INTERVIEW

TELL ME ABOUT IT: At Primavera Sound, Sam Walton met the Belle & Sebastian band leader to let him do the talking about the history of his group and how ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ caused him grief

STUART-MURDOCH

All bands change. Even the ones that don’t claim they do with each successive album cycle. However, some seem doomed to be defined by one aesthetic (often their initial one), no matter how hard they try to re-spot their skin, and retain in the public consciousness a certain unshakable flavour. For better and worse, Belle & Sebastian remain one of those bands, forever associated with their first three albums that are now almost canonical, alongside the mysterious anonymity that they cultivated to accompany them, free from press release biographies, tell-all interviews and officially sanctioned photographs. Despite those recordings belonging to a different age – a 1990s halcyon period where the nascent internet was used only by nerdy university students and weirdos who blogged for niche satisfaction – Belle & Sebastian’s image persists as that of a twee, shambling, almost parodically indie group that might sing about grazed knees and kittens. Yet in 2015, they appear high on festival bills, sell out arena shows and make records unapologetically full of sheen, disco insouciance and sex, lovingly free of the wilful cack-handedness and timidity that blighted their earlier selves at their worst.

Before their performance at one of said festivals, Barcelona’s Primavera Sound, Stuart Murdoch took a moment to look back, 20 years into their existence, and work out where and why everything might’ve changed.

In the early days, we’d play certain places and people would be like, “really? Them?”

And perhaps that was why it was great. Back then, we just bumbled along. Our live prowess didn’t get us anywhere, we didn’t suck any media cock, we didn’t play the NME game, we didn’t do any of that. It was the records that were getting us there and our little word of mouth reputation. But it was fun – we’d play certain places, and we’d show up and people would be like, “really?” And we tried to keep that going. We realised that we could use this opportunity to do something fun and exciting and take our audience somewhere different. And with that extended philosophy we came up with things like the Bowlie Weekender to try and do something new, and give people an interesting place to go to. That was great fun.

Everything changed for the band after ‘Fold Your Hands…’

In 2001, we left Jeepster, Stuart and Isobel left the band, Bob came in, we signed to Rough Trade, all within about a year. Isobel did actually hang on for longer than Stuart, but philosophically she left the band at that point: she showed up, but never spoke to me for a year and a half while we were playing shows, so it was just a matter of time for her really – even though we tried to accommodate her.

But it was a specific change of philosophy that we had at that point. The gigs were a disaster, I didn’t enjoy them, and it was tough: it was pretty much a 50/50 shot every time we showed up whether it would be a shambles, and it’s alright bumbling along and having a good time – you can confound expectations and stick your fingers up at the industry – but the real reasons for that behaviour weren’t just rebellion: they were because for the first four or five years, nobody had actually agreed to be in a band. Stuart [David] wanted to be a non-playing member and write books; and Isobel swore that as soon as she finished college she was going to throw her weight in, but then she went and got a job instead! Meanwhile, the other half of the band were trying to be supportive: the likes of Stevie and Mick were pushing for us to get more professional, and they very generously hung on, Richard as well, while the rest of us pissed around with our sedition, with our fingers up at the music industry. But it was a disaster really: nobody had agreed to do it, while I kept on coming up with half a dozen songs every week.

And so I was absolutely caught in the middle: I think maybe I was trying to be too diplomatic and hold this disparate bunch of people together when everybody’s aspirations were personal and different. And then I got really ill – again: we staggered to the end of ‘Fold Your Hands…’ as this dysfunctional rabble, and I had to take a year off because I had ME again through all the stress of trying to hold the band together.

Then, when I took the time off, I suddenly realised, “what are you doing? This could be so easy” – I had a moment of clarity, basically. And everything after that was like falling out of bed: those guys left, the people who wanted to be in the band stayed in the band, we planned a proper tour, got a proper crew together, Bob joined the band, everything came together and we never looked back. And okay, we’ve become a more conventional band, although we do still try to remain reasonably unconventional and appeal to unconventional people.

I had a premonition at the start that we were going to reach out to a certain kind of person who hadn’t been reached out to since The Smiths

Possibly that relationship with the fans has changed [since ‘Fold Your Hands…’], but the whole thing at the start of the group – and I don’t want to exaggerate too much – it was lightning in a bottle. We were different, and when people started showing up to gigs who weren’t our friends and neighbours, it was immensely pleasurable. From then on we were quietly confident, and we just let it run, and we loved what those guys from the Sinister mailing list were doing on the fledgling internet – they were giving two fingers to the press and the zeitgeist of the time, quietly, in the same way we were. But after we played that one tour in 2001, where we started to play properly and all the freaks had been able to come out to see us, after that it was different. They’d seen us, and then we had to earn our spurs as a working band.

