Belle & Sebastian + Trevor Horn = Sunny Pop Nirvana
Belle & Sebastian are beloved. And back with a sixth album. And it's produced by, uh, like, Trevor Horn. Y'know, the gated-reverb guru behind Frankie Goes to Hollywood. A guy who'd most recently done time with tawdry Latvian lovers t.A.T.u. With the combo's long-derided feyness and wetness and such in scant supply, this brand new longplayer, called Dear Catastrophe Waitress, is full of hot guitar licks and sweeping strings and sunshining pop-song-ish giddiness, the combo kitted out in classic-pop threads and loving every minute of it. It also finds them sounding like a band, in the best sense of the word, no longer like some straggly collective of Christians and charlatans from the hippest cafs in Glasgow.
Belle & Sebastian were born in such a Scottish town in 1994. With each successive album their popularity has escalated, from their breakout second disc, If You're Feeling Sinister, to the shiny Boy With the Arab Strap, to the splintered Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant a discography dotted with a slew of separate-agenda singles in which B&S'll release three songs that aren't on any of those albums. Whilst this often makes it seem like the band have some grand plan for the discographical path they're treading, it's kinda the opposite. Like any footballer worth his axiomatic weight in cliché, Belle & Sebastian take it one record at a time.
"The defining moment," offers guitarist and sometime vocalist Stevie Jackson, was when they made their debut record, Tigermilk. "And, then, it became clear that we'd maybe get the chance to do it again; y'know, to make another one. It's always been like that: every time we get a chance to make a record, it's sort of a defining moment that maps out the next year. Obviously, we don't take that for granted. Our previous record label (Jeepster) sort of folded recently, and I didn't really know if that was it for us, whether anyone else would want us, if we'd get a chance to even make another record."
The band then found themselves ink'd up to the reborn Rough Trade, signed to head up the newly-popular imprint's push into the America. Changing labels, and the mandated time off that came with such a change, meant that the band, this time, had a little more time to sit back and take stock of those previous one-record-at-a-time records, and think about what they wanted to do. And, in something that would've been impossible back in their more tempestuous youth when the band was oft known for bickering and personality clashes and such they talked about what they wanted to do, too.
"The previous records, we kind of stumbled into them when it was time to make one," Jackson said. "And sometimes, we could've done with talking about it a bit more before we'd done it; we would've got into less problems and it would've taken less time. But, when we did that soundtrack record [for Todd Solondz's film "Happiness"], that was, by its nature, [something] that had to be quite focused, and quite considered. And I think this new album is, similarly, a bit more considered, and bit more thought out in advance, or something. I think it's a lot easier to [talk things over] now, because I think we know each other a lot better. We've grown up a lot more now. There was definite periods where we should've talked a bit more, where we weren't communicating between ourselves, and that causes problems."
And so, from such communication Dear Catastrophe Waitress was born. The record, coming three years after their last, like, proper longplayer (the "Happiness" soundtrack came between Fold Your Hands and this disc), seems like a bright new beginning the band's first foray into the wondrous realms of super-high high fidelity. Strange thing being, though, that they actually took much less time making it than they had with any of the previous three. This coming from sessions that involved Trevor Horn, whose reputation rivals Phil Collins for taking stupidly long amounts of time working meticulously, on making records. Like, didn't Horn spend three years making a fucking Seal record?
"Well, yeah, I think he did take three years to make a Seal album," Jackson chuckled. "But this is a different thing. When Trevor's making a Seal album, as far as I know he sort of creates the backdrop to what Seal does, like building up tracks, having input into the instrumentation and arrangement. It's a lot quicker for us because, y'know, we're a band, we just play our instruments. Maybe you'll have an overdubbed arrangement on top of things, but that's about it. We're ready to go. It was more a case of getting it down concisely, well recorded with good performances.
"The main thing about having a producer was actually to get it done a bit quicker. Having a boss, if you like, someone in charge, someone to keep the whole thing moving fast, moving along, making the best of time management. That was something we'd lacked when we were essentially producing ourselves. Sessions would break down. That sounds pretty '70s, I know, like I'm talking about Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or something, but it's true. The sessions would break down into disarray, and nothing would sound good, and we'd have to start again; it was just really quite a painful experience. This time, [Horn] took a lot of that burden, and we just got to concentrate on playing the songs."
The marriage of band and producer may initially seem strange, but once you get into it, it's easy to imagine that Belle & Sebastian's smart-asses (who seem to be, if not most of the band, at least songwriters Jackson and Stuart Murdoch) dug the comedy and incongruity of working with the guy who was actually in The Buggles. But, Jackson says, it was in fact Horn's idea, and it was he who had the sand to approach the band. "He heard us through his daughter; she had played him some of our stuff, and he liked it, or at least he thought it had potential. he was quite intrigued by it, but he thought it could sound better. That's why he was interested in doing it, in having a crack.
"And it was perfect for us, because that was what we needed. There's seven people in the band, so it's quite hard for us to agree on anything. And there was certain mooted producers that'd come up, and not everyone was happy with any particular one of them. But when Mr. Horn came up, and talked to us, we all had a good feeling about it; it seemed like a good idea."
In hooking up with Horn, Jackson says, there was no reticence. "My God, look at the records he's made, he's just a great pop producer. The Art of Noise, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and The Lexicon of Love by ABC is a fantastic pop record, and Slave to the Rhythm by Grace Jones I was very familiar with his stuff. I was really an admirer, if you like."
However, it also wasn't a case of B&S handing over the keys to Horn, they not having brought him on board to do the whole over-the-top reverb-manic big-string thing he seems wont to do. For the band, it was as pragmatic a process as saying to the producer: "Here it is, make it sound good coming out of the speakers."
There was, though, one moment where they let Trevor out to play. "There was one song ("Step Into My Office, Baby") that, early on, he sort of earmarked as the single, and he sort of took it away from us in a sense, and he done his sort of 'Trevor Horn' thing on it. And, I was kinda glad. I thought it would've been a shame if we didn't give him one song and let him treat it more like a Seal record, or a Rod Stewart record, or a Mariah Carey record or whatever. Y'know, for him to go and mess around with synthesizers and come up with another arrangement. A lot of the arrangements on that one are his, then; those big banks of strings. Those '80s-sounding strings. That's Trevor." Anthony Carew [Monday, November 17, 2003]