When Belle And Sebastian emerged from the UK indie-pop scene in the mid-'90s, inscrutability was a major part of the Scottish band's appeal. Early Belle And Sebastian EPs and albums were often hard to find, and since bandleader Stuart Murdoch didn't grant many interviews, he and his mates seemed to float above the fray, dropping whimsical comment cards for those quick enough to catch them. But a few years ago, just as Belle And Sebastian was falling into a stylistic rut, Murdoch pushed the band out by revising its sound and manner. The music on the EPs Legal Man and Jonathan David—along with the controversial 2003 LP Dear Catastrophe Waitress—showed Murdoch embracing R&B, dance music, and glam rock, in addition to his usual twee neo-folk. Then came the Fans Only DVD, a vigorous tour schedule, and a sudden spate of interviews, all of which made Belle And Sebastian beguilingly approachable. Gradually, the word got out that very little of the band's early standoffishness was intentional; it was rooted in Murdoch's retiring personality (which was itself shaped by an extended battle with chronic fatigue syndrome). On the eve of the release of Belle And Sebastian's superb new album The Life Pursuit—which continues the band's experiments with genre-hopping, aided by Beck crony Tony Hoffer—Murdoch spoke with The A.V. Club about his band's reputation, its legacy, and why ABBA's music is unassailable.
The A.V. Club: You got a lot of attention with Dear Catastrophe Waitress by hiring '80s pop architect Trevor Horn to produce. Why didn't you use him again on The Life Pursuit?
Stuart Murdoch: There was no conscious decision not to use Trevor. Tony Hoffer just got in touch out of the blue, and we thought he sounded up for it. Also, I think Trevor charged us a cheaper rate last time, so maybe we couldn't afford him. [Laughs.] We'd never had a producer before Trevor, and Tony just happened to call around the time we were writing the record. He had a nice phone voice, so we invited him over.
AVC: What did he offer that you felt you needed?
SM: He said a couple of things that really piqued our interest. He promised to get tough with the songs and lay into them a bit more, which really appealed to the rest of the group, because I think quite often they're too shy to say anything to me. They wanted someone to say it for them: "That's shit," or "Cut that verse." And he did, which was kind of bold. He came to Glasgow and sat in on a rehearsal and said, "You're going to have to change this." I was dubious at first, because nobody had told me that stuff before. I thought, "You better be right." And he was!
AVC: Dear Catastrophe Waitress got a mixed reaction from a lot of your longtime fans, some of whom felt your sound had changed too much, and some of whom were glad to see you moving forward. What did you make of that debate?
SM: I'm glad they're still around to react, honestly. If you think about it, they're really quite faithful. You can't take them for granted. But then again, I'll say to them, to be quite honest, we don't think about you when we're making the record, you know? We don't think about you at all until we're looking at you from the other side of the stage. They want you to be all things to all people at all times. That's why we just keep our heads down and get on with what we can. I mean, really, it's not like we ever choose to do anything. We follow our noses, or wherever fate is pushing us. Basically, for the first six years of the group being together, all I wanted to do was keep the group together. And that was enough of a struggle, never mind pleasing the fans.
AVC: That didn't quite work out, though, did it?
SM: [Laughs.] Yeah, but if I hadn't gone to extraordinary effort, those two [ex-members Stuart David and Isobel Campbell] would've left the group, probably like two weeks into it.
AVC: Do you need to be in a band to say what you want to say? A lot of your songs are really cinematic. Have you ever tried to write a screenplay?
SM: Not seriously. I'd like to, obviously. I say "obviously" because it's in my mind all the time. I'd like to, but I'd need time away from the group. I say that, but then if I got time away from the group, I'd probably be staring at a blank page for six months. [Laughs.]
AVC: The new record has some songs that sound like classic Belle And Sebastian, but just like the last record, it also has some songs that aren't instantly recognizable as yours. Some of them have T. Rex influences, or disco influences…
AVC: Don't you think? Some really danceable tracks?
SM: Well, danceable, yeah. Not enough, I would've said. I mean, disco… I like the idea. I think there's a couple of disco ones that we left off, that didn't quite make it. I wish it were more dance-y. The whole thing was to actually make it dance-y. Because we realized when we were writing that every track we were doing moved in that sort of direction.
AVC: So why didn't you make it…
SM: …wall-to-wall dance-y? That's just the way it came out. Some of the songs didn't make it to fruition. I mean, sometimes you go out with an idea to make it really poppy and dance-y in the studio, but it's not such a satisfying song.
AVC: Your song "Your Cover's Blown" last year was sort of a disco epic. You tacked it onto a single from Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but you didn't release any exclusively non-LP singles between albums this time out, which is unusual for Belle And Sebastian. What happened?
SM: Just simply time and circumstance. We really worked hard on the last record, for a change. We tried to get out everywhere, all over the world, and I found it difficult to write or nip back to the studio. But maybe now… I'm really happy with Tony Hoffer as a producer, and I hope to do some more stuff with him, so maybe now that we're happy with the producer, we can nip back and produce a single now and again.
AVC: What makes a song suitable for a single and not an LP?
SM: We don't really make a distinction. It usually just depends on the time. For instance, we had a feel for "Your Cover's Blown" during the writing for Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but it was far from finished. Maybe if it had been finished, it would've gone on the LP.
AVC: You have the same membership this time as on the last album, correct?
SM: Yes, everything is by the same seven members and played by the same seven members, pretty much. There aren't even many arrangements outside of the group. But I didn't write all the songs this time. Stevie Jackson wrote "To Be Myself Completely," and Stevie and Chris Geddes wrote "Song For Sunshine."
AVC: Those are the two that sound most completely unlike Belle And Sebastian. Do you like having different songwriters mix up the dynamic of the band's sound?
