Interview Stevie Jackson: ‘Music By Committee Is Always A Bad Idea’

Belle & Sebastian’s guitarist talks about his solo project, and Glasgow’s continued importance.

The veritable picture of relaxation, and just off stage at Indietracks, Stevie Jackson exudes an air of someone who feels he has little left to prove, following the release of his solo album. No wonder considering that his full band artistic vehicle Belle & Sebastian have, for a decade and a half, produced music that’s practically become shorthand for intelligent, literary pop. Under this wave of laid back calm we discuss his album, the songwriting processes with both his solo project and Belle & Sebastian, and Glasgow’s continued importance in the UK’s musical landscape.

How did the decision to make a solo album come about?
The main reason was that I had time on my hands. The group and I had done a record in 2006 called ‘The Life Pursuit’, and then we ended up not doing anything until about 2010. We ended up on some form of hiatus after we’d been going for about ten years, and I’d always been focussing on the group throughout that entire period so I suddenly had some time on my hands. I spent it working with friends on various projects and it generated a few songs which I thought it’d be fun to record. So it’s not like the songs are from a backlog from Belle & Sebastian or whatever. They were all written during that hiatus. Apart from one song called ‘Telephone Song’. I was just looking for things to do.

Would you say that the processes involved were different when you knew they were for your own project as opposed to Belle & Sebastian?
Yeah, definitely. With Belle & Sebastian it’s a process in itself, no matter whose songs they are. People always come in with ideas and it goes through this machine. Machine’s probably the wrong word, but it goes through seven people’s nervous systems and becomes a Belle & Sebastian record or song. Even in recent times, Stuart [Murdoch] is our singer and our main writer but even he’d come in with rough ideas and people would build on them or he’d build on other people’s ideas. So being in a group gives you this sense of constantly being in one sort of collaboration. The difference when doing it yourself…well, I didn’t do it myself. I was collaborating with friends. There’s a guy called Roy Moore who’s an old friend of mine in Glasgow and we formed this group called The Company. We’d get together every week and write songs purely for fun. Not serious about it, it reminded me of being a teenager again and forming your first band. Just being in the bedroom having a laugh and a couple of drinks. It was really refreshing and really nice, and I got a few songs out of that. Another friend, Nicola Atkinson, is an artist in Glasgow and we’d worked together over the years. The projects I’d been involved in with her generated a few songs as well. There’s all kinds of processes - about two or three different ones. There was writing songs with Roy, citing songs with Nicola…and of course I wrote some songs myself, for fun.

In your experience do you think writing as a band enhances or dilutes the songwriting process?
Well, when it goes well it enhances! Things get diluted by committee and it’s never the same. You always have driving forces making the decisions with the others being supportive and pitching ideas. Music by committee is always a bad idea because things get diluted. That said, that’s not how it works with Belle & Sebastian. We’re all quite strong people and we do tend to fight a lot. Creatively, there’s a tension there, you know? Not so much on the last album but on the one before. ‘The Life Pursuit’ was like a total barney but it was great, it was one of my favourite records. The thing about making it yourself and making it solo is that you have the last shout. You don’t have anyone to fight with but yourself.

At the risk of providing something of a loaded question, as one of the other main writers in Belle And Sebastian, is it sometimes difficult for you? Do you feel like you’re living in Stuart Murdoch’s shadow?
It’s not loaded at all. It’s never even occurred to me or worried me. I don’t feel like I’m living in his shadow because I’m not competing with him. I wouldn’t even try and compete with him. I don’t feel any sort of competitive element with Stuart Murdoch! He’s just too good, he’s one of the greats. He has a real talent for writing songs, and they’re really individualistic. I’m a fan so I don’t feel in his shadow. He just likes other people to write stuff, and for the group to not just be him, and for it to be more fun for him or something. I resisted it at first because I thought it’d dilute it, and it probably does, but it’s also what has made the band survive for so long. If it was just him doing all the songwriting then he’d have quit after about three albums or something.