That possibly changed the way our audience interacted with us. Right through the 2000s though, personally, I had a really nice relationship with the fans. I wrote my online diary and we had quite a substantial Q&A section that we kept furnishing all the time. But even though a lot’s changed now – we’re a decent-sized band playing festivals and all that – I think I do sometimes still feel like an outsider. The way that I speak to you now, or the way that I address people online, is the same as ever: I’m always writing to the freaks. I’m always addressing the Belle & Sebastian fan, who I know to be super non-prejudiced, super liberal people, and some of the nicest people I know. So when I got called out like that [by a sloppy Pitchfork article that accused Belle & Sebastian of “perpetuating Whiteness through indie rock” and Murdoch’s film, God Help The Girl, as serving “a microcosmic view of what is wrought by racial exclusivity that is omnipresent in indie rock”], it was actually a bit of a surprise to me. It did make me think that no matter what I could’ve said in response, I would’ve gotten abuse. But I got so much abuse: I mean, I put those couple of tweets out [Murdoch replied on Twitter, “I wish I was in a band that looked like the Brazil team in the ’70s, but we formed in Glasgow.” and “God knows I’ve yearned to know and love women and men of many nations, but being a poor sick white boy from Scotland has dashed my ambitions”], and it didn’t matter what you thought of the girl who wrote the article – I was the bad guy because I was the guy in power. There were people calling me a racist cunt, really going for it, for weeks afterwards.

‘Tigermilk’ I was perfectly happy about, but ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ caused me so much grief at the time

Because I thought I’d made a mistake in rushing the band when it wasn’t really a band. I wanted it to sound like ‘Tapestry’. I wanted it to sound like ‘Court and Spark’ and I didn’t know that you don’t get that richness or that sound unless you’ve been playing together for a while, and even then it’s all about production and knowing what you’re doing in the studio. So I was struggling with that with the early records. I’m so happy that people seem to like those records so much, though. I mean, I know the songs are strong – I know that because I remember feeling that at the time. They were so precious to me – I felt that – and I appreciate that the fans felt that too, so I wouldn’t change a thing there. But as with everything in life, at some point you have to move on. If you think about terrific bands of the past – The Beatles and The Smiths come to mind because The Beatles were only around for six or seven years, and The Smiths were even less – those guys never looked back. Those guys were just hot, they were reinventing the wheel with every record and that’s the important thing – you’re like a shark, you’ve got to keep swimming, as Woody Allen would have it. I mean, we’re 20 years in now and we’re a working band: we’ve never split up, we’re basically the same people, just trying to make better music, trying to take what happens in our lives and putting it on records.

The title ‘Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance’ has something political to it, sure.

But I didn’t plan that title thinking about politics. News and politics make me think inasmuch as it makes everybody think, because you can’t escape it. But if the record is 1% political then it’s 80% spiritual. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to speak about politics too much – the language of politics is economics, and me talking about politics would be like trying to play chess without knowing the moves. But I feel more qualified to talk about spirituality: I don’t care if anybody criticises me because I know it’s my faith, and it’s a personal adventure through life. You can take any of those new songs, like ‘Cat With The Cream’, or ‘Allie’ and sure, politics is rubbing up against the characters’ lives, but I try to take a step back and see this big cloud of spirituality, whether it’s Buddhism or God or something, that’s having a much greater effect on the character or the way that I see the them. I’m always drawn to art, whether that’s paintings or books or music, that give a little hint that the writer’s thinking about spirituality. It’s a huge dimension for me.

I was invited on Question Time just before the Scottish Referendum

But at the last minute they realised that my opinions were too close to those of Ricky Ross from Deacon Blue who was already booked. Which is funny, obviously, but also fair enough – I realise how these things work. It was because back in the past I’ve always said I was against nationalism, which I am, and that was enough for the programme-makers to be convinced that I was coming out in favour of the No campaign, whereas, in fact, over the period of the year leading up to the vote I’d changed to supporting Yes. The programme needed a No person – and I’m a Yes kind of guy.

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