Belle and Sebastian: Scottish rockers on not being “indie”

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Keyboardist Chris Geddes talks to Metropolis about the band’s new album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Scottish independence, and why Glasgow still rocks their world.

Are we right to think of Girls as something of a departure?
To a certain extent. We took some musical styles a bit further than we had before, but it was probably all things that previous records had hinted at rather than a complete departure. You hope every record you make will be different from previous ones in some way, but we’ve never gone for a complete reinvention.

What was the backstory behind the approach?


We’ve always been led by the songwriting, rather than deciding a musical direction first, and then fitting things ’round that. Stuart [Murdoch, lead singer and songwriter] said something early on about making the album like a ’70s Eurovision song contest, with each tune from a different country. It wasn’t meant entirely seriously but it conveyed the idea that it was OK if different songs went in different directions.

Chris Geddes

Tell us about your contributions as keyboardist in the band’s working process.
It varies a lot. Sometimes the songwriter has an idea for a part, and you take it from there; other times, they’ll play you the song, and the very first thing you come up with yourself is what goes on the record. Still, other times, I might work trying to find an interesting sound, and then the sound dictates the part, or I might do some programmed stuff and add that, or something I’ve done on the laptop might be the start of a song for someone else. On this record there was more programmed stuff from me and Ben the producer than on previous records.

What’s your own personal favorite song on the new album, and why?

My favorite is “Ever Had a Little Faith?” because, even though it starts off sounding like a fairly straightforward “old” Belle and Sebastian song, by the end, we’ve taken it somewhere else. I really like “Play For Today” as well. I loved Stuart’s vocal on it, and then Dee Dee [vocalist and guitarist of Dum Dum Girls] came in and did a really great job with her part, and I love the way it builds to the end with all the effects and stuff.

How did you end up recording in Atlanta? What did that bring to the album?



We went there specifically to work with Ben Allen. It was really great. Ben; Jason Kingsland, who engineered; and Sumner Jones, who was the assistant, were all really cool guys. It was a very open atmosphere in the studio, and I learned a lot from each of them. We wouldn’t have made the same record anywhere else. Ben contributed a huge amount in terms of sounds and the direction of some of the songs. I think everybody really enjoyed being in Atlanta as well, the vibe of the place and the food.

Tell us about the press shot that shows the band holding newspapers with Scottish independence referendum headlines.



It just so happened that the photoshoot took place on the same day as the referendum, so the photographer, Søren Solkær, brought the newspapers along to use in the shoot. I was a bit hesitant to do it, from the point of view that all of the mainstream media was against independence, and I didn’t want posing with the papers to be seen as an endorsement of that. I’d been getting most of my news from social media, which was why I was surprised when it was a comfortable victory for the “no” side.

What song do fans call for most in concert, and why do you think that song touched a chord with folks?

People shout a lot for “This is Just a Modern Rock Song,” which we never really play, or “Your Cover’s Blown.” I guess when people shout for things, it’s often not because they expect you to play it, but to show that they are the kind of fan that wants you to play a seven-minute-long track. The song that connects most with the audience is probably still “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” because the lyrics are a manifesto for the early days of the band.

Over two decades of Belle and Sebastian, what’s changed the most, and what’s stayed the same?


Within the band, it’s been the changes in personnel that have made the biggest differences: Isobel, Stuart, David, and Mick leaving; and Sarah, Bob, and for this album, Dave McGowan joining. Everybody had brought something different to the group when they’ve been in it, and making this record with Dave as part of the group was really good. His playing on every song was amazing, and made everybody else raise their game. There’s certain things within the writing that have stayed broadly the same. We’ve always written songs based on the harmonies that evolved in ’60s rock and pop, and not followed recent trends. The records almost always consist of melodic, lyrical songs, rather than any other form of music.



How has “maturity” affected the band?


In terms of the music we make, not much. It’s more people’s personal circumstances that have changed over the years. But we’re in a band so that we can avoid maturity!

How does Glasgow continue to shape your sound?


It’s still important for me. I hear stuff recorded at Green Door, the studio next to our rehearsal space, that really excites me. My friend Holly, who puts on a psych weekender called Eyes Wide Open, has been really good at turning me on to touring bands that have come through. My friend Andrew still does his club Divine, where we heard a lot of stuff that shaped the sound of the band.

What do critics get right—and not—about the band?



Sometimes, I’ve read critical stuff about the band and thought there were some fair points, and other times there’s been both positive and negative things where I’ve read it and thought the person just doesn’t get what we’re doing. Maybe the main thing is, we think of ourselves as more pop than [the] critics, who put us very much in the “indie” or “twee-pop” box. It’s fine, it’s just a label. I sort my record collection by genre myself, although there’s no “twee-pop” section. I’d have us filed under “other”!

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Fuji Rock Festival 2014: Still an unmatched feast of sounds

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Fuji Rock turned 18 this year, an age when newly minted adults are able to drink and drive in many countries.

Promoter Smash marked Fuji’s coming of age quietly. Japan’s marquee rock festival isn’t the rapidly growing sprout of its early years. Instead, like its model Glastonbury, Fuji Rock has reached a stage of maturity where few surprises are expected, but it can still be trusted to deliver an unmatched feast of sounds—and offer a snapshot into the state of international music in Japan.

For some perspective consider the following: when Fuji began in 1997, this year’s headliners, Canada’s ambitious Arcade Fire were still fresh-faced teenagers. Late-breaking New Zealand songstress Lorde was an eight-month-old infant.

