The State I Am In: Stuart Murdoch on Every Belle and Sebastian Album

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Halfway through our phone call, Stuart Murdoch, sitting outside at Austin–Bergstrom International Airport, lets out an abrupt, “Oh wow,” followed by, “Oh goodness.” He breaks away momentarily. “There’s two little puppies here come to see me,” Murdoch finally declares. “That’s amazing. They’re just stretching their legs, they’ve been on a flight. Hi guys, hi guys.”

It would be easy to peg this as the most “Belle and Sebastian thing ever” in the context of an interview with the twee outfit’s frontman and main songwriter, but going through their 18-year discography, which was reissued on vinyl by Matador last week under the banner It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career, it becomes clear that there isn’t a perfect paradigm for Belle and Sebastian. Though it undercuts their influence, maybe Murdoch himself best summed it up in 1998’s “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song”: “This is just a modern rock song/ This is just a sorry lament/ We’re four boys in our corduroys/ We’re not terrific, but we’re competent!/ Stevie’s full of good intentions/ Richard’s into rock and roll/ Stuart’s staying in ’cause he thinks it’s a sin/ That he has to leave the house at all.”

With the Scottish group’s ninth album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, scheduled for January 20, looking back at their indie-pop gems makes sense at the moment. So that’s exactly what we did, going through each album with Murdoch’s color commentary.

“We are already playing a few of the songs now… and so far so good,” Murdoch says of the new album. “It’s our first record with Matador, and we haven’t been very busy in the last two years, so it’s a big record for us. Every record is a big record, but maybe every ten years, there is sort of a make-or-break record. Catastrophe Waitress [from 2003] was a make-or-break record, and this one is as well. It will be interesting to see what happens.”

Flavorwire: The first Belle and Sebastian song I ever heard was “I Could Be Dreaming.” I downloaded it from Napster when I was a freshman in college. It was sort of a weird introduction to the band, because it’s more rock and roll than a lot of your earlier material, especially compared to the rest of your 1996 debut Tigermilk, although that album does have a lot of different sounds (“Electronic Renaissance” for example). Do you think of “I Could Be Dreaming” as an oddball on Tigermilk?

Stuart Murdoch: I think perhaps you’ve already answered it, because you might ask, ‘What was typical Belle and Sebastian?’ And people love to pigeonhole you, and say, ‘This is your sound’ or ‘That’s your sound.’ Of course there were softer moments on that record, there were aesthetics, there was a sensibility, but at the same time, we were a group of people with different tastes. It wasn’t just about sensitivity, it wasn’t just about intimate moments. “I Could Be Dreaming” was really one thing in our arsenal, and “Electronic Renaissance” was really quite a different thing, but really that all added up to what I wanted Belle and Sebastian to be.

Now, almost 20 years later, the song from that record that sticks out most is “My Wandering Days Are Over.” There is something timeless in that one that I never tire of, the way it builds to the second chorus, gets a little bit louder throughout — it’s a mini-epic.

I think that was a key song. I remember writing it, and at the time we weren’t sure if we were going to do an album, because the college [Electric Honey, Stow College’s student-run record label] wanted us just to do a single. For me, the main track was “My Wandering Days,” which I’d just written, and I thought we could do an EP just based around that, and then it became the album, and building the album to that song. It appears at track number eight I think, and it’s a longer track. And we still play it. I love to play that one live, because it goes on a journey, and it became something quite unexpected in the studio. A lot of the recording and arrangements were completely planned, but “My Wandering Days” came about with this extended outro, and people were just playing over it, and it became this layer of sound. In a sense, that was the first time the individuals of Belle and Sebastian made themselves known.

We’re talking 1996 when that album came out, and the Internet definitely didn’t exist like it does now. Only 1,000 copies of Tigermilk were pressed initially, on a college-run record label in Glasgow. It’s amazing through today’s expectations that people even heard it.

Well, that’s what people did. It’s like asking your grandparents what they did before they had bathrooms in the house, and they had to go outside. People had to make do. I remember, I was a fan of music in the ’80s, and I remember hearing about The Stone Roses for the first time, and this was way before they put out their debut album, and I just heard about this great new band. This is word of mouth, from people that had been in Manchester and heard about this great band and seen them play. So, word of mouth worked, and it still works. I think it’s underrated, because I don’t go see a movie or hear a band without hearing about it directly. 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.

