Pitchfork Music Fest 2019: WHRB Interviews Belle and Sebastian’s Sarah Martin
Before a thunderstorm drenched the festival grounds on Saturday, we met up with Sarah Martin, key vocalist and instrumentalist of Scottish twee pop legends Belle and Sebastian. Sporting a vibrant blue and white polka dot shirt and neon tennis shoes, Sarah graciously agreed to an interview with us on the park’s rain-dampened grass. Over the next thirty minutes, we chatted about her upcoming Pitchfork performance, her most memorable tour memory in Iceland, and the band’s cravings for tacos while on tour in North America.
WHRB: This is a special concert because you're playing one album in its entirety. What made you and the band decide on If You're Feeling Sinister?
Sarah Martin (SM): It was a Pitchfork decision. They said they wanted us to [perform] an album, and I think they didn’t dictate initially. We're doing a boat cruise in a couple of weeks and we’re going to play our fourth album in its entirety, and Stuart was like well maybe we can just do the same at both, but [our fourth album] is not really a festival album. I mean I don't know whether Sinister is really a festival album either. I don't know whether an album show is a brilliant idea for a festival, but it seems to be a thing. Basically, Pitchfork told us they didn’t want that one. And we’re like what do you want? And then they said we want Sinister.
WHRB: This was the first album you started recording with the band. So is this album special to you or do you find another album more special?
SM: It’s funny because it feels like it’s another band. Three of the people who made that record are not in the band anymore and there are two extra people in the band. The group we are now would never have made that record so it feels like we’re doing another band’s album. Chris [Geddes] and I were talking about it earlier. We were both in the band, and Bob and Dave and Isobel weren’t and Stuart, Stevie, and Mick were. So to me, it feels like an entirely different band — it’s a bit odd.
WHRB: This album actually came out before we were born!
SM: Wow. I mean we still play a lot of the songs — most shows will have three or four songs from this record so they’re really not far from the surface. To only do old songs feels weird.
WHRB: Does this time feel different from 10 years ago when you first played it in full?
SM: No, not really. [laughs] We’ve done a lot since then so it feels quite distinctly different.
WHRB: Besides this album, do you have a favorite song or songs to perform?
SM: There are loads! I probably always like doing things we put together recently...we started the show last night with a song called “Show Me the Sun”, which is really fun to play. That's a brilliant one. And “Poor Boy” — I love doing that one.
WHRB: You play so many instruments with the band! What was your first entry point into music-making?
SM: As a kid, it was my parents. I think they met in a choir. They never played music together but they both played instruments as kids. It was one of the things for them that was a no-brainer — that your kid will learn to do something musical. I was always listening to music. Playing music as an adult, the band was more about shared tastes than anything. It wasn’t people really wanting to pick up instruments together, rather it was people that kind of liked the same clubs and records.
WHRB: Who were your musical influences growing up?
SM: The Cure, like early, early, up to and including Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. I'm slightly at odds with the current thing where Disintegration is the best ever — I don't think is. I think they peaked much earlier. But The Smiths and The Cure and Depeche Mode, I would say.
WHRB: Did other members of the band share the same musical interests or did you get exposed to more styles because of them?
SM: We pretty much all used to go to this Northern soul club in Glasgow where the first time you went you wouldn't know any of the names of the songs, but there would be a fair few you would sort of recognize. That and The Velvet Underground were our absolutely galvanizing thing.
WHRB: Based on touring for a while, what are some differences, if at all, between touring in Europe and touring internationally?
SM: Not really [any differences]. There are occasional places...in Brazil, people seem most excited, which has been odd. For every country in Europe, there are differences in food and things like that change, but you’re on a bus and doing gigs most nights so it’s sort of the same wherever you go.
WHRB: Do you have a favorite memory of touring or a favorite venue or both?
