Stuart Murdoch micro-scooters into view, a vision in green parka, chunky-knit emerald cords, off-to-work rucksack and Peaky Blinders-adjacent grey flat cap. The niceman cometh, indie edition.
The musician waves cheerily through the restaurant window and casually props his pavement-pounder, unlocked, against the railings. No fears of theft round these parts, seemingly. Because his band Belle and Sebastian have been part of the Glasgow furniture for 25 years and are bona fide local heroes whom no one would dare rob? Because he’s in a hurry, a lunchtime interview to fit in amid pre-tour rehearsals and the appearance of a new album, due in the shops any day now? Because, ach well, he’s that kind of guy?
The singer and songwriter, 53, plops himself down with boyish enthusiasm and eagerness to talk, and not necessarily because we have a bit of previous: I’ve been interviewing Murdoch, on and off, most of those 25 years. He’s clearly thrilled with A Bit of Previous, the band’s 11th studio album, not least because it’s already speaking to a new generation of fans, the children of OG followers.
“Right at this second, we have two 15-year-old sisters in southeast London making a video for us,” he says proudly of the clip for the band’s next single, the synth-propelled “Talk to Me Talk to Me”. “You know, this is modern music – we ran out of time and money to make any more videos. So I put a call out on Facebook: ‘Right, who wants to do the next video?’”
His request for an image and a 100-word pitch solicited “about 100 treatments, and all these guys my age replied, going: ‘I’m in a woods. I’m looking at myself in a mirror. There’s trees and it’s dark…’ I’m like, for f***’s sake!” he says, exasperated at the clichés from his gender and generation. “And then this mum said: ‘My daughters are huge fans…’”
The sisters sent a mood board, “a collage of loads of pictures. And you could tell instantly what the vibe of video is going to be. So they’re doing it right now. They’ve involved their whole school, and we’re gonna get them all along to the show in London [later this year]. I feel relieved, but I also feel very positive about it. It’s good to let the youth have a go… to see that second generation that are interested in [us]. And the thing is, they’ll come up with something that we could never have come up with, which’ll probably spark off with younger folk, too.”
Even better, their treatment doesn’t involve filming the band.
“But of course, I did have someone from the union, Bectu, getting in touch, saying [stern voice]: ‘Stuart, what is the budget for this? Are you exploiting your fans just to get a cheap video?’ And I was like: ‘The budget was the budget I was gonna make it for, about £2,000!’ So I had a good out there,” he adds with a relieved smile.
This homespun, let’s-do-the-show-right-here (with-some-kids) ethos is of a piece with previous Belle and Sebastian (ad)ventures. In 1999 they instituted their own curated festival, Bowlie Weekender, at Pontin’s holiday camp in Camber Sands, East Sussex. In 2019 they finally launched a follow-up, Boaty Weekender, a cruise around the Med with pals like Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub and Nilüfer Yanya all performing. I was aboard for both, and both were among of the best musical (and party) experiences of my life.
And it’s of a piece with the making of A Bit of Previous. The pandemic scuppered Belle and Sebastian’s initial plans to record in Los Angeles in spring 2020 with Canadian producer Shawn Everett (War on Drugs, The Killers). “He’s a big cheese! He’s got Grammys coming out the yin-yang!” Murdoch says, which is Glaswegian for “he’s got six”.
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So, after six months in which they “shut everything down” and each went off and did their own thing (Murdoch wrote two-thirds of an autobiographical novel about his pre-B&S days), the band reconvened in December 2020. They converted their longstanding rehearsal space, round the corner from this restaurant, into a Covid-safe, socially distanced recording studio, with jerry-rigged booths for everyone.
“It’s like a doll’s house!” he beams, pleased with the pokiness. “We were dotted around the two-storey building like Barbie dolls in a Barbie world,” Murdoch writes in the album’s sleevenotes.
From such cramped and cluttered environs has come a self-produced set of songs that were sometimes written and recorded on the same day. It’s Belle and Sebastian’s most energetic, vivacious and colourful album in a long time.
“Well, you couldnae get less energetic!” he laughs, his west coast Scottish accent and patter sounding melodic and expressive. “You met me back in the day, and you know how ill I was. I wasnae well! That was the seeds of the group,” he acknowledges of how his health shaped the band’s early sound and profile. Murdoch has myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, which he addressed in the defiantly glorious 2015 song “Nobody’s Empire”. “But definitely, as we’ve gone on, we’ve got more robust.”
A quarter of a century ago, around the time of 1996’s still-staggering double-whammy opening gambit of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, the Scotsman was a reluctant interviewee. A faltering conversationalist, at best, when he could be roused, who saved his poeticism and engagement for his songs.
But what songs. Those first two cornerstone albums were followed by The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998), with its canonical title track and accompanying crowd-sourced fan campaign which saw the many-headed Glaswegian indie troupe scoop the 1999 Brit Award for Best Newcomer from under the noses of Steps, much to Pete Waterman’s chagrin. Then came 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, which landed them in the Top 10 for the first time and, via pop-Mod belter “Legal Man”, on Top of the Pops. Belle and Sebastian were cardigan-wearing disruptors, a beloved but contrary cult storming the Smash Hits Bastille.
