This is a continuation of what I started telling you last week. The band had begun in 1996 with a record for a local Glasgow college. Now fast forward 5 months or so to our second LP.

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Tigermilk had come and gone and nothing much had happened. But that was ok, because we went on immediately to plan the next record. If we did it once, we could surely do it again, perhaps better.

We had a record label now, an independent concern called Jeepster. We gave ourselves two more days to record the album than the last one. I was happy with the songs I had written, and I pretty much had the record sequenced before we even went in.

I think we recorded it in July or August of 1996, whereas Tigermilk had been march. We didn’t quite have the same experience with this second record as we had with the first. The songs and arrangements were more nuanced, and it was a lot to expect that we would have the knowledge and control to pull off what was in our heads.

I was still excited when it was done though. I wanted to put it out immediately. I wanted the band to be like a factory. I wanted to have an instant and extensive back catalogue! I guess what i really wanted was to make up for all the time that I’d wasted – 7 years of being out of the game: ill, enfeebled and useless.

What the group gave to the outside world was still very much in my hands, in those early days. I’d written all the songs, so I quite happily thought no one would mind if I did the record sleeve too.

At that time my best pal Ciara lived in a little basement flat below her parents’ house. It was still the era of hanging out there listening to Hall and Oates’ greatest hits, and watching the same Eddie Izzard vid over and over.

She would talk about the boys she had intellectual crushes on and I would talk about girls I wouldn’t mind photographing.

Ciara and I were buddies in illness. We had formed an obvious and indelible bond when we were flung together in 1990 –  a halted boy, and the poster girl for the west of Scotland for a mysterious ailment called ME/CFS.

me and ciara hang on her steps, around summer of '93. pick by our pal michael

me and ciara hang on her steps, around summer of ’93. picture by our pal michael

I say poster girl, because everyone seemed to know about Ciara in the ME world, so dire were her circumstances. Newspaper columns had been written, radio interviews aired.

My straits were pretty dire at our time of meeting too. We had both spent a long time in hospital, emerging to confirm that our respective worlds had completely changed. We were immediately glad to know each other, clinging to each other as two particles might do in a godless void.

I’m glad to report that at the time of our second LP, my health had been improving in quite large leaps for a couple of years. Ciara’s improvement had been more stately of late, but things were looking a bit better.

In the years previous, my Doctor had encouraged me to go on a part time music course sponsored by the Government. I’d still be on the sick, but this was part of my rehabilitation. Eventually, the course had been really good for me. There had been really nice people there, and although the course had no structure, outcome, goals or even proper ventilation, it is still a legend in my head. It was called Beatbox.

When I’d been on the course for as long as Government provision could possibly allow, I applied for another course. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have the energy for a ‘proper’ job (not for want of trying. I used to do a shift in a busy pub once a week, which used to leave me ill for the whole week in between)

So I went on a photography course. I had a little 35mm Olympus camera that I carried with me. The course used to give you some free film every week, and there was some dark room time, and some sheets of printing paper for you too.

using my trust OM-10, i shot the group posing in a last supper type scenario, with a young chris playing jesus, and confusingly reading about himself at the same time. ciara is the one in the dish towel behind..

Using my trusty Olympus OM-10, I shot the group posing in a last supper type scenario, with a young Chris playing Jesus, and confusingly reading about himself at the same time.
Ciara is the one in the dish towel behind..

The best thing was them just saying, “go and take some pictures!” It was nice to have permission, it was nice that there was someone who cared just a tiny bit for one’s pathetic arty aspirations.

So I used to go in there every Monday, get my film, and go out and shoot randomly, all over Glasgow. Genius thing is that they gave you a bus pass too, which revolutionised my way of seeing the city. I sat on every bus, went to every far edge of the circumference of my allowed zone.

So I always had my camera with me. That day I was hanging with Ciara. We must have been having a vent session – just talking about the trials of ME, reporting back on minutiae, wondering when it was all going to get better.

I can’t remember what particular detail caused Ciara to cry, but that’s not important. It was just the whole monumental drag of the thing that did it, and at some point the tears would come. So I would have offered some comforting words, maybe even a hug.

Somewhat after the fact, in the time before it was ok to turn our attention back to ‘Countdown’, I got the urge to record that moment –  record the shitty aftermath, when nothing much is worked out. That limp moment, before resolve starts to harden you again, and the tears dry on your cheek, turning into stains.

I got my camera out, said “hold still”, took about 6 shots, in very little light, in that basement room, and that was that.

I remember getting into the dark room, watching the pictures emerge. I made a contact strip, which is a print of all the pictures on the roll, on one sheet, but in miniature – just the size of the negative itself, about 35mmx23mm.

I always liked the contact strip. I figured, if the picture was going to be good and arresting, it should look good at that size, then it would only look better when blown up.

contact strip of ciara shots. the one we used was the darkest on the strip

contact strip of ciara shots. the one we used was one of the darkest on the strip

When I looked at the pictures, I thought that one of them could be great for the LP cover. The best one was dark, however. Real shady. I bumped up the contrast when I printed, but it was still pretty dirty. When I took it to Andy, we put the pillar box red through it, and that seemed to suit the shadow and mood.

On the day I was hanging with Ciara, I must have come through her parents’ flat upstairs. Her dad, Bernard, is a writer, and had a fantastic library of books lining the hall way. From time to time he would kindly press a volume into my hand and recommend that I read.