A lot of people heard 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister because of that word of mouth. That was probably the first Belle and Sebastian album most people heard, and it ended up being an album that’s often seen on various publications’ lists of the best albums ever made. That must be a trip to consider one of your own albums held in the same regard, right next to music you love so much, like The Smiths and The Stone Roses. You could put Sinister on a list with those artists and it wouldn’t seem out of place.

Personally, I wouldn’t. When I see it on a list of classic albums, I think it is a bit of an anomaly. It’s like, ‘What’s that doing there?’ Have you seen the Woody Allen film Zelig?

I haven’t.

Well, he turns up in all these places in history, like The Last Supper, and it’s like this odd person being photoshopped into a famous picture. Sometimes, if I see our album sitting side by side with a Smiths album or a Dinosaur Jr. album, it just feels like it shouldn’t be there. It certainly is a strong bit of songs. I knew that at the time. I knew what we had, that it was a well-conceived piece, and that the songs were strong. We were always a little disappointed in the recording of it, but then, we had something in common with the Beatles and groups of the 1960s — i.e. we just recorded something and then moved on. At that time, we were making something like two albums a year, so we were moving at a good pace.

Speaking specifically of the recording, I think of the bookends — “The Stars of Track and Field” and “Judy and the Dream of Horses” — and how those songs come alive in different ways now when you play them live. They speak to how they could have sounded if you’d had a bigger recording budget, perhaps. Not that they don’t sound great on the album, but live, there is an enormity to those songs now.

Sure, yeah. I don’t really like enormous things, but I like good sounding things. We played “Stars of Track and Field” last night to 15 or 20 thousand people in Austin, and I loved it. When I announced it, I said “we’re gonna play this song, it’s 20 years old, and I still don’t really know what it’s about.” And then we launch into “Stars of Track and Field,” it still gives me pleasure to play those songs. It still feels real to me.

Your third album, 1998’s The Boy with the Arab Strap, brings me back to my first Scottish friend, Davey. I remember finding this album in his collection, and he liked pop and disco and a bunch of stuff I didn’t know, but he obviously thought of back home when he thought of Belle and Sebastian. When you think of Scotland and Scottish music, how big of an influence is your home on your music, specifically on Arab Strap?

Well, this is true of many writers perhaps, but their homeland or home is captured best on their first album or albums. Because, what happens, if you become a successful group, is you tour and see more of the world. So, the first two albums were very geographical, and when we play the songs from Sinister, I can still remember exactly where I was when I wrote the songs, in different parts of Glasgow. By the time of Arab Strap, the band was venturing off to London, to England, and made our first trip to New York. So, this is almost the opposite of what your experience is, where the title track is actually the first track I wrote in London, about an exchange in London. And Stevie, he wrote “Chickfactor” about a visit to New York, and “Seymour Stein” is about the music executive that came to Glasgow to visit us. So, it is a little bit more of us actually getting out and seeing the world.

I spoke with Chvrches last year about the musical heroes they had growing up in Glasgow — how Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and Mogwai have grown bigger than the city. When you look at bands coming out of Glasgow now, do you see your influence at all?

No. Well, I do like Scottish bands. When Chvrches first came on the scene, I thought they were amazing. I was lucky that someone was remixing one of our songs was also remixing their second single [“Recover”], and I wandered in and I happened to ask what else he was working on, and I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a classic. It’s difficult to do. When you’ve been in music this long, you know what a classic record sounds like, and their second single was that. So immediately we asked them to play with us. I pay attention when a band comes out and I’m proud they are from Scotland, and I try to go and see up-and-coming bands in Glasgow. I certainly enjoy that more than seeing big established bands.

2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant gets less attention than the other albums, but songs like “There’s Too Much Love” and “Women’s Realm” are both solid entries in your catalogue. Do you feel Fold Your Hands is overlooked?

Oh yeah, and for reasons of the media, etc. It was possibly our own fault, and the unique set of circumstances made that album not heard by as many people. We put more effort into that album than any other album. It was a transitional record. We basically recorded that album at least twice, and it was a very difficult process. We were all moving in different directions. Some of us were trying to be more ambitious, some of us just couldn’t be bothered. And by the end of the process, I was so ill that I couldn’t go on tour. So, the album just sneaked out, and when an album sneaks out like that, it gives off the impression that you don’t really care about it. But we did passionately. It was the last gasp of Belle and Sebastian mark 1, and with that record, by the end of it, there was a blueprint for mark 2. We still perform many of those songs nowadays, and they sound super strong when we play them. We were just exhausted at the time, but “The Model,” “Women’s Realm,” “There’s Too Much Love” — they’re all good live songs, and they have these string arrangements with woodwinds that were a departure for us, and was something we kept pursuing.

