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

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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.