Belle and Sebastian: From Twee Outsiders to Pop Icons
Published Mar 19, 2018Belle 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. They were outliers in a British rock industry dominated by laddish bravado.
But over time, they grew from a cult phenomenon into a commercially viable pop powerhouse. Their ramshackle tunes have become polished and sleek, and their live performances have gone from reserved to flamboyant. Although they've never dominated the charts, they've sustained a 22-year career and continue to sell out theatres around the world.
This winter, the band are releasing a series of three EPs — a throwback to their early days, when they confounded label expectations by releasing non-album singles. As the group go about issuing the three instalments of 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. The middle child, with an older sister and younger brother, he spends much of his childhood in Alloway, a quiet suburb of the coastal town of Ayr that's best known as the birthplace of poet Robert Burns. His parents force him to take piano lessons and, as a preteen, he forms a band called the Kintyre Keynotes with some school friends. They play instrumental Beatles covers at a few local events. His favourite music is hard rock, particularly AC/DC and Thin Lizzy, and he falls in love with prog band Yes when his sister gives him an album for his 13th birthday. He wants to grow up to become an airline pilot, but this dream is crushed when an eye exam reveals that he's colour-blind. As a teenager, he has jobs driving a tractor on a farm and driving a delivery van.
Murdoch is interested in sports and, in 1986, he runs the Glasgow marathon. He studies physics at Glasgow University, but his interest in school dwindles as he becomes obsessed with music. He loves the Smiths and Felt, and he moonlights as a roadie, DJ and record store employee. All of these pursuits are interrupted in his third year of school when he falls ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
1988 to 1993
Due to his chronic fatigue, Murdoch is too weak to continue with school, so he drops out and moves back in with his parents and spends time in hospital, but there are no treatments and doctors aren't sure how to help him. This begins a seven-year period in which he is too ill to hold a job. "After the first year-and-a-half, my life had completely turned upside down and my perspective was upside down too," Murdoch tells Exclaim! now. "It was such a cliff."
During this time, music provides some solace, and he spends his limited energy playing piano. After three years at home, he returns to Glasgow and attempts an English degree, but he's still not healthy enough to finish school. 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 writes his first song, titled "There's No Holding Back."
He rediscovers his childhood Christian faith, attending church and joining the choir. He visits a spiritual healer who places her hands on his body for an hour, and he credits her with helping his recovery: "I actually got sicker for a few months, and I feel that was when the demons were being cast out," he'll tell The New York Times Magazine in 2009. Even after his health starts to improve, a minor virus like a cold will take months to recover from.
He sells his record collection to fund a trip to San Francisco for three months in 1993, where he nurtures a budding interest in songwriting and learns to play guitar. He travels with a fellow chronic fatigue sufferer named Michael, and they find that the California climate helps their condition. Michael is a classical guitarist, and during an outing to San Diego, they perform a small show under the name the Nabisco Cats. When he goes back Scotland, Murdoch sells more of his possessions and returns to San Francisco for another few months.
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. Along with another classmate, an S&M enthusiast named Alistair, they form a trio called Lisa Helps the Blind. Their first performance is at an afternoon open-mic at the Halt Bar, and Murdoch walks off mid-song when he can't hear his own vocals. Alistair eventually quits and Lisa Helps the Blind disbands. Murdoch briefly performs at open mics under the name the Bhangra Girls.
"The music was just to get me through the week," Murdoch says now. "It felt like I was clinging onto things with my fingernails. I'd been ill for so long that my psychological state was pretty ragged. Although music came to be recognized as this amazing gift later on, at that time I was just holding on to my sanity. Appearing in front of people, even at a little crowd on a Saturday afternoon in the pub, gave my life some sort of validity when there was really nothing else going on."
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 begins distributing the tape to magazines and radio stations under the name Rhode Island. He hitchhikes to London and goes to the BBC office in a failed attempt to give it to influential DJ John Peel. This EP will become the earliest official Belle and Sebastian recording when it's released in 1997 as Dog on Wheels.
