Swinging Modern Sounds #49: Divided by a Common Tongue


In the mid-’90s, it was not a red-blooded American indie rock thing to like Belle and Sebastian, because Belle and Sebastian, as I recall it, were considered a little insubstantial, a little pastoral, with too much trumpet. I felt this way, which is to say that initially, I judged Belle and Sebastian. This kind of thing almost always involves contempt prior to investigation, which is woeful indeed. I didn’t bother to pay close attention to Belle and Sebastian, because of prejudice, until The Boy With the Arab Strap, in 1998.

There were a number of songs that I resisted on The Boy With the Arab Strap, at first. But then something happened, and, despite my prejudice, I became irrationally attached to the song “Sleep the Clock Around” from the same album, which has this sort of Vince Guaraldi electric piano on it, and a cycle of fifths (I think, which makes it like “Hey Joe,” if true), and a portamento synth in the background, and a ridiculously catchy melody, and some references to valium and to the lassitude of the young, and this song got under my skin, as did “Seymour Stein,” of which more below. Then I likewise came to love the last song on Arab Strap, “Rollercoaster Ride,” which, despite my feeling that the band could not exactly play their instruments and were irrationally resistant to the idea of the band all playing together, had a big Velvets-style fade-out, going from the one to the four, just like Lou would have done, and with a slide guitar in the background, just like Sterling might have done, and a repeating figure on the piano.

I loved this song, and I realized that, yes, despite my best efforts to do otherwise, I too had come to admire Belle and Sebastian (and to lament my own contempt prior to investigation), whose lyrical approach was narratorial, as opposed to confessional. I had come to admire the community-wide portrait of, let’s say, brainy existentialist youth depicted in these songs, and further depicted on the very witty and creative sleeves of their albums. Within a few months, I had completely reversed my opinion, which coincided, it should be said, with going backward in chronology, and listening to the earlier albums, one of which is, at this point, very much considered a sort of a masterpiece—If You’re Feeling Sinister, which was more about the brainy existentialist youth, and more articulate on the subject than almost anyone had ever been, especially on such classics of collegiate age romance as “Seeing Other People” or “Like Dylan In the Movies.” If you give a shit about what lyrics can do in a rock-and-roll song, then you ignore the lyrics of Stuart Murdoch at your peril. This is what I learned, and also that my tendency to judge first and then totally reverse my opinion had become a lamentably frequent tendency.

By the time of studio album number four, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (best album title ever, by the way), from the year 2000, the band kind of altered the approach a bit, allowing Stevie Jackson, the guitarist, and Isobel Campbell, and others, to write and sing more than occasionally. This bothered the hardcore fans, though it proved rather self-evident that the arrangements were group-oriented by this time, and that some of what made Stuart’s compositions great was apparent in songs by the others as well, and vice versa. The productions started to become almost impossibly ornate, with more strings than any band could reasonably afford, and harpsichords, and so on—I only liked them more.

And then too there was the tendency of Belle and Sebastian to release untold amounts of new work on EPs and CD singles simultaneously. There was a lot of work to do as a fan. I liked this band because it mentioned Mike Piazza in a song. I liked this band because they had a song called “Marx and Engels.” I liked this band because they dared use the line “It was the best sex that she’d ever had.” I liked this band because this band dealt with religion and sex and drugs and depression, and I liked this band because they had been called twee for years and had survived to tell the tale. I liked this band because they had one of the Buggles produce them, or was it the guy who produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, or was it the guy who produced Yes? I liked this band because there was never a genre that they weren’t willing to attempt, from reggae to punk rock to disco to electronica, while always coming back to a certain kind of mid-tempo mid-sixties ballad.

Almost no other band of the period (the oughts) has written with the range and sensitivity that characterizes the work of Belle and Sebastian, and all of the other contemporary indie darlings, though they are often great (not going to name names today), lack the capacity for experiment and growth that has characterized this band. Is it because they are from Glasgow, a working-class city with an art school that is not London, and thus have something to prove? Evidently, they’re really trying to prove something now, because they made a film recently, and that’s really sticking your neck out. I still buy just about everything they do, and while I didn’t care for the Norah Jones duets on their last studio album, Write About Love, as always on that album there were a half dozen true gems (“I Didn’t See It Coming,” e.g.). I can’t name too many bands of the present moment whose every album I will buy and on whose every album I will find songs I love.

