Scotland Week: Throwback Thursday: Belle and Sebastian Cover Story Interview from 2006

If You're Feeling Comfortable

Sep 04, 2014 Winter 2006 - Belle and Sebastian
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For Throwback Thursdays we are posting classic interviews from the Under the Radar print archives to our website. Under the Radar used to keep its print articles exclusive to the print magazine and so there are a lot of older articles that aren't to be found on our website. In honor of Scotland Week, for this Throwback Thursday we revisit our 2006 cover story article on Belle and Sebastian. This Friday God Help the Girl, the feature film writing and directing debut of frontman Stuart Murdoch, is released. The band is also currently working on a new album. 

Read on as Murdoch, his bandmates Stevie Jackson and Chris Geddes, producer Tony Hoffer, and Belle and Sebastian biography Paul Whitelaw discuss the band's history, their album The Life Pursuit, the departures of founding members Isobel Campbell and Stuart David, and the band's relationship with their devoted fanbase.

In the life of a pop band, a decade is an eternity, a period of time which, if survived at all, is sure to include moments of creative frustration, fluctuating commercial viability, and interpersonal turmoil. The Beatles needed only six years to go from hitting America's shores as loveable mop-tops to hitting out at each other on solo albums. The Smiths lasted only five years before imploding and cementing their status as '80s icons. Those artists who do manage to stick around hardly fare better, having usually spent most of their creative energies by the time the 10-year anniversary comes around, leaving even prodigious talents like The Rolling Stones to pad their catalogue with albums that are more caricature than inspiration. For a pop band, 10 years isn't just an accomplishment, it's a miracle. As of January of 2006, Scottish indie pop troupe Belle and Sebastian have passed the 10-year milestonea fact which both surprises and pleases the band. 

"Yeah, that's right, actually," says Stuart Murdoch, sounding as though he is just now realizing the coming anniversary. "It's such a funny thing. As you can imagine, you only start a group like this once in a lifetime, and it wasn't like I had a go at it before. It was all new to me," continues the Belle and Sebastian frontman, momentarily drifting back to the days when the unpolished group of Glasgow university students (guitarist Stevie Jackson, bassist Stuart David, keyboardist Chris Geddes, violinist Sarah Martin, cellist Isobel Campbell, and drummer Richard Colburn, and, later, Mick Cooke on trumpet and bass) rose from a media-shy word-of-mouth sensation to arguably the U.K.'s most notable cult band since The Smiths. Ten years later, Belle and Sebastian are a very different band. "We're like a political party that changed to better do their job, and we have these old followers of the party that don't understand the new policies.... That's quite a bad analogy," he laughs. "But 10 yearsthat's an institution, isn't it?"

It is. And like any political party, Belle and Sebastian has both gained and lost constituents over the last decade. Now, with their seventh full-length album, the band are no less an anomaly than they were 10 years ago. As an indie band that confesses their aspirations to sell more records and tour in more markets, simultaneously admitting that they believe that their most revered works are under-produced and poorly played, they also remain steadfastly stubborn in their pursuit of the perfect pop album. With The Life Pursuit, they offer both their most direct and accessible musical statement, a song cycle devoted to the themes of reaching life's transition points and wandering off the safe, and presumably wiser, path. It could be Belle and Sebastian's story.

"It felt like the best title to use, but I don't know why," says Murdoch with typical straightforward understatement, struggling to explain his decision to name his band's latest album after a song that was eventually left out of the finished track listing. "But when I think about it, the theme of the song, 'The Life Pursuit,' could be perceived as the theme of the album," he continues, his voice as soft and careful as you would expect from a man whose latest songwriting efforts carry titles such as "Funny Little Frog" and "We Are the Sleepyheads." "It's an ironic title. The Life Pursuit perhaps seems like a phrase that you might use for young go-getters, young people fresh out of school, wanting to make a buck and get ahead. It's kind of an '80s title, like Reaganite or somethingthat's how it strikes me. What I'm more interested in is, in fact, entirely the opposite. I'm interested in people that fall off the back of the race, who take a detour or a sidetrack, and I think, perhaps, quite a lot of the characters in the songs on this record are people who this is happening to. They're on the cusp of something, and they're falling away from the usual path. They're falling away from the path of their contemporaries or the path that their parents or the people around them want them to take." 