Murdoch spends his free time working on a short story titled Belle and Sebastian, about an older boy who teaches a younger girl guitar. The title comes from a TV series about a boy (Sebastian) and his dog (Belle), which Stuart had watched as a child. The show is an adaptation of French author Cécile Aubry's novel Belle et Sébastien. Murdoch also signs up for a government-funded photography class, which gives him free film and a free bus pass. His bus trips become a way to get out of the house, and the people he sees during his trips inspire his character-based songs.
Stuart 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 to live illegally, but he decides to stay and focus on his burgeoning group.
Murdoch recruits new bandmates, including Halt Bar regular Stevie Jackson on guitar and Chris Geddes on keyboards. On New Year's Eve, 1995, Murdoch is in the line for the washroom at a party when he meets 19-year-old cellist Isobel Campbell. By this point, he has begun using the name Belle and Sebastian for his music, so he considers it a sign that Campbell sometimes goes by the name Bel. 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."
Stuart begins rehearsing his songs with his bandmates separately. Although the full group have seldom been in the same room together, they already have interest from the fledgling Jeepster Records label by the time they enter CaVa Sound studio in March. They have five days in the studio — three for recording, two for mixing — during which time they transform from a loose collective into a full-blown band. They record nine tender-hearted folk-pop songs for their debut, and also include a previous synth recording called "Electronic Renaissance." The standout track is "The State I'm In," which perfectly captures Murdoch's signature mix of sacred and saucy with lines like, "She was into S&M and bible studies." They will later look back on these early days as the group's golden period.
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. Tiger's Milk is also the name of a type of energy bar that he enjoyed while in San Francisco. 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. Original pressings begin selling for hundreds of pounds. They garner interest from all the major labels, but only Jeepster is willing to accommodate their unusual demands, which include not appearing in their own press photos and not including their 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. The minister is supportive of the group, and Murdoch gives him a white-label test pressing of Tigermilk, because he doesn't want the minister to see the risqué cover artwork. Before the debut is even released, Murdoch continues writing songs at a feverish pace, and the band rehearse regularly in the church hall, now with violinist Sarah Martin joining them. By the spring, Murdoch has already composed another album with even better songs. Just a couple months after Tigermilk's June release, they re-enter CaVa Sound to record the followup.
They spend eight days making If You're Feeling Sinister (five days for recording, three for mixing). They capture 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; over two decades later, she is still his best friend.
If You're Feeling Sinister comes out on Jeepster in November, just 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 best-of-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. "It was a car wreck, and I don't really come out of it looking great. 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, instead focusing on recording. 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. Stuart 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 sits in as a guest pianist for another Electric Honey session, as the class at Stow College have selected a young Scottish band called Polarbear for the latest project. Soon after, Polarbear change their name to Snow Patrol, and they continue to follow in B&S's footsteps by signing to Jeepster. They will eventually go on to achieve even greater mainstream success than Belle and Sebastian.
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.' So we did one of Isobel's songs and that was the start of it." This democratic approach sets the tone for future albums.
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," Stevie 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 the lineup as an official member, and the group sign to Matador in North America.
The Boy With the Arab Strap comes out in September, 1998. It features Jackson singing lead on the dreamy ballads "Seymour Stein" and "Chickfactor," David narrating the spoken word piece "A Space Boy Dream," and Campbell singing the sweetly salty "Is It Wicked Not to Care?" 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. Moffat will tell KindaMuzik in 2001 that the song "was based on a story that was in the tabloid press about an ex-girlfriend of mine. You can say what you want about me, but there was just no reason to involve her in the song at all."
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 for Arab Strap and the minister sees it hanging on the living room wall. He later tells NME in 2014, "I didn't realize it was a cock ring or whatever."
1999 to 2000
Tigermilk is finally re-mastered 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.
Despite outward signs of success, 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 intra-band conflict, and Murdoch says, "Things were kind of falling apart, but the foundations for something new were forming." He wants to take the band more seriously, and he clashes with Campbell over their busy schedule.
Fold Your Hands comes out in June, 2000. With its flowery string sections and democratic division of songwriting duties, the quality is uneven compared to past releases, and Murdoch later acknowledges in a blog post that this LP ushers in the band's "much-maligned mid-period." Still, the record has supporters; years later, the group run into Hollywood star Eva Mendes in an elevator, and she recognizes them and tells them, "Fold Your Hands is my life!"
