Posted July 16, 2019 by Jeff in Tunes

Belle and Sebastian: The Right Project at the Right Time

Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian

When director Simon Bird adapted the award-winning graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer into a feature film, he wanted music that matched the movie’s bittersweet tone and enlisted Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian. Due out in September, the resulting soundtrack features several new Belle and Sebastian songs as well as re-recorded versions of classics “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying,” a song that originally appeared on 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister,and “I Know Where the Summer Goes,” from 1998’s This Is Just a Modern Rock Song EP.

The band plays a run of festivals this summer and will play If You’re Feeling Sinister in full at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. 

The film is set for release in 2020. 

Singer-violinist Sarah Martin spoke to us via phone from a Brooklyn tour stop.

When the band first formed in 1996 in Glasgow, was there a good music scene?

There was a lot going on. It was a really amazing scene. It seemed like everyone was in a band really. Glasgow is always really fertile for new music. There’s a lot of band-related infrastructure. There are lots of places where you can get a gig. It’s easy to make a little happening happen.

How’d you join the band?

[Singer-guitarist] Stuart [Murdoch] was seeing a girl who I was in a class at university with. But he also knew the guy I shared an apartment with. He was trying to persuade my flat mate Jason to join the band. I came home one day and the two of them were sitting in the kitchen. Jason said, “You should join this guy’s band.” I had no concept of longevity at that point.

What was it like to record If You’re Feeling Sinister?

It was all so new and fast. The others had done Tigermilk, and I was still finishing off my finals at university. I was privy to listening to the stuff. They had done the one record, and they were all quite excitable and telling me how it happened. It was very nice. It was so exciting for everybody. They were happy to help out and help me understand the process.

Somehow word got out. How did that happen?

Music wasn’t spreading digitally, but there were chat rooms and the music press did its job. We were a huge beneficiary. It was a bit early for blogs and things. People were meeting like-minded people online. I think that was how we spread. 

College radio must’ve helped too.

It’s not the thing in the UK that it is over here. There was one radio show where we could occasionally get a play back in those days. I think the college thing in the U.S. spread things pretty far.

What do you think it will be like to play If You’re Feeling Sinister in its entirety at Pitchfork?

It’s funny. We’ve done it twice now. We did it when it was ten years since we made the record. We did a show in London. And then we did a 20thanniversary show and played Tigermilk and Sinister on consecutive nights. They were a lot more fun than I thought they would be. I quite like not playing albums in their entirety. It’s not my favorite thing, to be honest. There are times I’ve gotten excited about that as a fan. It’s received with some kind of reverence. I went to see Daydream Nation when Sonic Youth did that. It meant something to hear all of those songs in one place. It’s a cool thing to see. 

Talk about this new project Days of the Bagnold Summer. What was the band’s approach to writing the soundtrack?

The guy who adapted it as a film is a fan of the band. He had talked to somebody had said that it would be good to have a soundtrack that sounded like Belle and Sebastian. Whomever he talked to suggested he ask us. It was the right project at the right time. We were already doing instrumental music for ourselves. He got in touch and it dovetailed in with what we had in mind. Also, we got sent the screenplay, and it’s just amazing. It was so readable, and it made you think that we could write the songs without seeing anything that was ever shot. It’s nice when you read something you connect with enough to do that. It’s nice to write for a reason as well and have the themes someone gives you. It’s enjoyable to have that stimulus.

The first single, “Sister Buddha,” is out. Talk about that song a bit. 

It’s a song of Stuart’s, so I wouldn’t want to be too authoritative about it. He goes to this meditation class a lot, and one of the Buddhist nuns who’s only just taken her vows since Stuart has known her, was originally just a Buddhist and not a nun. It’s kind of about her. That was written not for the film, but we were piling stuff into the director’s Dropbox folder and he got alerts that new files were added. He liked that song even though it wasn’t written for the film. I don’t think the vocal section is in the film, but it’s a really good song.

You’ve also re-recorded versions of classics “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying,” originally appearing on 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister,and “I Know Where the Summer Goes,” from 1998’s This Is Just a Modern Rock Song EP.

The director had wanted us to edit “I Know Where the Summer Goes.” We just said, “Why don’t we re-record that? It’ll be better than trying to chop it.” He was also using “Get Away from Here I’m Dying, and he uses the original version, but we wanted to re-record that in a way that it would sound contemporary. Stuart’s voice has changed a lot. He sings like a man. He used to sing like a choirboy. We felt as though we would like to record it now that he sings like an adult man and also trying not to speed up every verse. The original is pretty funny in that regard, which is part of the charm. 

Do you still feel connected to Twee pop?

That’s other people’s association. That’s not how we would define ourselves. We haven’t tried to associate with any genre at all. That’s for other people to do. 

Do you think the band’s sound has become more aggressive?

There’s a bit more power in things now but even on Tigermilk there were songs that had an edge and some toughness about them [but] they’re a bit more naïve. They have a toughness but it’s a naïve toughness. Over 20 odd years, things have changed a little bit. When you listen to old recordings, you flinch a little bit. I think, “Oh my God, we sound so quiet and wispy.” We can still do quiet and wispy but we can harness power a little more effectively. We’ve worked with producers and learned a lot from them about how to make things sound good on the radio, which is satisfying.

When it comes time to making setlists, how do you decide what to play?

Stuart tends to put the setlist together. He’ll sometimes court opinions but it’s generally him. There are songs that work particularly well at particular points in the set, and you don’t want to lose momentum. Sometimes, you need to take things down a little bit. There are options for that. It’s funny. It’s frustrating only to do 16 or 17 songs. We’re in the hundreds now. There are a lot that we don’t do very often. We have an embarrassment of riches in terms of songs. When we were starting out, our original bassist Stuart David was keen on not playing the same set every night, and every gig would be completely different. It was far too ambitious for us. Things went awry very quickly. There is some sanity in sticking to something that will work. By the end of a tour, we quite often have 80 songs that have been played on that tour. Even then, you wish you had played others. 


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].