They have a stopgap album out right now, The Third Eye Centre, which is another one of these Bob Dylan-style desk-clearing releases that happens to be as good as the “official releases.” This one has a lot of remixes on it (like a dance version of “I Didn’t See It Coming,” and a sort of Carib repurposing of “I’m a Cuckoo,” from Dear Catastrophe Waitress, complete with congas and flutes). The aforementioned ska/reggae number about a trip to the Middle East called “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House,” appears, and so on. It is not quite the peerless Push Barman to Open Old Wounds (best album title ever, by the way), an earlier compilation, which has “Lazy Line Painter Jane” on it. (That’s like having “Marquee Moon” on an album: You’ll have a boy tonight / on the first bus out of town.) It does not have “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” but it is great, dizzy with possibilities, and hints of, well, of middle age, or middle career, or of lives that are larger now, lives that are conducted around the world, on stages around the world. This growth has not rendered inoperable the Glaswegian community-context of the early work by Belle and Sebastian, but has amplified it.

Now, in this regard: it happens that in February of 2012, I interviewed Stevie Jackson, the guitarist for Belle and Sebastian, whose unobtrusive but lovely and sinewy guitar is an essential orchestral color in this band’s sound, and who is responsible for composing the occasional indisputable Belle and Sebastian gem—“Seymour Stein,” e.g., or “Jonathan David,” or “I Took a Long Hard Look.” The purpose of this interview was Jackson’s first solo album, (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, a delightful and quirky and funny and moving first album, and, alas, this interview sat around for a long time for the simple reason that the transcriber had a difficult time understanding the Glaswegian accent of Stevie Jackson, as is often the case with the Glaswegian inflections where Americans are concerned. (Admittedly, the interview was recorded in a bar, and the sound system was competing for attention with the interview itself.)

For me, this was emblematic of the issue with Belle and Sebastian—there are things happening in this music that we cannot understand on this side of the Atlantic, not at first blush, nuances, gradations of class and style. It’s seductive music, but elusive music, more about waves of allusion and instants of affiliation than it is about reductive truths, in which the pop song often traffics. With a great deal of attention—and this music (including Jackson’s fine solo album, which is funnier but no less complex than a Belle and Sebastian album) rewards attention—you can get closer, but we are still two cultures divided by a common tongue, and perhaps always shall be. I bore down on the interview myself for a few months, like a translator with a copy of the Rosetta Stone, and finally I believe I have prepared a copy of it that might bear some resemblance to the original.


The Rumpus: I’m going to ask you the obvious solo album questions. But then, because it’s so rare that there’s a non-Stuart member of Belle & Sebastian coming through New York on his lonesome, I want to ask you about B&S, too.Stevie_street_scene

Stevie Jackson: Already I’m interested.

Rumpus: So why a solo album now? You could have made one any time in the last fifteen years.

Jackson: The main reason was I just had more time on my hands. My friends were, like, “Why don’t you make a solo album?” And I’m like, “Well, I’d like to, because it’d be good for my ego or something.” [laughing] But I just didn’t feel that driven. I mean I didn’t have the confidence. I think, by nature, I’m more of a side man. I just thought I’d always be that. I’m more of a group man. I like being in a group, singing occasionally. Not all the time. The main reason was the group had been gone since 2006, and I feel like we’re always on a bit of a hiatus. I just had more time.

And so I was getting more involved with friends, getting involved with stuff. A friend got me involved in installation and art projects, stuff like that. Also my friends, Gary and Roy—Roy Miller who is a great artist, also a great songwriter—we’d get together and just write songs. It’s not like there was a backlog of my songs from the Belle & Sebastian era. Anyway, when I’ve done about ten or something, I think that’s a record, and then I kind of forgot about it for a bit. Then Belle & Sebastian would start up again. Then I was visiting a friend, and I recorded four songs there. I got home and was like, “I should produce a record.” The thing is, now that I’ve done it and I’ve formed a group and I’ve got a list of songs, I’m actually going to do another one now. It’s gonna be like an album, you know, like consciously make one, because I’ve kind of got taste for it. That’s the rough story behind it.

Rumpus: I was thinking about it in terms of other solo albums of note for me. Did you ever listen to that Pete Townshend solo album called Who Came First?

Jackson: I love Who Came First.