As Belle and Sebastian first gained notoriety for their thoroughly unconventional approach to being a pop bandreleasing only non-album singles and refusing to speak to the press or appear in their press photosit shouldn't be surprising that they continue to willfully defy expectations. Austere and literary in an era of Britpop bombastics and post-grunge angst, Stuart Murdoch handpicked his band from the patrons at an all night café in Glasgow and promptly treated it like a secret. "The group just got together and weren't a proper group but a collection of musiciansin fact, a collection of non-musicians, more than half of which didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives. So, to protect this fragile thing, it was better not to talk about it." It turned out that Murdoch wouldn't have to talk about it, as word of mouth did the job for him, making the limited-to-1,000 copies Tigermilk the stuff of legends. Now, however, the expectations being defied are those of their longtime listeners, as this version of Belle and Sebastian has little in common with the austere lo-fi chamber pop quartet of their landmark 1996 release of If You're Feeling Sinister.

"It's funny, because I remember feeling very strongly after making If You're Feeling Sinister like, 'Oh, that one wasn't very good. Let's try again,'" laughs guitarist Stevie Jackson. "Even I acknowledge now that if there is such thing as our classic record, it probably is that one. And I can never understand it, because it's not the record that we were trying to make. But ultimately the thing that I don't like about it is the thing that people latched on to. I was disappointed in the sound quality of it; I think the production was very undersold. I think it was that lo-fi quality that some people really liked, and that's why they don't like our more recent records. They have more contemporary production, like something that might sound good on the radio. But it's fine, because those old records are still there. I think it would be a folly just to try to make the same record over and over again. That would be boring."

To that end, The Life Pursuit is an album desperate to be anything but repetitive. Built out of bold sonic textures and mostly live studio performances, the album is strikingly upbeat, bounding from the raucous stomp of "White Collar Boy" to the garage boogie of "The Blues Are Still Blue" and the slinky funk of "Song for the Sunshine." Having decided early on that they wanted to make their most straightforward and immediate pop record, the band approached producer Tony Hoffer, a man who had demonstrated his flair for capturing live and organic sounds with Beck, Air, and Supergrass.

"I had a meeting with them in Glasgow for pre-production, and they ran through a bunch of songs for me, and I was noticing that a majority of them were upbeat, in comparison to their previous album," Hoffer recalls. "And I was thinking that a lot of them are a bit dancey. They're not obvious dance songs, like disco songs, but I was feeling like I was wanting to, if we were in a proper studio, hear things clearer. I wanted to hear the rhythm section more, so one of the key things I wanted to accomplish was to have the bass almost be like a lead instrument. With the drums, I wanted to push them way up. I had a feeling that with the other albums, not that the drums were an afterthought, but most of the emphasis was on the acoustic instruments, like an acoustic guitar or a clean electric guitar. Whatever the rhythm was, I wanted to really push that forward."

Given that the band had decided to make The Life Pursuit their most streamlined and approachable album, it became Hoffer's task to shape some of Murdoch's songs into more concise and pointed arrangements. And though Hoffer was chosen partly because he was expected to challenge the band more than other producers, for a songwriter of the wit and delicacy of Stuart Murdoch, such suggestions aren't easily digested. "Sometimes I was a bit sensitive," Murdoch admits, speaking carefully. "Tony came in and suggested that I cut some of my songs to ribbons, and it was kind of hard to take at first. But I think he showed with the finished product that he had a good ear for the songs. I would trust him now," he laughs. "But I think I only decided that a couple of days ago."

