Make way for Sylvia Plath and orchestra as indie darlings Belle and Sebastian hit the dancefloor, writes Fiona Shepherd
BELLE and Sebastian are almost 20 years old, soon to be teenagers no more. On one hand, can it really be so long since this ardently loved band arrived, gauche yet somehow fully formed, with their urban romanticism and kitchen sink odes to outsiders? On the other, this bloody-mindedly independent six-piece are sewn into the fabric of Glasgow’s music scene so completely that they have become something of a comfort blanket for lost souls, quixotic dreamers and those who just like a bit of intelligence and imagination in their musical diet.
Last summer, they were the natural choice to play the first gig at the city’s newly refurbished Kelvingrove Bandstand, marking the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games and celebrating the restoration of a fondly held but neglected west end landmark for the public good. The bandstand, that is, not the band – though violinist/vocalist Sarah Martin does agree that “we are quite a municipal band”.
There was civic pride to spare as the group jogged out on stage in matching tracksuits alongside Games mascot Clyde to play a set which just had to include their song The Stars Of Track And Field. The show felt like a homecoming, even though Belle and Sebastian had not really been away – just living, and other stuff, since the release of their last album Belle And Sebastian Write About Love in 2010.
Now there is a new album to pore over, with a typical title to conjure with. Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is the group’s ninth album in 19 years. Many bands of their vintage can barely stand to be on the same tour bus as each other, but here are the group’s main songwriters and remaining west-enders – frontman Stuart Murdoch, guitarist Stevie Jackson and the multi-instrumentalist Martin – contentedly crammed into the corner of a cosy café on Great Western Road.
However, four is definitely a crowd, so we move to a slightly roomier table and settle into a chat characterised by the easy exchanges that flow between a group of friends and colleagues of long standing. It’s like they’ve never been apart. In fact, they barely have, although Jackson released a solo album, (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson, crammed with the top tunes and cheeky pastiches which have become a signature of his work in Belle and Sebastian, and Murdoch became a father. His wife Marisa swings by later with their toddler son Denny, who is cute and quiet in the company of a stranger.
Oh yes, and Murdoch directed a feature film, which beats launching a record label or opening a state-of-the-art recording studio for extra-curricular kicks. God Help The Girl, released last summer, is the crowd-funded screen musical of the album he released in 2009 with a host of guest girl singers. Although the film was Murdoch’s (other) baby, he couldn’t resist involving his fellow Belles as music supervisors, associate producers and even in acting cameos. “Stuart managed to put me in a nurse’s costume again,” sighs Martin. Again? Is there something we should know?
“A lot of the action did take place in a hospital. Mick played an orderly,” adds Murdoch, referring to the band’s former trumpet player, Mick Cooke.
Having made it through to the other side, Murdoch now concurs with the late Bob Hoskins’ sentiment that film directing is “like being pecked to death by a thousand pigeons”.
“There’s an over-arching process in common whether you’re making a record or making a film,” he says. “There’s writing the record or film, producing the record, shooting the film and then editing and mixing. But there’s obviously very different technical skills. A film crew itself is a circus. They’re a real beast and they work harder than anything I’ve seen in music. But I would cling to the music, and that’s what kept me sane.
“Once all the hassle and craziness of the film were finally finished I was just so relieved to get back to music and being in a partnership rather than being the captain of the ship. A lot of people used to assume that I was the captain of the band but I feel much more of a partner within the band than I ever did making the film. You were always in charge with that, so it was so relaxing and such a pleasure to be able to write again. Those muscles come back to life. I’d often wake up with songs and not even have to go to guitar or piano because I just knew there was a band there, a room full of people ready, and I could imagine them playing the songs really easily.”
Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is the sound of a band at ease with themselves – which is not to say that Belle and Sebastian have merely fallen back into old patterns. The album’s first single, The Party Line, arrives with an initial jolt – the first 30 seconds are pure dancefloor fodder, the kind of throbbing rave sound more readily associated with the world’s highest paid DJs than with a cult indie band from Glasgow. Just don’t say that title wasn’t a warning – Belle and Sebastian are flirting shamelessly with electro pop.
It was Jackson, who also plays in disco covers band Disco Shark, who first joked that Belle and Sebastian should make a disco record. “It was a flippant comment,” he says, “but I think there was something of that in the air – a sense of being uptempo.”
“Dance can be freeing,” says Murdoch. “You can do artpop all you want, but it’s very difficult to turn yourself away from dance. It’s in your blood and it just helps the whole process. It’s why Joy Division turned into New Order, a caterpillar into a butterfly.”
This move to groove won’t come as such a surprise to those who have followed Belle and Sebastian’s career over the years. There’s always been a dance element to this band. At their Bandstand gig, fans were encouraged to dance onstage with Murdoch, who will often get up off his piano stool to cut some rug during their shows. In the early days of the group, band members bonded at northern soul club Goodfoot and keyboard player Chris “Beans” Geddes is a respected DJ himself. Vinyl, of course.