The stress of making the album causes Murdoch's chronic fatigue to return, and group activity grinds to a halt for about six months while he recovers. "I couldn't do any promotion or any gigs. In a sense, it really killed our momentum," he says. He develops eczema, which he also blames on the stress of the album. To help manage the skin condition, he eventually cuts out dairy and alcohol. Despite these health-related struggles, he considers his early 30s to be a second adolescence. He'll later say, in the 2005 biography Just a Modern Rock Story, "Since maybe being 31-32, I honestly feel that my personality is more in line with what I felt when I was 12, which was a golden age for me."
The band are reaching new commercial peaks. 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. They perform the song on Top of the Pops, and the film High Fidelity features a scene in which the main characters argue about Belle and Sebastian's music. (Jack Black's character says it "sucks ass.")
Stuart David leaves B&S to focus on his electronic band Looper and his budding career as a novelist, and the group include his song "Winter Wooskie" on the B-side of the "Legal Man" vinyl as a goodbye tribute. Campbell also explores her own projects, as she gradually begins to withdraw from the group and releases two solo albums under the name the Gentle Waves. Once Murdoch's latest bout of chronic fatigue improves, the band launch their first proper promotional cycle and hit the road, with Bobby Kildea joining on bass.
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. Nearly an hour of the film ends up getting chopped from the final version, which is messy and directionless and receives mixed reviews. Only six minutes of Belle and Sebastian's music appears in the film, but they nevertheless release the soundtrack album Storytelling. The LP is a hodgepodge of song fragments, instrumentals and dialogue snippets, and it receives the worst reviews of the band's career (with a combined critic score of just 59 percent on Metacritic).
Murdoch and Campbell aren't on speaking terms, and their breakup inspires the vicious single "I'm Waking Up to Us," in which Murdoch sings lines like, "You need a man who's either rich or losing a screw." 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."
Murdoch goes to a club and hears a young band called Camera Obscura, with a sensitive indie pop sound similar to early B&S. He invites them to practice in the church hall and produces their single "Eighties Fan." Murdoch begins dating lead singer Tracyanne Campbell, and they stay together for three years. Camera Obscura will spend their early career saddled with constant comparisons to Belle and Sebastian.
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. Having previously recorded with CaVa's house engineers, they begin working with pop maestro Trevor Horn (who produced Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" and was a member of one of Murdoch's favourite bands from his youth, Yes).
The creative risks pay off: Dear Catastrophe Waitress returns the group to the peak of their creative powers, with a slick, expansive sound that draws heavily on retro 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 Magazine, "We lost a lot of the original fans when I stopped being miserable."
Both the album's title track and "Lord Anthony" date back to before Tigermilk, but it's the glitzy pop-rock of "I'm a Cuckoo" that catches hold, becoming B&S's highest charting single to date, reaching #14 in the UK. The chorus name-checks one of Murdoch's earliest music loves with the line "I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy," and the main riff slyly nods to Thin Lizzy's signature guitar harmonies.
Murdoch meets photographer/filmmaker Marisa Privitera. They initially don't keep in touch, but they bump into each other again at a music festival in Spain. When Privitera breaks her foot go-carting, Murdoch becomes her escort around Barcelona, and they begin dating. Their early relationship inspires the track "Piazza, New York Catcher." The song also alludes to a (false) rumour in the press that baseball player Mike Piazza is gay.
They follow Dear Catastrophe Waitress with the Books EP in June 2004. Although it's intended as a glorified single for "Wrapped Up in Books," the clear highlight of the EP is the non-LP track "Your Cover's Blown," a stunning six-minute disco epic that's a further departure from the band's indie pop origins.
Jeepster cashes in on B&S's success by releasing some retrospective material: the 2003 DVD Fans Only contains live footage and behind-the-scenes material, and the 2005 compilation Push Barman to Open Old Wounds collects all of their non-album singles and EPs. The group also release a concert album, If You're Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican, featuring a full performance of their sophomore LP. With tighter performances and more fully developed arrangements, some of the band members prefer this live album to the original recording. Geddes later tells Uncut, "I was more satisfied with the live record. It's a better version of that album. We'd played live a lot and learned how to do the songs justice."
