Checking in with Sarah Martin from Belle and Sebastian

Sarah Martin from Belle and Sebastian (with her pal Beryl)

Of course we interviewed the smart, wonderful, luminous Sarah Martin from Belle and Sebastian in Glasgow in 1997 when the band rarely did interviews and barely even shared photos of themselves! She is on the cover of CF11 along with Isobel Campbell. But we wanted to check in with her as she makes her way across the U.S. while on tour about the band, dogs, food, and her other life as someone who works on the Revelator! Interview by Gail / Photographs courtesy of Sarah

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B&S in Chicago / Photograph by Sarah Martin

chickfactor: What are you up to today? Where are you?
Sarah Martin: I’m in Brooklyn, on a bus, moving at a fraction of walking pace towards today’s venue.

And now I’m in Chicago in an unusually comfortable backstage situation, listening to the rain, with our call to the stage coming in a couple of minutes. The sky looked pretty Glasgow-ish earlier, a downpour was brewing.

What are the best things about touring the U.S.? And the most unpleasant things?
One of my favourite things is getting to see friends who I never do the rest of the time. Getting to sit in kitchens across America, especially if the kitchen comes with a dog I can roll about with. Even cats will do. I had high hopes of meeting a pet squirrel in New York, but it didn’t quite happen.

The unpleasant things … well I’m relieved this time to be avoiding the stretch of absurdly high temperatures we had a couple of summers ago, from Pioneertown through Phoenix, Austin, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe. I went to Taliesin West on the day off in Phoenix which was incredible—definitely a highlight of all my visits to North America—but it makes much more sense in the context of being Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter residence—I’m sure it’s lovelier then.

Favorite places to eat or visit while on tour?
Sweetgreen, Tender Greens, Tacombi

What are some of your most memorable shows?
There was one at the zoo in Portland which I remember you were at; the elephants were having a wander around watching the primates and the lights – I loved it.

The first Coachella, the second Benicassim. Iceland in 2006 was amazing.

Photograph by Stephen Skrynka

Tell us about the Revelator. What is it? How did you get involved? What do you do there? Is it a job? A hobby?
The Revelator is my magical, otherworldly other world. It takes the form of a Wall of Death (a wooden cylinder for a motorbike riding display) but it is so much more besides: a theatre, cinema, art space, and an artwork in its own right. When I first saw pictures, it was a wooden skeleton and I knew I had to touch it. By the time I met it in real life, late in 2021, it was a big drum. There was still a lot of work to do, but Stephen Skrynka, the artist whose idea it all was, had already held a group art show inside, and was showing a series of films over one of the weekends during COP26. I went along for a short film called Lambing, and I was the only person who showed up; by the time I left I had offered to help with the build for a couple of weeks over Christmas and new year before touring geared up. But then Covid laid waste to the tours, so I stuck around. It became like another band, seven people with a common purpose. It became a home.

It’s not a job, and it’s not a hobby. It’s work but it’s also play. It can be anything we want it to be. We have built it tucked in the corner of a huge shipyard building on Red Clydeside, in the great tradition of the work-in, the sense of purpose is our reward.

As for the work itself, it can be anything. The build is more or less finished, but my first task was grinding sharp corners and excess weld off steel brackets. There’s been lots of woodwork, obviously. Being the projectionist, singing, getting a meal on the table, entertaining the dog. Sometimes the jobs are menial, but sometimes they are matters of life and death.

Two Sarahs and a Stephen, fitting the balustrades / artwork by Annabel Wright

Tell us about the community you found there, and how that is different from your musical one.
Soon after I became a part of it, I realised there are more similarities with the band than differences really. It is a creative endeavour after all, and we solve problems together and generally do what we can to make things happen. Having been a part of both is a privilege I don’t take for granted.

The Revelator-in-Chief is Stephen (pictured below), an artist, who built the wall having learned to ride it the hard way. I do music and sewing; there is an oncologist, a theatre designer, a production manager from a local music venue, a property developer in the core team, and various others who come and go. Half of us aren’t even into motorbikes. We really are a community though, far greater than the sum of our parts.

The other day before the show in Royal Oak, MI, we accepted an invitation to have a tour of the pressing plant at Third Man Records in Detroit, and obviously that was quite an amazing place, but I also recognised the same sort of collective pride that we have at the Revelator, and ways that it is symbolised in the space the machines inhabit. It felt like a functional work of art, which is a familiar thing. That can go down as another memorable highlight from touring in the US.

The late Lottie and Stephen / Photograph by Sarah Martin

You seem like a dog person. Are there any special mutts in your life right now?
If I never had to go on tour again I think I would have a special dog of my own again, but for now there’s a young poodle called Beryl who calls the Revelator one of her homes – she’s about 7 months old, and I miss having her bouncing round the neighbourhood with me at the other end of her lead. The original Revelator dog Lottie was a very special girl; she died last September and is much missed. And Frank the lurcher who is getting on a bit is another wonderful dog friend.

What’s a typical day like in the B&S recording studio or rehearsal space?
In late 2020 / throughout 2021 it was unpredictable but brilliant, while we were recording the last couple of albums – often there would only be Stuart, Chris and me around, but we’d get the others in to do their parts on songs when they could fit it in. Since we set the rehearsal space up for recording, we’ve tended to record songs as they come together, rather than rehearsing them in advance.

When we’re rehearsing for tour, I must admit it’s fairly workmanlike! We come in at 10ish usually, try to remember a couple of songs, then we form a line at the microwave with our tubs of ready meals and leftovers from home. Lunch always stretches out longer than planned, and most of the dads head off to collect their offspring from school so we don’t go too late into the afternoon.

Work in progress quilt, on show with others in the set, in June at the Revelator / Photograph by Stephen Skrynka

If I come to Glasgow this summer, what should I do there?
If you come in August, come to the B&S weekender at SWG3 – we’ll be playing in the yard, both nights, watching the trains go over the viaduct – it’s such a great place, some other great bands playing too, including the Tenementals who I will also be singing with. If you come in June, come to the Revelator’s salon des refusés “Feed The Hand That Bites You” – I’ll be showing a series of quilts I’m making as part of that, but each day there’ll be something different from an artist or group whose proposal was rejected by Glasgow International. Eat at Sugo and Ka Pao! Maybe we could go to the seaside, chips and ice cream? Visit the Alasdair Gray Archive. Go for a sunset swim at Gourock Pool on a Wednesday night.

Who is the comedian in the band?
Bob’s the funniest

Does everyone meditate on the road?
No! Only Stuart, I think.

The Tenementals (Sarah on far right) / Photo by Stephen Skrynka

How did the pandemic change the band?
I think it has left most of us more firmly rooted to home, to be honest. I feel sure the effects are still emerging, so we’ll see what else…

For a couple of us, the fact that being a working band became more difficult, opened up space in our lives for other creative projects which have become equally important, so there are competing demands on our attention.

What was it like being on The Simpsons
Being asked to do a song for The Simpsons was a real shot in the arm for the band, to be honest – and to have been animated into the episode was particularly special. On my birthday everyone wore pin badges of my Simpsons character… it was a bit like Being John Malkovich at the go-karting!

What are you eating, cooking, reading, watching these days?
I binged Ripley with Andrew Scott the other week, which was amazing. Rewatched Fleabag series 2 after that… I also started rewatching Humans, which was on Channel 4 in the UK maybe 10 years ago, and it is very good. I don’t watch much telly though really. I saw – and loved – Poor Things, at the cinema.

A friend gave me Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn for my birthday which I’ve been reading on tour.

Cooking—it’s been a while, for one reason or another, but a while ago I was regularly making Ukrainian stuffed cabbage rolls, with veggie haggis, mushrooms, rice and lots of herbs. Really good! If I’m at home, and eating out, it’ll often be at Sugo, or Ka Pao, or Lotus in Scotstoun for Lebanese food as good as any I’ve ever had, or Suissi for vegan Asian food.

16mm film screening at the Revelator / Photograph by Sarah Martin

Records Sarah cannot live without

The Partisan – Leonard Cohen

Come ‘Round Here (I’m The One You Need) by the Miracles, in mono on a 7”. It just isn’t the same on any other format I have heard.

Somebody – Depeche Mode

The Story of a Soldier – Ennio Morricone

On Battleship Hill – PJ Harvey

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Them

Stoned Love – the Supremes

That Summer Feeling – Jonathan Richman

Tip Toe – Sault

They Don’t Know – Kirsty MacColl

Photograph by Sarah Martin
Photograph by Sarah Martin


rewind 2020: top whatever lists from artists, writers and musicians (round two)

Screen shot taken by chickfactor

James McNew (Yo La Tengo, Dump)

What’s That? 2020

Noise in refrigerator: evaporator fan

Noise in kitchen: steam-angle radiator valve

Noise in hallway: can now identify every person in building by sound of their footsteps

Noise in car: alternator/ serpentine belt

Noise in toilet: fill valve 

Noise from outside #4: fireworks (all summer, every night)

Noise from outside #3: maskless rich drunk asshole neighbors partying and blasting music in their well-appointed backyards at 2am (May–September)

Noise from outside #2: sirens (March–June: ambulances; June–December: cops)

Noise from outside #1: one minute of applause/noisemaking at 7pm daily, in appreciation of essential workers; said appreciation ended promptly June 1. More than one person within earshot has (= shouldn’t have) a trombone.

Photograph by Katrina Mitchell

Stephen McRobbie (Pastels, Geographic, Monorail)

1. One of the best best things about 2020 for me was starting to see Glasgow in a slightly different way, one in which the river is the essential part. In May I started cycling to work on a daily basis along the Clyde, rediscovering landmarks that I had loved and forgotten and new ones too. It was a time of dramatic change and sometimes cycling slowly home or stopping off to examine something was the best way to find some perspective on what was going on and to feel hopeful that in the end there would be a way through. 

2. Music was incredible in 2020. Not us so much us, in fact we didn’t play together at all. At the start of the year I thought I had three strong ideas for new songs. At the end of the year I had what I still felt were three strong ideas for new songs. So it was more a year of archive things. It was really nice to finally release two songs from a 1997 John Peel Session – “Advice To The Graduate” and “Ship To Shore” on a 7”. “Advice To The Graduate” is of course a David Berman song – thought about him often. 

3. Music was incredible in 2020. Really fell for the Cindy album, Free Advice. It just had real confidence about playing softly and being there but not fighting for your attention or anything. And it opened up a scene of other groups via a mix cd… Present Electric, Reds, Pinks & Purples, Hectorine. It felt new but also existed in the spaces between Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo, Movietone and various Flying Nun groups. There are always spaces, you can always make something new.

4. So many other great records came out. Amazingly Plone came back with Puzzlewood for Ghost Box, and by now more or less working from home, I’d lots of time to write about it for Monorail. It was a really fabulous return, so unexpected, I was often smiling their tunes as I cycled along.

5. The Jarv Is record was amazing too – he somehow managed to make it of the times but above or at least to the side of them too. I interviewed him on the day it came out. He said that when he was researching stories for This Day In History on his Sunday Service he realised that most news stories at any time are bad news and this had given him a bit of perspective on things. His group just now is dynamite. 

6. As if that wasn’t enough he ran his Domestic Disco on Saturday nights for a large part of the year. These were magical (Jarvis is a great dj) and ok, maybe a little drunken at certain points. Along with Tim Burgess’s Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties and various BBC6 shows especially Gideon Coe, something similar to going out to shows was always there. We always felt we were part of a great community.

7. Great songs belatedly dropped out of the seeming nowhere. That Dump single, “Feelings 1 & 2” is so special. I got a preview of a new Johnny record (all Joe Meek songs) performed with a super lightness of touch and sheer pop joy by Norman Blake and Euros Childs. People are going to love this record.

8. I was working on various archival projects I thought I could close out but didn’t – Strawberry Switchblade, Pastels, a Glasgow music comp. I did manage to make a fanzine called Yesterday Was Another Day, Glasgow 1979-82 to coincide with the reissue of The Bluebells Sisters album. It was a collaboration with the group and my friend, Musho Fernandez, who is a great graphic designer. Felt a real sense of pride about how it turned out.

9. The more I think about it the more I realise that music more or less got me through 2020. It seemed deeper than ever with so much music – Jon Brooks, Robert Lippok, Andrew Wasylyk, Tenniscoats, Bridget St John, Stereolab, Broadcast, Movietone, Brian Eno. In the kitchen Katrina and I listened to lots of mix cds, probably the most played being one that Gerard made for the Monorail Film Club night we used to have at the Glasgow Film Theatre.

10. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series was important and righteous. It was beautifully made too. Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” from the Lovers Rock episode became an absolute obsession. There are so many Janet Kay Top Of The Pops appearances on Youtube (a couple even with the great Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced it). Still not enough, song of the year, music of the year. Fight on.

Janice Headley (KEXP, Meow Mix, Copacetic zine, chickfactor)

Like many of us, I’m sure, I needed a mental break from the horrors of 2020, and books have always served as a trusty escape hatch. So, here’s a random sampling of ten that I happened to read last year. Just to be clear, this isn’t a list of “Best Books of 2020” or even my personal “Top Ten.” As you’ll see below, several of them didn’t even come out this year, and one of them I didn’t even really like! Just ten random books. Here ya go.

• When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole (2020, Harper Collins)
Described in the press release as “Rear Window meets Get Out” — and I legit thought “this is so Hitchcock-ian” while reading it — When No One is Watching is the gripping tale of a fictional Brooklyn neighborhood on the brink of gentrification… but there seems to be something even more insidious at play. I found this book breathtaking, and I consumed it in less than two days. And during a year of relentless (and disheartening) racial unrest, this book was even more powerful and unsettling. 

• Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (2020, Grove Press)
I loved Murata’s 2016 novel Convenience Store Woman, so I was excited to get my hands on her latest. That said, WHOA, this was nothing like that charming tale of a small store clerk; Earthlings has abuse, violence, incest, cannibalism, and more, all crammed into less than 300 pages. This was another one of those books that was just exhilaratingly engrossing, and the ending was such a smart surprise. I can’t say I “recommend it,” per se, but I’ll just say, it sure as heck was a page-turner.

• Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby (2020, Vintage)
Discovering comedic essayist Samantha Irby was one of the very few bright spots of 2020. I somehow stumbled across her 2017 collection titled We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and felt an instant kinship. I then went on to inhale everything she’s ever written. Like me, she recently moved from a big city (for her, Chicago; for me, Seattle) to sleepy Southwest Michigan. And, like me, she loves Sassy magazine, receiving mail, and being indoors. I feel like she and I need to be friends, but I am also slightly afraid of her.

• Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (2020, Gallery Books)
I bought Brosh’s 2016 book Hyperbole and a Half at the airport ages ago — I mean, just the fact that I wrote “airport” tells you it wasn’t in 2020 — and proceeded to annoy my fellow passengers because it was literally laugh-out-loud funny. But shortly after the book’s release, she mysteriously disappeared. There were Reddit threads of readers wondering if she was okay. The concern slowly died down as fans seemed to assume and accept that she had chosen the unpublished life after all. But, in 2020, she returned with her first new book in seven years! I’ll admit, I didn’t “LOL” as much as I did with her first one, but maybe that’s ‘cause 2020 just wasn’t a real “LOL” type year. But I liked it a lot. 

• My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (2016, Quirk Books)
This year’s season of the podcast Conviction sent me down a “Satanic Panic” wormhole. I wanted to read, listen, and learn everything I could about this weird ‘80s phenomenon, even culminating in an article for my day job (gratuitous self link here). I scrolled past this book on the library app while doing research, and the funny VHS-style book cover inspired me to check it out. It’s a fictional story of two best friends, one of whom seems to have been possessed by an evil spirit. It’s somehow both funny and creepy. Hendrix has also written a story about a haunted IKEA titled Horrorstör that I have definitely added to my “must read” list. 

• The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (2019, Hachette)
I’ve been a fan of West’s since back in the days when she wrote for Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger. It’s been rad to see her writing get such national attention, and she even has a TV show on Hulu titled Shrill. (The aforementioned Irby is a staff writer.) The Witches Are Coming is a much-appreciated attack of “Tr*mp’s America” (sorry, I can’t even type it without throwing up in my mouth a little). She somehow released a new book toward the end of 2020 titled Shit, Actually that I’m currently reading. 

• A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost (2020, Crown Publishing Group)
I don’t know why I like Saturday Night Live. It’s not even that funny most of the time. But, it’s something that’s been in my life since I was a kid. I still remember my best friend and I sharing Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts on the playground during recessor going to see Wayne’s World at the dollar theatre. So, I’ve read a lot of cast member memoirs, and this one was pretty entertaining. (I still enjoy Tina Fey’s Bossypants the most.)

• Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness (2019, HarperCollins)
The release of season 5 of Netflix’s Queer Eye was an all-too brief spark of sunshine during the dark summer of quarantine. I checked out Ness’s auto-bio audiobook to fill the void and found myself appreciating the grooming expert even more. He shares how he overcame childhood sexual abuse and drug addiction — stuff he can’t really address during the hour-long episodes, which are mostly focused on the nominees. (Do they still call them “heroes”? I can’t remember if that’s a throwback to the original series.) 

• Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. by Jeff Tweedy (2018, Dutton)
This book came out a couple of years ago, but, as I’m not really a fan of Wilco, I never bothered with it. But then, in April, a podcast I listen to (Rivals: Music’s Greatest Feuds) did an episode detailing the conflict between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar during their Uncle Tupelo days, and I was so intrigued I wanted to learn more. What I learned is, Tweedy is a very funny writer. (Either that, or he has a good ghostwriter/editor.)

• Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina by Chris Frantz (2020, St. Martin’s Press)
I’ll be honest, this isn’t a very good book. Frantz isn’t the most engaging writer, and many of the chapters just blur into each other. (“We played a concert and got an encore. We ate fish for dinner. Some random lady was good-looking.”) But the David Byrne barbs are both relentless and hilarious, and you can tell from his writing how much he still really loves Tina, which is so sweet after 40+ years of marriage. 

Rob Pursey (Catenary Wires, European Sun, Heavenly, Tender Trap)

I’ve been running an online poetry-reading event during 2020.  Basically, I choose a collection, everyone gathers on a zoom call, and then we take it in turns to read out loud.   Sometime the poetry is canonical and old, sometimes it’s contemporary (and on most of those occasions the real-life poet has joined us on the zoom call).  It works better than I can have expected.  Hearing 30 people’s voices, taking it in turns to read, is very moving and a good antidote to loneliness and isolation. 
So my top ten readings were

PARADISE REGAINED by John Milton.  An old, blind man finds himself on the losing side of the English Civil War and tries to come to terms with the restoration of the hated monarchy by re-telling the story of Christ in the wilderness.

DIVISION STREET by Helen Mort.  Legacies of the Miners’ Strike, passionately re-imagined by someone too young to have been there.

SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE by William Blake.  Apocalyptic poems for children.

RECKLESS PAPER BIRDS by John McCullough.   The excitement and fear of living in London when you are young and gay.

BRIGGFLATTS by Basil Bunting.  On a par with ‘The Wasteland’, but less celebrated because rooted in the landscape and dialect of the North-East.

ISN’T FOREVER by Amy Key.  Funny, fragile, sometimes self-lacerating poems by a really great new writer.

SONNETS by William Shakespeare.  He couldn’t put his plays on because of a pandemic, so wrote lots of these instead.  Lucky us.

HAPPINESS by Jack Underwood.  Beautiful, funny, very self-aware poems on straight male identity and anxieties.

VENUS AND ADONIS by William Shakespeare.  Him again.  A little epic, where his medieval roots are audible.

SMOOTHIE by Claudine Toutoungi.  Another really great new poet; spiky, witty, dramatic and energetic.  

Gail chickfactor

Music That Got Me Through the Year 

Minnie Riperton, Come to My Garden

A Girl Called Eddy, Been Around

DestroyerHave We Met (the live show I saw in February was *amazing* except the annoying girl screaming gross borderline harassment the whole time)

Bill Callahan, Gold Record

Joe Pernice, Richard and Manilow covers record, but mostly his live sets on Instagram

Shopping, live — the last show I saw in early March before the world went pear-shaped

Brazilian music (especially Jobim and Veloso)

Tweedy Show

Various Artists, Strum and Thrum

Bridget St John, Vashti Bunyan, Sandy Denny, Rodriguez

The Clientele, Oh everything. Musical anti-anxiety remedy and life-affirming soul boost. More please! 

Yo La Tengo’s very sad but very necessary Hanukkah show. Please music gods, don’t make them go through that again. Shoutout to Amy Rigby (my friend Shawn called her “a female Jonathan Richman, but funnier”) and Ira’s sweet mom, slaying us. 

All the best to everyone in 2021. Keep fighting evil.