Rumpus: Such a strange, vital album.

Jackson: I could get my guitar and play a rendition of “Sheraton Gibson.” I’ve also been known to sometimes play “There’s a Heartache Following Me,” which I really love, you know. It’s a wonderful record, always loved Townshend—all his albums and demos.

Rumpus: That’s an album where you can tell he has something to say musically that he can’t say with the Who. The sound is sort of different. Even as demos, they just don’t really sound like what they would eventually become.

Jackson: Yeah, he’s got his own sound. And I suppose a lot of this tension in the Who is having a macho leader singer, a lunatic drummer, and a rock-and-roll bass player. Then he’s, like, the spiritual guy and was like, “Hey, guys, we’re going to get spiritual…Fuck Daltrey.” “Let’s See Action”—it’s funny the Who’s version sounds more like a demo.

Rumpus: Did you even hear that record by Alun Davies, who was the lead guitar player in Cat Stevens’s band? Daydo?

Jackson: No.

Rumpus: Same kind of thing. A musician who clearly wants to explore sounds that have a breadth that would probably be unwelcome in the group setting. Which leads me to an important music historical question for any solo artist: Best Beatles solo album?

Jackson: I don’t know about the best one, I know what my favorites are. I mean, I know everybody says it’s Ram. I don’t want to be controversial, but I just don’t like the sound of it. I love Sometime in New York City. I think it’s a total masterpiece. I mean I know people who criticize “Imagine,” say it’s a rich guy imagining utopia. And what I love about New York City is that after that criticism, Lennon got down to the nitty-gritty and the real issues. I just thinking it’s an incredible-sounding record, and I like Yoko’s songs as well. So those two and, of course, All Things Must Pass.

Rumpus: The last example is germane to our conversation. George Harrison goes and makes a solo album. It’s not like a flashy record about guitar playing, it’s a record about songcraft, except for the third disc with the jamming stuff on it. Similarly, you have, like, one guitar solo on this entire record.

Jackson: Yeah, I don’t like guitar solos. I favor the Johnny Marr approach. Even in Belle & Sebastian, I never took solos. Just musical bits. I can do that. On here, instead we have piano playing.

Rumpus: You played the piano?

Jackson: Well, I play most of the songs on the piano. Which I play very badly you know. But Bobby, the other guitar player, thinks I’m a great piano player ’cause I make a bunch of shit up. I’ll just hammer on it. So, yeah, on quite a lot of the songs, I play piano and the backing guitar.

Rumpus: Does the record seem to have comprehensive theme to you? Or is it more of a collection of songs that you wrote from 2007 to 2008?

Jackson: There are pieces of it that are held together conceptually.

Rumpus: What would be an example?

Jackson: Okay, well, my friend Nicholas said, “Let’s write some songs about movie directors.” Well, I think I said Scorsese, John Huston, Kurosawa. Anyway, so she said, “Okay, say something about each of the movie directors.” I said, “What about John Huston?” I don’t like massive generalizations but for me there are a couple of schools of songwriting. There’s people who express themselves and what’s going on in their lives. That includes Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. They’re writing songs about what’s going on in their lives, they write songs about the love affairs they’re having, about other songs they write. They kind of write songs back. Which is cool, because some great songs come out of that. The other school is the David Bowie school of making stuff up. I like that idea of making stuff up, because even then, an artist like Bowie, even though it’s electro, he’s such an amazing person that so much of himself comes out of it without him even trying.

So in answer to your question, I think there’s a few songs on the album that are in the James Taylor, Joni Mitchell–type school—maybe not stylistically or that kind of quality, but expressing myself. And there are others that are just plain made-up. But it all comes through me anyway. There’s the theme of telecommunications. There’s a Belle & Sebastian song called “Man of God.” That’s one of my favorites because I think the time it took to write was the time it took to sing it.

Rumpus: Really?

Jackson: Yeah, it was just me and my friend Roy, and we had the tape recorder and we were just making it up. And we’re just having a laugh. “Feel the need in me” is the Detroit reference, just kind of rasping that that way. I listened to it over the tape recorder and said, “I like it the way it is.” So I just kind of transcribed it and taught it to the band.

Rumpus: What I like about that one is that there are kind of two choruses.

