Tune Glue 007: Sarah Martin (Belle and Sebastian)

An interview with musician Sarah Martin

Welcome to Tune Glue, a newsletter that’s run in conjunction with Tone Glow. While the latter is dedicated to presenting interviews and reviews related to experimental music, Tune Glue is a space for interviews with artists of any kind. These interviews could be with video game designers, perfumers, or musicians who aren’t aligned with what Tone Glow typically covers. Thanks for reading.

Sarah Martin

Sarah Martin is a member of Glaswegian indie pop stalwarts Belle and Sebastian, who are releasing a double LP live record, What to Look for in Summer, on December 11th. Put together in quarantine after the group’s plans to travel to Los Angeles to start a new studio album were scuttled by the pandemic, What to Look for in Summer features 23 tracks sourced from various performances in 2019, including a set at the Boaty Weekender in which the group performed their 2000 album Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant in its entirety. The record showcases Belle and Sebastian as a powerful and nimble live act, bringing high energy and a festive spirit to beloved songs from across their peerless discography without losing the sense of intimacy and pathos that has earned them the adoration of fans throughout their nearly 25-year career—just listen to them cheer.

Mariana Timony spoke with Martin on December 8th, 2020 about the live album, how the group translates their sound from studio to stage, and why the band most analogous to Belle and Sebastian at this point in time is probably the Grateful Dead.

Mariana Timony: How has quarantine been for you?

Sarah Martin: I mean, it’s not really quarantine. It’s kind of a half-hearted quarantine, really. There’s a lot you can still do. It’s never gone back to being as full shutdown as the very start. We [Glasgow] were kind of behind everywhere else, pretty much, going into any kind of a lockdown. I think like Los Angeles was already pretty much shelter-in-place and things like that. Where are you?

I’m in New York.

How is it there?

Right now, it’s fine. I missed the lockdown here because I got scared and ran away to West Virginia to hide in the mountains for a few months. Which was great, but the city seems fine now. It’s different, people are wearing their masks but other than that, it’s still the same old New York.

Do you have friends and things in West Virginia, then?

Yeah, I have some friends who live on a horse farm out there so I just went and lived with horses for a few months.

That sounds better.

It was very cool, it was very different. So how has quarantine been for you as a band? I’m assuming you haven’t been able to practice or anything?

We’ve just in the last week and a half got back into the studio, all of us. The initial lockdown was pretty crushing because we were due to travel to Los Angeles on the 13th of March to make an album. Then the travel ban came in and it was sort of out of our hands from there. We couldn’t have gone even if we’d tried, but it was pretty rubbish having a recording session in place and the accommodation and everything. It was quite a sort of body blow, really. Well, I think for some people, for folks that have kids, I think they were relieved not to be going. But I was so looking forward to it that I was like, “No!”

My brother has two kids and he’s on his own, his wife died last year, and his kids are quite young, they’re like 7 and 5. So I went over to give him a hand with wrangling the kids. Initially it was like getting them to school, but then the schools all closed. That was a nightmare, just being stuck somewhere else in someone else’s house with two young children that were… my nephew is 7 and he was getting sent stuff to do, but my God. Teachers are another breed. Anyone who can get 7-year-olds to actually do stuff is a better person than I am. I was just at my wits’ end. I really was not having the best time and then on the day when we should’ve been on a flight to America, I was like the guy from Clerks: “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” (laughter). So it was pretty shit!

Then, by like a few weeks in, I was coming back to Glasgow to get space where I could really concentrate because we were still trying to put this live album together and it just needed a lot of... when you’re getting mixes coming in, you really do need time to listen to things and cross reference stuff. That’s also not easy when there are kids knocking around the place. The motorway was just totally dead; at rush hour you’d see three cars in an hour. I did just keep thinking, am I going to get stopped here? But I was traveling back to do some work, I kind of figured I could justify it.

Musicians are essential workers!

I mean, we’re obviously not, but we also weren’t on the receiving end of any government support.

Was the band planning on doing this live album [What to Look for in Summer] anyway but then it took precedence because you couldn’t do the studio record, or did you decide to do it because you wanted to work on something in lockdown?

We wanted to do it anyway, but I think most bands probably find keeping moving forward more appealing. I think if we’d been able to make our new record, we would just not have had the time to put quite so much... not lack of effort, but I think we put a lot of attention into things. We really did look hard through the vaults of all the recordings that we had, and we were going through setlists and jogging our memories, thinking that there was a particularly great version of a song from somewhere in Detroit or whatever. It was like archaeology. Then having to get someone who had Pro Tools to get to the multitrack recordings and put a rough mix together so you could have a listen to see if it did feel as promising as you remembered.

