I wonder if my students even know what a boxset is… Unfortunately, it seems to have become yet another lost art form of yesteryear… Sure we have “digital box sets”… whatever that means… And every so often indie mega icons will re-release their entire back catalogue on vinyl for the hardest core record nerds, but there is something that was always quite nice about the CD boxsets that I collected during my youth… several discs of music from some legend, re-contextualized based on a certain time period or abstract concept; a nearly-coffee-table-sized insert of 50 pages or more that resembles a photography book; and often a handful of other pint-sized trinkets, such as patches or bottle openers… all things of beauty that simply fade away in the age of digital music…
Well, if you have similar lamentations, fortunately Stuart David and Mute Records can empathize… You most likely know Stuart David best as the founding bassist of Belle & Sebastian (or possibly a novelist, which has been his primary medium of the past decade and a half)… You may also remember that around 1997/1998 he created a side-project, Looper, a multi-media effort, with his wife, Karn. At its core Looper revolved around spoken-word music. Looper released three criminally under-noticed LPs between 1999 and 2002 (Up a Tree, The Geometrid, and The Snare) and in 2000 Stuart left B&S for good to focus on Looper and his novels (which would seem to inspire each other), but it’s been more than a decade since they’ve released a substantial piece of music.
This Tuesday, April 14th, Stuart David’s Looper are releasing a five CD boxset, These Things, which includes a brand new album, OFFGRID:OFFLINE. These Things features tracks from throughout Looper’s career, curated based on themes: lexiphonics, kinokraft, voxtrot, transmitte, and melos. Liner notes include the musings of The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, who is a major fan, friend, and supporter of David’s work. In addition to These Things and OFFGRID:OFFLINE, last week saw the release of a music video for “Paper Boat,” one of David’s previously unreleased B&S tracks, and on May 1st David’s latest book, In the All-Night Café – a memoir about the earliest years of B&S – hits shelves. I recently had the great honor of getting to chat with Stuart David about the past, present, and future of Looper.
Izzy Cihak: So, why now? Was there anything specific that brought on the urge or idea to write new music and rerelease your older music? It’s been quite some time since Looper released any relatively large piece of work.
Stuart David: The boxset has been quite a long-term collaboration with Mute. The rights to the albums we released with Subpop and Jeepster reverted back to Looper in 2010, and Mute were our first choice for a new home for them. Since then we’ve been working on the best way to re-release them. The idea for a CD boxset came from Mute, then as we worked on it we had the idea to reorganize all the material. It took a long time to work out how to do it and to remaster everything, then do all the artwork. By the time it was finished we also had a new album, so it seemed like a good idea to put that in there too.
Izzy: Not to detract from your own music but, while we’re talking about it, do you have any particular favorite boxsets of music history? I wish I could come up with a more definitive answer but, off the top of my head, Dylan’s Biograph, Joy Division’s Heart and Soul, and Bowie’s Sound +Vision come to mind as boxsets that had a particularly significant impact on my formative years
Stuart: Strangely, the one that had the most significant impact on me was also Dylan’s Biograph. I couldn’t afford boxsets when I was young. I got most of my music from the public library on vinyl, and I took it home and taped it. They didn’t have any boxsets in the library, but my sister had a job, so she had Biograph, and also Bootlegs Volume 1 to 3. And she also had Live 1975-85 by The Boss. That one had a big influence on me too because the spoken sections before “The River” and “Growin’ Up” were in large part what made me want to do spoken-word songs, along with Van Morrison’s “Coney Island.”
When I got older I got two more boxsets. Mother Records gave me a great Velvet Underground one when I did a remix for The Longpigs. And then Karn got me a Richard Pryor one, eight CDs of all his vinyl albums recreated as CDs. But it was mainly Best Ofs I liked when I was growing up. That’s mostly what the library had. Tom Waits’ Asylum Years, Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits, Japan’s Exorcising Ghosts, Bowie’s Changesonebowie, Roxy Music’s Street Life. Those were some of my favourites. That was what really made me want to rearrange the tracks for the boxset. Into something like a collection of Best Of CDs.
Izzy: So, as we were discussing earlier, it’s been a while since Looper has put out anything sizeable. Looking back at the first part of the band’s career, are there any highlights of that history that particularly stand out for you?
Stuart: I think the thing that still stands out the most for all of us is touring America with The Faming Lips in 2000. They had just put out The Soft Bulletin, and we toured for three months — 50 shows and 65,000 miles — Wayne driving The Lips in a van and us following behind in a people carrier with Evil Bob at the wheel. We’d done a headline tour ourselves about six months earlier and The Flaming Lips were still at the stage where they were only playing slightly bigger venues than the ones we’d played. They weren’t huge yet. It was great fun, and everyone had pretty much gone insane by the end.
Izzy: And now that you’ve recently re-organized all these tracks from quite some time ago, presumably listening to them at-least-somewhat closely, are there any tracks that you’re especially either fond of or proud of?
Stuart: I think we were surprised by how much we loved “Uncle Ray.” That’s become quite a favourite now — and one that we consider to be a full realization of what we were trying to do. It also brought back vivid memories of a guy at the front of the audience during a London show roaring into my face, “Uncle Ray!!! Give It To Me!!!!!” But we didn’t have it in the set at that point.
Izzy: How do you feel like OFFGRID:OFFLINE relates to your previous work? How do you feel like it picks up where you last left off, if you think that’s even what it does?
Stuart: At the moment, I think the new album probably stands alone in the Looper catalogue. Although we kept making music during the period when we weren’t releasing anything, OFFGRID:OFFLINE wasn’t really related to the things we’d been experimenting with. It came out of a singular period when I was quite ill with chronic fatigue and a lot of debilitating physical problems. I couldn’t do anything for a while, and it was very hard to get through the days, to make time pass. I felt for a while like I couldn’t really go on, and then I started playing keyboard to try and make time move or something, and I ended up with this bunch of songs. It felt like the only option at the time, and producing and arranging them was the same. I didn’t have all the possibilities open to me that I usually feel I do. It was just like I had to go with whatever I had at my fingertips.
But now it seems like OFFGRID:OFFLINE has expanded Looper’s field a little bit more again. It’s one more area that can be called Looper, and that we can add to the mix in the future.
Izzy: What would you consider to currently be your biggest influences, whether from the world of music or literature, or just any other aspect of your life?
Stuart: Things are very vibrant in Scotland at the moment. The way the country woke up during the recent Independence Referendum, and the impact that’s having on the upcoming General Election is very inspiring. It’s starting to feel like being Scottish doesn’t mean being a second-class citizen anymore, or that it might not in the future anyway. So I think I’d have to say my biggest influence at the moment is Nicola Sturgeon — she’s presenting a new way of conducting yourself out in the world, as someone from Scotland. It’s a very happy time here.
Izzy: Finally, what do you have planned for 2015, whether related to Looper or not? Any chance we might get to experience the band live again?
Stuart: Karn has been having some ideas for a new Looper show, on a small scale. Back on the scale we started out, playing in the Art School and in cafes. I think that will happen sooner or later, something more like a little performance piece than a gig. We’re really keen to try and get back to that because it was our original vision for Looper and some of it got lost along the way as we got bigger. We started out inspired by the kind of shows we used to go and see at the Edinburgh Festival. Weird fringe shows that weren’t really categorizable as theatre or music or comedy, but that mixed everything up together. I think we’ll be doing that again sometime — I just need to get well enough and energized enough to get out there and put it into practice.