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Belle and Sebastian: Still Feeling Sinister - June 20, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Belle and Sebastian: Still Feeling Sinister

Belle and Sebastian. Photo by David Boni

With their hushed vocals, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, and unapologetically whimsical mannerisms, no one would ever mistake Belle and Sebastian for high-volume, maxed-out punk rockers.

But if you ask guitarist Stevie Jackson, the band was founded on rebellion — and it was precisely because they played with the dial turned down, not up.

“We came on the scene right at the tail end of Britpop, where everyone was playing loud electric guitar,” says Jackson, whose band plays at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Monday, June 25. “And we were playing this real soft, quiet music. I thought it was pretty subversive. It took a lot of balls, and that’s what punk rock is all about.”

The twee Glaswegians have long been celebrated for their mythic beginnings. The group refused to do interviews or perform as opening acts, and their 1996 debut, Tigermilk, was released on an extremely limited pressing. During the dawn of the internet — a moment when the ubiquity of rock musicians was just beginning to take off — Belle and Sebastian were content to keep an air of mystery.

This was not an adventure in conceit or high-mindedness. It was merely a protest against overbearing record companies dominating every aspect of a band’s existence.

“This was back in the day when labels were these heavyweight creatures who could determine everything about a band,” Jackson says. “And we were having none of that.”

The band’s vulnerability and approachability — exemplified by songwriter Stuart Murdoch’s outsider tales of isolation and woe — resonated with fans. Eschewing the bombastic nature of contemporaries like Oasis and Pulp, Belle and Sebastian combined the confessional underpinnings of Elliott Smith with the musical directness of the Velvet Underground and the jangle-pop tendencies of 1960s psychedelic groups like the Byrds and the Zombies.

It was a strange confluence of inspirations made even more stranger by how beautiful the end results were. In the late ’90s — the heyday of indie-rock experimentation — it was safe to say that the group sounded wholly unlike any of their contemporaries. While many bands were proud to carry on the traditions set by DIY forebears like the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr., Belle and Sebastian looked further into the past, creating a sense of nostalgia and recognition largely absent in an era defined by irony and slackerism.

“It really just felt like magic when we were starting,” says Jackson. “When we were recording Tigermilk, I remember playing these songs and thinking, ‘This is what me and my friends would seriously love.’ It just felt so unique and so wonderful.”

Despite little exposure and no radio play, the group gained a cult following. Their sophomore album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, is widely considered one of the best indie albums of the ’90s, and their follow-ups have aged masterfully over the years, when compared to their peers who specialized in more era-specific tunes. More than 20 years after their debut, they are now one of the world’s most revered indie rock groups, selling out huge venues and receiving top billing at major festivals, despite, again, lacking a crossover pop hit.

During that run of success, Belle and Sebastian has steadily evolved, transitioning from Murdoch’s personal creative vehicle to a more egalitarian, democratic group, with all band members contributing to the songwriting process.

“I think that has definitely contributed to the longevity of the group,” Jackson says. “Stuart needed us to help shoulder the creative load. And I think we needed to contribute. There were a few uncomfortable years there. I think people were feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.”

With the influx of new songwriters — which included contributions from longtime members like Jackson and violinist Sarah Martin — the group’s sound has become more assured and experimental, as the quiet, wistful tales of longing have been replaced with numbers that are dancier, jazzier, and funkier. They still remain defiantly out-of-step with prevailing popular trends — there won’t be any collaborations with flavor-of-the-month artists or an embrace of microtrends in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. But their tendency to rely solely on Murdoch for that dynamism has waned over the years.

Jackson has certainly helped contribute to that evolution, with the guitarist responsible for some of their most memorable tunes in recent times. More indebted to classic pop structures, Jackson’s songs — such as “Jonathan David,” and “To Be Myself Completely,” — are jaunty, lilting affairs, recalling ’60s doo-wop groups, disco-infused dance tracks, and R&B standards.

Jackson has released one solo album, 2011’s (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, but he said he’s planning on releasing another batch of songs sometime in the near future. For now, he’s content to contribute to the phalanx of songwriters now penning tunes for Belle and Sebastian. 

The group is now touring behind a trio of EPs — an anachronistic format that exemplifies the band’s disdain for conventionality. Each mini-album is titled How to Solve Our Human Problems, and showcases the band’s multiple contributors and ease at which they can slide into an array of disparate sounds, from blue-eyed soul to baroque pop to folk rock.

The new EPs lack any mile-a-minute punk screeds against the powers-that-be. But after a career of railing against expectations, Belle and Sebastian don’t need to play that kind of music to burnish their unique punk credentials.

Belle and Sebastian with Japanese Breakfast, Monday, June 25, at the Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, $50.50-$70.50, foxoakland.com