HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Belle And Sebastian

Sun, 1st January 2006

We turned into characters from Last Of The Summer Wine, reflecting wistfully on our better years.”

Enthused by Pitchfork’s documentary about Belle And Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, I’ve gone through my archive and posted a variety of B&S-related pieces. If you read them from earliest date first (and I think it’ll make more sense if you do), then the first one you’ll come across is a piece written when I was at Time Out magazine. The date escapes me exactly, but it was clearly shortly after the Brits – which saw a semi-covert campaign by their fans sweep them to victory in the Best Newcomers category. At this time, Belle And Sebastian were still suspicious of the media.

On the rare occasions that interviews were granted, there was no telling which members of the band would be assigned to meet their interrogators. There were no publicity pictures of the band that featured more than a couple of members. All of which, inevitably, seemed to fuel the myth. When I wrote the Time Out piece, I don’t think I bothered even trying to get an interview. Instead, I headed down to 200 Troubled Teenagers, a get-together in a New Cross pub held in Belle And Sebastian’s honour. DJs played records by the band and other kindred artists. There was a mini-fanzine and questionnaire given out to those who attended.

Three years later, as Belle And Sebastian prepared to release their soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, I had just started writing the occasional piece for The Times. I made a speculative enquiry about an interview to tie in with the release of the record and was told, to my surprise, that Stuart Murdoch would like to meet me in the cafeteria at the British Museum. In a long and reasonably frank interview, he spoke about the years before Belle And Sebastian which saw him laid low with M.E., stopping just short of actually naming the illness. Conscious that Stuart had never agreed to an interview with a national newspaper before, I tried to put the “cult” of Belle And Sebastian in some sort of empathetic context. The piece that ran bore only a passing resemblance to the feature I submitted, including one sentence which claimed that even the band’s own publicist didn’t know what they looked like. I wish I had the original draft of that feature, but it disappeared a long time ago, along with the faulty hard drive that stored it. When I met Stuart again in 2006, Belle And Sebastian were about to release their second album for Rough Trade. They no longer refused to release singles that were already on albums. I guess you could say they were playing the game a little more. Like many post-C86 indie kids, I wished that they had been able to keep those battle lines drawn, but then again, it’s not like I was holding any of my other favourite artists to similarly high account. These days, it feels to me that Belle & Sebastian are a slightly different entity to that of their earlier years. I suspect that once Stuart had emptied out the bank of songs accumulated during his M.E. years and started writing from a place of greater emotional stability, he cut himself a little slack; made a conscious decision not to get too hung up on returning to the mindset that yielded those early albums. The distance he afforded himself between the early Belle And Sebastian records and the group’s more recent recordings meant he could appreciate Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister in the same way that his fans could. The group’s performance of the latter album at The Barbican (reviewed on this site) – just ten years after it came out – suggested as much. As, of course, does his involvement in the Pitchfork documentary. Also featured among the Belle & Sebastian articles on this site is an unabridged Mojo review of the B&S-curated Bowlie 2 Weekender in 2002 and a mildly excruciating interview with former B&S multi-instrumentalist Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, conducted a few months after the release of their Mercury-nominated album Ballad Of The Broken Seas.

Stuart Murdoch wants to know if I’ve been to Glasgow Tor before – at least that’s what I think he’s asking. So, having not previously been aware that Glasgow had a Tor, I tell him that no I haven’t – although I did once walk up to the one at Glastonbury. “Sorry?” says Belle And Sebastian’s frontman. Glastonbury Tor, I say. The stone edifice that overlooks Glastonbury. Then, Murdoch laughs the first of several high, helium giggles over the course of couple of hours. “No, no! Glasgow at all! Have you been to Glasgow at all?”

Given that he’s marching up Kelvingrove Park – one of the city’s sharper inclines – at a purposeful pace, it’s fair for a stranger to assume that if this walk doesn’t end in an asthma attack, it’ll end in a monument. As it happens, it’s neither. This is the shortest route from the band’s studio to The Uisge Beatha. Murdoch’s favourite pub is one where his favourite whiskey (Spring Bank) is served in a straight glass with no ice by a bar manager with whom he appears to be on first name terms.

“How was your new year?” she asks. “Rowdy.” Comes his response, “I was deejaying in Brighton. It was quite a nice change, not knowing anyone. Yeah, it was good to get away.” Getting away, according to Belle And Sebastian’s frontman, is crucial for a man’s psychic well-being. He says he’s been feeling precisely that urge lately, thanks to the inevitable schedule that comes with the release of a new album. “I get in bad moods when I go for a long periods without being allowed to wander and go at my own pace, and right now is one of these times.”

It has to be said you wouldn’t necessarily know it by talking to him – or indeed, by listening to Belle And Sebastian’s spry seventh album. The Life Pursuit is not an absolute departure. The group’s loyal fanbase will find succour in typically Murdochian tales like the boy in Act Of The Apostle who leaves his hometown in search of an audience with the presenter of her favourite religious radio programme; or the true story of Sukie In The Graveyard, whose desire to partake in the art school scene sees her living the life by day and sleeping in the college rafters at night.

