Wednesday 23 October 2019

'It's best not think about the bigger picture'

Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch tells our reporter about falling out of love with NME, how his religion feeds into the band's sound and why they've returned to releasing EPs

Creative urges: Singer Stuart Murdoch has branched out into film and writing
Creative urges: Singer Stuart Murdoch has branched out into film and writing
John Meagher

John Meagher

For anyone born after, say, 1995 the appeal of the NME - which has just ceased printing after 60-odd years - may be impossible to fathom. There's a chance that even music-obsessed early twenty-something digital natives may have had no cause to peruse its pages or even look at its online edition.

But for Stuart Murdoch - Belle and Sebastian founder and main-man who is set to turn 50 later this year - the music magazine was nothing short of a portal to a better, cooler, more glamorous world.

"Was I a devotee? Absolutely."

He's speaking to Review from Cardiff where the band are set to play that night.

"I used to get up at 6.30 on a Wednesday - that's when it came to Scotland - and run to the newsagent to get the NME and pour through the pages. It was my only source of information from the outside world. I loved the writers, and, obviously I loved the bands."

The Scot came of age when the Smiths and English indie was in its pomp and the NME has a huge part of the conversation. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies every week then and few could have imagined a future without it.

But Murdoch's love affair with the publication would end around the time his own band started to feature on it in the late 1990s.

"Fast-forward 10 years and you see the other side," he says, "and then I learned that I didn't really want any part of it for our band because the writers at that time felt they could form opinion, and it almost felt then that the bands were in their pockets. I didn't like that - they want to pull your strings, they want to make you dance - and so we took a step to the side from that sort of thing."

It's an instructive anecdote because playing the game has never been the Belle and Sebastian way. Ever since the release of their debut album Tigermilk in 1996 - recorded, it should be pointed out, as part of music business course Murdoch was doing in a now defunct Glasgow college - they have studiously done things their way. And in their early days that meant releasing no singles, doing no interviews and not bothering with such basics as band photos.

"We've been very lucky, to be able to stay one step off the red line, in monetary terms - to keep the party going - and we've been able to do what we want," he says. "And we've label and management support that absolutely allows us to do that. But it has to be said that that trust and confidence is something we've earned over the years."

There have been marked changes in style and approach and some key personnel have gone, too, including Murdoch's former partner, Isobel Campbell. She went on to release a trio of albums with Mark Lanegan.

Their latest release - How to Solve Our Human Problems - is a collection of three EPs, all released within a few months of each other.

It demonstrates just how difficult it is to pigeonhole the band today and Murdoch is especially pleased with how it has been received. "They've had more attention than our last few records and it's made people focus on the actual tracks that bit more.

"We used to release EPs quite a bit in the beginning. It was a bit like what the Smiths used to do - and there would be this big emphasis on the lead track. But, as a band, it's a cool way to work because it's so unlike making an album - it takes the pressure off a bit and you can try different things, like a range of different producers. Also, you can't ignore the fact that with streaming and so on, people seem to be embracing shorter bursts of music."

It was the first body of work entirely recorded in Glasgow for more than a decade.

"For the past four LPs, we travelled abroad to work with a specific producer or production team, and it's such a different feel - it's almost like being in camp. This time, we were back home and recording whenever we felt like it. It was a lovely ad hoc way of going about things - and, unlike in the past when we'd used a big studio, that's now gone, we recorded the tracks in several different places around the city." Staying put made sense for Murdoch as he is now the father of two young boys. "I don't trawl the bars as much as I used to," he says, laconically.

Their latest European tour - which concludes in Dublin next week - has seen the band dip into all facets of their career. They play at least one song per album most nights.

"I think it's probably more satisfying for us as a band and for the audience to play a wide range of material. We were only talking about this at dinner yesterday… we were thinking of Sonic Youth and how, when they brought out an album, they pretty much played the whole album. That's a bit anathema to us.

"And, to be honest, it would be pretty hard to play all the songs from the three EPs as faithfully as we could because they're so catholic - there's such a big range of stuff in there."

Murdoch seems to be one of those creative people who succeeds irrespective of what discipline he attempts. His 2010 diary collection, The Celestial Café, was well received and there was considerable praise for 2014's God Help the Girl, the whimsical musical feature film he wrote and directed.

He says the latter was the most arduous creative endeavour of his life. "So much can go wrong," he says, with a laugh. "As a director, you're responsible for everything. You've none of that pressure in a band, or nothing like the pressure, but there is something very rewarding about seeing the finished film."

He says he hopes to make another film. "I was pretty young when I started that project and it took me ages to get it to fruition. It was quite a delicate and naïve thing and I'd like to put my grown-up head back into something else.

"If you have the creative urge, it's amazing where a slight turn to the left or right can take you. I'm very flexible about where I can go with things."

Murdoch's religious beliefs have fed their way into several Belle and Sebastian songs and it's a road he is keen to explore further. "I go to church a lot and I love church music and one of these days I want to write an arrangement that opens with a choir singing something glorious and uplifting."

He says he is happy with life now. "As a band, I think we're in a really good place. We tried to embrace the commercial around 2005 and 2006" - Buggles' founder Trevor Horn produced a pair of albums and on 2010's Belle and Sebastian Write About Love they collaborated with such heavyweights as Norah Jones and Carey Mulligan - "but I think we've come around to thinking that it's best to just write good songs and not think of the bigger picture."

Belle and Sebastian play Vicar Street, Dublin on March 26 and 27. Support is from the excellent Julien Baker

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