BELLE AND SEBASTIAN
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN’S CAREER IS THE ULTIMATE UNDERDOG STORY. When they formed in Glasgow in the mid-’90s, they were a group of misfits and wallflowers, led by a sickly frontman whose chronic fatigue illness left him with barely enough energy to perform their sensitive indie pop tunes — outliers in a British rock industry dominated by laddish bravado. They grew from a cult phenomenon into a commercially viable pop powerhouse as their ramshackle tunes became polished and sleek, and their live performances went from reserved to flamboyant. This winter, the band are releasing a series of three EPs called How to Solve Our Human Problems. We look back on their rise from outsiders to icons.
1968 to 1987
Stuart Lee Murdoch is born on August 25, 1968 in Clarkston, a suburb of Glasgow, Scotland. His favourite music is hard rock, particularly AC/DC and Thin Lizzy, and he falls in love with prog band Yes. He studies physics at Glasgow University, but his interest in school dwindles as he becomes obsessed with music, and moonlights as a roadie, DJ and record store employee. All of these pursuits are interrupted when he falls ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
1988 to 1993
Due to his chronic fatigue, Murdoch drops out of school and moves back in with his parents, beginning a seven-year period in which he is too ill to hold a job. He sometimes goes alone to a dance club on Saturday nights or works a shift in a pub, and he spends a week recovering after these outings. He sells his record collection to fund a trip to San Francisco in 1993, where he nurtures a budding interest in songwriting and learns to play guitar.
1994 to 1995
As Murdoch gradually recovers from his illness, he joins a government-funded course in Glasgow for unemployed musicians called Beatbox. There, he meets aspiring bassist Stuart David. Murdoch and David have access to a recording studio as part of their Beatbox program, so they recruit fellow students to back them for a session. They record four songs (one of them titled “Belle and Sebastian”), and Murdoch distributes the tape under the name Rhode Island. This EP will become the earliest official Belle and Sebastian recording when it’s released in 1997 as Dog on Wheels.
David is roommates with Richard Colburn, a former semi-professional snooker player who is enrolled in a music business course at nearby Stow College. He joins Rhode Island on drums, although he doesn’t own a kit and plays ornamental bongos during rehearsals. His music business class at Stow selects Rhode Island as the subject for a project, in which the students will promote a release for a local unsigned band through their student-run label, Electric Honey. Murdoch nearly turns down Electric Honey’s offer for a recording session, because he’s planning to move to San Francisco, but he decides to stay and focus on his burgeoning group.
Murdoch recruits new bandmates Stevie Jackson on guitar and Chris Geddes on keyboards. On New Year’s Eve, 1995, Murdoch is at a party when he meets 19-year-old cellist Isobel Campbell. Murdoch says, “She didn’t see how a girl like her could ever play a part in pop music. Somebody who didn’t have a great voice, who was pretty sensitive, who didn’t want to write about macho things. But of course, I was exactly the same, especially around that time, so we gelled immediately.”
Murdoch begins rehearsing his songs with his bandmates separately. Although the full group, now going by Belle and Sebastian, have seldom been in the same room together, they already have interest from the fledgling Jeep- ster Records label by the time they enter CaVa Sound studio in March. They have five days in the studio, during which they transform from a loose collective into a full-blown band. They record nine tender-hearted folk-pop songs; the standout is “The State I Am In,” which perfectly captures Murdoch’s signature mix of sacred and saucy.
Murdoch intends the album to be self-titled, but he names it Tigermilk after shooting a cover photo showing his then-girlfriend Joanne breastfeeding a stuffed tiger. Electric Honey’s vinyl pressing of 1,000 sells out quickly, and
Tigermilk soon becomes legendary, since it won’t be reissued in any format until 1999. They garner interest from major labels, but only Jeepster is willing to accommodate their unusual demands, which include not appearing in press photos and not including radio singles on LPs. “There was that period of protectionism, where I was trying to protect the precious thing, which was this working group of eight people, this group of friends,” Murdoch says.
Murdoch takes a job as the caretaker of Hyndland Parish Church in exchange for free rent at the church’s apartment. Before
Tigermilk is even released, Murdoch continues writing at a feverish pace, and the band rehearse regularly in the church hall, now with violinist Sarah Martin. By the spring, Murdoch has already composed another album with even better songs.
They spend eight days making If You’re Feeling Sinister, capturing nearly everything live-off-the-floor, including vocals, resulting in a twee pop sound that’s similar to Tigermilk, but rhythmically tighter and with comparatively nuanced arrangements. Murdoch takes a photo of his friend (and fellow chronic fatigue sufferer) Ciara MacLaverty for the album cover; she is still his best friend.
