Interview: Stevie Jackson (Belle and Sebastian)
Published on August 13th, 2012 | Theo Gorst
To the casual listener Stevie Jackson’s voice was first heard on Belle and Sebastian’s seminal 1998 LP The Boy With the Arab Strap, the Glaswegian lead guitarist having contributed two songs to the record. Yet to those with their ears to the ground this was by no means the first we’d heard of Stevie: listen to 1996’s Tigermilk and the fabulous riff that opens “I Could Be Dreaming”, then bask in “The State I Am In”‘s beautiful Spanish guitar and emotive backing vocals.
That incredible solo on “Like Dylan in the Movies” from arguably the band’s finest work, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. That harmonica on the same record’s “Me and the Major”. That’s all Stevie. I could go on…
Almost a year on from the release of his brilliant debut solo LP (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, Rocksucker asked for a chat and thankfully we were able to get ourselves some Stevie Jackson. First, though, check out this groovy, sun-kissed cut from the album…
How would you describe (I Can’t Get No Stevie Jackson) to those who haven’t heard it yet?
12 Pop tunes each one with a story or a theme.
Was it something you’d wanted to do for a long time?
Only in a vague, abstract way. I wasn’t sure how to do it and didn’t really have a huge compulsion to do it which you need really. One day the compulsion was there and so was a record, it’s always the best way.
How do the songs differ from those you contribute to Belle and Sebastian?
No difference really. If B&S had been working during the period the tunes were written I’d have happily put any of them up for consideration, maybe the band would have bit on a few of them, who knows?
I saw you play a great set at Indietracks. How does touring your own record differ from playing with Belle and Sebastian? When you first started playing it, was it daunting to go up on stage and be the ‘main man’?
No not at all, I’ve been doing it so long I’m quite happy being up on stage. Touring compared to B&S is completely different. B&S is a machine, crews and trucks and drivers, you walk on stage at the sound check and your guitar is on a stand, tuned up and ready to go. Solo tours are like the old days, vans, moving the gear, setting up…I love it! In a sense I never stopped doing that even when B&S got going, I kept playing in other bands, putting on gigs and all that, I never lost touch with that.
You also played with The Vaselines later on that day. Was it difficult changing mindsets from playing your own pop songs to playing on their crunching garage rockers? Also what do you make of their stage talk?
Their stage talk is hilarious, best stand up in the business. No mindset needed changing, it’s all Pop music to me, tunes y’know? I love The Vaselines, I get to play a bit louder and get to do things like controlled feed back and all that but it’s all about putting tunes across, so no difference there really.
When you added tracks to The Boy With The Arab Strap, was that a result of Stuart asking you to chip in, or did you ask for your songs to be included? Also were you nervous about having your own tracks included?
No he insisted on it, he wanted input. I was reluctant but went for it anyway. I was nervous as it seemed to be breaking the spell somewhat and I feared a drop in quality which there was of course. Actually I really like “Seymour Stein”, good record, has a panoramic sweep to it, really good playing on it, good song too, stands up.
Around the time Isobel left the band, Belle and Sebastian’s records took on a more polished, upbeat sound. Did this come naturally or was it a conscious decision?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to be upbeat and polished just to be disciplined hence we started working with a producer (Trevor Horn). Our previous couple of records had taken forever so it was good to have a boss or a gaffer keeping things focused and rolling along. There was definitely renewed enthusiasm, maybe that came across and of course a lot of the polish came from Trevor, which is his thing. Interesting time, Trevor was great!
Do you think the band would ever return to the lo-fi sound that characterised your first records?
Well we didn’t set out to be lo-fi. Tigermilk our first record has a great production I think, really vibey and alive sounding. If You’re Feeling Sinister is more lo-fi I think which is why I never liked it as much but that’s the classic album, just goes to show!
Which Belle and Sebastian LP are you most fond of? And which track that you’ve written for the band do you like best, and why?
Tigertmilk is the one, done in a week, mixed and everything. It’s fantastic, that’s the way it should be done. Subsequent records took longer and had lots of money thrown at them and don’t sound nearly as good, it’s a mystery to me. Just taste I suppose and first love as well of course.
