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?
Belle and Sebastian are one of the newer names in the frame. Hailing from “Bonnie Scotland”, they are the most reticent of potential superstars, stating that they dislike appearing in their photos.
Well, that’s something we have in f***ing common! Because I most definately dislike you appearing in you f***ing photos! I put that f***ing page in last week’s Maker in the bottom of my budgie’s cage and now it’s so f***ing traumatised, its feathers have fallen out and it keeps hopping from perch to perch squawking “F***ing hell! F***ing hell!” in a markedly stressful manner! You’re as ugly as both ends of a two-arsed sausage dog! Belle & Sebastian? Bull & Shit, more like!
It started with an obsessive search for Lawrence Felt but BELLE AND SEBASTIAN have finally found their own feet. And now they’re tripping the light fantastic.
To the casual observer, the boy sitting in the bar of the CCA in Glasgow is just another art student enjoying a quiet night out with friends. But the way the other drinkers look at him suggests something is out of the ordinary. They stare in embarrassed awe and, every so often, someone comes up to wish him good luck for his next gig. People are excited, but they’re trying not to show it.
The boy is Stuart Murdoch and he’s the creative core of Belle And Sebastian -the best Scottish band to emerge this decade. On the internet and in the bedsits of the nation, the 28-year-old’s music is worshipped for its romance, charm and sensitivity, while hoards of hardened gig goers have been losing their hearts to songs with the grace and panache of The Go-Betweens, Orange Juice, Love and Pulp combined. The thing is, three years before, the self same boy was lost and alone, a directionless nobody searching for inspiration. He was a man in need of help.
“I set myself a task to find Lawrence from Felt,” Stuart begins. “He’d made wonderful music and it was the only music that would absorb me 100 per cent and I admired him for that. So I went to London, but I never managed to track him down. It’s quite pathetic really, but have you ever felt at a total loose end and nothing’s happening and you think someone has the answer or at least you’d like to pass the time of day with them? That’s exactly how I felt.”
Stuart returned to Glasgow without encouragement from Lawrence but with the feeling that it’s best to confront your inadequacies in your hometown and soon found a creative outlet – writing artful short stories and perfect songs. He then recorded the debut Belle And Sebastian LP as part of a music business course and recruited his seven-strong band in an all-night cafe, selecting people on instinct, trusting natural justice. This time it worked.
“I used to go up to strangers in the street and ask them to be in a band, with me,” smiles Stuart. “It’s embarrassing. I eventually decided to stop when I saw people crossing the street with hunted looks on their faces. It was sleazy.”
With the full band in place, Stuart recorded “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, which caused everyone from The Sunday Times to The Face to froth at the mouth and proclaim its majesty. Songs such as “Stars Of Track And Field” and “Judy And The Dream Of Horses” managed to weave intelligence and empathy into things of rare beauty. Some amazed critics were moved to talk in terms of poetry.
“I find poetry a difficult word to throw around,” Stuart says. “Poetry is usually pish, but it can be something special beyond everyday expression. Great words almost always reduce me to tears, because, compared to what’s normally going on around you, it’s a relief to know that beauty can exist.
I remember hearing “City Sickness” by Tindersticks and feeling elated, and very jealous.” Fittingly, B & S supported Tindersticks at last year’s ICA residency. For many, this was the first chance to see the band they’d heard in session on Mark Radcliffe and to check out the man who’d written the line “My brother had confessed that he was gay, It took the heat off me for a while” in the gorgeous “The State I Am In”.
“That was a dream,” Stuart explains. “I remember being totally absorbed by ‘Lolita’ and thinking, ‘The author is a perv, why isn’t he in prison?’ And I was amazed to learn the ‘I’ wasn’t a real person. The same applies here. The ‘I’ in the songs are little shades of me and characters”.
Is the same true of “Seeing Other People”, which seems to be from a male gay perspective?
“Of all our songs that’s the most autobiographical. It isn’t written from any perspective. It’s just me”.
There are plenty of other intriguing ideas covered in Stuart’s songs, ranging from murder fantasies to clinical depression, although by far the most common theme is a sense of spirituality. No surprise, considering Stuart’s background.
“I go to church and sing in our choir. I enjoy it, but it seems crappy to get up at 9am on a Sunday morning to rehearse. But you do it and suddenly it becomes the only worthwhile thing in your life. I really think being aware of my spirituality is a privilege. Some bands are better when they live in their own unique dreamworld.”
Belle And Sebastian are a gem, a delight, a privilege. Cherish them.