This may be at odds with the more popular and somewhat clichéd image of the band as awkward wallflowers, equally loved and vilified for their whimsical tales. But Murdoch rightly contends that you can embrace rather than suppress your concerns and inhibitions on the dancefloor.
“I can only speak for the songs I wrote – but it’s the same old desires and consolations, the things that move you to write,” he says. “I’ve always loved when disco said more. Smalltown Boy [Bronski Beat’s mournful 80s number about a young gay man leaving a hostile home town] is a classic example where you can be on a dancefloor at the same time as feeling great compassion for the character.”
Murdoch refuses to check Belle and Sebastian’s bookishness into the club cloakroom. With typical audacity, he has written a sleek Eurodisco album track called Enter Sylvia Plath, presumably the world’s only dancefloor filler about the celebrated suicidal poet.
“I would hope so,” says Murdoch. “I’d be really annoyed if there was another one. I wanted to write a Smalltown Boy, about that moment where literature comes along and sweeps somebody away at a certain point and it emboldens them to leave where they come from and head to the city. For this person it becomes a mania, where he’s obsessed with certain writers and actually believes that he could have saved Sylvia Plath if only he had known her and become her accomplice. It is a strange subject, but songs can be strange.”
It’s that very strangeness, that disarming, out-of-kilter quality, which has won Belle and Sebastian so many loyal fans over the years, dating back to acolytes who came on board from side one, track one of their debut album Tigermilk – a witty Smithsian story of family dynamics and religious inquiry called The State I Am In.
Tigermilk was recorded and released in the summer of 1996 by Stow College’s student-run label Electric Honey while the band was still forming. Jackson and drummer Richard Colburn had been early recruits. By the time they released follow-up If You’re Feeling Sinister, less than six months later, Martin had joined the band too. But these albums were showcases for Murdoch’s songwriting, comprising material he had written earlier in the 1990s while virtually housebound with chronic fatigue syndrome. One might argue with some justification that the band would not exist had Murdoch not succumbed to ME.
He had cause to revisit those pre-Belle and Sebastian times when writing for this new album. These days he keeps the condition in check using Chinese medicine, but he is still susceptible to post-viral dips in health. The return of those familiar debilitating symptoms evoked memories of his initial diagnosis and the succour of his friendship with fellow ME sufferer Ciara MacLaverty, who went on to feature as the cover star of If You’re Feeling Sinister as well as launching her own writing career. The result was Nobody’s Empire, the opening track of the new album and the most personal song Murdoch says he has ever written.
“I was down in the dumps so I was trying to console myself by writing about a period when I got through all that stuff,” he says. “Write a little bit of your history and make yourself like a superhero or something.”
Murdoch rarely, if ever, trades in such straightforward autobiography, preferring to play with characters and pen lyrical vignettes. Even his published diaries, The Celestial Café, is a self-confessed “poncey sort of book”, collecting his thoughts and impressionistic blog entries. Murdoch hints rather than discloses.
“When you don’t talk about it directly, it can be so many people’s experience,” he says. “Part of the point of me writing songs in the first place is knowing that there was a constituency of people that felt the same way, people who tended to get swept aside or struggle, whether it was because they were gay or getting over drug problems.”
Belle and Sebastian’s appeal to the vulnerable outsider has also made them a target for snark – most recently when some digital data-crunching by the OkCupid dating site posited B&S as the “least black band ever”.
“People will say whatever,” says Murdoch. “It’s playground stuff, but if you do write songs called Enter Sylvia Plath, you are going to polarise people.”
“People spring to your defence as well,” says Martin. “We are Marmite really.”
Fans and detractors have been having these arguments about Belle and Sebastian for years. Perhaps a more tangible measure of how far they have actually come in 19 years is their forthcoming show at the Hydro, where they will perform with the Scottish Festival Orchestra. This is by some way their biggest hometown gig to date, and it means the none-more-indie Belle and Sebastian are now officially an arena band.
“We’re not, we’re so not,” protests Martin. “Don’t sell yourself short,” says Murdoch, before conceding that “the Hydro’s a bit of an experiment. We don’t have fireworks or cannons and so our sound needs to be good. Working with an orchestra brings up the scale. That’s not a contrivance for us. A lot of our songs simply sound better when they are scored and we will make the most of that. We’re punching above our weight but hopefully we’ll be at our fighting weight. We’re going to fill that f***er. That’s the way you’ve got to think.”
• Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is released tomorrow on Matador. Belle and Sebastian play the Hydro, Glasgow, 22 May; tickets start from £30.80, see www.ticketmaster.co.uk for details