Their singer is the mild-mannered janitor of his local church hall. The rest of the band (six in all) have never been pictured together. In a year-and-a-half, they’ve only managed to play 15 gigs. By rights, no-one should ever have heard of them. Yet last week, they were invited on Top Of The Pops.
This is the story of Belle & Sebastian; a Glaswegian group borne from obsession who now inspire devotion among thousands; a phenomenon comparable only to the advent of The Smiths in the mid-’80s; and a collection of seven of the most contrary and secretive people ever to make it into the Top 40.
The origins of their success can be traced to the slight form of Stuart Murdoch, a 29-year-old ex-choirboy and one-time boxer, who’d always dreamed of starting a band. In January 1996, after years spent leaving hopeful notes scrawled in the windows of music shops, he succeeded: Belle & Sebastian were formed, and, two months later, ‘Tigermilk’ (a debut album limited to 1,000 copies and financed by the local college) found its way on to national radio.
‘Tigermilk’ was a record that took everybody by surprise: a debut album that combined the urban romance of the Tindersticks with the brittle folk of Nick Drake; a wrenching collection of songs riddled with quiet humour and failed love; and an outsider’s Bible that addressed an audience long since neglected.
From the outset, Belle & Sebastian were different: Murdoch wrote all the songs but was reluctant to be interviewed and absolutely refused to be photographed (as did most of the band). As a result, they were forced to issue a series of perverse press shots of cuddly toys and ‘playful’ car-crash mock-ups. This on its own was enough to fuel imaginations, and their next album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ went on to sell over 15,000 copies.
Since then, a series of EPs have propelled them to even greater heights of popularity, culminating in their current release (the ‘3… 6… 9 Seconds Of Light’ EP) making the Top 40. All this time, NME has been desperately striving to interview them, only to be rebuffed at every turn. Seemingly, Belle & Sebastian were a principled anomaly, mavericks in the carefully-marketed world of modern music.
Then we met them…
Belle & Sebastian are both busy and prone to indecision As such, when we pull up in front of the Grosvenor Cafe in Glasgow’s West End (the apocryphal starting point for the band, and, oh yes, Del Amitri’s local), we can’t be sure who will be there.
One thing’s for certain, it won’t be guitarist Stevie Jackson. We’ve just seen him marching off in the opposite direction. Nor will it be the man responsible for all their songs to date bar one. Stuart Murdoch has now officially stopped doing interviews altogether, lest he overshadows the rest of the band. These days, the talking is done by whoever feels like it (which normally isn’t anyone, but today consists of drummer Richard Colburn and bassist Stuart David).
Or at least, that’s the idea. Actually, we only get both for about 30 seconds. Having posed for a few photos (which won’t come out because this is a particularly dingy cafe’), Richard hurries oft to check his car, which is parked on a double yellow line. This leaves us with Stuart, his friend. and not much time.
The friend is Neil Robertson; sometime manager, aspiring bassist and provider of moral support in the face of tricky questioning. As soon as we reach the table, he turns his tape recorder on. Or rather, he tries to. Unfortunately, his batteries are dead, so his plan for keeping a thorough check on NME fizzles out disappointingly. Stuart, meanwhile, has already started complaining.
“We don’t ask to be interviewed,” he rambles irritably. “I don’t know if our press officer goes looking for them, but we certainly don’t ask him to. We’re not out to get that sort of publicity.
“Having said that, I don’t mind having my picture taken, it’s just I don’t want to go out of my way. I’ve got a lot of things to do this afternoon, I’ve got some important shopping to do. I don’t want to spend any more time on band duties for a couple of weeks.”
Stuart falls silent and Neil flashes him a reassuring glance: it’ll be OK. It’s worth rioting that we haven’t actually asked a question yet. Fearful of what will happen if we do, we politely enquire as to why they object so much to interviews.
“Everyone in the band likes a good interview,” smiles Stuart, “but there are so many more bad ones than good ones, we all got fed up with doing them.”
Is that why Stuart (Murdoch) Stopped talking to the press?
“No, I think he just stopped because of pressure from some people in the band who didn’t like him getting all the attention. I personally think he should take more responsibility for his creative role. The rest of us only know how the band operates, why we do it and what our own input is, only he knows what he’s actually trying to say in his songs and what he does it for.”
The utter pointlessness of this conversation flashes briefly before us. Fortunately, with the time at 2.30pm, and with only another three-and-a-half hours to go until the shops close for the day, Stuart David makes his apologies and disappears out of the door in search of his important shopping.
He is immediately replaced by the ever genial Richard who, having avoided a possible traffic violation, now wishes to take us to a nearby studio to meet up with the rest of the band, some of whom may even be in the mood for light conversation. There is even talk of “photographic opportunities”…
Five minutes later, we find ourselves sitting in the waiting room of a disused church. What’s more, we’re in the presence of Stuart Murdoch. Not that’s he chatting to us, mind you, rather he’s looking on as the rest of his group – bar the two girls, Isobel Campbell (cello) and Sarah Martin (violin) – bicker about photos.