But it was a nice thing to do because it was pretty much the only way that we would be able to work together while we couldn’t be in the same space. We collaborate a lot when we’re writing together, but it’s always pretty much always been when we’re all in the room together. I don’t think anybody felt as though we were really set up to kind of start making a record, we weren’t that technically set up. We just prefer to be in a space together when we’re doing that sort of thing.

[Putting together the live album] felt like a very positive use of the situation. I think we made a better job of it then we could’ve done if we’d just said to our friend who was doing the mixes, “Can you just mix those?” Then we would've been like, “Yeah that’s fine!” Originally we’d planned to do it as just kind of a downloadable thing, and it wouldn’t necessarily be very polished and everything, but then we found that there were performances that felt pretty definitive for some things.

Were there any songs on there that you didn’t expect were going to make it but then really came alive when you listened back to them?

“Beyond The Sunrise,” I think that’s a great version of that. It’s nothing remotely like the record. I know that Stevie [Jackson] was always quite awkward about the sort of Lee Hazlewood impression that Isobel [Campbell] had made him do, he was like, “I’m not doing it, I’m not!” (laughter). We had to do that song as part of the “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like Peasant” gig which we were committed to for doing the Boaty Weekender trip. So, we had to do that song and actually Isobel was on the boat, but we didn’t know that she was gonna be at the time, so we had to reimagine a couple of things. Even in its new form, it was a bit hit and miss from one night to the next. There were some nights that were not as good, but that night was particularly blistering I thought.

You said that you’re super collaborative when writing, so it’s not like somebody writes a song and then shows up and tells everyone what to play?

There is sometimes that approach, but in recent years I would say probably that sort of strict “This is how we're going to play it, this is the part for you, this is the part for you, and you’re going to play that” is probably less than half the time. It’s more often there’s a good sort of smattering of collaboration and people responding in some way that moves the song into another direction.

I saw your band at the Hollywood Bowl like 20 years ago when you played with the L.A. Philharmonic. And that was a pretty big show, but definitely listening to this live album I was like, “Wow they’re like a big rock band now.” It has a lot of older songs on it, how does it work translating those songs from... I don’t want to say bedroom sound, but just a bigger sound for a bigger place?

We still have the sort of quiet, more chamber-y core of things onstage, but even though we can take things down, I think we’re better at reaching beyond the front row these days. Stuart was always really good at kind of getting to everybody in a room when the band started, but the rooms weren’t the Hollywood Bowl. To me the Hollywood Bowl is an amazing venue because you do feel as though you’re properly connected to everybody there. You don’t feel as though people could be doing anything in the back rows. It’s actually quite compact for the number of people. It feels relatively controllable, really. And even when you walk up to the back row, and I kind of love doing that because you get such amazing views, it doesn’t feel as though you're miles and miles away. You still feel as though you can see the people doing what the people are doing. There have been some indoor gigs that have felt much less kind of connected than that.

You’re singing a lot on this record, your voice is really upfront and it sounds really strong. I was just wondering if there’s anything you do to keep your voice in good shape because you have a pretty high soprano and it must get difficult sometimes to keep it in good shape night after night.

It took me a while to kind of establish where my comfortable singing range is, but it’s more of an effort for me to go low really. I don’t smoke and I kind of avoid smokers, but I'm certainly not crazy about it.

You don’t do vocal exercises backstage?

In 2001, we did a tour with Jonathan Richman and if he feels his voice is going he chews raw ginger and gargles straight whiskey. That was the only time I saw him drinking was having a tiny sip of whiskey, just totally straight, and maybe that’s a numbing thing or something. I do drink, but I don’t drink whiskey. I don’t really do anything... when I get a bug it always settles in my throat and then I need to get steroids and things to kind of straighten things out.

But in recent years, I think we’re all just a bit older and we realize we can’t kind of have the late nights and just bounce back so easily as we probably did when we were in our twenties. But also I suppose when we were in our twenties, all the pressure was really on Stuart then. And I think to an extent we were kind of like kids, most of us. Nowadays there’s a shared kind of propping up of each other and we all sort of know when we need to be there. If my voice starts to go, Stevie will cover for me and things like that. We kind of know the signs, the cosmic niggle. It can be really subtle. Then you’ll start watching the other person and you’re like, “Right, okay if they don’t step up to mic now, I’m going to fill in here.”  We can kind of sort of forge through quite a lot really.