I happened to have picked up “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. I loved that book, it was one of my favourites, but Bernard had a nice hard back copy, so I was looking at that. It was on the bed when I took the picture of Ciara (I might have moved it slightly)

I had a couple of vying titles for the record, none of which were the eventual title. It wasn’t until we had the front cover in front of us, cropped and coloured, that it occurred to me that one of the song titles might be a good album title.

stu and bel in the studio around sinister time

stu and bel in the studio around sinister time

“If You’re Feeling Sinister” seemed thematic enough for that period of things, for the people around me. We shoved the lettering on –  it looked good, we kept it there.

A few weeks later, when the record was in the window of a local record shop on Byres Road, Ciara got really excited to see her picture. She pointed to the sleeve, and said to the guy that had the flower stall there
“Look! That’s me!”
“Yes, it looks a lot like you!” said that man back to her, humouring what he thought was a crazy lady.

  1. Alex says:

    Thanks for this article, one of my favourite records. What other songs had you considered for the title of the album?

    1. Stuart says:

      not songs, but one title was ‘cock fun!’ (kind of glad we didn’t use that)
      the other was ‘falling sentry blades’, as the last songs on the record had been written around easter time

      1. Alex says:

        I feel like the world would be a very different place with a Belle and Sebastian album titled “cock fun!”

  2. John says:

    Thanks Stuart. So that’s who that girl is, and that’s how she was feeling. No wonder she’s red.
    I hope she’s okay..

  3. Jeff Ising says:

    thanks for sharing! I have always loved the album covers and wanted to know the stories behind them.

  4. Michael H says:

    When ‘Desert Island Discs’ finally decide they want to talk Records and Life with a part-time ceilidh band rhythm guitarist from Edinburgh, this album will be the first name on my musical teamsheet.

  5. Ade Keast says:

    That sleeve covers of the early albums were so iconic that I assumed they were professionally designed and cost a lot of money. How wrong was I? I am so happy to read how randomly they came about, and, as an enthusiast amateur photographer, appreciate the way pointing and shooting sometimes gets better results than spending hours setting up a shoot. It’s a real moment in time captured forever. Thank you for the story.

  6. Lucy Mccarry says:

    What a lovely back story. Wishing you both rude health now and always.

  7. Dennis says:

    These recollections are so great! Thank you!

  8. michael gleason says:

    Im really enjoying these reflections. Please continue as I cant seem to get enough.

  9. Vincent says:

    Great article for a life-changing album (really true in my case : I spent months listening endlessly to this tape with my “walkman”…).
    I was so bored at this time, so sinister, but your music and words changed it all. For good.
    So thank you.
    Vincent, from France.

  10. Charles Provencher says:

    I wonder how different the cover would be now, if current digital tools might have tempted you to ‘clean up/clarify” the photograph.

    Glad you didn’t, it’s perfect as is.

  11. Ryan says:

    This was really wonderful to read, do you still keep in touch with Ciara and if so what is she up to?

    1. Stuart says:

      yeah, we usually see each other every week. she’s doing good! – see the latter verses of “nobody’s empire”

  12. Bill Arciprete says:

    Thank you for the wonderful story about the album cover. I’ve always felt that your covers looked more like book covers…giving the listener an idea of what lies within. Oh and of course thanks for with wonderful music too.

  13. Carolina says:

    You’re an amazing storyteller. Please keep them coming Stu! I love learning more about albums, songs, band and artwork, especially through your writings. Hope you both are not feeling sinister anymore!

  14. Lorraine says:

    I just wanted to say it does me so much good to hear this little glimpse into your recovery from illness. Having had ME/CFS badly until I was 23, it was a combination of many things which got me better in the end, but making art was such a big part of it. The desire to take my wee camera and go exploring nooks and crannies of the city was all that could get me out of bed some days, even if that meant I would need to spend all of the next day in it. In the end putting my whole self into making things is really what pushed me over the edge into being well and I’m so grateful for it.
    I don’t often like to think too much about those times now, but hearing someone else’s experience helps to take the sting from the memories. Thank you for sharing!

  15. erin bell says:

    my gosh. cock fun! thanks, i needed to hear that tonight. love this record, love the fond memories it brings to me. weirdly, ironically, i grew up in detroit, but dad was born on govan road in glasgow. i feel like have a familial bond with my all time favorite band. hearts!

  16. Peter Miller says:

    “Cock Fun” – massive missed opportunity

  17. Kristian Svensson says:

    Hey Stu, I remember hearing Oh get me away from here i’m dying on a late night car ride around 1996. I was a young musician more into making a lot of Nirvana noise haha, but i remember that moment vividly. For some reason it took me a decade to get into your music and when i finally did, i got real obsessed, ironically i fell ill at the same time and found out about your 7 year ordeal.. This was around 2006 and i remember reading your diary during that period was a real lifeline.. I see the entries only go back to 2010. I’d love to read some of them again. You have such a love for art, music and life it’s contagious. I heard you had some health issues this winter, hope you got/get better from that.

    It gives me great happiness to hear Ciara is doing great and being a mother of two! It’s a gray and dreary day here in Stockholm for a lot of reasons, this entry brought some spring to my heart though, i hope it spreads.

  18. iain mutch says:

    This is probably the best album of the ninetees.
    A little oasis(no pun meant) in the ghastly quagmire of boorish Brit pop.
    Coincided pleasantly with my arrival in Glasgow bang in the centre of the hallowed west end.without question the recorded grooves were deeply indebted.

    I had and still have a ferocious disdain for the serious minded bedsit know the ones who talk in earnest stilted capitals about things that matter.This record of course was high on their twee playlists but somehow transcended their narrow sonic parameters.
    Genius gifted and phantasmagorical .well out of step yet somehow paradoxically the zeitgeist.

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