While out for a run, Murdoch composes a song called "God Help the Girl" in his head, and this gives him the idea for 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." The ad mentions nothing about Murdoch, and he begins auditioning singers every Saturday morning. 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. This is the first time they've allowed an outside producer to rework their songs. Hoffer records the band live-off-the-floor, placing the drums and bass higher in the mix than on any of B&S's past albums. Murdoch says, "The first time we were in L.A. recording was The Life Pursuit, and that's living the dream for us. We were having a ball — we loved that."
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. It reaches #8 on the UK albums chart, and lead single "Funny Little Frog" hits #13; this will remain their best-charting single ever. The touring cycle culminates in a soldout performance for 17,500 fans at the Hollywood Bowl.
Also in 2006, Belle and Sebastian spearhead a charity kids' compilation called Colours Are Brighter, featuring Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, Jonathan Richman and the Flaming Lips. They curate a DJ mix album for the esteemed compilation series Late Night Tales.
Murdoch receives a fan letter from Hollywood producer Barry Mendel (The Sixth Sense, The Royal Tenenbaums), and Murdoch tells Mendel about his idea for a musical film. The singer flies to Los Angeles so that the two can work on the story together, and Mendel becomes a producer of the planned film.
2008 to 2009
Once promotion behind The Life Pursuit wraps up, the band go on hiatus, and Murdoch marries Marisa Privitera. He turns his musical attention to his female-fronted songwriting project, which goes by the name 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 from the album. Two of the tracks, "Funny Little Frog" and "Act of the Apostles," are recycled from The Life Pursuit. 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. As for the film, the script still isn't finished and filming hasn't begun.
With Murdoch preoccupied with God Help the Girl, the other members work on side-projects of their own. Colburn tours as Snow Patrol's drummer, and he founds a country-influenced band with Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody called Tired Pony; the lineup features Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (the Minus 5, the Young Fresh Fellows) and super-producer Jacknife Lee. Stevie Jackson and Bobby Kildea join the lineup of fellow Glasgow indie pop vets the Vaselines.
Belle and Sebastian are prominently name-checked in another Hollywood film, (500) Days of Summer. In it, Zooey Deschanel's character chooses a lyric from "The Boy With the Arab Strap" — "Colour my life with the chaos of trouble" — as her yearbook quote. Murdoch receives another bit of unexpected recognition when peta2 includes him in a list of the year's Sexiest Vegetarians (he loses the top spot to Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers).
Jeepster releases another retrospective B&S album, The BBC Sessions, which includes a bonus disc called Live in Belfast. The radio sessions come from the first five years of the band's career; the live album was captured in 2001 and features covers of "Here Comes the Sun," "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "The Boys Are Back in Town."
2010 to 2012
The group reunite with producer Tony 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. "That was just a happy arrangement that we came to afterwards when we realized that we couldn't afford her," Murdoch tells The Guardian. Actress Carey Mulligan (Pride & Prejudice, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) sings duet vocals on Write About Love's title track.
"The Ghost of Rockschool" reflects the evolution of Murdoch's spirituality, and it features a much more earnest portrayal of religion than early records — the word "God" appears in the lyrics 24 times. Speaking with Dear Scotland about his Christianity, he says, "It's far and away the biggest thing in my life."
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. When Write About Love arrives in stores, it debuts at #8 on the UK albums chart, tying The Life Pursuit as their best chart performance.
Belle and Sebastian revisit a pair of old projects: they curate a second Late Night Tales compilation and host a second edition of their music festival, Bowlie 2, the latter of which includes the New Pornographers, Best Coast and Dirty Projectors. Stevie Jackson releases debut solo album, (i can't get no) Stevie Jackson, and its whimsical retro pop earns lukewarm reviews. Mick Cooke releases the children's album, Down at the Zoo, under the name Too Many Cookes.
Murdoch issues a collection of his online diaries, posted between 2002 and 2006, under the title The Celestial Café, and the book is praised for its quiet reflections and complete lack of rock star debauchery. He finally finishes his God Help the Girl screenplay and films the movie in Glasgow. To fund the project, he raises $121,084 through a successful Kickstarter campaign. 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
The strength of Mick Cooke's children's album leads to a gig as a composer for kids' television, and he also writes the music for a theatrical production called Cannibal Women of Mars. He amicably leaves Belle and Sebastian to focus on composing.