Jackson: There’s that song by Diana Ross, “I’m Still Waiting,” which I love. That does the same thing, though it’s a better song than “Man of God.” It does this thing, having two choruses. You’re being pummeled with choruses even though it’s a ballad, right. Yeah. More of that kind of thing. Actually I hadn’t really consciously thought about this as a direction, but maybe this is going to be my direction: double choruses. Beat the audience to a bloody pulp.

Rumpus: More hooks per song results in more pleasure. Is there a regular composition route for you? Do you do lyrics first, or do you do lyrics and music at the same time?

belle-and-sebastian-the-boy-with-the-arab-strap-album-coverJackson: When I’m working with Gary and Roy, we’re just rockin’, you know, and the song, like “Press Send,” had a basic idea. Then I’d start rapping, then we’d all start rapping, and generally me and Roy—not Gary ’cause he doesn’t have patience for it—we go for the cassette, we go for the recorder, and just go for it. You know, sometimes you just get into a group, rapping on ideas. Then all you need to do is, you know, make sense of it. Then you’ve got a song. Personally, from doing it on my own, I like to write first, words. Just prose, just write anything, or if I get a feeling about something, write and write and write. I’ll just write a few pages. I’ll sit on the piano and just hit the piano. Always write on the piano, not the guitar.

Rumpus: Really, you always write on the piano not the guitar?

Jackson: Most of the time, yeah.

Rumpus: That’s crazy.

Jackson: ’Cause I can’t play the piano, so, it’s…it’s kind of hard to describe, but it feels more okay writing the song.

Rumpus: So even a song like “Try Me” that’s a rhythm guitar workout?

Jackson: I wrote that on the guitar. But “Pure of Heart,” the first song? I was just starting on the piano. Then what I had written, I just took phrases from it, and I think every phrase or line would be from my prose. That’s one way. Yeah, I like to have words. Usually not structure, just prose.

Rumpus: So does that mean that there is a surfeit of words sitting around that haven’t been committed to songcraft?

Jackson: Well, I don’t know about that. Usually when I do write a lot, I’ll get the bones…I’ll get the useful stuff out of it. I don’t really go back over old stuff. I’ll write a bunch of stuff in the morning, and I’ll get a song out of it. But you’ve kind of got to do it at the time.

Rumpus: With those words do you actually try and write in a meter or anything?

Jackson: The meter comes later. I adapt. I get the basic idea and then change the words around. But the meaning of the lines essentially stay the same.

Rumpus: So there’s a way—I guess it’s because you’ve written a lot of songs for Belle & Sebastian—there’s a way that Belle & Sebastian songs, across the board, no matter who wrote them, all seem extremely learned and witty, articulate and full of wordplay, stuff like that. Is that something you were already doing, or is that something the band reinforces?

Jackson: I don’t know.

Rumpus: Like the Victor Hugo line for example [in “Where Did All the Good Girls Go?”].

Jackson: Oh yeah, well, that was kind of stolen from a Bob Neuwirth song. I kind of like wordplay. It’s kind of good fun. That’s just a jaunty tune. I had that tune in my head for years. I was sitting there watching Gainsbourg DVDs, thinking, This French. Pardon moi, excuse moi! Really have it, you know. I don’t know. It’s just what comes out. I can’t particularly say I’m influenced by Stuart. He’s on another planet when it comes to his lyrics. Sometimes when we’re arranging or learning a song and making the records, it can be three years later until I realize how brilliant the lyrics are because we’re too busy getting it together for it to sink in. Then I’ll realize those are amazing lyrics on so many levels, very poetic. They’ve got depth, you know? I don’t have that much talent. The songs I’ve written on Belle & Sebastian records end up being the ones that we like.

Rumpus: And they like.

Jackson: I guess in the early days, Stuart would bring in a song and we’d play it. Sometimes I would bring one in and we’d play it. But the songs tend to get written, people come up with ideas on their own. I’d come in with a song here, a bit of song there, and, you know, it’s what they jump on. There’s one called “Jonathan David.”

Rumpus: I love that song. That’s a great little EP, there’s nothing bad on that EP. It’s great.JonathanDavidEP

Jackson: What else is on there?

Rumpus: I’m not good with song titles. Like that “Marx and Engels” song is on there. [The “Jonathan David” extended single actually had “Legal Man” and “I’m Waking Up to Us” on it.]

Jackson: “Legal Man,” right?

Rumpus: Yeah, yeah that’s on there for sure.