“Ironically, even though that’s the first five years of the band, it’s probably the period we’ll always be known for,” Murdoch acknowledges. That early acclaim helped build a widespread footprint for a time-served British band with that rare thing: a devoted fanbase in multiple, planetarily divergent territories around the world, notably America, that’s going strong well into their third decade. “And it’s so difficult to shake people’s idea about that. But we’ve been doing it for 20 years since.”
How does he feel about the band – which currently comprises Murdoch, Sarah Martin (violin, flute, vocals), Stevie Jackson (guitar, vocals), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Bobby Kildea (guitar), Richard Colburn (drums) and Dave McGowan (bass) – being characterised, or even pinned like butterflies, by records they made over two decades ago?
“I think it’s OK. Usually you’ve just got your head down, getting on with it,” he answers with the equanimity of a prolific writer and an at-peace, middle-aged man who practises Buddhist meditation and who led fans and fellow travellers in regular Facebook sessions throughout the pandemic. “But a few days ago, I was on a podcast, and this American journalist was quite definite about it. He said: ‘What can you expect when you created Belle and Sebastian Land! In America, nobody knew what you looked like, and all these records would come tumbling out, you were creating this thing.’
“But then suddenly Isobel left, and somebody else [had] left,” he says of former singer Isobel Campbell (the Belle to his Sebastian) and bassist Stuart David (co-founder of the band), who moved on in 2002 and 2000 respectively. “But you were touring, everybody could see you, and you were in the charts, and you were making a record with Trevor Horn,” he adds of 2003’s poptastic left-turn Dear Catastrophe Waitress, made with the visionary producer of precision-tooled Eighties records by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes and his own band, The Buggles.
“So I’ve got no complaints about how we may or may not be perceived. You can’t expect to have it all ways. You can’t be the magical, fragile, mysterious thing, then suddenly you’re touring all over the world. I wouldn’t change anything, because being in the active B&S is the thrill of a lifetime. Touring and going to all those places, I wouldn’t change that.”
A Bit of Previous is the first full album that the band have recorded in their home city since Fold Your Hands… in 1999. Across the early months of 2021, in the bad old days of lockdown #3 (like the third Godfather, easily the worst), Murdoch made a deal with his wife Marisa, at home with their sons, Denny, nine this month, and Nico, five, that he’d “only” work for 10 agreed hours a day.
He then put aside the songs he’d prepared with their sessions with Everett in mind, “because they were written when the energy was going towards LA”, and started again.
“I’m always interested in the new songs, the ones that come off the grid. This was a unique chance, actually, with an album process, to take something that was just made, and just do it. Songs like ‘Young and Stupid’, ‘Prophets on Hold’ and “If They’re Shooting at You’ were almost recorded the day they were written. The paint’s still wet.”
That helps partly account for an album that feels like it was written by a band on the balls of their feet, with Jackson and Martin also contributing songs with a thrilling, restless energy. Locked down but, paradoxically, amped up.
Being virus-aware and restricting the hours when the whole band convened, some days, in lieu of Colburn being able to be there, they used drum machines, or Murdoch picked up the sticks. Geddes built a mixing room upstairs where he also cracked open banks of keyboards but could never see his bandmates, communicating solely via TalkBack. Murdoch had his own womb-like vocal booth; when I visit later, it looks like a music student’s cheerfully shabby living room, with a piano, couch and colour photographs on the wall of LA and San Francisco, so Murdoch at least had something of a window on the world.
But mainly, it’s Glasgow that the frontman describes as having helped the band make the album. In the restaurant, after we’ve picked our de rigueur sharing small plates (“when this place opened three or four years ago, I thought, ‘Ooh, this is what London’s like…’”), I ask him: how so?
“My best thing was, I did so much walking. The lockdown streets were still quiet, but I do that in any city I go to – I walked from one side of Atlanta to the other, same in LA, when we’ve made records in those cities. And I take the music with me.
“These days, wonders of technology, you leave the studio and the engineer has the day’s work in the Dropbox before you’re at the end of the street. Then I can hear it [and make decisions]: OK, this song needs another verse, it needs a chorus, it needs some swing… That’s why I said Glasgow made it with us, because personally I was walking all over the place.”
Not so much road-testing, then, as pavement-testing.
“I’ve got to ambulate!” he says, nodding. “I have to move to feel the music. The beautiful thing was, they shut Kelvin Way during lockdown. It’s always been this very busy street in the middle of the two parts of Kelvingrove Park. But in one stroke, they turned it into this promenade. And because of lockdown, folk weren’t going to pubs and restaurants, everybody’s out there – checking each other out, having a wee drink in the streets, guys busking, folk skating. It had the best vibe of the city!
“And that was my way home every night, listening to tunes. And with people around you can sort of get a feel for how it’s gonna sound. It’s almost like you’re playing to an audience.”
That audience, meanwhile, could be bigger than ever, certainly if those 15-year-old sisters are any kind of bellwether. But guitar bands in general are “back”, a bit, as evidenced by the creativity, success and sales of groups such as Yard Act, Dry Cleaning, Self Esteem and, most currently and hotly, Wet Leg – last month, their debut album entered the charts at Number One, outselling the rest of the Top Five combined.
