Belle and Sebastian - Stuart Murdoch on Buddhism and “How to Solve Our Human Problems”

Good Vibrations

May 31, 2018 Photography by Søren Solkær Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett
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For a creative person, a shift in medium can open new channels of thinking. When Belle and Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch temporarily stepped away from music to write and direct the 2014 film musical, God Help the Girl, the experience forever left a mark on the way he would approach composing.

"If I was doing a record before, it was in two dimensions. A film was three-dimensional," says Murdoch. "[Making a film] allowed me to step back and see a bigger picture, and paint on a bigger canvas. I think in a way the artwork for all the Belles records since then, and just the way they were conceived and put together, has felt easier and more complete."

A cinematic influence feels especially present in How to Solve Our Human Problems, the band's second collection of new music since God Help the Girl. The release is divided across three EPs, each volume adorned by photos of the band's fans and functioning on its own as well as part of the whole, like the act structure of a great film.

"It just seemed to be the right thing to do, in terms of creativity," says Murdoch, reflecting on the choice to release EPs over an album. "Back in 1996, when the band first came out, we did a couple of albums in the first year and we still had a lot of music that was pouring out.... It was pretty much the same this time. I'm always interested in finding the best A-side, then grouping the rest of the songs around a lead track."

Another element separating Human Problems from the group's 21st century output is the looseness with which it was recorded. Rather than adhere to a schedule, they recorded at home in Glasgow whenever inspiration struck them. This opened the door to a greater level of experimentation, not just on Murdoch's tracks, but the ones penned by guitarist Stevie Jackson and violinist Sarah Martin. (The current lineup is filled out by guitarist Bobby Kildea, keyboardist Chris Geddes, and percussionist Richard Colburn.)

"We went [into the studio] much earlier than we usually would," says Murdoch. "It's a big difference from when we're recording in America or in London, where we pretty much have everything prepped. We have to go in with the producer and engineers, and studio time is expensive. This time, I would just call people together and say, 'I feel like I've got a song brewing.' We'd just jam together and see how it was going."

He points to other changes in his life that have impacted his approach to music. Fatherhood has been a major one. (Murdoch has two young children.) The second is his study of Buddhism; the title of How to Solve Our Human Problems was adopted from a modern Buddhist text. 

"I thought to non-Buddhists that [the title] might seem a little ridiculous," says Murdoch. "Like, 'How are you going to solve all our problems?' To everyday people that might seem like a preposterous notion: that there'd be a recipe for that. But, in fact, I think there is, and the Buddhists have got it."

One such worldview that Murdoch has espoused in recent years is an "intrinsic notion that anger is a bad thing." The general idea is that anger, whatever its cause, never leads to a solution.

"I'm almost 50 years old, and it seems silly to say my mindset has been changed by Buddhist classes over the last three years, but it has, and in different ways," says Murdoch. "One of them has been pinpointing the destructive force of anger, and how it is absolutely at the core of all human trouble. I would say that all wars, and all disputes, and so much suffering stems from human anger. It's such a powerful thing. It doesn't even have to be physical, but just a thought. If you have an angry thought, it will find its way out."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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