If You’re Feeling Sinister comes out on Jeepster in November, five months after the debut. Although the band members initially believe that Sinister isn’t as good as Tigermilk, it becomes a cult smash, later ending up on bestof-the-decade lists. Murdoch and Campbell begin dating, and it isn’t long before the group are plagued with internal strife. “It was kind of disastrous,” Murdoch says of the romance. “I should have been more responsible towards her — she was pretty young, after all. I just wasn’t very good at relationships after having been this isolated person for so long.”
1997 to 1998
Belle and Sebastian continue to play live only sporadically. They lay down an album’s worth of new material, but split it up into a series of EPs. Lazy Line Painter Jane comes out in summer 1997, and features a stunning six-minute title track with guest singer Monica Queen. David shifts into a role as a “non-playing” member by narrating a spoken track called “A Century of Elvis.” Three months later, 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light follows, and This Is Just a Modern Rock Song arrives the next year.
Murdoch was previously B&S’s chief creative force and sole songwriter, but he begins soliciting contributions from his bandmates. “People were getting really bored with doing my songs,”
he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘If I’m going to keep this ragtag bunch together then I’ve got to throw them a bone.’”
While previous LPs were recorded in days, their next one takes months, with sessions taking place first in a church hall and then at CaVa. “It was a very unsettling time,” Jackson says of the drawn-out recordings sessions. “Things became open-ended and for me, just a lot less focused, a bit rudderless.” Trumpet player Mick Cooke, who contributed to past albums as a session musician, joins as an official member, and they sign to Matador in North America.
The Boy With the Arab Strap comes out in September, 1998. The Murdoch-penned title track is a tribute to fellow Scottish band Arab Strap, whose hard-partying singer Aidan Moffat inspires lines about “drinking from noon until noon again.” Murdoch assumes that Arab Strap will be happy for the publicity, but Moffat is upset that his band name was hijacked, and it causes a rift between the singers. Murdoch doesn’t discover until much later that an “Arab strap” is a sex toy, and his parents are embarrassed after he gives them a gold record.
1999 to 2000
Tigermilk is finally remastered and issued on CD for the first time. The band win a BRIT Award for Best Newcomer, and they host their own music festival in England called Bowlie Weekender, featuring performers like the Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney, Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This event later evolves into a curated festival series called All Tomorrow’s Parties.
The band spend a fraught year working on the next album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, a title that Murdoch takes from a piece of graffiti spotted in the washroom at Glasgow University. The unfocused recording sessions are characterized by intraband conflict, and Murdoch says, “Things were kind of falling apart, but the foundations for something new were forming.”
Fold Your Hands comes out in June, 2000. With its flowery string sections and democratic division of songwriting duties, the quality is uneven, and Murdoch later acknowledges in a blog post that this LP ushers in the band’s “much-maligned mid-period.” The stress of making the album causes Murdoch’s chronic fatigue to return, and group activity grinds to a halt while he recovers. “I couldn’t do any promotion or any gigs. In a sense, it really killed our momentum,” he says.
Fold Your Hands becomes their first Top 10 album in the UK, while the ’60s psych imitation “Legal Man” becomes their most successful single so far when it reaches #15 on the UK singles chart. David leaves B&S to focus on his electronic band Looper and his budding career as a novelist.
2001 to 2002
The group work on a soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s 2001 dramedy Storytelling, and the director flies them to New York to watch an early cut. Only six minutes of Belle and Sebastian’s music appears in the film, but they release the soundtrack album, Storytelling, which receives the worst reviews of the band’s career.
Murdoch and Campbell aren’t on speaking terms, and their breakup inspires the vicious single “I’m Waking Up to Us.” When the band perform the track on Later… with Jools Holland, Campbell delivers a spoken-word rebuttal to Murdoch’s lyrics during the instrumental break. Campbell quits the band in the midst of their North American tour. Her departure eases tensions in the group, and Jackson later tells
Pitchfork, “There was this feeling that everyone in the group wanted to be there. We had never really felt that before. Suddenly everything was all right, and we could actually be constructive.”
2003 to 2005
Jeepster Records runs out of money, and the band sign to Rough Trade and completely overhaul their DIY sensibilities: they now tour regularly, grant interviews, and begin including their singles on LPs. Dear Catastrophe Waitress returns the group to the peak of their creative powers, with a slick, expansive sound that draws heavily on retro
We lost a lot of the original fans when I stopped being miserable.