With Japan’s youth population in a tailspin, Smash has had to cultivate the loyalty of its aging rock demographic. This it’s done in style by building its kids area into a memorable Tarzan-adventure treat (disclosure: I attended with son in tow for the first time).

The quoted attendance of 102,000 over three days was down a bit from peak years, but among the revelers was a growing contingent of families. Cultivating a multigenerational audience—long a goal of Smash boss Masa Hidaka—and attracting more folks from overseas (Chinese accents were heard frequently this year), look to be the key to maintaining Fuji’s run of success.

The larger problem of whether rock itself is facing senescence is something festivals everywhere are grappling with. Fuji’s stabs at broadening its audience into the hip-hop market have yielded acts from Run DMC to Eminem. Kanye West was supposed to headline the 2014 edition but for unexplained reasons canceled, leaving a reunited Outkast to wave the banner.

In the meantime Smash can only hope that emerging lights such as deep-lunged Lorde and indie rock fairy princess St. Vincent—this writer’s best act of 2014—will one day be big enough to fill the Naeba Ski Resort’s gigantic Green Stage with a new generation of rock fans. With stadium-level classic rock, punk and even grunge-era rock bands in increasingly short supply and international music’s market share in Japan stagnant, Fuji Rock may look different in the future.

In addition to fighting to maintain international rock’s appeal in Japan, we’d also like to see Smash do a better job of alerting Japanese to their own emerging rock music. Toward this end we think it’s possible to achieve a more creatively curated selection of young domestic acts for the Rookie A Go-Go stage. This stage has been the launchpad for acts like Sambomaster, but for the most part doesn’t seem to host many of the intriguing bands on Japan’s underground live house circuit.

What isn’t in doubt about Fuji Rock is the promise of a rewarding and diverse weekend of music, performance, freak shows, mountain breezes, and a uniquely freewheeling break from Japan’s grueling day-to-day. It’s the last factor that more than anything else guarantees the festival’s future for many years to come.

Metropolis, July 31, 2014

Carl Stone: Resident expat computer music seer

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Computer music pioneer Carl Stone’s career took a left turn when he joined the Department of Information Media at Chukyo University in Aichi. Stone had begun to explore sonic collages via cassettes and turntables in the 1970s, and in the ’80s innovated the use of laptops to create live electronic music. Invitations to Japan led to a faculty position, and Stone now splits his time between Japan and the US. The native Californian spoke to Metropolis about the computer’s evolving role in music and how Japan shapes his sound.

Computer music is now omnipresent. What have been the biggest changes since the ’70s?

Miniaturization and portability. When I was a student we had a synthesizer studio that probably cost about a half-million dollars. Now that studio’s power can be roughly represented in a ¥5,000 iPad app. I used to tour with about 50kg of gear. Now all I take is a laptop, audio interface and toothbrush.

Is the computer now just another musical instrument?

It depends on how one chooses to use it. It definitely can be an instrument, but it can also be a tool for composing, for recording and more.

Much computer music lacks traditional identifiers of music such as melody and rhythm. What differentiates “sound” from “music”?

In John Cage’s theory, nothing. Not only did he feel that any sound could be repurposed as music, but in fact the distinction between even unintended sound and music was artificial. I remember listening to a conversation between Cage and Morton Feldman, another great composer. Feldman was complaining about the time he was walking on the shore, lost in thought, and some people were blasting music from a radio. Cage, who often used unintended sounds including random radio transmissions, laughed and said that it wouldn’t have bothered him because, “I would think they were just playing one of my pieces.”

Tell us about two or three of your defining works, and what you were trying to achieve with them.

Probably my most notorious work is called “Shing Kee,” which takes a small sample of German art-song sung in English by a Japanese pop singer, and methodically stretches it until it becomes a new sonic world. A more current series of pieces I’ve done recently use an electronic process I call “skinning,” where the shape and rhythm of one piece of music is “wrapped” around the harmony of another. Some very interesting things can result. Probably the best example of this is in my piece “Al-Noor.”

How have your many years in Japan influenced your music and career?

In many ways. First of all, just being in Japan serves as a place of constant stimulation, not only because of the arts scene but because of the fascinating urban soundscape. I rarely go outside without a handy portable recorder. But also the music scene itself here is interesting, and I’ve found a lot of musicians I enjoy playing with. I’ve been lucky to improvise with great musicians like Yoshihide Otomo, Yasuaki Shimizu and Yuji Takahashi.

What are some of the challenges you face as a foreigner on the faculty of a Japanese university?

The usual issues of language and culture differences, which of course get mediated over time. I was a freelance composer for many years before I took this job, so I had very little experience in academia besides my early years as a student at an American art school. Academic bureaucracies are problematic enough, but the Japanese seem to have raised them to an art form.

Japan is a hub of computer music. Tell us about a few favorite Japanese computer music composers.

Electronic music has a lot of important history here, going back to pioneering work by Toru Takemitsu, Yuji Takahashi, Akira Ikufube. These days I’m enjoying music by Ryoji Ikeda, Satanic Pornocultshop and Chihei Hatakeyama.

Tell us about your upcoming performances and new groups.

I’ll play on June 6 with Brian O’Reilly from Singapore, who performs as Black Zenith. In the fall, I’ll play with new group Tapakasa, featuring the great Akira Sakata on sax, Yumiko Tanaka on shamisen and Pearl Alexander on bass. We performed earlier this year as an experiment and liked the results so much we are planning to keep it going.

Metropolis, Jun 4, 2014