Murdoch and Privitera have their first son, Denny Alexander Murdoch. While on tour in Spain, the singer falls ill and goes to a doctor, who gives him injections intended to help him continue performing. Already worn down from touring and parenting, these injections trigger 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, with a score of 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and an average rating of 5.8 out of 10. The film comes out theatrically later in the year. When Pitchfork criticizes the film's predominantly white cast, Murdoch fires off an angry string of tweets telling them to "fuck off," writing, "i wish i was in a band that looked like the brazil team in the 70s but we formed in Glasgow."
Scotland holds a referendum on whether to declare independence from Britain. Murdoch is initially pro-union, but he switches his vote to pro-independence, telling The Guardian: "England seems to be a little bit lost — obsessed with immigration, obsessed with anti-European sentiment, all these negative things. Maybe it's just time to cast off and do our own thing." The vote doesn't pass, although Murdoch's comments on England's anti-European stance prove to be prophetic when Brexit passes two years later.
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. Several tracks prominently feature synthesizers and pulsing club rhythms, and Dum Dum Girls singer Kristin Welchez signs duet vocals on the seven-minute dance-pop epic "Play for Today."
Allen has a strong hand in shaping the beat-driven arrangements. "It was almost like we were a cog in someone else's machine," says Jackson. "We would record, he would go into his room and really mess with it and create something. It was brilliant. He kept blowing my mind."
Opening track "Nobody's Empire" is directly inspired by the years Murdoch spent crippled by chronic fatigue. He tells The Quietus, "I've written songs in the past that have alluded to that period — basically I've used that stuff and leant on it and it's been cathartic. But I don't think I just ever simply sat there and wrote a song which actually describes what happened."
2016 to 2018
Jeepster re-compiles the early material from Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, this time as a vinyl box set called The Jeepster Singles Collection. The band celebrate the Rio Olympics with an instrumental track called "Olympic Village, 6AM."
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. The incident gets mainstream media coverage and Jimmy Fallon includes a joke about it in his Tonight Show monologue.
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. Describing the way he runs Belle and Sebastian, Murdoch writes in his online diary, "I'm a passive-aggressive tyrant, and probably a little bit of an asshole."
Belle and Sebastian announce How to Solve Our Human Problems, a series of three EPs to be released in instalments throughout the winter of 2017/2018. The move is designed to generate more excitement than a standard LP rollout. 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 EP's title is taken from a Buddhist book called How to Solve Our Human Problems: The Four Noble Truths, which Murdoch discovers during frequent trips to a Buddhist centre. This interest in Buddhism's peaceful teachings is a response to the world's perilous political climate, and the song "The Girl Doesn't Get It" directly targets Donald Trump with lines like, "They'll take profits over people / They will make the country great again / Just as long as it's white and ugly."
Murdoch and his wife have another baby boy, Nico Robert Salvatore, and 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. Those [past conflicts within the band] were just a learning period. I'm certainly not going to give the impression I'm bitter about it or anything. It was confusing at the time, but now it's all good."
Essential Belle and Sebastian
If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster, 1996)
Belle and Sebastian initially believed that their sophomore album failed to live up to Tigermilk, but 22 years later, it stands as their masterpiece. These sweet and lustful loner anthems are riddled with bookish introverts and sexual awakenings, making Sinister feel like a warm embrace for misfits everywhere.
Push Barman to Open Old Wounds (Jeepster, 2005)
In the band's wildly productive early years, Murdoch was churning out golden melodies at an incredible rate, and this 25-track compilation of EPs and singles documents their growth from tentative twee trailblazers to adventurous indie pop pros.
The Life Pursuit (Rough Trade/Matador, 2006)
Belle and Sebastian's career can be divided neatly in two: there's the early sensitive whimsy and more recent glossier AM sounds. The Life Pursuit is the best example of the latter, as it's bursting with giddy soul-pop, sun-kissed funk and boogie-fied glam.