Belle and Sebastian were formed in an all-night café in Glasgow, January 1996. Stuart Murdoch (singer/songwriter) and Stuart David (bass guitar) met on a government-training scheme and recorded some demos, which were picked up by a Jeepster scout who was taking part in the Stow College Music Business Course. The course, run by ex-Associate Alan Rankine, produces and releases one record every year on the college label Electric Honey Records, usually a single. However in the case of Belle and Sebastian they had enough songs to record a whole album, and so the elusive Tigermilk was born. Recorded in three days and one thousand copies released on vinyl only, it now changes hands for up to £400 per copy.
Belle and Sebastian then signed to Jeepster in August and the critically acclaimed LP “If You’re Feeling Sinister” JPPRCD/LP/MC001) was released November 18th. The Support slot for the Tindersticks ICA Gigs, Followed by a headline show at the Borderline in early November brought the joys of Belle and Sebastian live to the south for the first time. The band then set about with the plan of spending the summer of 1997 releasing EP’s, the first of these being “Dog On Wheels” on 28th April. This release contained early demos of the band, previous to all the current members joining, including the demo version of “The State I Am In”. Mark Radcliffe had played the mastered Tigermilk version of this track relentlessly and for those without a copy of the vinyl masterpiece, the Dog EP (JPRCDS/12/7001) appeased the fans thirst enough to put the single in at Number 59 on the singles chart.
The second EP “Lazy Line Painter Jane”, was released on July 28th, the Week of the seminal Union Chapel gig in Islington, London. Despite the poor sound, the band had the crowd dancing in the aisles (and pews) of the chapel. For most, this gig was their first B&S gig and a religious experience was shared by all. The “Lazy Jane” EP narrowly missed the top 40, crashing in at number 41, much to Chris Geddes (keyboards) amusement, as he had made bets with Jeepster boss Mark Jones that it would not get in. The band played two more gigs on their mini tour of the south-west in Oxford and Colchester, preparing them for their American debut.
The “Sinister” LP had been licensed in North America by Virgin subsidiary label the enclave since February. Belle and Sebastian journeyed over to New York in September to take part in the CMJ (College Music Journal) festival. They played two gigs at the Angel Oransanz Foundation Centre For The Arts, an old chapel in Greenwich Village. The excitement levels were so high, parts of the ceiling decided to join the band onstage, as Belle and Sebastian – literally – brought the house down.
The band were also invited to play at the Barcelona BAM festival in late September. This time their venue was an ancient courtyard at the Plaza Del Rei, and under a starry moonlit sky, beneath the gaze of a thousand gargoyles they captivated, yet again, another audience.
“3..6..9 Seconds Of Light” was the last of the summer EP’s released on October 13th, and the music press finally realised just how important B&S are, when both the Melody Maker and the NME made it their single of the Week. Despite the lack of radio play, it became the bands’ first top 40 hit, debuting at number 32 on the charts.
1998 saw the release of “The Boy With The Arab Strap”, which became the biggest hit yet, hitting the charts at number 12, before disappearing without trace. The band disappeared too, but fortunately left a trace which led to the US and Europe on their first overseas tour.
Oh, and the band won “Best Newcomer” at The Brit Awards, much to the chagrin of Dennis Waterman, whose re-mix of “I Could Be So Good For You (Theme From Minder)” was deemed ineligible on grounds of being shit. However, Waterman’s tears turned to cheers the next year when he was presented with an honorary award for “Best Thing To Happen To Rula Lenska”.
The fourth single “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” was released, backed by the sublime “Slow Graffiti”.
1999 was a reasonably quiet year for the band. The only highlights were the re-release of “Tigermilk” and The Bowlie Weekender, Belle & Sebastian’s own festival. Held at Pontin’s Holiday Camp in Camber Sands, the festival featured Mercury Rev, Teenage Fanclub, Flaming Lips, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Mogwai and Broadcast among others, and spawned All Tomorrow’s Parties.
The rest of the year, and the first half of 2000 saw the band locked up in CaVa with Tony Doogan, recording the songs that would eventually make up B&S’ first Top Ten LP “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant”. The accompanying single “Legal Man” was a Top 15 hit, and gave the band their first “Top Of The Pops” appearance, and their first brush with the law. It was a riotous appearance that degenerated into a blur of monkey butlers and roses.
The ever-expanding B&S line-up had a bit of a blow when Stuart David departed to concentrate on Looper and writing books. But it’s alright. Playing the bass isn’t exactly rocket science.
The members of the band took the rest of the year off to concentrate on other projects; Bel’s Gentle Waves; Mick with The Amphetameanies; Beans and Stevie with V-Twin and Richard with Snow Patrol.
They reconvened in January 2001 to record some new songs, again with Doogan. The first of these, “Jonathan David”, was released as a single on June 18th 2001, becoming a minor hit in the UK and a major hit in Brazil. The band celebrated by playing a 13-date tour of the UK, as well as sell-out trips to the USA, Spain, Japan and Brazil. Having survived various gruesome tour initiation tests, “Belfast” Bobby Kildea was poached from V-Twin, joining the band as full-time bassist. He lacks the boy David’s dry, cutting wit, but is somewhat easier on the eye.