Though the band suggests that they function as democratically as possible, keyboardist Chris Geddes admits that because Hoffer was outside of the band he could better shake up the existing dynamic and push Murdoch to write more precise songs. "I think people in the band have always deferred to the writer, and that hasn't always been Stuart," Geddes explains. "People always put forward ideas and suggestions and stuff, but at the end of the day, it's usually the right of the person who wrote the song to make the final decision. It was interesting working with someone who challenged us a bit more. Stuart and Tony were still speaking to each other at the end the day, so I think they were satisfied," he laughs.

Hoffer, too, admits that he was unsure just how well Murdoch would react to his hands-on production style, with previous producers Tony Doogan and Trevor Horn having taken less directive roles in the production booth. "It's always a little tricky, but you have to keep in mind that Stuart is brilliant and that he has pretty much produced all of their records," says Hoffer, recalling their first Glasgow meeting. "He's very, very hands-on. And he's the leader of the band, writes most of the songs, and has a big say if someone else writes one of the songs. He's the captain of the ship, and that works very well. I was very clear about what I thought and what I wanted to do. They played some songs for me, and then we talked. They were kind of interviewing me, and I was very honest and sincere with what I thought and what I wanted to do. Some of the songs, I just thought that the arrangements stopped communicating with me in a certain way. We talked about me wanting to tweak some of the structures, and it was a bit of a thing, and when I walked out of there, I said, 'Well, I blew that one!' But, sure enough, I got the call, and they said, 'Yes, we need to do this. We need help doing that. We're probably too close to the songs to do it ourselves.' At first, I think it was a little tricky for Stuart to have someone take his baby and dress it up in different clothes. He's a really smart and matter-of-fact guy, and he realized that it was only to help things and that my intentions were good."

Pride swallowed and fears assuaged, the band's seven members made the trip across the Atlantic to Los Angeles and crammed themselves into the cramped Sound Factory and Sunset Sound studios Hoffer had selected for them. For once, no players outside of the seven members of the band would appear on the album, meaning the string arrangements that had once helped define the band's sound would be cut out. From the start, Hoffer made a priority of prying the band away from their perfectionism and toward a more natural and spontaneous way of playing. He aimed to do something that hadn't been done beforehe wanted to capture Belle and Sebastian as a live band.

"I was just thinking, 'Well, you guys are an awesome band. You play really well. Let's just do it,'" Hoffer says, recalling his pep rallies. "Try not to let those little things nag at you, like coming in a little early or a little late. If you can't stand it, we can change it a couple weeks from now. But a couple of weeks later, those things just go over your head, and you're less myopic. And it's fine. So many bands in the '60s got away with murder.  Everything was out of tune, everyone was miles from each other on the downbeat at the top of the songit was just great. That's what it's aboutthese kooky and unique ideas and these recordings that have a lot of energy. That's what I like, and I think that's what other people like, as well. We tried to capture some of that and not be hypercritical when someone was doing a part or when something would cross something in a funny way. Just let it marinate for a bit and it will probably be fine."

Of course, Belle and Sebastian has reason to feel a bit tentative in the studio, as each successive album has pushed away as many old fans as it has welcomed new ones, with the old ones making their displeasure known. "You hurt the ones you love. They have hugely devoted fans who feel that they have the right to be incredibly critical, and I guess they do. But they do have a special relationship with them," remarks Paul Whitelaw, journalist and author of Just Another Modern Rock Story, an exhaustive tome dedicated to cataloguing the band's rise to prominence in the U.K. "Stuart told me stories about when he used to live above a church hall, and sometimes he'd be making a cup of tea in the morning, and he'd look out his window and see these Japanese kids looking up at him, hoping that he'd come down and let them in. And, of course, he did, since they'd come the whole way from Japan. And he'd take them up to the house, and they couldn't speak any English, and they'd just sit in silence while he made them cups of tea. It's a bit nice. I think that comes from Stuart being a devoted fan in his youth, and he corresponded with people like Morrissey and Lawrence [Hayward] from Feltnot that they ever wrote back to himbut I think he can understand what it's like to idolize a band. I don't think he has ever forgotten that. Therefore, they've always gone out of their way to bring fans into their world and give them something special. That's the most important thing about Belle and Sebastian; they've always tried to do things that are a bit different, whether gigs or merchandise, and they always try to involve the fans."