You’ve been a band for a really long time. Which is really cool because a lot of bands don’t make it.

I think the odds didn’t look that strong initially, but I think we’re a pretty solid unit.

You can tell on the live album, because some bands do well in the studio and it kind of falls apart live. Or they’re just sort of replicating everything they did in the studio live and they don’t change anything for the live show.

There are some songs where that happens, but we kind of left the majority of that sort of thing off. There are a couple of songs where there’s quite a lot of playback or elements that would get kind of put onto keys on the keyboards, but effectively it’s like the record. We didn’t put things like “The Party Line” on it. You want it to be at least different really, somehow.

You’re going in to record your new LP soon?

We’ve kind of just started again. We’ve had a rehearsal space of our own, like a proper headquarters for the band, in Glasgow since 2004. Our offices are upstairs and merch gets done from there and all that kind of stuff. For the last few years it’s been sort of set up so we can do basic recording, like a passable home studio set-up. Partly it’s the COVID situation because obviously if people can’t wear a mask for singing then they can’t be in a space that anybody else is in. So we’ve been redeploying every corridor, every little tiny office space or whatever that we can find as a little recording booth. We’ve built in a little cabin for Richard [Colburn] for his drums. It’s like a proper studio now. It’s only been up and running for a week and a half with us needing to work in it so we're still finding our ways with things. We’ve certainly not done definitive takes of anything.

I think Stuart didn’t really want to go back and re-tread the ground that we were on back in March, when we were thinking we were going to the States for a week or two. So we started six new songs in the last week or so. But they need some writing and they're kind of quite idea-ish rather than song-ish so far. We’ll be back in tomorrow and we have a couple of things a bit further forward, so it's just begun really. 

I wonder if that will end up changing sort of the way the record comes out now that you all have to take all these extra steps.

It’s not really that different from being in a place that’s been set up as a recording studio anyway. Usually people are singing in a separate booth or whatever, so it’s just kind of making it a little more proper, a little more like a studio that someone would actually be running commercially. But it’s good. I always love when we go away somewhere. You get the full focus of everybody for that month or for however long you’re away, for better or for worse. Your friends aren’t bursting in, your kids aren’t needing to be picked up from school. You just have to be like, “Well, I’ll see you when I'm back,” kind of thing.

That brings a focus where you just end up with everybody so engaged, especially somewhere where we don’t know anybody as well because if nobody has other agendas going on then the only thing that anybody is here to be is in the studio. One thing that’s a bit different with this is we can't really safely congregate in the control room, but we're very early stage so far. Hopefully by the time we get back into it, maybe the vaccination program will be underway and things might seem a little bit less risky. I don’t think any of us are going to have a vaccine by February, but it still feels as though something approaching more normality is relatively within touching distance now.

Yes, and maybe people will be able to play live again.

Our manager the other day was saying that, in Europe anyway there’s real confidence that at least some of the summer events should be able to go ahead in something approaching their normal form, really. I think things are a bit less in control in the States.

Yes, unfortunately that’s true. But you never know. Do you have a personal favorite live track on this record that you’re proud of?

I’m pretty fond of that version of "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John," because we changed the key that Stuart sings in so it’s kind of different from the record version and I think it’s better with him singing in a key he’s comfortable in, really. I kind of enjoy singing it as well. “Wrapped Up In Books” is always a favorite for me. It’s nice that we got “Nice Day For A Sulk” in as well on the digital version, although it’s not on the other one. There were quite a few songs that, when we were sequencing it, just didn’t fit in. We just couldn’t quite get them to sound as good as they sounded in isolation in the kind of sequence.

But now that we’ve got the live album bug, we’ll be unstoppable. Once you’ve put something together and it’s been as much fun to put together as this has... for the last few years we’ve recorded pretty much most gigs so it’s whenever we have a particularly great show or particularly great version of a song, I think people will be making a little note mentally or even starting a notebook of great versions we need to go back to. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a fairly steady stream of live recordings whenever we can play live again.

It’s like your own little Grateful Dead archive of live shows.

Totally! (laughter). One of our friends is crazy about the Dead and he wrote a review of the album, Stuart had given him a copy a few months ago, and he was like: “I love the band, I really love the band and the records, but because I’m such a Deadhead I’m really into the live thing.” It is funny because there are a few cities where people we know loosely have made an arrangement to come and bootleg the show. You know they’re not just going to sell it, it’s for their own collection. There’s this guy in Portland and some folk in the Chicago, Detroit area that always do that. They turn up with their microphone at soundcheck and find out where they’re going to stand and everybody knows who they are so they’re not going to get thrown out. But it’s nice to have our own thing as well.