Jackson: Sarah, the fiddle player, who I lived with then, she turned me onto the Zombies. She played the Zombies constantly. I didn’t really know the Zombies.

Rumpus: You never knew the Zombies?

Jackson: Well I knew “She’s Not There” and “Season For Loving,” but I hadn’t properly listened. I knew Odessey and Oracle. I couldn’t believe this stuff. And I think the Zombies got assimilated on “Jonathan David.” I think it was an attempt to get on the piano and play Zombies, and then I got this chord change. I went and played this piano exercise, and the band asked, “What’s that?” And we all chipped in and finished it. It’s a great song.

Rumpus: You wrote the “Seymour Stein” song, right?

Jackson: Yeah.

Rumpus: That seems kind of singular to me. How did that come about? I mean I know there’s a “music-biz” component to it.

Jackson: It’s actually a personal song. People take from songs what they want to take. They take what they will. I guess the title of that one was sort of screaming, “Notice me!” I read every review that had an interpretation about that song. Every one of them was completely wrong. It’s really one of the most misinterpreted songs. The point of the song wasn’t a put down to Seymour Stein. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be on a major label. It was none of that.

Rumpus: I just assumed it was that, too!

Jackson: It’s naïve of me to think otherwise. It’s about a breakup. It’s about losing your girl. A guy comes and promises you the earth. It’s like gaining the world and losing your soul. If you take it line by line, that’s what it says. It doesn’t say, “Fuck off, you record company, we’re indie.” It doesn’t anywhere at all say that. It’s obvious to me.

Rumpus: Well, I was totally wrong.

Jackson: You can’t pursue that. But you know, I was asking for it.

Rumpus: It’s a catchy title if you want to get the attention of indie rock.

Jackson: But honestly it wasn’t like that. I wasn’t trying to draw attention to myself. It was a genuine thing. I was at the piano and went, “Seymour Stein” [sings melody]. It was a genuine feeling of loss and things changing. But calling the song “Seymour Stein” is asking for it. So I’m not complaining about interpretation. Anyway, the whole point is there’s no such thing as misinterpretation. Once it’s out there, it’s not yours anymore. It’s in the ear of the beholder.

Rumpus: I want to ask just a little about the arrangements on the record, because the arrangements are so extraordinarily good. It seems hard to fathom to me that you made this all on the cheap and you just whipped off those string arrangements. So how did the arranging and the recording take place?

Jackson: Well, I guess the basic process was this: I had a bunch of my friends in the room, teach them the song, and record it in less than two or three takes.

Rumpus: You jest.

Jackson: No. I don’t have the patience to sculpt something. For most of the songs, that was the way. No separation except for the backing vocals.

Rumpus: So what about “Just, Just To the Point,” because that has an incredible string part on it.

Jackson: Yeah, yeah. Well that was the only band song. That was me and John, John Driscoll. It started off me and him with a drum machine. I played the piano, along with John on the bass.

Rumpus: It’s a great bass line.

Jackson: Amazing bass line. But again, it was just me showing him. It’s the first time he played, and then I just sang it, and that was it. I suppose I was inspired by a kind of Neil Young way of making records. And then Mick, who’s our kind of genius, Mozart-type member of Belle & Sebastian—the ones that had strings, we’d sit down and just write the string parts, sing what we heard, and then he would score it. Then we got a couple of girls in, we just overdubbed a few things, and Mick started conducting. But it’s good.

Rumpus: The song’s really good. I guess part of it—if you’re going to make a song in that few takes—is you have to pick really good players. So maybe you picked really good players.

Jackson: I think so, yeah. I’ve done a few shows after the record and a few of the songs are better live. “Pure of Heart” is better live. That’s okay too. It’s all about finding great players. That’s the “You get the right people, you don’t have to tell them to do anything,” you know?

BelleAndSebastianTigermilkRumpus: Yeah. I mean, the Belle & Sebastian albums have gotten so monumental and beautiful-sounding in the last few that you must know your way around figuring out who’s playing what and so on. The early records are great, but they’re sort of punk rock in their sloppiness.

Jackson: Yeah, well, I think we’ve been better. We still play as a band, we play live and all that. I think we got better, and we play well together and all that stuff. But we’ve also had more proper producers taking care of that. I love watching how bands work and how they play together. It’s interaction, it’s making collective sound. That’s what Belle & Sebastian are kind of about, that was the concept. It’s gonna be a good sound, it’s going to be arranged. Even the early ones, we couldn’t play very well. Conceptually, they were very influenced by the Left Banke.