Despite their closeness with their fans, Murdoch admits that he and his bandmates do their best to keep their motives clear of listener expectations. "We probably think about that too much to be healthy, actually," he admits, then flashes his reputable stubborn streak. "But if I know the album is good, and I like the album, I don't care what they think about it. If I feel like we've handed in some shoddy work, then, yes, I'll be afraid to see the teacher's report. We will do exactly what we want to do at all times. There is absolutely no point in pandering to anyone, no matter if it's your loyalest fan. We don't think about that. We try to please ourselves."

That said, Murdoch admits that he will continue to explore his interest in spirituality and the infinite in his songwriting, whether or not his listeners approve. "I'll tell you, it's something that you're going to get more and more of from me. I don't care if the fans like it or not," he says, revealing that he continues to sing in his church's choir despite having some reservations in his faith. "I went to church every Sunday, and my mom went, as well. And I gave it up as soon as I could, and then found myself wandering in 10 years later," he explains, recalling his childhood. "I would describe myself as not quite a Christian, because I don't have a clear belief in everything that it says on how to be a Christian. But, then again, I do love the place, and often get a lot from itits people and its spirituality. It strikes a chord. I love it, especially, the old hymns where people were expressing their own spirituality and their own hope and their own faith. I never get bored with it. I could sing those songs and listen to them over and over."

Though the group's sonic evolution has been gradual, a clear tipping point arrived in 2001, when the decision to turn the small budget and decidedly unpolished part-time band into an increasingly ambitious and conventionally-produced rock unit sent shockwaves through the band's loyal fanbase and the band itself. "Stuart's thinking changed," Jackson explains, admitting that Murdoch's decision eventually caused founding members Stuart David and Isobel Campbell to decide that they would rather spend more time on other musical projects. "I had always felt that way and wanted to get out there, but I wasn't really allowed. We are a group, but it's true that the direction of the group is suggested. It's not a democracy. It is in some ways, but the decisions are where the main guys are. And in 2001, the main guy suddenly changed and decided that he actually did want to make a go of it on the level of actually getting out there and selling records and playing and stuff like that. To be honest with you, there were a couple members of the group that probably preferred it the old way," he continues with apparent disbelief. "They were into just hanging out in Glasgow and making records, putting them out, and getting a clamor or getting slagged off, selling records and paying the rent and not worrying about it too much. But there were others like me who came from a more old school pop attitude, and I wanted to take it to the people. I thought, well, we're good, and I'd had about five years of that and, in a sense, I'd gotten what I wanted. I wondered what the future could hold."

What the future held was world tours, a hit single in Britain, and mixed reviews from fans and critics. No longer was the shy retreating seven-piece band from Glasgow such a secret obsession, and some of the band's followers felt betrayed by the band's decision to take their music to the masses. "If I was a fan of the group, I probably would have dropped us after one LP," Murdoch says, still sounding hurt by the exodus of original fans. "I think joining an exclusive club is following a band from the start, and I would have ripped up the membership to the club if I was a fan. I'd like to assure them that that isn't the reason for any shift in touring or music styles, but these people probably wouldn't be reading your magazine then. It would probably fall in deaf ears. Of course, sometimes we kid ourselves and make sporadic claims of wanting to sell more records or have more people hear our records or have our records on the radio, but when it comes down to it, we're just seven people getting off on each other. Why would we be doing it for so long if we weren't this into it?"

