How magic happens

The continuing evolution of Belle and Sebastian

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Søren Solkær

The sun is shining the day I talk to Stevie Jackson, lead guitarist for the Scottish indie-pop band Belle and Sebastian.

“It rains a lot here, so we relish a sunny day in Glasgow,” he says.

The band has spent a lot of time recording at home in recent years, forgoing the usual trip overseas, primarily to the U.S., to spend a concentrated month or two recording their last four or five albums. With their latest project, a series of three EPs dubbed How to Solve Our Human Problems, the band thought it might be fun to go back to their roots, Jackson says, recording in small studios around Glasgow, much as they did for their breakout 1996 release Tigermilk.

It’s “like the first kiss or something, there’s just a magic halo around it,” Jackson says of their first album, which the then-nascent group recorded over a matter of days. “I’m not saying it’s our best record — there’s a sense of it just happened and there it is.”

More than 20 years and a dozen or so major releases later, Jackson says the band allowed themselves to take their time on their latest project; in “the spirit of anything goes,” they wrote and recorded within the rhythms of normal life.

“There’s a sense where it becomes more a part of the fabric of your everyday life, there’s a sort of integrated feeling to it, which is quite refreshing,” he says. As is the format of an EP, something the band hasn’t done since the late ’90s.

“There’s something about an EP which is quite a freeing format, if you like. It is for us anyways. You can do something you wouldn’t normally do,” he says. “It’s a five-song statement.” 

Although released separately over a period of months between the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, the three EPs are a coherent unit, named after a book by Buddhist author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. A statement that inherently leads to a question, Jackson says, How to Solve Our Human Problems encompasses, “that Buddhist idea that you can only change the world by changing yourself.”

“The horrors of the day, it’s not that you shouldn’t be concerned about them or be active in trying to fight them, but there’s only so much you can do,” he says.

The project follows on the heels of 2015’s full-length Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, and the contrast between the two titles, along with the state of world affairs at the time each was written, is not lost on the band, Jackson says. Still, the new songs don’t attempt to offer up answers. Rather, in typical Belle and Sebastian fashion, they chronicle observations and weave stories, set to the melodic, whimsical chamber-pop sound the band is known for.

It’s also not the first time the group has borrowed a title from another body of work, as they take their name from a French cartoon (based on a book by Cécile Aubry) about a boy and his dog, and many of the early songs portray a dialogue between the two imagined characters of Belle and Sebastian.

Written mostly by Stuart Murdoch, primary songwriter and mastermind behind the band, those early songs were born out of his grapples with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, something he has become more public about in recent years. The increased publicity has given Jackson a new frame of reference about the evolution of the band, starting with their earliest work.

“They are songs about desire, and if you’re incapacitated then little things become very important to you. A lot of the early material is fused with that,” Jackson says. “I suppose later songs have become more direct, the singer is saying something very astute, not necessarily dressing it up as characters. That seems to have changed; that’s my perspective on it.”

As the band heads out on their U.S. tour, leaving Glasgow behind for a time, Jackson says the best part of it all is still playing music live.

But the seasons will change, and they will fall back into the rhythm of creating again in a few months, although at this point, Jackson has no idea what it will look like.

“I think like any artist of interest, sometimes you go in different directions. Maybe some people can make a masterpiece every time, but I like people who just go and do different stuff,” he says. “Creativity comes and goes as well. Not everyday can be a sunny day, but today is a sunny day. I’m always hopeful that magic can happen.”

On the Bill: Belle and Sebastian. 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets: $51.