SM: One of my favorite things that ever happened was when we went to Iceland. It was with Emilíana Torrini, the solo artist, she's got an Italian name, but she's actually Icelandic. And the village that her grandmother lived in is this tiny, tiny little place on the Northeast Coast. So we did one show in Reykjavik and then we flew across the country and went to this thing and the population of this village is 120 people — it’s just a fishing village — and they have a big boat shed where all the boats get put [in the winter] but they emptied it and built a stage on fish crates. It was all built on pure goodwill and was just one of the most incredible things I've ever been at. We were there for two nights and it didn’t really go dark. It probably was a bit dusk for about half an hour in total those three days we were there. And then, you know, we were in a fishing boat in the middle of the night and it was broad daylight. The gig was amazing. A complete shamble when all the lights went out, but we kind of carried on playing and then the lights came back on again. That's probably my favorite band trip we've ever done.
WHRB: When was that?
SM: That was 2006.
WHRB: Have you gone back since?
SM: I mean I don't think you could do a gig there again, but it wouldn't be the same. It was that kind of magic that can never repeat itself. You could go back and it would be lovely, but it wouldn't be quite the crazy insane magic of a village with a hundred twenty people suddenly having two thousand Belle and Sebastian fans arrive — every surface people were camping.
WHRB: Nowadays, you’re doing a lot of songwriting. How did you develop that skill over time?
SM: There was a point where I made a conscious decision that I should have a go. We were being quite democratic and sharing — sharing all the kind of spoils of things. I felt like I should try and write something to see if I could contribute as well instead of benefiting from other people contributing. It's funny, it does get easier. You get older and you become less self-conscious. When I first thought about if I could write a song? Oh no… I [thought] I couldn't because what would I write about? People would know it’s about them and I wouldn’t want that to happen. And then you get to your late thirties or forties and you just don't care. You're just like, well, I hope they do know.
WHRB: Do you have a special spot where you find inspiration or do you just write on the go?
SM: A song grows for me. A little phrase will come into your head and you'll repeat it to yourself and suddenly a melody will attach itself to it. You’ll sing it into the phone and then you extrapolate from there. My phone’s just full of me humming to myself. My dog died recently, but until she died, I would be out walking the dog and just singing into my phone. So most of my song writing notes have barking all over it.
WHRB: One question I've always had is how is touring with mostly lads? What's the dynamic, or is it something you don’t think about much?
SM: There is another girl that plays on tour. It’s really not horrendous. There are occasions where you're just like, God, I wouldn't mind just not feeling like I have to wait to get into the toilets to change and things like that. We're just like really long term roommates. Everybody's getting through it and we're all in it together. We’re sitcom characters that have been together for 20 years.
WHRB: What's your dream collab?
SM: I really love the band that we've been playing with for the last few shows — Men I Trust. I think they're amazing. But I mean, these guys are my dream collaboratively, you know, the band. I think we all appreciate how fragile these things are and finding something where you can work with people...
WHRB: Do you have a favorite instrument?
SM: I think the flute. That was funny because when I was four, my mom took me to see Swan Lake at the ballet and I can remember that having a huge impression on me — hearing the flute. And also I think she had taken me to a special children's performance of it where there was the lead flute player who actually spoke about how the flute signified this character. I fell in love with it right then. I was too little to play flute for a while, but I got one again when I joined the band. I had lessons for a very short time when I was a kid and then Richard’s dad owns a music instrument shop and he had a second-hand flute. He said to Richard, “Would Sarah like it?” and if I could do a deal on this one. So I bought this flute off of Richard’s dad. It definitely feels as though it plays itself — I'm certainly not a virtuoso in any way. It feels like a good expression for me, which is all you need really. You don't need to be virtuoso, you just need to be able to express yourself. So that's my favorite.
WHRB: One last question because I'm a foodie. What is your favorite food you've eaten on tour?
SM: I think most of the band would be of the same opinion. It's the thing that makes an American trip really exciting, just the tacos, you know. Everybody is like: “Okay. Google maps. Explore tacos. Where can we get tacos? Where are the good tacos?” There have been tours where people have just eaten their body weight in tacos.
Jess Eng is a DJ for Blues. James Gui is a DJ for RH and TDS.