It’s early November, and thick morning fog covers central Scotland as I speak to Belle and Sebastian’s Sarah Martin. She’s talking on her phone from the Glasgow Ikea car park. Sarah mentions that she can see cruise ships sitting idle in the King George V Dock, where they are laid up till the Covid-19 situation clears. Quite a contrast from The Boaty Weekender festival, the band’s Mediterranean cruise event of August last year, where five tracks from their new live album What to Look For in Summer were recorded.
We chat about the album, The Boaty Weekender, playing Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant live in its entirety, and loads more besides.
How are you?
I’m good. I’m in the carpark at Ikea. We’ve been kitting out the studio for Covid-safe recording, and the old rugs – we’ve had them in there for 16 years, and they were full of moths. They were really really manky, so they had to go. Buying new rugs was my first task this morning.
Are the band working on new music then?
We will be. We keep having setbacks with the studio maintenance not being what it might be. Everything got plugged in ready for us to start, and the engineer pulled a chair up to the desk and sank into the floor. The beams in the floor had rotted, so we’ve had to empty everything out of that space. It’s like one of those sliding tile games; we’re just lugging things from one room to another.
Everybody that needs to sing needs a separate cupboard to be in and we’ve had to put ventilation in as well. We should have new stuff quite soon.
It’s been a bit of a strange time lately. How have you been since all this began?
I think I’m much the same as everybody. It’s just been waves of disappointment and then a kind of acceptance of what it is and being grateful that the weather was decent. Being grateful that I’m in a position where I can kind of stay safe. I think a lot of folk have been hitting waves of ‘Oh, this is terrible’ and then then going ‘Ach, it is just what it is’.
Thinking back to last year and The Boaty Weekender, there’s a big difference between then and now.
There is! I’m sitting here looking at four or five cruise ships in the dock. It’s kind of unimaginable now that you would get on one. I think they’ve always been known as floating disease-things really. I read some articles about folk that were just stuck on a ship, trying to find a port that would actually let them in. There were people stuck there for 6 weeks that were just unable to get off at all. It’s not what I would wish for anybody.
How did it feel to look back to the 2019 tour when you were pulling together What To Look For In Summer?
When we were listening again, I think we were looking for a good spirit. We were probably more focused on the representation of the mixes; it was more technical than anything.
Actually, when we were looking at some visuals that we’d done, having a crowd on the stage dancing and things…you’re just flinching at that sort of thing now. It’s like when you watch telly and see people hugging, you’re like ‘Eugh, you can’t do that in the street!’ It is amazing how quickly you adapt to recoiling from what was really normal 8 months ago. It’s crazy.
How did you choose the songs for the live album?
We had lots of gigs that we’d recorded, and we were looking for things that sounded like they were a version that was definitive in some way. ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ was always going to be on it, because it’s a rare day if we don’t play that song. There wasn’t so much of wanting specifically to have particular songs on it. We were working with a set period of gigs.
People would listen through and say ‘I think there’s a really great version of such-and such on this gig. Can we get a mix of that and see if it’s as good as it seems like it could be?’.
Also, Stuart had it in mind that it would be a bit like a gig: a different voice singing at a particular point or a different feel changing the momentum of it. So I think it’s paced in a particular way. But there are always alternate songs that can do different jobs in a set. It was kind of easy.
Was a double album always the plan?
I think the idea was to make it the shape of a gig, to give people something like that to listen to. Also to represent what we’ve been doing all these years. So that would always have gone on longer than a single album.
What songs do you think have translated best from live to the album?
Oh God. I think the version of ‘Beyond the Sunrise’ is really great. That was quite a big reimagining. There was a reward for people who booked early for The Boaty Weekender that we would be playing a gig of Fold Your Hands Child in its entirety. Obviously the songs on that we’d never played live, including that one. I love ‘Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John’: that’s a different version as well. The key has changed a bit for Stuart, and it sounds better with him singing in his more natural key.
I think ‘Dirty Dream’ is really good. There’s lots that feel a bit definitive; they feel like they’re more robust than when we first played them for recording.
Was playing songs live that you hadn’t played out before quite daunting?
It was, it was. We had to do quite a lot of work to get those songs ready. When we made that record [Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant], Isobel was still in the band. So there were songs that she’d sang on the record that Stevie or I had to sing or whatever.
It was quite a job. It’s not something where you can just plug in and fumble your way through it. It really did need work. And also that was the last album where things were quite fraught when we were making it. It felt like opening a box of trouble in a way. But, you know, some really good versions came out of it.
Do you have a favourite live album?
101 by Depeche Mode is pretty amazing. I think that’s pretty spectacular.
It’s great that you’re able to start recording again.
We won’t all be able to be in the same room as each other. That’s a shame because just being able to see each other is such a benefit. But to be able to work at all will be a bonus. We were meant to go to America in March to make a new record. The travel ban came in two weeks before we were due to go. We should already have a new album ready, but doing the live album, we had the time to make a more thorough job of it than we would have done.
We’re always moving towards, so being stopped in our tracks meant that we could look back at last year and do the live album justice. It’ll be nice to start moving forward again.
Other than your own, what sets stood out to you from The Boaty Weekender trip? I loved Whyte Horses’ last gig. I think that was after our last gig, and it was the first time I felt I could relax properly and not feel like I had to keep checking my watch. That set was amazingly dynamic and uplifting. That was the last night and there were loads of folk with glitter face paint on that you wouldn’t expect to have face paint on. Yo La Tengo were quite amazing. I didn’t manage to see too many full sets cause there was always somewhere I had to be. But it was really great.
I was going to ask, did it feel like any kind of holiday at all?
I think that it’s unusual for there to be that amount of camaraderie between the bands on festival cruises. I think quite often the main artist will be helicoptered on to the ship for each gig and then flown off again. ‘The Boaty’ was nothing like that; it was like a big village. We managed to get a load of Glasgow friends over, just because of cheap flights. It was like a village of 3,000 people where everybody was smiling at each other. It was lovely and properly special. And we won the pub quiz as well, which was good, although slightly controversial.
The artwork for the album is great.
I’ve got all the dolls from the artwork in my flat. They were made by a friend of mine, Angharad Jefferson. She worked from portraits that we had taken for the EP and embroidered all our faces and made all these wee dolls.
I think the artwork is brilliant; it’s like The Wicker Man. If any of the boys displease me I’ve voodoo dolls at home in my flat.
What to Look For in Summer is out December 12th on Matador Records
This interview was first published in the December 2020 issue of SNACK magazine. You can read the full magazine below on your smartphone, tablet, or pc.