Does Murdoch feel that, culturally, things might have come round Belle and Sebastian’s way again? He thinks for a second.
“I was very accepting of the fact that R&B, solo acts and hip-hop were the big things. Which is grand. Saying that: I love a band. I love a band,” he repeats with feeling. “I love a band more than a record. I like old records, but I love to see a new band. I always did. There’s nothing like it. I still get the thrill of seeing folk up on stage, actually playing instruments and performing. There’s a blend there. It’s quite unexpected what you get from a bunch of folk playing together.”
Belle and Sebastian are doing just that, across North America for three weeks, starting later this month, leading into a summer of festivals, with their Omicron-delayed UK and European tours following from autumn onwards. It’s a long run of performances – and Murdoch is an energetic frontman, his signature Northern Soul-style dance moves a particular favourite with fans. I wonder how he manages that with his chronic fatigue syndrome. Murdoch replies that he’s just had years of becoming better at managing his energy. But he imagines his energy levels like a bank account, “and I’m always maxed out”.
“Baseline, I’m not sure how much more energy I have now than I had in the 1990s. Probably about the same. I’m just much better at compartmentalising. I still run at quite a low metabolism. On a winter day I’ll be wearing 10 layers of clothes!”
Does he have to get match fit, physically and emotionally, for touring?
“That would be nice!” he laughs. “I remember when we were in LA for the first time – I’m not dropping any names here, but I am going to drop a name! – and we got a shout from Robbie Williams to come play his football game at his place in Mulholland Drive. We thought this was gonna be strange. But it turned out to be the best. Every Sunday we went up – he’s got his own football pitch – and we played with expats, mostly, and had a good afternoon’s football.
“He used to play every day, and for him that was gearing up for a tour, trying to get himself trim and in shape. I don’t exercise. Like I said, I’m always maxed out. So the tour for me is the closest to a workout I’ll ever get. When you see me on stage, that’s my aerobics. I just take one day at a time and hope that it’ll be OK.”
But being a man of a certain age, in a band of a certain age, he says “everyone” is weathering some sort of ailment.
“I’ve done my shoulder in. It came out of nowhere, really painful. I had tendonitis, and then it froze. So I can’t play guitar. And that was just a last-minute shoe in the nuts!” he admits, putting on a brave face. “So we’ve had to accommodate that – everybody’s had to move round [with their instruments]. So that’s going to be a bit weird onstage.”
It’s a niggle, an infringement, that is possibly hurting him more than he’s letting on. Belle and Sebastian have always been about the details, whether in their album titles or artwork or compilations (no industry-standard, bog-standard 25th anniversary reissues of their first two albums here), or their non-trad band projects. They were considering doing another Boaty Weekender until, notably after last year’s Cop26 conference in Glasgow, they started copping flak from commentators on account of a cruise’s carbon footprint. “So until we got a big enough sail, we’ll probably not be doing the boat for a while. But I think we’ll consider bespoke festivals.”
But at Boaty, over their three sets over four days, the band conspicuously didn’t repeat a single song, not even “The Boy with the Arab Strap”, the traditional finale for which they invite the crowd – all of them – on stage. That took some doing, I say now.
“We don’t have anything else!” he exclaims. “I remember – oh, here, I’m gonna drop another name – I don’t usually do this! I ran into Neil Tennant from Pet Shop Boys. And he said: ‘How’s your show these days?’ ‘Well, Neil, we get us on stage and a few lights.’ And Neil goes: ‘Oh, just lights and instruments?’” relates Murdoch, and you can imagine the arch of a Tennant eyebrow. “And it got me a wee bit worked up! Because, of course, they won’t go on the road without stages that move and boxes and 10 costume changes and pointy hats.
“But that’s the Pet Shop Boys, and that’s what they do. But what we have is the music, and we have all those folk on stage, and we do dip into repertoire. And I think folk appreciate the changes every night and how we try to shape the set. That’s what we’ve got.”
That’s what they’ve got, and it contains multitudes.
Another cultural trend that might be in Belle and Sebastian’s favour: being twee or nerdy – things for which they’ve been derided by detractors for years – is now something like a superpower. For Gen Z, geek is good. “I could see why it’s maybe happening,” muses Stuart Murdoch, to many, a geek god. “When we started, I didn’t have any excess energy for posing. So what you saw was what you got. And also, I didn’t want to hold back because I’d been in my head for five or six years with illness. I was laying it on the line. So there was an honesty there.
“And maybe those are traits that are appreciated more now. Maybe it’s coming out of the pandemic, where people are like: you know what, we’ve just been through this crappy thing, there’s no time for front or posing. People are realising that being themselves, they can get away with it now – and it’s actually attractive.”
Accidentally on-trend and making an album for the world from their broom cupboard. That’s v Belle and Sebastian.
‘A Bit of Previous’ is released on 6 May
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/belle-and-sebastian-interview-stuart-murdoch-b2068306.html Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch: ‘I love a band. There’s nothing like it’