I like “I Took a Long Hard Look”, a waltz time piano song with a jerky rhythm to it. I like the words and the sentiment and the playing, it’s great.
Whether it’s writing a song about Chickfactor, playing their anniversary shows or playing Indietracks, you can be linked to indie pop culture throughout your career. Is it a genre you feel particularly close to? Also have you always liked it, did you grow up listening to Sarah Records and stuff like that?
No not me, I never considered myself an indie boy at all. I was a rocker, early Stones were my cup of meat. Anyhow, there used to be so many negative connotations with the genre directed at us all the time it would get my back up. People would get so snooty about it. Like when we won a Brit Award or appeared on Top of the Pops it was like …”Who do they think are?” Personally, I always thought we were a pop band, I wanted to get on the radio, be successful. In a sense I was pretty snooty about the notion of indie as well, which is a joke.
One day I woke up to the fact that I wear Modish suits, wear glasses, play with lots of reverb on the amp and I’m the guitarist in Belle and Sebastian. I AM INDIE, I’m practically a walking definition…These days, I embrace the notion with open arms and I’m very grateful!
Apparently you needed some persuading to join Belle and Sebastian. Is this true? If so how did Stuart finally tempt you to join?
He wrote me a letter (how old-fashioned, I still have it). After that I agreed to do Tigermilk and when that turned out to be one of the greatest things I had ever heard, it was a no-brainer. I don’t remember it ever being discussed again, I was in, big time!
To me “Chickfactor” is about not only your doubts over whether your girlfriend is ‘the right one’, but also your bemusement at the effect Belle and Sebastian have on people, what with the lines about it being like “a movie”. Do you still feel the same way?
Well the situation described was my first trip to America and also being the flavour of the month and getting all this attention. The combination of the two was quite a potent mix and liable to turn a boy’s head. That can never happen again and it didn’t, times change, in fact time changes very fast. “The scene always moves too fast, I read all about the past”..I think Teenage Fanclub said that (Rocksucker says: They sure did, on “Going Places”.) They said it pretty good. I don’t feel that way any more and I’m not even the same person any more, it’s soooo long ago!
I always associate you with looking dapper and having great moves when playing your guitar. Do you have a favourite outfit? I like best your denim flares and workman coat combo, as seen in the “Lazy Jane” video. Also when growing up did you ever practise your stage moves in the mirror, like Stuart professes to doing in “My Wandering Days are Over”, or did they just come naturally?
I’m always horrified when I see myself on film, always looks kind of awkward to me, my moves that is, maybe I’m not alone in that. No I’ve never practised in front of the mirror, well apart from when I used to play badminton racket to “My Sweet Lord” before I had a guitar. As for suits, I got into wearing them on stage as physiologically they feel like you’re dressing for work, it’s time for business, let’s go… I like that. It also takes away all the hassle of working out what to wear on stage on any given night, it’s all taken care of, all you have to worry about is getting a shirt ironed.
I read, appropriately enough in your Chickfactor interview, that you’d never had a music lesson but planned on having one by the time you were in your mid-thirties. Any joy?
Oh sure, my friend Zak gave me some music lessons, tried to teach me to play like Jimmy Page, all it did was hurt the tendons in my hand. I guess it was for the best, not really my thing anyway. More recently I took lessons in finger-picking styles, more my kind of thing…learned how to play “Never Going Back Again” by Fleetwood Mac which was fun.
Has there been any talk about a tenth Belle and Sebastian LP?
Nope, it’ll happen though, next year. Our singer Stuart is making a movie at the moment.
Can you recommend to us any current or up and coming bands that you like?
TeenCanteen from Edinburgh, should have some records out this year. In fact what am I talking about? I’ve agreed to support them at their album launch in October. They’re good, great tunes, utterly charming!
Finally, say we locked you in your house for the rest of your life and took away all your records apart from the back catalogues of fiver different bands/artists, whose would you choose?
John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles.
Stevie Jackson, thank you.