Despite the rupture within the band and their fanbase, the remaining members soldiered on, picked up bassist Bobby Kildea, and settled into a period of greater satisfaction, both personally and professionally. For the first time, Belle and Sebastian were becoming a normal band, and they began to approach albums in the way that normal bands do, getting producers and engineers to give their albums a more precise and polished sound. "The actual recording was different in that we went about it in a highly disciplined way," Jackson says of The Life Pursuit sessions. "I suppose that's a normal way of making a record, but we'd usually take a year to make a record, just record a couple of songs and remix them endlesslyno focus to anything," Jackson explains, remembering the awkward days when he and Murdoch had to spend much of their creative energy mixing the albums without knowing how to do so. "Tony Hoffer and his engineer spent a lot of his day just getting the individual sounds together. Then we'd blast through a few takes, and they don't really sound very different from what you hear on the record now. In the past, you'd go and record something and then go into the control room and play it back and go, 'Oh God, everyone thinks that doesn't sound good,'" he laughs. "This time, we had it together and Tony had it together. It gives you energy when you hear it back and it sounds good. It gives you enthusiasm. We all kind of felt that it had a good energy to it."

Good energy isn't taken for granted by Belle and Sebastian, as for years their best-kept secret was their surprisingly troubled history of group infighting and competing agendas. "I was surprised by the amount of internal strife that was going on around The Boy with the Arab Strap and the Fold Your Hands albums," Whitelaw admits, having uncovered the fissures within the band during his series of interviews for his book. "I didn't realize they were so close to splitting up or that there were so many problems between members of the band. Obviously, these aren't things that bands tell you at the time, and it seems that they used the interviews for the book to get a lot of things off their chests. I didn't realize the relationship between Stuart and Isobel was such a fractious thing and that it had such huge negative impact for how the band was."

Jackson, too, admits that he went through periods of considering leaving the band, as the smaller-scale ambitions of David and Campbell kept the group torn between those who wanted Belle and Sebastian to be a hobby and those who had grander aspirations. "It's funny, because for a few years, it didn't feel permanent at all. It felt like it was on the verge of imminent collapse at all times," Jackson recalls. "The initial period was great, like the first year or so. And then things got very confused for a while, and we were very dysfunctional with each other and as a group. The first five years were long periods of hiatus." 

Admittedly, much of that uncertainty hinged on the immensely talented but dissatisfied Isobel Campbell, and Jackson is quick to admit that her departure marked the first real change for the band. "If there was any big change in the dynamic, it wasn't really Isobel leaving the group, it was more Stuart deciding that the group was going to be the main thing, not trying to keep members of the group happy," he explains. "And that was primarily Isobel he was trying to keep happy, and they were involved personally and things like that. The big change in dynamic was that something snapped in his head and he wanted to put the group first. That's when everything changed. We set out to play live and go on tour and get the group together and progress and really concentrate on it," he continues, turning pensive as he recalls the details of Campbell's exit. 

"It was kind of a shock, because I didn't think that she would, but deep down I knew it was only a matter of time. We actually were on tour when she just packed up and went. Everyone else kind of looked relieved, to be honest, like, 'Let's go on with it then.' It's a terrible thing to say, but when Isobel left it was quite a positive thing, because you now had the situation where you had seven people in the group who really wanted to be there. We never had that before. Not really. It was always just one big fucking game. Stuart David never really wanted to be there. Isobel never wanted to be there. They just sort of used the group as a launch pad for their careers, and that's fine. I have no problem with that; that's no putdown. But it's hard dealing with people who sometimes want to be there and sometimes they don't and it all depends on how they're getting along with Stuart. It was a bit depressing. But the other side of it is that then you miss something musically. You miss Isobel's musical contributions, which were big, and she added a lot to the group's personality and the look of the group. She had an amazing visual presence.  But, ultimately, it was a positive thing, for us and for her. Life's too short for things to be really confused. Some groups thrive on that negative energy, like The Byrds or something, but for us, I always felt like it was the opposite. I always felt that the quality of the records decreased depending on the amount of hassle there was. We seem to make better records in a state of harmony. That's not to say that we don't argue and swear at each other, because we do, but overall there is a spirit of harmony and concentration and commitment." 