SM: It kind of takes the heat off a little bit. You can bounce off them. I mean, ever since The Boy With The Arab Strap, when other people started to write, I felt good about it. It felt natural. I actually feel I'm missing a Sarah Martin song from this record. I'm missing a female singing. Because you can't imagine what a change in dynamic that can give, and how nice it is going to a female voice and then coming back, and how everything after it seems a little bit different. On the whole, it's a very positive thing.
AVC: Are you the final arbiter of what happens with the band, like what songs get on the album?
SM: Ah, you'd think so! [Laughs.] You'd think so, but no. There's a kind of division of labor with the group. I work on the individual tracks, trying to get them finished, and Stevie actually does the track listing, the running order. But it wasn't quite right on The Life Pursuit, and we fought and fought. We've never fought so much. Long, boring email conversations that took up the morning. It's so pointless and stupid, but I guess when you introduce two or more people into that process, the possibilities are endless.
AVC: If you gave a group of people the same set of songs and told them to make a mix-CD, you'd probably get wildly different ideas about, like, which song should go first.
AVC: Do you make a lot of mix-CDs?
SM: I used to. I used to make compilation tapes, but I don't so much any more.
AVC: Did you prefer to open with a strong, fast song or a quiet song?
SM: A mixture. I was going to say I prefer to open with something really up and strong, but then occasionally I like something that creeps in. I mean, basically, compiling one of our LPs is like making a compilation tape, except with a more shitty selection. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's a long tradition in the British music scene of bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and Oasis who at least pretend that they never listen to any music but their own. But right from the start, Belle And Sebastian's songs referenced other bands, and scene signifiers like Seymour Stein and Chickfactor. Was that any kind of conscious reaction to Britpop's "we're too good for our peers" snobbery?
SM: No sort of reaction. Life is short. What's the point of reacting to people when you've got feelings of your own? Honestly. I mean, sometimes you can't shut up Stevie and the rest of the group about who they like, to the extent that it gets a little bit annoying. You come in with a new song, and you play it, and you tell people their parts, and after five minutes, everybody's yelling about what it sounds like! I had to ban that, because, you know, it gets a bit of a drag. You are trying to make something new, but you obviously acknowledge that you love all this stuff at the same time.
I was probably more precious back at the start. Maybe I can empathize with dudes like Oasis, because I felt the music, the songs, were burning in me so hot and nothing could stop them coming out. When people mentioned other groups, I was like, "Well, fuck them! I don't want to be like them!" You know? But as we went along and things settled down a bit, then you could start referencing people and realizing you want to be part of this. You want to play your part in the history of pop.
Maybe that's not such a negative thing. Maybe right back at the start when stuff is exploding out of you, that's more genuine, and more likely to be the stuff you're remembered for. As time goes on, and you realize that with the right bass player, you could get like a Motown sound or something… maybe that's worse.
AVC: You've always been sort of a music geek, though, right?
SM: I was, especially in the '80s, when I was a DJ, and I used to put on groups, and worked as a roadie, and saw all these great groups coming through, and venerated them. But I must say, I had a big patch where I fell out of all of that stuff, and I actually became ill for seven years. So when I got back into normal society again, my head had completely changed. I'd been in a vacuum for quite a while, and in that vacuum, I'd come to start writing songs.
AVC: Do you pay attention now? Do you read the UK music magazines?
SM: I probably pay less attention than I've ever paid. I'm shockingly out of touch. I know Franz Ferdinand because they're from around here. I know them, and I like them.
AVC: The Scottish scene is different from the English scene, in that there are fewer bands, but the ones who break out seem to be really well known. Is there a scene per se? Or at least a sense of community? Do you connect with your Scottish pop forebears, like Edwyn Collins?
SM: All the Postcard Records guys from the '80s left. Edwyn's in London, and Roddy Frame's in London, and the Cocteau Twins… well, I don't know where they are. Primal Scream's in London as well. All the old school more or less left Glasgow, really. And then I think it became easier for people to make their music in Glasgow later on, so bands like Teenage Fanclub, The Delgados, and Arab Strap are all still in Glasgow.
AVC: Why do so many Glaswegian bands have that kind of sunny, almost tropical sound?
SM: Oh, I couldn't say. Chin up against adversity? [Laughs.] Something like that.
AVC: Are you comfortable thinking about where Belle And Sebastian fits into the "great history of pop" that you spoke about? Do you see yourself as important as The Smiths, for example?
SM: Oh God, no! I'll answer question one: No. And two: No. [Laughs.] It'd be dreadful to sit around thinking, "Well, that's it. We've finally made our place. We have our pigeonhole." No. We're a working band, just trying to make a decent record.
AVC: How does being in a band affect being a music fan? Like, back when you were a Smiths fan, a Felt fan, a Yes fan, you probably couldn't have pictured them getting together in a rehearsal space and arguing about the set list. Does it demystify the whole process of making music to imagine, say, Jon Anderson and Chris Squire yelling at each other because one of them was late for practice?
SM: [Laughs.] It does, but in a nice way. I feel like I've been given this insight into the workings of my peers, the people that I love, just simply by following in their footsteps to a small degree. More with bands like Felt and stuff. You really know what went on, because you've been through it yourself. But at the same time, it doesn't make the music seem any less. There's a magic there, a privilege there, that you can't take away. They were part of their time and they captured something.
I was on a long-distance flight the other day, and I was flicking through the stuff that they had to listen to, and I put on ABBA, which I hadn't heard in a while. ABBA always amazes me. I was actually trying to break it down, because I know all this stuff now. I can hear every instrument, and I can almost see it in three dimensions and feel the way they've done it. But at the same time, you just shut your eyes and it's an amazing sound.