Belle & Sebastian are the product of botched capitalism – discuss.
“Well,” says Stuart Murdoch, “on my back-to-work training scheme, in a recording studio, instead of learning to use studio equipment or play bass like him out of Level 42, everyone used to play computer golf all day. And one girl would try and hit the ball as far out as possible. She said she was trying to find a wee village. “Rhoda” is kind of about her.”
To rewind a bit: Belle & Sebastian are a seven-strong group from Glasgow, led by the wispily-voiced Murdoch; the “botched capitalism” bit comes from the endlessly entertaining sleevenotes to their second album, “If You’re Feeling Sinister”; and the song “Rhoda” comes from their imminent EP, “Dog On Wheels”. B&S are the missing link between Nick Drake, Jarvis Cocker, and a small boy with a plastic synthesizer and toy trumpet. Last year they released two albums – with the first, the 1000-edition, vinyl-only “Tigermilk” now worth top dollar to anoraks who like, well, music by anoraks. As with B&S’s charmingly shambolic live outings, the songs seem the work of seven people living collectively in a dusty shed.
“We’re not a collective, we’re a combo,” states Chris Geddes, keyboard player and – you betcha – flares fanatic.
“Collectives shamble but combos rock,” he adds.
Obviously, it’s not the average band photo. The drummer lies, eyes shut, on the road in front of a car. The bassist crouches over him, looking deeply concerned. the other five members of BELLE AND SEBASTIAN are nowhere to be seen.
Hardly surprising, really, when one considers that no ‘proper’ photos of the whole Glasgow band actually exist and that their official press shot is of a girl who’s not even in the group. They even try and talk the hapless NME snapper to take a picture without them in it. The awkward, pretentious bastards.
But then Belle And Sebastian are an awkward, pretentious and really rather good band: gentle. lilting acoustics recalling the very finest moments of Nick Drake and Love, and with a fascinating undercurrent of surreal Lewis Carroll and biblical imagery. Appropriately, they play church halls, houses, and large municipal libraries. And cafes. In fact, it was during a philosophical hanging-out session at a local coffee house that they were conceived.
“What we’re doing couldn’t be termed ‘rock’ in any sense of the word,” says soft-spoken founder Stuart Murdoch. Accurately. “I’d been advertising to fulfil my musical criteria for years and fulfilling sod-all. Then, suddenly, I had a band of seven people that I could never have wished for. I don’t know where they came from.”
Astounding! The arrival of Isobel Campbell (cello), Richard Colburn (drums), Stuart David (bass), Sarah Martin (violin), Chris Geddes (keyboards) and Stevie Jackson (guitar) meant that Murdoch could finally put his deeply ingrained ideas into practice. First, he’d teach these people to transfer the orchestral, swooping melodies in his head on to vinyl. Then he’d release one super-limited LP (“Tigermilk”) and follow it swiftly with another (the new and sumptuous “If You’re Feeling Sinister”). Then they’d split up… What?
“We’ll go on for another few months before the stress becomes unbearable,” he deadpans. “It would all become unmanageable if we thought that we had become full-time professional musicians. We’re anxious to make this a reflection of our lives rather than our life itself”.
So “If You’re Feeling Sinister” contains glorious peeks into Murdoch’s past and present. A past of writing short stories, venerating athletes from the bathtub (“Stars Of Track And Field”) and a present of working in a church hall (the title track). Stuart, however, remains cautious:
“I have a list of desert island discs sown into the lining of my underpants, just in case I get run over and they have to read it out posthumously.”
Look out. This talent needs protection.
“Beauty should be incongruous.”
Someone said that but I can’t remember who.
Belle and Sebastian are swans in traffic, a sunrise at dusk. Sweetly surprising and suprisingly sweet. Maybe they sound like Tindersticks, maybe not. They never grew up, it’s always summer in their world, but there are shadows of regret there, too. There are seven of them. Four met over milkshakes in a cafe full of surfers, and talked about Ladybird books, Daley Thompson, Orange Juice and The Go-Betweens, who probably aren’t influences. One wore an earring and had a cagoule draped over his slight frame. One had daises in her hair. The third on was waiting on his nail polish drying. The fourth one said this:
“Stuart just puts himself in the first person of a girl and writes compassionately about himself.”
But he writes women well.
“How would you know?”
Touche. Where do you see the band going?
“New York, London, Edinburgh, San Francisco…”
“We’re going to become more liberal.”
The least conservative and prettiest band in Britain.
I said that. Why don’t you believe me.
Jamie T Conway