In this month’s cover feature, we catch up with Brooks Nielsen of The Growlers to talk touring, industry changes, and the band’s newest album, City Club. The Growlers play Roseland Theater on March 23.
Odds are, if you’ve had any interest in Indie Rock/Pop during the last 20 years, you are well acquainted with Belle & Sebastian. The iconic Scottish group has released 9 studio albums since their formation in 1996, and have truly stood the test of time, taking on ended relationships, lineup changes, and side projects in stride. The first time you heard “The Party Line,” the single off of their latest effort Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance you may have been a little caught off guard by their “new sound.” This comes as no surprise as Girls in Peacetime has been catching attention from both fan and critic alike for its synth heavy and disco influenced grooves that can border on Euro-pop at times.
For a band that has learned how to keep fans happy for so long with a style that is infectiously upbeat (even when the lyrics are tragic) this album, on the surface, is a bit of departure from their signature sound. Upon closer examination, the synth and drum machine bones have been there all along, and were just waiting for the band to be in the right mood to uncover them. On a call with keyboardist Chris Geddes, who has been a part of Belle & Sebastian from the very start, ELEVEN wanted to know more about time’s influence on the band and where exactly this “new sound” is coming from.
ELEVEN: What makes Belle and Sebastian keep making music together after nearly twenty years?
Chris Geddes: I guess it’s mostly enjoyment, I think. I don’t think any of us have really an alternative kind of plan of what we’re going to do in our lives. I suppose, well, maybe it’s different for Stuart [Murdoch], obviously because he made the movie [God Help the Girl]and stuff like that. I think with him coming back to the band, we know how to make stuff happen. You know, we knew we wanted to make the record. We know we want to go on tour and we know how to make that kind of thing happen quite quickly as well. We’re comfortable with each other. We love to play music together, so that’s why we do it.
11: Since you have been playing together for so long how has the process changed for the band over time, besides just the logistics of becoming a larger band?
CG: Yeah, there’s been a bit of a change in lineup over the years, and that has been a bit different. Over the years when Isobel [Campbell] was in the band, and she and Stuart were sometimes in a relationship and sometimes not, that kind of complicated things in it’s own special way. These days with the line up we’ve got at the moment… Dave McGowen joined the band. He’d been playing with us life for a couple of years, and he played bass on the album. I think he made a big contribution to the album, added some freshness that might not have been there if it had been the six of us again. In terms of doing the show, I feel my role has changed a bit. I used to mostly play the piano and the organ, and then these days, obviously with some of the songs that have a lot of the electro stuff, we’ve had to work at it, had to produce it live, so there’s a lot going on in terms of technology on stage, a lot that can go wrong.
11: Do you enjoy that new aspect of the tech now being a larger part of what you contribute? Do you enjoy that or has it been a bit of a challenge?
CG: It’s been a challenge and it’s been enjoyable. I mean, by and large, when it works, when people in a band are kind of impressed with what you’ve done, then it’s really good, but when something goes wrong and it stops the show in the middle of the show and everyone in the band just looks at you because its on you to sort it out, then it’s not so good. So, yeah, it’s both. I suppose in a way it’s no different than a guitarist breaking a guitar string or something like that. You have to just look at it like that. To me, if one of the electronic things go wrong it’s a complete catastrophe. It’s something that I have knocked around with for years and it’s sometimes made its way onto other records, but there is much more of it on the most recent record, so it’s a lot bigger part of the live show now.
11: That electronic component coming into the new record, was that something that was planned or did it organically happen? Where did it come from?
CG: It came about fairly organically. I think all the songwriters independently were bringing some of that into the band, they were revisiting the idea of being more electronic sounding. Then at the same time when we were on a hiatus between the records, I had done some music together with Stuart David, our old bassist who does Looper now. He and I had been doing some stuff together, then a few of us from the band had been doing stuff with Tony Doogan who recorded quite a lot of our records. We were doing more kind of disco-y, instrumental stuff in the studio and some of that stuff ended up finding that things weren’t a million miles away from the record even though Stuart and Sarah [Martin] weren’t involved in it. Ben Allen ended up contributing a lot of the programed stuff on the record as well, but then again, I guess we were all kind of going in the same direction.
11: Was working with Ben Allen as a producer different than the previous albums you recorded?