Murdoch, too, acknowledges the once-tenuous relationships but says that there are no lingering hard feelings. "We're on friendly terms. Stuart lives outside of Glasgow, so I don't really see him, but I see him now and again, and it's always friendly," he says wistfully. "It's funny, because Isobel lives here and I don't see her, ever. God knows what she's up to. I only see her maybe if I bump into her."

That said, Belle and Sebastian have never been more functional, with The Life Pursuit described by Murdoch as the most enjoyable recording experience of his career, one that even leaves him feeling optimistic about the band's future, for once. "I have a really good feeling about this record," he laughs with incredulity. "No, seriously. Individually, I think the tracks worked out really good. I'm not sitting here and gloating, but from time to time I've gotten a good feeling about some of the tracks. I think they have quite a permanence about them. Like I said, I like to dream, and I feel like some of these tracks are good and strong sounding, and if you put them up against The Specials or R.E.M. they'd stand up."

Ironically, though he seems less disheartened than Murdoch by the response of fans to their last few albums, Jackson's less optimistic that The Life Pursuit is going to be the album that unites Belle and Sebastian fans of all stripes. "The way I see it is that it's just another record. It's not like the be-all and end-all," he admits, tempering his clear pride in the album that could very well drive an even bigger wedge between them and their original fans. "You still have the older records; they still exist. And if you come see us live, you'll see a cross-section of the records anyway. Maybe we'll gain some new fans. You can't worry about that. We've disappointed people in the past by making the same record again and it not being as good. Our previous album [2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress], I think it got a pretty split reaction. It got pretty good reviews, and it had consistently good songs, but a lot of the older fans didn't like it because it was too glossy, and they prefer the more lo-fi sound. I can understand that; I don't have any illusions, because I'm a fan myself, and I know there are certain groups that you like for their first couple of records and then you move on to something else when what that group does doesn't appeal to you anymore. That's fine," he continues, sounding more stoic than bitter. Having watched the process of releasing albums and gauging fan reaction for 10 years, Jackson admits that there is no matter how highly he thinks of their album, there is no predicting just what the reaction will be.

"When Fold Your Hands Child came out, it was seen as a disappointment, and no one was very excited about it, but now it seems that any fan I talk to, that's the album they hold up at me. 'Why can't you do one like this?' and I think, 'God, you didn't like it at the time.' I'm going to give you the old rock and roll clichéyou can't think about that; you have to make the record for yourself. God, we'll be making records for years and years, and we've got to keep trying new things. I don't think this record is a huge departure. It's just a more uptempo pop record. I still don't think we've turned into AC/DC or something. For me, the qualities that people liked about us are still there. The songs still have stories in them. The words are still good. The songs say things. Hopefully, this album will be a slow burner for people. They'll hear the pop directness of it, but they'll hear 'Another Sunny Day' and 'The Blues are Still Blue' and they'll get stories out of them. Some of them are quite funny. It's just slightly more hidden. If you're playing with an acoustic guitar, something of the nature of 'Stars of Track and Field,' and you have an acoustic guitar and a voice, it's more adornment, and you get something that's really direct and more like a story. These songs are different." 

All that goes to say that Belle and Sebastian are not a band that stakes their fortunes to the shifting sands of fan approval and commercial trends. Again and again, Murdoch and Jackson reiterate just that, saying that though they would like to reach a wider audience, their only real goals are making albums that they believe are credible, experimental, and worthy of the tradition they've established. "I'm not one for celebrations," Murdoch admits when asked if the band will commemorate their 10th year together. "I don't like birthdays or anything like that, but maybe we will do something, actually. Maybe we'll have some sort of event..." he muses. But as satisfied as they seem, every so often, a glimmer of the original indie band mentality rises to the surface, shines through the defenses they've constructed against the barbs of those who loved them most. Even if they're following their internal compasses, they'd love those original fans to come back, and they do fear that The Life Pursuit won't be that album. "Do you think a lot of the fans will be alienated by it?" Jackson asks cautiously. "We are very lucky, but they are very hard on us."

www.belleandsebastian.com

 

 



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