AM pop and features prominent Motown-style horns. It’s a surprisingly upbeat pop album from the previously melancholic group, and Murdoch later tells The New York Times Maga
zine, “We lost a lot of the original fans when I stopped being miserable.”
Jeepster cashes in on B&S’s success by releasing some retrospective material: the 2003 DVD
Fans Only contains live footage and behind-thescenes material, and the 2005 compilation Push
Barman to Open Old Wounds collects all of their non-album singles and EPs.
While out for a run, Murdoch composes a song called “God Help the Girl” in his head, and he starts a side-project in which he will act as a songwriter for a cast of female singers. He puts a “wanted” ad in a local Glasgow newspaper that reads, “Girl singer needed for autumnal recording project. Must have a way with a tune.” He recruits a few contributors for the project and, after a few months of auditions, he finds Canadian-born Irish singer Catherine Ireton as the lead voice for the nascent project, which he plans to be a musical film.
2006 to 2007
Belle and Sebastian complete a new album called The Life Pursuit in Hollywood with notable pop-rock producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air, Phoenix), who encourages the group to deconstruct and rearrange the songs to maximize their upbeat punch. They capture 18 tracks and consider releasing a double album, but they whittle it down to 13 songs, with a few tracks borrowed from Murdoch’s still-ongoing project for female singers. The Life Pursuit doubles down on the shiny pop style of Dear Catastrophe Waitress, with even more accessible songs, and is an even greater commercial breakthrough.
2008 to 2009
Murdoch returns to his femalefronted songwriting project, now called God Help the Girl; they release a self-titled album. The LP is billed as a soundtrack for a planned musical film, although it’s impossible to discern any coherent plot. The album’s throwback girl group sound and lush orchestrations earn positive reviews, and a followup EP called Stills arrives just a few months later.
2010 to 2012
The group reunite with producer Hoffer in Los Angeles for Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, which tones down the accessible pop energy of recent albums while still maintaining their AM radio smoothness. The sleepy duet “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” features Norah Jones, who records her singing face-to-face with Murdoch in the vocal booth. The song also appears on Jones’ duets album …Featuring Norah Jones.
The band grant fewer interviews and play fewer live shows, hoping to release the album quietly and allow fans to discover it without preconceived notions. This plan is spoiled when the album leaks several weeks before its release date, and Murdoch writes an angry message on Belle and Sebastian’s blog saying that the band might switch to self-releasing records digitally.
Murdoch finally finishes his God Help the Girl screenplay and films the movie in Glasgow after raising funds on Kickstarter. The film is about a young woman named Eve who is hospitalized with anorexia and uses songwriting as a way to get better. She leaves the hospital and forms a band — a plot that closely mirrors Murdoch’s experience battling chronic fatigue in the ’90s.
2013 to 2015
While on tour in Spain, Murdoch falls ill, triggering a relapse in his chronic fatigue; it takes him a year to recover. God Help the Girl premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2014, where it wins a Special Jury Prize. Despite this initial success, the film earns mixed reviews.
Belle and Sebastian go to Atlanta to record with producer Ben H. Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Animal Collective, M.I. A.). The five-year break between albums is the band’s longest ever, and Murdoch tells Exclaim!, “In that time the record company sort of lost interest in us, and our publishers, our managers left us; everything came to a halt.” Their North American label Matador Records handles the worldwide release of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, which is influenced by Detroit techno and Giorgio Moroder.
2016 to 2018
While driving through North Dakota on a North American tour, the group stop at a Wal-Mart and accidentally forget Richard Colburn in the store. Without a phone or wallet and wearing his pyjamas, the drummer waits for four hours until his bandmates realize their mistake and arrange for him to fly to the next show.
Belle and Sebastian begin working on new music in Glasgow without their label’s knowledge. Instead of recording in a consolidated session with a producer, they decide to capture songs quickly, as soon as they are written. They announce How to Solve Our Human Problems, three EPs to be released in instalments throughout the winter of 2017/2018. The project is largely self-produced, and Murdoch admits, “Some of the band were a little bit nervous about it, because they told me afterwards, the last time we did it ourselves we lost a couple of members.”
The band hit the road in support of How to Solve Our Human Problems. “It’s like a marriage that just takes time to mature,” Jackson says of the group’s journey. “For the beautiful state we’re in just now, we’ve earned it. It was confusing at the time, but now it’s all good.”