BELLE AND SE­BAS­TIAN

Exclaim! - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY ALEX HUD­SON

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.”

1996

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.”

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