing, it makes such a difference.
DARAGH: For the first time in years, I’m making a point of pretty much just listening to one album a month. Just to see what happens. It’s unbelievable. I wouldn’t normally have given an album like this a full listen, let alone a second listen.
NOBODY SHOUTED STOP
JACK: Calculating Bimbo is the best song on the album, I think.
PAUL H.: I agree with you.
PAUL S.: I think the first one or Come On Sister are the best ones.
MAYKAY: I think the first one is by far… I wish they’d put it somewhere else because nothing was going to compare to it. It’s funny cos I’ve done things before reviewing songs or albums but like you get them the morning of it. And then you listen back to it and you hear the reviewer read the review you did and you’re like, Ah I wish I’d had two more listens and I’d be completely different on it … I think Paul you made a very good point. Because their style is so specific, once you get to this part of the album if you listen to the songs isolated you think so differently of them. But it does wear you down. Just that really definite… like you were saying trot along kind of thing.
PAUL S.: Yeah it’s kind of the same as people like Tom Waits or Neil Young, they have such a ‘This is me and you can shag off if you don’t like it’. If you listen to like five hours of it it could drive you mental by the end…
MAYKAY: Tom Waits would literally drive you mental.
PAUL S.: …they’re so undiluted. I know this is the opposite, being horribly diluted, it’s an extreme which…
DARAGH: Does this album work as an album. Does it have a cohesive narrative or anything?
PAUL H.: No because I think it’s all too different, it’s all too eclectic. I think Tom Waits has this schtick, he does what he does and it’s very idiosyncratic. I don’t think this is. I think this is completely out of keeping…
PAUL S.: I actually burst out laughing out loud when I heard the recorders come in on Read The Blessed Pages. I was like, what the fuck was he thinking?
PAUL H.: That song sounds like a guy who’s been told, try to write a Nick Drake song, I bet you can’t, and he goes, I bet you I could… And it sounds like a pastiche of Nick Drake.
PAUL S.: The guitar playing is definitely kinda James Taylor. I don’t know what they were thinking with those recorders. Again when you have a producer & engineer & assistant engineer in the studio, it’s like Father Ted, the sax solo, ‘We’ve got to lose that fucking recorder!’
PAUL H.: The album should be called Nobody Shouted Stop.
PAUL S.: Does it work as an album? I think reading the lyrics there are a lot of themes that are similar. There seem to be a lot of bits about fame and fortune and going back to your old town, you have the greasy streets he mentions. And… I Can See Your Future to me kind of seems bitter. I can see your future and noone is there. Someone moved on and someone else didn’t and also… Calculating Bimbo as well.
GET ON YOUR SKINNY KNEES AND PRAY
JACK: I’ve been told by Belle & Sebastian fanatics that that is about the band itself – it’s a song about never coming back, about a former member of the band Stuart David. But I also thought throughout the whole album … there are a lot of references to God and religion all the way through it which is, from memory, I don’t think their other songs are like that. They usually write about nature and sort of happy-go-lucky stories. This is like ‘Get down on your skinny knees and pray’.
MAYKAY: I like that lyric, ‘Get on your skinny knees and pray’. One of the lyrics from Read The Blessed Pages is ‘pulling songs from thin air’. Talk about an introspective look at himself!
PAUL S.: When the guitar comes in, it’s definitely that kind of everyone go for their communion kind of thing… I’ve played at school masses and stuff and that’s the kind of thing that’s on constant loop when everyone goes up and … but like, I actually do like this album.
PAUL H.: When a band finds God, does that… is that a sign that it’s over?
PAUL S.: But everything is so like, you know, rock stars are vegans now, rock stars are just into that kind of thing.
PAUL H.: But veganism is all very well, but singing about veganism is I would imagine quite boring.
DARAGH: The Lentil Waltz.
JACK: The Tofu Tango.
PAUL S.: It’s kinda cooler to be Buddhist than to be Catholic, it’s just a perception that everyone kinda goes, You’re grandmother’s Catholic but I’m actually a practising Buddhist and stuff. I’m a lot cooler cos I might be able to smoke weed as a Buddhist, like!
DARAGH: If God is what Stuart Murdoch is thinking about in life, then surely he should sing about it, no?