CG: Yes, to a certain extent. He did have a bit of a different approach. I mean, there are a certain traits that almost all the producers have in common. They all think really fast and get frustrated a little bit as they’ll be in the room, kinda keeping everyone up with them, but yeah, he definitely had a different way of working than anyone we’ve worked with before. In the few weeks working with him I learned a lot about, you know, making records and songs and stuff like that.
11: You’ve been making records for a long time. So what new things did you learn with this record?
CG: I think just I learned a lot about different approaches to things like not stopping people when they’re in the middle of an idea. I think chronic stuff as well, like the proper way to use effects. This is the first record where the effects have almost been like another instrument, the reverbs and the echos are almost as important as the parts that people are actually playing. And kinda learning to play with the effects and make what you play the effects one thing. And that was kind of interesting. I learned some of the more technical stuff that is a bit more boring unless you make records, I suppose.
11: Since there has been this new experimentation with this electronic and disco-y, fun, dancey music, do you think that is something that you all will continue to play with? Do you have an idea of what the next record could be like?
CG: Yeah, I am really not sure. As was the case with this one, usually the direction of any record is led by the songwriters. I think within the band there may be one school of thought that would say, “Okay we’ve kind of done that and now next time it might be nice to try something different.” Richard [Colburn] and I had been talking with Jonathan Wilson, he’s a film writer and producer. We’ve got friendly with him and kind of considered him as a producer for this record… I think Richard and I have a real fondness for Jonathan’s approach to music, you know? The kind of organic thing that you get and I think we would be keen on doing something like that, but until we go to work we’ll will just have to wait and see.
11: Girls in Peacetime has been out for a few months, did you expect the reception that it got? People being surprised by the more dancey and disco-y influence?
CG: Yeah, I don’t know, that’s a funny one, because when you make a record you are always trying to do something that you haven’t done before. I think we were conscious that we were taking that style further than we had on any previous record. But at the same time, we want people to think that it’s not a complete departure from everything you’ve done before or that it’s completely unconnected from what we’ve done previously. It’s not like we’ve never used a drum machine or a synth before, we may have just done a bit more of it this time. It’s weird ‘cause, in a way, you do want people to be surprised, but then you don’t want people to be too surprised.
11: Since this record is more synth-heavy with a drum machine, how is that in your live set mixing with your back catalogue?
CG: We literally just go from one style to the other. We just switch instruments. We used to do that in the early days as well, but people would be switching between guitar and piano and then bass. Now we just get more hands on the keyboard.
11: Is it fun to be constantly moving about the stage and swapping instruments?
CG: It’s funny, you know, I kind of have my own kind of set up and other people come up and join me which I always quite like, but I don’t actually move around. Yeah, it’s weird. For Richard and me it’s really quite different than from everyone else because we are at the back row of the stage and we maybe don’t do as much audience interaction as the rest of the band. We are always thinking more technically about the shows rather than the vibe of the audience, for the people at the front, they get to let loose a bit more.
11: In between making albums and touring, how do you stay engaged with your music, or do you like to explore other mediums?
CG: I mostly stick to music. I do a bit of DJing, I do a bit of studio work. If I don’t have a lot of anything else on, I might load up a Steely Dan tune on the computer and try and work out all of the minutia of the keyboard part on it, or an old Soul record. You know, just try to really get inside stuff like that.
11: When you’re DJing, what do you play most? Is there a single album that you have on heavy rotation during your DJ sets, or does it depend on where you’re spinning?
CG: It really depends on circumstances. My absolute favorite music to DJ with would be ’60s soulful and maybe a bit of garage and psych, ’60s modstuff. But you can’t always go out and expect to be able to play that stuff. In the right circumstances it can go really well and in the wrong circumstances, it’s just a bunch of old music to people and you don’t have anyway to connect with it. Classics are my favorite.
11: Just one last question, do you karaoke often?
CG: Not often no. I have been known to, not often.
11: And so what is your standard karaoke song? Is there one above all that you like to sing on any continent?
CG: It’s got to be rock. It’s got to be ‘Living on a Prayer” or “Eye of the Tiger’, something like that. Just some shite ole rock. I know I’ve not got the voice to do the song ballads. »
– Bex Silver