2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress was the first Belle and Sebastian record I bought when it came out. I was a bartender at that time and would put it on at work at the restaurant; the title track in particular was the perfect soundtrack for that hectic kind of atmosphere. Moreover, it’s probably the most singular album in your catalog.

Well, in a sense it was similar to Fold Your Hands, except what happened with this record was we learned from the bad experience of making that record and knew what we needed to do, we needed to get a producer so we could have fun again. Instead of worrying about the sound, we could focus on performance and arrangements and the songs themselves. and let the producer worry about the tedious things. We just needed help. And so we had a lot of fun making that record, and we went to London to make it. Everybody was really enthusiastic, and we just had a great time.

Also included in these reissues is Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, which compiles the singles and B-sides that didn’t appear on any of the LPs. If you listen to that as a standalone album, it sounds so strong because it is all these key B&S songs, like “String Bean Jean” and “Lazy Line Painter Jane.” Are there any particular songs from those singles that you ever feel got shortchanged for not appearing on a proper LP?

It’s funny, I’ve never thought about it that way. It was a very particular thing that after we recorded two albums, we were ready to record another one straight away after Sinister, so we thought, ‘Let’s have some fun, let’s try to make the best singles we can.’ So we recorded a bunch of tracks and we picked the A-sides and we made EPs. So it was a very deliberate choice, so there was no thought that we were somehow wasting these songs. It was a conscious thing and I wouldn’t have changed that for anything. The one song that was an anomaly was “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song” because we recorded it the same week that we recorded Sinister, but I felt that it didn’t fit on the record. It was this ten-minute long song and I already had the tracklisting for Sinister. So, I just put that one aside and we ended up putting it out later.

2006’s The Life Pursuit had these big rock and roll songs with a slight T-Rex vibe to them, like “The Blues Are Still Blue” and “Sukie in the Graveyard.” It was a great, interesting turn. Was that something that was hiding in your back pocket that you had been waiting to do?

Yeah, at this time, you know, we were all in love with pop music and old rock and roll records. I think this happens to most bands eventually, where they just admit that it’s in their bloodstream that they want to embrace pop history, but it was never a kinetic thing. I didn’t think, ‘Oh I want to write a Bowie-esque thing’ and come up with “Sukie in the Graveyard.” I had the idea for that song on the way into practice, and by the time I got there, I had written all the words, and by ten minutes into practice, the song was complete. It was a very natural process, and was just where the band was at at the time. We had toured a lot, and so everybody was playing well, so there was a natural exuberance about it.

On your most recent album, 2010’s Write About Love, some of the strongest songs are the ones where you’re not on lead vocals: “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “I Can See Your Future,” specifically. Plus, you incorporated guest vocalists on the album, like Norah Jones and Carey Mulligan. It certainly isn’t the first time you’ve taken a backseat on songwriting and vocals, but there it was more noticeable because the songs were so strong where you did.

Yeah, for me, as a person, it has been a bit of shepherding the band through various stages. I don’t mean to be too arrogant, but sometimes when you make an album as a band, you are being a producer as well as a band member. You can see the great songs written by other people and you just want to be a part of it. It’s all very much a part of the Belle and Sebastian oeuvre. Does it seem unnatural that the album should start with that song by Sarah Martin [“I Didn’t See It Coming”]?

It doesn’t to me. That’s my favorite song on the album.

Sure, it doesn’t feel unnatural to me either, because sure, it’s produced by a bunch of people, it’s made out of this process and it’s very personal, but at the same time, she’s written it for the group, in the same way that I wrote “Sukie in the Graveyard” for the group. We wouldn’t have written these songs if the group wasn’t there.

It also made sense to lead the album, because you debuted it live before the album came out. “I Didn’t See It Coming” was very instant in its grip.

I think, to be honest, most great songs are pretty instant. Maybe that’s just me, but I can tell straight away if I like something.

But there are some that take warming up to. I think of those dogs you saw. When a dog doesn’t like you at first but later warms up, it means more. Music can be like that.

Yeah, or people sometimes.