Belle & Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson hoped to be celebrating Scottish independence. What better way to commemorate 18 years of making music, the re-release your out-of-print vinyl back catalog, and your first-ever Phoenix appearance in a place (Civic Space Park) putting on its major-concert-venue pants for the first time?
Alas, despite polls to the contrary, the Scots chose not to break with England. He had a feeling the referendum might fail, yet it still surprised him.
"I'm bitterly disappointed," Jackson, a Glaswegian, says. "It's a great opportunity lost, seems like. But I think something irreversible has happened. There's been a major shift. I'm one of them. I was opposed, but I've been thinking about it over the last year and thought, 'Yes, let's try it.' It's a bit of a step into the unknown."
That's a familiar place for a band that began as a college project. None of the members really knew each other, and the project only really bloomed into a career through some label-related happenstance and the overwhelming American response to Belle & Sebastian's exquisitely literate, exceptionally pretty 2006 album, If You're Feeling Sinister.
"It was incredibly sudden how it connected, and the thing about America is the people are very loyal -- if you keep making good stuff, they'll stick with you," he says. "We still have a following and that's mind-blowing in itself."
On October 7, the band will re-release its entire vinyl back catalog in a limited run. It offered Jackson the rare opportunity to return to the catalog album by album, which proved revelatory.
He points specifically to 2000's Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant, often derided as one of the band's lesser releases, a view Jackson shared to some extent. "But listening back, I thought it was really great and I really enjoyed it," he says.
That fourth album's the dividing line as the halfway mark in their catalog, and it is the last album to feature bassist Stuart David and singer/cellist Isobel Campbell. Their departure, and the addition of keyboardist Bobby Kildea, changed the vibe. It dovetailed with a continued move away from the precocity of chamber pop toward an upbeat pop/rock sound. A lot of this came out of their post-millennial decision to tour more.
"The music was very quiet to draw people into the music, and it used to work brilliantly in the cafes of Glasgow and small places," Jackson says. "The problem is when you suddenly get popular and you're playing for a thousand people and it doesn't so well work anymore."
They set about learning to "project" so they might reach the crowd rather than demand it find them.
"That spilled over into our subsequent recording," he says.
Just as they began raising the music's pulse and energy, they also started working with a producer for the first time. His role wasn't so much about getting a sound as being "someone to stop you from discussing it amongst yourselves forever."
The producer of the group's last two albums, Tony Hofer, tightened the screws on the songwriting, forcing Belle & Sebastian to excise verses in pursuit of greater concision. For the band's forthcoming ninth album, it has teamed with Ben Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Animal Collective, MIA) in its most collaborative effort to date.
"Ben would always be referring to it as 'our album' as opposed to 'your album,'" Jackson chuckles. "Ben's thing was to take it to his little room above the studio and add things -- rhythmic elements, electronic elements, and effects. Just to get a more adventurous sound palette. Not everybody liked everything he did. But certainly that was what he brought -- an element of surprise and creativity."
Jackson promises fans something different than they've come to expect.
"This is going to be our ninth album, and it's like, 'What do you want to do?" he says. "I'd like to make something and go back and listen to it and be surprised. He's certainly done that."
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