PAUL S.: I like Blessed Pages cos … to me it’s kind of like a band harking back almost to when they were younger, you know, in a band and having a laugh and not really caring. In London a person shouted up… I wish he’d still call… that guy may have been heckling them or calling them shit but now that they’ve turned forty maybe everyone is so indifferent to them that no-one shouts at all and they’d rather that someone shouts abuse than shout nothing at all.
MAYKAY: Indifference is the biggest insult really of all.
PAUL S.: It’s like that Oscar Wilde thing, there’s only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about. That’s why I can bear this song. And that’s exactly what saves the album…
PAUL H.: But there’s a nostalgia aspect to this that I think is in keeping with this project. It’s a band looking backwards, I think, rather than forwards. Someone mentioned consolidation earlier. That’s why I can’t love this album, I doubt very much that they love it, I don’t think Stuart Murdoch loves it. I think he probably recognises that it’s technically brilliant, every song on it is, he’s a brilliant songwriter, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as writing songs that are…
JACK: He can’t be completely proud of it, and I bet you he still is wondering should he have put the Norah Jones track in.
PAUL H.: But Norah Jones is what will sell it.
MAYKAY: It’s such a non-event. That song is just brutal.
PAUL S.: I think it was kind of like an executive in a suit says we’ve gotta have Norah Jones on this cos they recorded it in LA, so unless they know Norah Jones and Norah Jones was hanging around and they said hey why not get her a song on this album…
PAUL H.: I don’t think anybody told them. There’s an old phrase that says if you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas. If you lie down with Norah Jones you get up with an album that’s gonna sell loads of copies. I just think it’s more calculated than that. I think this is a band that’s looking back but it’s also sort of saying, where are we now and where are we going in the future? The Norah Jones thing is I think to get a sort of level respectability among a sort of older record-buying public, which is the only record-buying public, increasingly … I think it’s as cynical as when Joe Dolan did Joe’s Nineties and recorded Pulp songs and Blur songs and everything. I think it’s as simple as that. It will make lots and lots of money. But I wouldn’t let them off the hook easily. They’re saying, this is who we are now.
PAUL S.: It’s like if you get a hot chocolate and you put marshmallows on it, it’s verging on being so sweet it’ll make you sick. And then you put another spoon of sugar in it, it’s like, whew! And then if you stick a little bit of whiskey in it’s okay. I think the lyrics are the kind of whiskey in this that saves it from completely being too sweet. Remembering the other album I listened to years ago, there definitely are similarities, there’s a kind of a Morrisseyesque thing to the lyrics, all of it’s kind of telling a story and some of it’s very just, ‘This is the way it is’. You can quite easily kind of like pick around and tell what the general story is, there’s no kind of talking about the greater matter of life and what is their fucking meaning here. It’s like someone’s having their lunch on the top of a building and they’re on their fag break. That’s seems to be what Belle & Sebastian are about and that’s what people like about them cause they’re just a really British band, like. It’s a fag and a cup of tea kind of thing, like. There’s a place in the world for that.
PAUL S.: Sometimes you don’t want your ears blown off by a five-minute synth solo or a guitar solo. You don’t want to be freaked out.
MAYKAY: Mediocrity will always beat out-of-the-way brilliant. It’s easy, it doesn’t challenge. I think a band like Belle & Sebastian, they’re the kind of band that your parents might buy a ticket even if they didn’t know them cos they’re like, Oh they’re a nice band. I wouldn’t mind seeing them play, they must be lovely. You wouldn’t go and see my band or Paul’s band just off the cuff, like oh yeah I betcha that would be a nice gig.
PAUL S.: It’s interesting you should say that, cos we’ve already been cited as kind of music that your dad might listen to if he had decent taste in music! That’s why I like this album cos I can appreciate where they’re coming from. They’re writing some very well crafted songs and they’re executing them very well. There is a huge amount of thought put into the actual songs themselves and then going out into the big highway of music it kind of gets a little bit trampled, and I can appreciate what they may feel about it.
DARAGH: If you had to pick one adjective to describe this album?
PAUL H.: Calculating.
PAUL S.: Bookwormy!
JACK: I’m trying to think of a word to describe something that grows slowly over time.
JACK: (Laughs) No!
PAUL H.: Tumour?
JACK: (Laughs) It’s a bit of a grower.