Rumpus: [They were known for] only one song [“Walk Away, Renee”]. How can you be influenced by the Left Banke?

Jackson: No, it’s two or three songs. Conceptually what those songs had…it’s kind of hard to put your finger on it, but the strings were so intrinsic to what they were doing that they were as important as a guitar or a bass or a drum even. As opposed to a guitar player and overdubbing strings just for a bit of color. Color was an intrinsic part of what was gonna happen. We did two or three blinding songs, just to be influential.

Rumpus: I was sort of trying to put my finger on what’s not on your record that I would have associated with the world of Belle & Sebastian. That is, I think of Belle & Sebastian being really from the ’60s, having a Donovan and Love kind of thing, maybe a little Tropicalia. There’s not any of that on your record.

Jackson: Yeah, there’s one major seventh chord, in “Telephone Song,” but crucially, it’s the second chord, not the first one, of the chorus. I mean, if you start off a song with a major seventh chord it’s like, Hey, it’s twee indie time. As it is, I’m a very mid-’60s kind of guy as well, but not a Donovan guy, really. When I was growing up, early Stones was my thing. On Belle & Sebastian records, there’s always a little guitar lick here, even a lyrical thing from the Stones. They’re honeycombed with early Stones, and no one would really notice, but I do.

Rumpus: So when you’re making your next record, the next Stevie Jackson record that you now want to make, what’s the concept for the second record?

Jackson: Conceptually, it’ll be done with the same three or four people. I don’t have much money, so I’m going to scrimp on the recording. Do it that way. In terms of content, again, it will be kind of similar. I have four songs I wrote with Meagan MacDonald from the Hidden Cameras.

Rumpus: I like that band.

Jackson: It’s more in her guise as playwright and novelist. She’s got this play, and I wrote some songs for that. And we got some really good music out of it. I’ll be playing some of that tonight. There’s a couple others that I’ve had for a while. One’s kind of a ballad. I start all my sets with it, actually: “Don’t Hang That Picture.”

Rumpus: Oh yeah, that’s in a video, I saw that one.

Jackson: I want to record that one. They will all be story songs, I guess—they’re about something. I hadn’t thought this before, but there is one thing I do in common with Belle & Sebastian: they generally tend to be story songs.

Rumpus: Stuart has that kind of novelist quality to him.

Jackson: Sure. The songs seem very personal. But when I first met him, he would create these mythical characters Belle and Sebastian and wrote songs imagining them to be these people. So much of it is human, what people responded to. But it’s not the James Taylor thing. It’s made up, and a lot of it, in terms of our way of working, it’s got a Scottish quality. It’s certainly Scottish in its content. It’s very Glaswegian.

Rumpus: But I mean the idea of using a sort of narrative quality, a protagonist, instead of making it a confessional first-person story—maybe it’s Scottish to feel like it would be presupposing to write these confessional songs.

Jackson: It’s a good point, yeah. It’s kind of the West of Scotland. We try not to complain too much. It’s a working-class ethic. You don’t brag, you don’t boast. You don’t go about telling people how great you are. So that’s a good point. I’d never really thought about that before, to think in character. I think it’s more interesting, really.

Rumpus: So Stuart’s making a movie now, right?

Jackson: Yeah, yeah.

Rumpus: He’s actually shooting?

Jackson: It’s shot, principle photography is completed, and they’re editing I guess. It’s in post-production.

Rumpus: I found out about it in the funniest way, because I know this guy Barry Mandel, a film producer. He and I have been corresponding on and off for years. I went and checked his IMDB page recently, and it said something about a Stuart Murdoch project, and I wrote to him and said, “You’re making a movie with Stuart?”

Jackson: Barry’s the guy. He’s the producer. I like Barry a lot. Photography’s done. Barry’s just selling it, you know?

Rumpus: Yeah.

Jackson: It’s true of a lot of movies, or most of them, I guess. It can take years to put them together and years after that, but actually shooting itself is the shortest part of the process, only like five weeks.

Rumpus: Is the music done already? Did you guys record and everything?