When you’ve got a back catalogue so rid and revered as Belle & Sebastian’s, is it quite difficult to break out on your own and for people to view your solo material on its own terms?
No, with the Belle & Sebastian thing it’s me as well. I’ve made a contribution to it for the last 16 years of my life and I’m very proud of it. I’m not fighting that either. That’s me as well because I’m on all the records. I mean, yes, it’s mainly Stuart but we’re a band as well. We all made those records, so it just feels in this case that the guitar player’s made a record and anyone’s who is in to it should check it out. The association with Belle & Sebastian can only be a help, some people might listen to it because I’m in that band and they’re Belle And Sebastian.

Would you say that the solo offerings of the various other members of Belle & Sebastian have demonstrated the personalities behind them?
Oh yeah, definitely.

Where would you say that your record fits in the scheme of things?
You’ve got me! I think it’s just fun. I’d hope there something quite irreverent about it. The tunes are good and memorable and they’re story songs. A record’s a funny thing, and what I do solo seems to make more sense to me playing it live because I love playing live! Reaching an audience is always a kick and it’s good, but the record is just expression, and once it’s out there, I don’t really think too much about it. I just hope it comes across. But I don’t think it necessarily defines me as a person or as a performer or anything like that. I’ve actually got a taste for it now and I think the next one will be a lot better, or at the least different. I don’t think any record can define someone. There are those people that make one record, and then the next one is totally different. When you think about Isobel [Campbell], she’s grown as a performer. All records are hard but she’s evolved.

When you look at Scottish music, would you agree with the argument that it seems to have this innate sense of expression and melody that might not be as prevalent in other parts of the UK?
I don’t know. In terms of actual content or aesthetics or materials then I’m not sure that I’d agree with that. But there’s definitely an advantage to being Scottish in a sense, or being Glaswegian. It’s a vibrant scene but it’s kind of cut off from London media. John Peel once said - if I can quote the great man - that it’s harder for groups in London, for instance, because there seems to be this sense of trends and scenes going on. You always have to fit into some kind of category, whether it’s ‘Girl Power’ or Britpop or whatever. In Glasgow, you can do what you want because you’re cut off from all those kinds of pressures. Actually, in terms of aesthetics, in the early days, Belle & Sebastian and our contemporaries….there were all these underground people at the same time such as Mogwai or Arab Strap. We’re totally different but we still share something. I’m not sure what it is but we feel connected aesthetically as opposed to musically connected.

Would you say that Belle & Sebastian has always maintained an innate sense of location in its music? Would you also say that Glasgow has a greater sense of creativity as opposed to somewhere like Edinburgh?
Oh yeah, I mean that’s not an opinion. That’s just fact. People have always gone to Glasgow to form groups. It’s just a bigger music scene as opposed to somewhere like Edinburgh. I love Edinburgh, it’s beautiful and I’d say that theatrical and dramatic work tends to flourish there more but Glasgow’s where people go to form bands. I can compare it to Edinburgh because I know Edinburgh a lot but it’s only really there and Glasgow that I’ve actually lived, though I’ve been in London a lot too. For some reason, Glasgow produces bands in the same way that Liverpool or Manchester does.

Aidan Moffat put it down to there being all the venues in Glasgow.
Oh yeah, it really is that simple. But going back to the first part of your question, the whole Belle & Sebastian thing is very Glaswegian. The stories and the songs - and most of the songs are story songs about people and places - and I can imagine these places when Stuart sings them. It’s very Glaswegian.

Do you have any hopes and expectation from your record? What do you hope people will get from it?
I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it because it feels a little bit old hat already. I don’t know if you’ve released records yourself…I suppose the journalistic equivalent would be working for ages on pieces and they go live. It’s the same with music, and it makes it quite difficult talking about record in a slight sense because it’s gone. In terms of aspirations, I hope that I can sell a few. I paid for it myself so if I can get some money back then that’ll be nice. And that people will like it, I suppose. I hope that people get some of the jokes, there are a few in there. They’ve all got stories in them too, you have to listen but they are all there. Every song means something to me so there’s always the hope that people get the same feeling from it. Ultimately when you write a song you always hope that, you know?

Stevie Jackson’s new album ‘(I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson’ is out now via Banchory.

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