“I don’t want to do it,” declares the recently arrived Stevie. “I lust look stupid in photos.”
“I’ll do it,” volunteers Richard.
“I’ll be in it too,” adds the not-actually-in-the-band Neil.
“Well, I’m not going to be in it,” snorts Chris Geddes indignantly, before returning to his book (The A To Z Of Synthesizer Technology).
The pains of being principled are becoming more obvious by the minute. A suggestion that this is something of a fuss about nothing is met with withering glares. Stuart Murdoch insists that he’s strictly here to pack his equipment into a van and storms off into a different room. Finally, a compromise is reached: the whole band (bar Stuart, naturally, who will frizzle up and die if a camera is even waved in his general direction) agree to be photographed while they’re shifting their instruments out of the studio.
Slowly, we all troop down to the basement. The NME photographer is forced to stand in the rain for ten minutes and take occasional snaps of people with their heads obscured by amps. With much giggling, the task is completed, and Stuart Murdoch climbs into the driver’s seat and speeds off around the corner. Unsurprisingly, we don’t see him again.
Back in the waiting room, Richard offers to appear in a few posed shots In the main church. After some cajoling, Stevie agrees to join him, but only if he can play the banjo. While they’re gone, Chris confides that in the future the band are considering getting a friend to take one picture of them all playing live and forcing magazines to use that (“It’ll show us doing what we do”). We smile wanly, and begin to wonder whether our patience will hold out indefinitely.
It doesn’t. When we finally get Stevie, Richard and Chris huddled around the tape recorder, we demand to know why they insist on making such a big deal out of everything.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” declares an astonished Stevie.
“You’d been told in advance that you were allowed to come up and take pictures of two of the band and that’s what happened,” argues Chris. “Haven’t we got the right to say, ‘No’?”
We just have to indulge you, then?
“That’s up to you.”
“Anyway,” reasons Stevie, it was Radio 1 that made us, because they got sent a copy of ‘Tigermilk’ and played it all the time. We’ve been in the music press a few times, but… um, I don’t know, I just feel we were championed more by the radio.”
This, of course, is true. Belle & Sebastian’s career was given impetus by the radio, and they haven’t had to rely on the press since. A fact that seems to have endowed them with a sense of moral superiority. They know that they are a rarity: a band who owe their progress almost entirely to their own efforts and to the fact that their songs perfectly mirror the tribulations of a long-neglected section of the record-buying public. Stuart Murdoch’s songs are a rallying point for the disaffected. For the most part his characters are burdened with awful clothes and physical deformities, they’ve been bullied and spent their lives as victims and yet in these songs they’re treated as heroes. And for many people that’s undoubtedly their appeal.
“That’s fair enough,” admits Stevie.
“Maybe,” mutters Chris (whose favourite group is Primal Scream and isn’t overly keen on being portrayed as a softy). “Although, I like to think that most of the people who listen to us can see beyond ‘indie’ music, but I’m probably just kidding myself.
“We’re probably the last bastion of indie bedroom stuff to most people, I just don’t see it like that. I think we’ve got more in common with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section (legendary R&B backing band – Ed) than, say, The Smiths, and I honestly, honestly believe that…”
“The way we work we’re more like Sly & The Family Stone,” reveals Richard astonishingly.
Except wired on felt-tip pens rather than crystal meth. But anyway…
“The songs are all just about buses and school girls as far as I can make out,” offers Chris. “What else do you need to know?”
Well quite a lot actually.. it would be quite interesting to know why a 29-year-old man is writing in the style of a disaffected teenager for a start. unfortunately, in the absence of Stuart Murdoch, that (arguably the most interesting thing about Belle & Sebastian) is something we’re not destined to find out. Instead, as our time runs out, we’re treated to some jokes.
“Well, that’s his genius, isn’t it?” quips Chris. “He’s cornered that niche in the market. We sat in the pub one night, coked out of our brains and we thought, ‘Who can we sell this to?’…”
“Maybe we should put a parental advisory sticker on all our records,” suggests Richard. “‘Warning: this record might contain tweeness.’ Ha ha ha.”
It’s the last (half) sensible thing that they have to say. As they get up to leave we’re left wondering what we can make of a group that write such poignant and heart-wrenching songs, but act with such incredible self-indulgence.
From afar, their success looks like a triumph for principled actions, up close it looks like an accident of bad behaviour. After all, here is a band who seem to object to doing interviews and photographs simply because they can’t be bothered rather than because of any radical manifesto. It’s hardly punk rock. is it? Still, that’s their prerogative.
As for Stuart Murdoch, he claims he’ll never do another interview. In light of how his band presents itself in his absence, may we suggest he thinks again?
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