But if these narratives of young folk attempting to seize their destiny follow a familiar pattern, it’s no longer fair to dismiss Belle And Sebastian as torch-bearers for a strain of indie music that appeals primarily to fey indie librarians. Under the guidance of producer Tony Hoffer (Air, Beck) the septet oscillate with ease between ripe seventies pop (The Blues Are Still Blue) and featherlight blue-eyed soul (Song For Sunshine). Somewhere along the line, it seems that the middle of the road claimed Belle And Sebastian, and it rather suits them.

By his own admission, the 37 year-old singer says you’ll find him primarily in a pop place at the moment – to the bewilderment of his girlfriend Marissa, who has had to put up with his recent crush on Fern Kinney’s 1980 chart-topper Together We Are Beautiful. Having just gotten into downloading, Erasure’s A Little Respect and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun are two of several old hits he’s recently retrieved from the web. “iTunes?” I ask. “Um, Limewire,” comes the mildly sheepish admission (Limewire is iTunes’ less-than-legal file-sharing relation). However, in mitigation, he adds, “I noticed that everyone’s frigging downloading our bloody album – so if there’s one person who deserves to download some old tunes…”

It’s not just other people’s tunes he’s prone to get nostalgic about. At rehearsals for the group’s forthcoming tour, he says it’s the old songs he’s enjoyed playing the most – favourites from the brace of quietly breathtaking albums which thrust cult acclaim upon Murdoch. He waxes effusively about the group’s recent Barbican show when they played the entirety of 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. “It was funny to hear certain journalists previewing the show referring to that album as a ‘classic’ – especially when they were the same people who gave it four out of ten in the NME.” He momentarily catches himself sounding aggrieved and laughs. “When my dad saw the NME review, he phoned me up and said, ‘Does that mean you’ve got to do it again?’”

In all likelihood that tendency to lose himself in past-tense reveries has always been there. He seems faintly amused by aspects of his early twenties when – having fallen victim to M.E. – he abandoned his degree at Glasgow university and moved back to the family home in Ayr, before returning once again to live with his friend Michael. “He was also part of the city’s M.E. hardcore,” smiles Murdoch. “It was here that “we turned into characters from Last Of The Summer Wine, reflecting wistfully on our better years!”

In the words of his teenage hero Morrissey, he can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible. Murdoch’s present outlook, it seems couldn’t be further removed from the low years, between 1989 and 1986,when Murdoch even tried complementary therapy in his attempts to escape the “Kafka-esque” plight of an illness which most doctors were reluctant to even acknowledge. “The lowest point,” he remembers, came when – desperate for some relief – he found himself “in the house of one guy who tried passing an electrical current between myself and various foodstuffs.”

On the band’s first single, Dog On Wheels, Murdoch could be heard lamenting the condition that made him so tired that he would just lay down on the pavement – an episode that happened to him and Michael when the two decided to blow their meagre savings on a restorative trip to California. “We couldn’t bear another Glasgow winter, so we decided we would leave for as long as we could manage.” In their attempting to “get the circulation going”, the finally regained some warmth in their feet, but they found it impossible to escape the debilitating effect of their condition. “In San Fransisco, we were like down and outs there,” remembers Murdoch, “My main memory is of the homeless people trying to help us when we were getting down for some rest.”

Needless to say, it was under wholly different circumstances that Murdoch returned to California last summer. While decamping to the sunshine state to record The Life Pursuit, Belle And Sebastian registered an important anniversary. Ten years had elapsed since Belle And Sebastian got their first break – thanks to the Glasgow music management course attended by drummer Richard Colburn, where students had to “discover” a band and oversee the release of their first album. The completion of the cycle wasn’t lost on Murdoch, whose facility for nostalgia has already marked 2005 as “a classic summer.”

“Wherever we are in the world,” he explains, “if we can get a regular game of football going, then it’s always ok.” And so, prior to leaving Glasgow to begin work on The Life Pursuit, Murdoch posted up a message on Belle And Sebastian’s website, asking if there was anyone in L.A. willing to engage in a kickabout. Within a few days, the group’s manager Neil received an email from an unlikely fan calling himself “Robbie Williams (ex-Take That)”. “We thought it was a wind-up at first,” recalls Murdoch, “but then Neil called the number and it turned out to be his assistant. I have to say, it was one of the elements that made recording the album such a pleasure, because we had a regular game with Robbie and all these other British expats every Sunday.”

Murdoch is swift to praise Williams’ “positional sense” – and, indeed, it seems that the feeling is mutual. “I noticed that he would always pick me for his team. I think he figured early on that I had an engine?” A what? “You know, I was quite fit for my age. I haven’t got a bad word to say about him. He’s very charming and a really nice host.”

Most bands, after a decade spent doing the same thing, have allowed themselves at least one self-pitying song about the treadmill of band life: the upheaval; the pressure to deliver; the homesickness. The nearest Belle And Sebastian have got is, 2003’s I’m A Cuckoo, a song about its creator’s yearning to be back on the road. It’s as though the energy denied him in during his M.E. years is the creative fuel which runs his life in Belle And Sebastian. It’s a view with which he seems to concur. Asked to contrast here and now with there and then, he likens himself to Prince Caspian in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. “Have you read it? He’s strapped to this chair for years. Eventually, when he breaks the enchantment, he’s rescued. It’s not as though there aren’t bleak times ahead – but from that moment on, everything to him is a game. Because he escaped the chair.”