The second and final single of the year was called “I’m Waking Up To Us”, and was released in November 2002. It was the first time the band had collaborated with a producer; the producer in question being Mike Hurst, the man behind several great ’60s hits, and loads of dodgy ’80s stuff.
Large chunks of 2002 were also spent recording “Storytelling”, the soundtrack album to Todd Solondz’s film of the same name. As it turns out, a lot of the album doesn’t feature in the film, but the film at the very least, inspired all the music. Alright?
The rest of 2002 was spent on the road, or so it seemed, performing shows in the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, the USA, Canada, Norway, Germany, Greece, Portugal and Spain. Sadly there was another casualty along the way; Isobel was the next to falter, returning home midway through the US tour. She’d never tried to pretend the rock’n’roll life suited her, and the cons had started to outweigh the pros. So that was that.
Another significant change occurred, with the band leaving Jeepster Records. Times had changed for both parties and there was a mutual understanding that everyone would be better off trying something new. As far as B&S were concerned, that something new was Rough Trade Records. For Jeepster it was ceasing to release B&S records, in favour of a long-planned B&S DVD compilation.
One of the highlights of the year was in December, when B&S went to London to play at John Peel’s Christmas party. Some new songs were aired, and a drunken choir joined the band for some carols. For many though, the climax was a unique take on “The Twelve Days Of Christmas” where Richard finally got to do his bird impressions.
Which brings us to 2003. Barring any late changes of mind, Belle & Sebastian have completed their 6th studio album. Recorded in Sussex and London with ‘80s maestro Trevor Horn (Buggles, Yes, ABC, TATU, Frankie Goes To Hollywood), the album is the first to feature Bobby and not Isobel. There are plans, sure, there are plans. Some will happen, some won’t, and some kinda will and won’t. There will be a good deal of touring later in the year, but for now, August saw the band’s biggest ever headline shows in NYC, LA and San Fran. They weren’t sure whether Neil Diamond’s “Love at The Greek” was recorded in the LA or San Fran Greek Theatre, so they did both to be on the safe side.
The Jeepster “Fans Only” DVD was released in October 2003, and it tells the story of B&S 1996 – 2003 in a far more eloquent and entertaining way than this. There’s loads of unreleased and unseen footage – as well as a few dodgy haircuts – on there which should hopefully make you giggle as much as it did us.
In November 2003, the band released their first ever single from an album in the form of “Step Into My Office, Baby”. The video is in the style of the seventies “Confessions…” films and stars Richard as the Window Cleaner come Office Piece of Fluff. Graham Linehan – he of Father Ted fame – graciously accepted B&S’s request to write and direct the video, which instigated the biggest amount of back-slapping “Love your work” you could imagine.
The next 9 months were spent on the road, taking in two trips to Japan, two to America, the first visit to Australia plus the usual UK and mainland Europe jaunts. After playing some amazing outdoor venues around the world, the band desperately wanted to replicate the success of these shows in the UK and set about organizing a free show in the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow and two nights at Somerset House in London. Anticipating the usual Glasgow rain for a mid-summer June’s day, B&S branded Rain Mac’s were manufactured. This was duly noted by a higher power and Glasgow had it’s hottest day of the year, bringing 10,000 people out of the tenements to enjoy the sunshine. The Somerset House shows in July were just as special, the setting within a beautiful London courtyard and a fabulous light show rivaling the best headline performances at the festivals.
The release of “I’m A Cuckoo” from DCW in February 2004 saw B&S enjoying unprecedented radio play, and their biggest UK hit to date with a number 14 smash. The EP was also memorable for the first-ever B&S remix; Australian mavericks’ Avalanches unique take on “I’m A Cuckoo” which has to be heard to be believed. “Wrapped Up In Books” was released as a AA-side with new track, the epic “Your Cover’s Blown”, as the final album single in June, netting the group their 3rd Top 20 hit.
The success of the “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” album and singles led to B&S being nominated for both the Mercury Music Prize and the Ivor Novello Award, but failing to win either. More oddness was to be experienced in November when Trevor Horn threw a party/concert to celebrate his 25 years in the business and asked B&S to perform. The band finally threw off their indie shackles and shared a stage with Pet Shop Boys, ABC, Grace Jones, Seal, Yes and Frankie Goes To Hollywood! Highlight? Probably Stuart inadvertently addressing the “I’ve got no claims to your crown” line of “I’m A Cuckoo” to Prince Charles, who was watching from sidestage. And catching Camilla stealing the rider when we were watching Yes.
2004 ended with the band back in Glasgow, ensconced in the studio, writing the next album, ‘The Life Pursuit’, which was recorded in California in Summer 2005 and released in February 2006. In the meantime, a double-CD, triple-LP compilation of all the Jeepster EP’s and singles called “Push Barman To Open Old Wounds” was released on May 23rd 2005.