Album of the Week
Few indie bands are as iconic and trendsetting as Scottish outfit Belle & Sebastian.
With their 1996 debut Tigermilk, the band’s delicate, literary and extremely catchy indie pop essentially founded a school for a number of like-minded bands to follow. Without Belle & Sebastian there would be no Jens Lekman, no The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and no Peter, Bjorn and John.
Frontman Stuart Murdoch formed in total haste after writing a few demos for a business course at the local university in Glasgow. The university itself wanted to release them, and Murdoch rounded up his closest friends, not even knowing whether they could actually play their instruments.
Tigermilk was a runaway success that ended up paving the way for many other bands from Scotland. Nearly two decades later, Belle & Sebastian sound as vigorous as ever. What should have been a one-off ended up making a long career for the eight friends from Glasgow. They’ve made nine albums to date, the latest of which, Girls in Peace Time Want to Dance, is a well-earned comeback.
Simply put, Belle & Sebastian sounds sharper and more full of life than it has in a long time.
Girls in Peacetime… is an album firmly founded on their signature sound, perennially inspired by Nick Drake, Velvet Underground (the quiet songs) and Television Personalities, but the album also points forward. Whereas a migration toward pop normally suggests a band selling out, Belle & Sebastian seem to be moving in the best direction possible as they flirt – and score – with europop and electro pop ala Pet Shop Boys.
We caught up with lead singer Stuart Murdoch to talk about the new album, and how it all began.
I want to ask you about Scottish music – in particular music from Glasgow, a city that has fostered so many great bands for the last twenty years. What, in your opinion, makes the Scottish music scene so special?
It’s a good question, but I never have the answer. I’m not sure, but maybe there’s something to be said for cities, like Glasgow, that are large post-industrial cities. There seem to be sadness about them and a sense of reflection. And also there maybe isn’t as many jobs as there should be. A lot of these elements combine to make people wistful.
I remember traveling to Scotland a few years back, walking into the nearest pub and discovering that even the cover bands sound great. There seems to be a real tradition of singing as well. The old folk songs are still very much alive. Do you think that’s part of what makes the scene special?
I think that is part of it. If people didn’t grow up singing, then we wouldn’t go on to sing. When we grew up there was music all around us. There was music in school, when we went home, every time there was a party, when neighbours and family came together and somebody had a drink they would always end up singing around the piano.
Do you remember your first musical experience?
There’s a couple I remember. In terms of performance I remember being four and I was in a boy group called The Imps. We learned some songs from the jungle book and that was the first I remember singing. [Starts singing:] I’m the king of the swingers, the jungle V.I.P. I think we had to act like monkeys.
And then when I first went to school I was in a concert where we all sang cowboy songs, and I liked that because we got to wear jeans instead of uniforms. I think we looked pretty cool. I was like five or six and I remember one of the girls coming up to me saying, you look cool in your jeans and your cowboy hat. So I thought, Okay, I like this.
How did you first start to get into pop music?
It was all around. I was brought up in the seventies. There were only two channels, there was the radio, and you could play football – but there weren’t all the things that kids can do now. Pop music and football were really the two main things of our life back then.
So how did you discover new music growing up?
The first records I bought were from what we would call jumble sales. I was a little kid and I would look through the records and pick out the ones I liked the look of. And one of the first records I bought was Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel – and of course I fell in love with that record.
You’ve recently been quoted saying, “You can read about bands on the Internet ’til you’re blue in the face, but you really don’t know until somebody tells you.” Was there a person who did that, who said, Stuart, listen to this album, this album will change your life.
I wish there was, it wasn’t until later, but I definitely had my radar on all the time. One nice thing that happened was that my uncle gave me a reel-to-reel tape with all his old Beatles albums. I played those to death, so I was lucky he did that.
Do you remember a specific song or live experience that made you want to start writing your own music?
That’s interesting because, to be honest with you, I never really made the connection. I just assumed that I would always be a fan of music. I got all the way through to my twenties without being able to write any music. I just loved it – I never thought I could write it.
I’ve always really liked the story of how Belle & Sebastian became a band. The story goes that your first album started out as a college-project in Glasgow, and by chance you guys turned your demos into an album and eventually became a band. Is it just a good story or is that how it happened?
Yes of course it was down to chance. I think most of the best things are. Most of the huge things that happen in your life come down to chance. Because look at us, we’re like ants. Who’s in control? We’re just running around randomly. How the hell should we know what we are meant to be doing? Sometimes the most important thing is to be ready when the chance comes along.
I’d been trying to make band, trying really hard, but I couldn’t get people interested in it. And then, I was about to give up and move to California when the college in Glasgow got a hold of me and asked me to make record – I didn’t have a band. So I asked a bunch of people that I knew and requited them very quickly to make this record for the college. And that of course became the band.
What attracted you guys to each other?
Well that’s the thing. They were the only people around that in any way seemed interested. It was a sporadic bunch of people, and some of them I didn’t even know for sure if they could play instruments properly. There was only one guy, Stevie, that I knew was a good guitar player and singer, and I had to write him many letters before he even agreed to help me with the record.
‘Girl in Peacetime Want to Dance.’ I really like that title. I’m not sure I understand it, but I like it. Why name the album that?
I feel about the title the same way you do – I think I like it. I don’t really understand it. It was just a title that came to me. I thought it was a nice title for a song so I wrote in my book and had it for a few years, and when we made the record it came back to me, and in about 30 seconds I decided it was going to be the album title, and I never thought about it again.
The album certainly marks a new sound for the band – it touches on both disco, europop and electropop. What sound were you aiming to create?
We never really had a master plan for the sound, but quite a lot of the songs are written very close together, which hadn’t happened for a long time. And so there seem to be a rhythm that goes through many of the songs – led by the kick drum and also by the bass guitar. And we were happy to go with that. It took a skilled producer to make sure that these songs came out well.
How do you decide when it’s time for a new album? I presume you have ten or so songs ready and then decide to release them?
Nothing works like that anymore. It’s not like we can be like Rod Stewart who wakes up in his mansion and decides that he needs to do a new record. We have to do a new record. We try to make a living doing this, and we love music, so it’s always time for a new record.
You’ve described the album as a make it or break it album. Why?
It’s just a commercial world, we have to remain a viable music entity. I think people would have forgotten all about us if we hadn’t made another record.
Nooo, I don’t think so – you really think so?
Maybe. Look, we don’t think of ourselves as…I guess some people have long memories of us and think of us as a kind of vintage band from the ’90s, but we’re just a working band. And to remain a working band we have to keep working.
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