“I don’t really have any glowing nostalgia for those first years in the band whatsoever,” says Belle and Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson. “It just gets better and better.”
When it comes to Glasgow’s most famous indie rockers, the glory days are not preserved in memories. While it’s hard to imagine a band known for crafting folk-pop gems and wistful odes to the New York Mets (“Piazza, New York Catcher”) as fodder for an episode of VH1: Behind the Music, Jackson suggests the late ’90s were a time of turmoil.
“I think, initially, what some people imagine are the golden years, were actually hell,” he says. “We were very dysfunctional, and we didn’t know each other. We’d just gotten together and become successful. We had a bunch of people that were different ages and from different backgrounds — and then, in the middle of that, you have people going out with each other, which is always completely fatal.”
Growing pains aside, Belle and Sebastian persevered. From 1996’s Tigermilk to 2015’s Girls in Peacetime Just Want to Dance, the group has ridden a steady wave of critical acclaim through a career that has lasted more than 20 years. While mainstream success remains elusive, a dedicated fanbase and frontman Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting prowess has ensured the band’s continued momentum.
For Jackson, who’s been with Belle and Sebastian from the beginning, the group’s longevity also means there’s been ample time to inherit a few nicknames. Most prominent among them was “Stevie Reverb,” a reference to Jackson’s frequent use of the effect in his guitar work.
Another moniker, “I Can’t Get No Stevie Jackson,” originated when one of Jackson’s friends was laughing at him for being obsessed with the Rolling Stones.
“He was singing, ‘I can’t get no Stevie Jackson,’ ” Jackson says. “He sang it to me, and got it stuck in my head. What can I say? I like a pun.”
Unlike Jackson’s nicknames, Belle and Sebastian aren’t out to make fun of anyone in their songs. (Except, perhaps, Mike Piazza.) Their music is sensitive and pensive, the fodder of daydreams and a respite from the mundane. As they work on a follow-up to Girls in Peacetime — Jackson confirms the band has been recording in Glasgow — Belle and Sebastian has had a chance to dust off some numbers and return them to the setlist.
“The thing about our discography is that there’s not like a list of songs that we have to play every gig,” Jackson says. “There’s only one song that we consistently play every show, and that’s ‘Boy with the Arab Strap.’ We started playing a month or two ago after a little break, and we were doing songs we haven’t done since 2001. There’s a great one called ‘Stay Loose’ that I really like, and we haven’t played that since maybe 2004. In a way, playing them now, they are like old songs that become new again. It’s like, ‘Oh, I haven’t played that one for 13 years,’ so it’s kind of fun.”
It seems, then, that while Jackson is happy to leave the story of the band’s early years behind, the songs of that period are still very much a part of who Belle and Sebastian are today. Certainly, the tracks that comprise albums like Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister, and The Boy with the Arab Strap are what drew many fans to the group in the first place.
In fact, those first two albums also caught the ear of Radiohead, which, in 1997, invited Belle and Sebastian to open for them on a tour promoting OK Computer. The band declined, feeling uncertain they were ready for the exposure. Last month, the two bands did share a bill as part of the TRNSMT Music Festival in Scotland.
“It was good to do,” Jackson says of playing a festival in the band’s hometown.
While the chance to open for Radiohead is 20 years behind them, the opportunity to play for their own fans continues to be enough for Jackson. There is much history in the story of Belle and Sebastian, but for him, the only time that really matters is now.
“I think that’s what’s kind of changed,” he says. “It works more. It’s more fun now, and functional. I prefer it.”
Belle and Sebastian plays Friday at 5:40 p.m. at the Sutro Stage. They will also play a festival-sponsored night show on Thursday, Aug. 10 at the Independent.
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