When you were sequencing the record, did you ever get into any back and forth about songs that should be left on or taken off?

I think there were maybe three or four songs that were mixed and didn’t make it to the record. I think that was disappointing for folk because you know they sounded great, they sounded really good but there is a limit to how much... we’ve all been around sequencing of records for so long that we all know that sometimes.. like “The Life Pursuit” song got left off The Life Pursuit album, that’s how fucked up it can be. There’s always some disappointment with anything that’s good but doesn’t make it, but everybody understands that we were just trying to get something that hung together as a gig really. And it does have the feel of going out for a night. It’s funny when it got mastered and I put it on, three songs I was like, “I’m going to make a drink!” (laughter).

I feel like I’m out for the night, even though it was our thing. It was like work, but also has that, “I’m going to get a beer out of the fridge and have a couple of beers while I’m at this gig.” Every night could have disappointments, I suppose, because there’s seven of us in the band and everybody would probably write a different set list. There will probably be some songs for somebody who’s like “Ugh, this one again,” or “Why do we never do that one?” But, you know it’s just another gig in that way really.

Who writes the setlists?

Stuart. I mean he usually asks people about specific things. Sometimes somebody will have a request... depending on the town somebody will say, “This song feels as though we should acknowledge the connection to this town, let’s fit this one in tonight,” or whatever, so that sort of stuff gets taken onboard. But it’s Stuart who has the master of ceremonies kind of job. There’s nothing more stressful than being at a gig where it seems like someone’s not really in charge and Stuart’s really great at being the person who's leading the narrative and it's always him that makes the flow. But he’s always up for requests from fans. He’s always got people getting in touch with him on Twitter, he’s got spreadsheets for every tour where there’s songs that have been asked for at certain gigs. We’re small enough that we can monitor that sort of thing closely enough that we can give it attention, it’s not like everybody’s wading through ten thousand emails a day about requests. It’s just enthusiasts that get in touch, but they do tend to get in touch.

That’s so cool, you have spreadsheets. Would you ever play covers?

We used to. We kind of went through a period when we first started touring properly, because Stevie is kind of... out of all of us he’s probably the most consummate performer. He’s like a human jukebox, he knows so many songs and he can pretty much put one together on the fly, just like in the moment, so we ended up just getting into a thing where we’d do the first half of the show and somebody would shout out a request from the audience and we would have go.

So we did quite a few covers and then we started actually having a plan for doing a cover that was related in some way to the place we were in, but I'm kind of glad we don't do that all the time now. Doing anything that becomes too predictable just becomes a chore I think, but it's good when you have a real feeling to do something. Probably right up to 2005-ish we were doing quite a lot of covers. And some were more successful than others.

So Belle & Sebastian has been a band for 25 years almost at this point?

Yeah, nearly!

That’s amazing. Do you think you'll continue to be a band for another 25 more?

I don't know! To a certain extent, I don’t really see why not. I think we’re sort of in a good position in that we’ve got our own studio and we can kind of work at home pretty well and things like that. But I guess it’s just, I think it would feel very weird to stop. Even the people who aren’t in the band anymore, we're all still so connected. Just the things that we’ve been through together. Jeepster, who are our record company, were at the start—they’re like family as well. I sort of feel as though we’ll always have been on this, we’ll always be part of the same thing anyway. And yeah, I don’t know we’ll all even be alive in 25 years. Three of the guys are in their 50s now. If we all make it through COVID…

Then we’ll all be immortal! Well, even the Grateful Dead still play in one form or another.

Yeah, I think we do seem to be ironically becoming more kind of parallel to the Grateful Dead with each passing year. It’s not how I would’ve imagined we would be sort of compared with but it seems kind of legitimate.

I kind of feel that a lot of bands that stay together for a long time sort of turn into the Grateful Dead in a way.

It’s probably a deeper thing than the Dead.

It's just musical chemistry, being close to people. It becomes a family almost.

It totally does! Because we play with different trumpeters quite a lot, we quite often pick up a  trumpeter in each city we play in and some of them get back, they’ve played with us before a few times. And it is, when you’ve got somebody that’s kind of breathing the same air as the band and feels things in the same way, it’s just such a great thing. You realize that you can’t write that stuff down on a bit of paper, it’s chemistry and everything, it’s so much more to it than just being able to write down a chart. It’s just a feeling thing.

Purchase What to Look for in Summer at Matador.

Thank you for reading the seventh issue of Tune Glue. We hope you have musical chemistry with someone.

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