Jackson: We made an album two or three years ago. It was just part of the process of trying to get the film made, so it’s like how do you make a film? We recorded the songs as trying to move things along a bit. So the album’s there, and what’s happened is I think the actors rerecorded, overdubbing their voice on the tracks.

Rumpus: So does that mean there would be a Belle & Sebastian project on the horizon?

Jackson: Of course. I know we’re playing next year. I know we’ll have a compilation album, B-sides, and bits and pieces. We’ll definitely be playing shows, because we need to make money. We are working musicians, we need to work. We gotta make a living like everybody else. That aside, we wrote a pile of songs last year and then the movie got going again. We still have to go back to them and polish up. We should have a record quite soon. belle-and-sebastian_thirdeyecentre

Rumpus: Can I ask about the cult of Belle & Sebastian for a minute?

Jackson: Sure.

Rumpus: I think in this country, there’s this feeling, partly because of the incredibly thoughtful way that all of those albums were packaged, that Belle & Sebastian is a small group of people who all live next door to each other, and you’re all sitting around reading Sartre novels and going out for coffee. That it’s this little Scottish religious cult. So what’s it really like in Belle & Sebastian?

Jackson: It’s exactly how you described it, which is a lie. It’s the power of the design. It was kind of almost uncomfortable in a way. I had mixed feelings about the designs, but it was great, because more people liked us for the content. That’s what people liked. The first few records, nobody even knew what we looked like. Photographs of friends and stuff like that. It just enabled us to get on and make the records, really. We didn’t play live much. We didn’t become, in my mind, a real live band until 2001 or something, and we’d already made four albums by then. So I used to find it quite frustrating that we weren’t just playing more. We were a bunch of people who made records, and no one knew too much about us.

In the UK, there was this magazine called Select, and it was almost like we were in it every month. And it was more to do with the fans. They were having special events and picnics. And I sort of felt jealous, because I wasn’t part of it! Everybody’s having a great time just hanging around. Our managers, they were such a cynical bunch of fuckers in their attempts to harness the twee thing or like “We’re bookish.” You know, I do drink lots of coffee, and I’m fascinated by Sartre and Nietzsche. But as individuals, we weren’t really like that, we were just normal. It’s just funny. It’s like the records got released, and we became this other thing that was going on. We were just engaged in making music. I liked the fact of the aesthetics of the covers. But we just…had affairs, went out with people, girlfriends, got married. Smoked the odd joint. Some of us, not all of us.

Rumpus: I was thinking of two other examples where it’s been done as well. One is the early Roxy Music jackets, and the other, to pick a particularly profane example, is ZZ Top. Where the art suggests a whole culture.

Jackson: The Smiths covers are a very weird hybrid of the ’60s and the ’80s. It’s funny: sometimes I kind of think that some of the stuff that made us seem like a cult thing was calculated. The covers were a statement. That was an artistic statement. It was a genuine aesthetic, to present things in certain way. We got together, a bunch of people widely different in age—most of us were in our twenties and the youngest was nineteen. Mid-twenties to nineteen, to be in a band, it’s fucking hellish. It’s just kids, really. We spent so long getting used to each other, getting to know each other. It was mad. It was an unhappy period. It was just very, very dysfunctional. In spite of that, we made records. But I thought they could have been better, personally. Every record after Tigermilk was always a disappointment. Up until The Life Pursuit.

Rumpus: Really?

Jackson: Well, I look back on them now, I think they could have been so much better.

Rumpus: But those are records that people adore!

Jackson: Well, there you go.

Rumpus: Those are records that some people think are faultless.

Jackson: It’s just what you’re into. I thought the songs were incredible, but I thought the production wasn’t. A lot of people really felt it, you know, and I go back and see that. Tigermilk, for me, had the most vibrant, upbeat sound to it. It was more lively. Sinister feels flat to me, but what do I know?

Rumpus: On that note: I think I’m done, but what are you reading now?

Jackson: I used to be a good reader as a kid. But then I don’t know what happened. Too much booze or something. Now my concentration is shot.

Rumpus: Do you read those Scottish novelists, like Alasdair Gray? James Kelman?

Jackson: Not Kelman so much. I read Lanarch as a kid, that had a big effect. Irvine Welsh I read.

Rumpus: Everyone likes him. Is he even officially Scottish?

Jackson: I was so obsessed with Trainspotting, back before the movie. I could recite it to you.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →