Throwing together handfuls of music, art and literature into the mixing pot, Seatbelts want you to break with the recipe and do it your own way. Elliot Ryder pulled up a chair at their table in early March to sample the inner workings of the band.
We start with the Prestige de Calvet. “I see you’ve gone for a fine 2019 vintage,” Ryan Murphy wryly remarks as we sample my modest contribution to the evening, theatrically pressing our noses into our wine glasses to locate the ‘spicy notes’ of South East France via Tesco Bold Street. As we lift our heads, a gastro of mackerel carbonara is brought out to the table and dished up for the four members of SEATBELTS.
The current dinner party setup is part composed, part necessary. The band have been near impossible to place in one room for close to two months (beyond live shows and rehearsals), so when one night in the calendar arises, any photoshoot and interview must be rolled into a post-working day meal. Besides, James Madden (vocals and guitar) fancies himself as quite the cook, meaning our evening is as much a chance to show off his dab hand in the kitchen as it is to learn what holds one of Liverpool’s most inventive bands together. Abi Woods (keys, guitar, vocals) and housemate Ryan Murphy (guitar, bass, vocals) finish setting the table in their shared living room, with drummer Alex Quinn.
The candlelit table and smoky jazz crackling out of the corner speaker may seem elaborate for a Wednesday night meal, but it’s all reflective of the subtle layers of texture Seatbelts’ music coalesces around. Talk quickly turns to salt water pasta.
“It’s those little things in cooking that make the difference,” Madden states as he divulges his penchant for breaking with recipe and bringing together an assortment of ingredients at his leisure. It’s this culinary approach that’s spilled over into Seatbelts’ run of singles and two EPs released over the last two years, Songs For Vonnegut and Please Slow Down. The collection of songs stretches across all of the colours of The Modern Lovers, Real Estate, Orange Juice and Pavement – bands that borrow from the past and make nostalgia look like an energetic picture of the future. But, most importantly, all of these influences are congealed together by Seatbelts’ inimitable feel for harmony and groove. “You’ve got to be open to throwing things together – seeing what happens,” Madden states, the band nodding their assent as they sample the pasta and raise a toast with the remains of the Prestige de Calvet.
While Madden appears to cook on instinct, the quartet of Seatbelts follow a similar path, making music with the guidance of their ears. Between the four of them this takes precedence over any sedimentary songwriting structure. The analogy of salt water pasta arises once again as casual talk moves on to the band’s most recent practice – preparing to support The Orielles at the O2 Ritz in Manchester, arguably their biggest stage to date.
“Ryan had organised a saxophonist to come and play, Sarah Sands from Green Tangerines,” Madden starts. It was a telling moment, they agree, in appreciating the micro features of their sound. Integral fibres that find their spaces in the arrangements, as opposed to pushing in and dominating the overall palette. “She hadn’t really listened to the tunes before, but she just ad libbed her way through it. It’s probably one of the best practices we’ve ever had,” he adds. For a final base of subtle flavour, Madden’s friend, Christian, added another backing guitar to the arrangement. “It just evolved in a different way,” they all agree, underscoring the free-flowing, instinctual compass Seatbelts follow as musicians.
Emerging from the latter years of Hooton Tennis Club, whom Murphy and Madden fronted together over the course of two albums for Heavenly Records, Seatbelts proved somewhat accidental in their formation. “Around two years ago, me and James had a couple of tunes that we’d written that weren’t quite Hooton,” Murphy begins, “so we just wanted to make a side project out of it and put the songs out.”
Although the initial project was a baggier entity than the tight-wound indie splash of Hooton, it was one that the pairing would grow into following the initial foray. Noticing this prospective room for sonic development, the band took form with the addition of Woods on keys, whose initial signing was on the basis of “being able to hold a chord on an old Casio keyboard” she recalls. Now, Woods is one of the band’s core songwriters and vocalists. “We’re not a side project anymore,” Madden affirms. “We’re definitely a band now. Everyone has got their own corner in it. I sing my perspective, Ryan sings his, so does Abi.” “I just play the tubs don’t I,” Quinn adds with a self-depreciating humour. But it’s Quinn who forms the band’s backbone both on stage and in the studio, spending the majority of his time working as a professional recording engineer. His presence with the sticks is quietly acknowledged as the prize asset.
Here tonight, breaking bread and discussing their live show between mouthfuls of carbonara, there’s an apparent nonchalance that courses through the four friends. It’s a feeling of contentment that radiates from their live show and the sauntering blend of styles found on record. They possess the priceless quality of making it all look so easy. Their music comprises of baroque arrangements, but they pass them off as shabby chic. Where some bands harness the grind of making music, touring and working alongside, wearing it all on the exterior, these realities are just a part of Seatbelts’ subtext. The only noticeable aspect is attempting to get them all in one room at one time. But once together these realities dissipate – as displayed in the daft humour circulating the dinner table, and Murphy and Madden’s tendency for drawing pseudo-philosophical quotes from one another. “Humour is really important. That comes from Edwyn,” Woods comments. “It’s one of the ways we try to get through to more people. What I love about us is we have that jovial bounce, but we always keep a focus in our lyrics.”
The ‘Edwyn’ Woods refers to is Edwyn Collins, whose celebrated band Orange Juice found a delicate cut between post-punk and hair-raising pop – a careful incision Seatbelts are similarly starting to master. In recent years, Edwyn’s been something of a mentor figure for the band – alongside Carl Hunter from The Farm and Chris Taylor at Parr Street Studios – inviting them up to his studio in Scotland for writing and recording sessions. “We were only at Edwyn’s for a week, but the setting and comfort of knowing your being afforded the time for once just brought out so much in our songwriting” says Woods.
It’s evident that Seatbelts’ musical world is undisturbed and unrushed. The artistic muse of Kurt Vonnegut, whose name is pinned to the band’s first EP, is an apt signpost for their authoritative yet alluring appeal. “I’ll read Vonnegut some more/Only person knows the score,” Madden proclaims on Song For Vonnegut, a nod towards the American writer’s humourous yet canny moral vision that characterises his collection of works. As is the endless thrill for the ordinary exuded by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, whom the band covered the first time I saw them live. This existential wonderment is best displayed in Murphy’s lead on This Is How We Do Things: “This is how we like to get off on the good time/This is how we like things to be/This is how we like to spend your money” – the song chugging towards a sunburst chorus with little care beyond the ride its currently on.
“I think of our music as little time capsules,” Madden contends, with Woods outlining that their stream of consciousness arrangements is drawn on “song by song” rather than any overarching themes. Madden goes on to further underscore the unflustered settings the band thrive in – as displayed in their jaunt to Scotland to work in Edwyn Collins’ home. “I booked a little cottage in Wales and spent three or four days there cooking and writing,” Madden adds, elaborating on Seatbelts’ formula for capturing the moment. “We wrote about eight songs. It was well beyond what me and Ryan had written in our bedrooms together over the years. Abi would have a few chords, and then quickly after that Super Stardom came out. All of the songs just started to arrive effortlessly. We could have stayed in that groove for ages. Waking up, prepping coffee, cooking together. We’d do our thing, then step away from it. It’s never laboured over.”
The notion of labour typifies the makeup of the band. Not one member carries more weight than the other at any time. There’s an intrinsic democracy that watermarks all of their output. Even when playing live, it’s only Quinn who assumes the one role; stints on keys, bass, guitar and vocals are all swapped and changed by Woods, Madden and Murphy, as often as song to song. “There’s no ego at all. It’s a nice mixing pot of ideas and styles,” says Murphy, whose eyes brighten as he reminds himself of this rare approach of devolved creative lead. But this approach appears to go further than simply songwriting. Again, it’s the subtleties that enhance the main offering – the salt water pasta that gives every other attribute more edge.
“It’s about everything in between,” Murphy continues. “The times we eat together, cook together. Simply talking to other musicians about our tunes. More often than not we’ll end up playing something together – adding in a new dimension. It’s just the way it falls together.” From Murphy’s point of view, Seatbelts’ music can only exist in unison with a myriad of life experiences. It happens in the same motion as life surrounding the band. The songs are pulled from the air like someone pressing record without the band knowing, with the band accepting the results as their art. Hence Madden’s description of “little time capsules”, regularly harvested from the Seatbelts world.
“If you’re honest about the situation that you’re in, the conversations that you’re having with the people you’re meeting. If you’re writing about that in an honest way, then it’s always going to come off,” Murphy continues. “It’s more authentic to write something as you are now. But that’s always more risky in terms of evaluating yourself, than it is to present yourself in another way.”
This world, however, isn’t reserved to the four permanent members of the band. The frictionless collaboration within Seatbelts owes much to their democratised sphere having no defined borders. Or as Quinn puts it more simply: “If people just want to come along and play with us, they can.” Since the band’s inception saxophone players have regularly dropped into their setup, with additional vocals brought into the fold, notably on Spanish Songs. For Murphy, being within these open parameters can deliver a feeling of losing singular purpose within the band, such is the homogenised aura running through the music. “Even when you’re part of it, on stage playing, it’s like watching your own band as a member of the audience. You can step back and hear everyone else playing their parts. Everyone is so locked in you can confidently lean on one another. To know there are five other people in the room, doing their thing, you can relax,” before rounding off, “nobody owns the space, but everyone holds the space.” “There’s always someone to pick up the slack,” Woods adds, commenting on the non-existent creative pressure within the band. “Just like in life, people will be there to pick you up – that’s no different in Seatbelts.”
The dining table is cleared, but the culinary themes remain when continuing to discuss the band’s ability to step back from their own music. “With Christian coming in on guitar,” Madden begins, “adding bits in his own way, it brings a new perspective to songs we’d already written. Just hearing someone else take ownership of the smallest parts of your songs brings so much out of it. It adds new bits of spice,” he continues, half in humour at the number of cooking analogies he’s managed to drop in over the course of the night. “Sometimes it’s not always necessary to follow the recipe. Throw things together and you might make something you don’t expect.”
While Madden and the rest of the band laugh and sarcastically cheer his latest gastronomic metaphor, his assessment perfectly underscores what it is to be in Seatbelts. The band aren’t rebellious rule breakers. Instead, they’ve built their own musical statues that garner music from a way of living the four are subscribed to. One where the music is never over considered – always of its moment. The process has its beginning and its end until someone else picks it up and takes it somewhere new, offering the band new ways of seeing, of hearing themselves. If Seatbelts were a painting it wouldn’t stick to the contours of one canvas, or take the lead from one direction. Seatbelts is a joint exhibition, and one the band observe just as intently as the audience in their gallery space. As a closing maxim, Madden proclaims: “Never sacrifice on scran”. Perhaps that’s the Prestige de Calvet starting to talk.
Super Stardom is available now via Rooftop Records.