enjoying a Belle epoch

It is not every band who can inspire ventures in the licensing trade. But freewheeling Glaswegian octet Belle & Sebastian are not every band. Such is their global influence that a bar in Seoul, Korea, has named itself after the group and reportedly adorns its walls with their photos and its window with their album sleeves.

"It’s a modern rock bar," laughs singer Stuart Murdoch, "from the song (This Is Just A Modern Rock Song). The irony. I told my dad because I thought it was something that would give your parents an idea of how popular you are. Up until recently, every time we did a BBC session, my dad would say, ‘The BBC? Can they not give you a job, working with the tapes or something?’ When I told him we had a bar in Korea named after us that made sense to him."

It’s just another trivia titbit to add to the expanding Belle & Sebastian lore. There was a time when the most widely appreciated feature of the band was that they, and Murdoch in particular, would rarely grant interviews. Yet here he is, chatting unselfconsciously in the bar of Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, exhibiting no trace of the musician’s fear of the dictaphone (although he is palpably uncomfortable with posing for his photograph). Later, he decries "that gothic guy" (Marilyn Manson) for constructing and perpetuating a persona - Murdoch would rather communicate candidly than hide behind an image. "Life’s too short not to be honest," he remarks.

Over the past few years, fellow Belles Stevie Jackson and Isobel Campbell have come to prominence as vocalists and songwriters, but Murdoch still commands much of the fascination surrounding the group. Although an undoubtedly enigmatic figure, his character is openly exposed in his songs and in the stories he posts on the band’s website.

Far from being some sort of indie recluse, Murdoch has always been an accessible figure - writing a column in the Glasgow University Guardian, patronising the city’s public transport network on the daily quest for artistic inspiration, freely associating with other human beings and welcoming fans who have made pilgrimages from as far afield as Japan.

"There’s plenty of indie traffic," he confirms with a grin. "They turn up at the studio, at my house, at the Grosvenor Caf (semi-legendary centre of Belle & Sebastian’s universe, now sadly defunct), but not at an uncomfortable level because I don’t discourage that stuff. I’m really easy to track down."

For the first seven years of his life, Murdoch lived in Clarkston, a comfortable suburb in the deepest southside of Glasgow. He even volunteers his address there but, for fear of the present occupants being besieged by over-awed Japanese indie kids, it will not be reprinted here. His family then moved to Ayr. It would be ten years before Murdoch returned to the city to attend university. He had three failed attempts to get a degree from Glasgow University, although this did not deter him last year in his bid to become university rector. He lost out to Chewin’ The Fat’s Greg Hemphill but vows to stand again.

"Anything which ties you down to the city is a good thing," he says. "I wish I could sleep in Kelvingrove Park every night, I just want to absorb the city so much. So anything which gives you a sense of belonging ... to be rector of Glasgow University - come on!"

He recalls his student days as a period when he was "just drifting". During this time, he DJ’d at indie clubs and worked in a record shop, which he admits bore a fair resemblance to the portrait painted in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. He could never have envisaged that a decade later his band would be namechecked and his music appear in the film of the book. Because, at that stage, he had still never written a song.

"I remember trying to write a song in the mid-1980s after listening to the Smiths and the Cocteau Twins and I absolutely could not do it," he says. "About 1993 I felt a real inclination to write songs. It just came out of nowhere and became the fundamental core of my life."

Gradually Murdoch put a band together. Following the rapturous reaction to the limited edition debut album Tigermilk, Belle & Sebastian rapidly became one of the country’s biggest cult successes, loved and loathed in equal measure for their intelligent, whimsical songs and singular vision. One of pop music’s greatest recent "hello?" moments came when Belle & Sebastian beat Steps to win the 1998 Brits Best Newcomer award, the result of a hardnosed internet voting campaign waged by their partisan fans. Despite the cult adulation, Murdoch’s life hasn’t changed that much over the last five years - if you discount jetting off to Brazil to play in front of 4,000 people and suchlike. He has never moved from the flat which initially came with his day job as Hyndland Parish Church caretaker, a position he was offered shortly after waking up one morning in the early ’90s and deciding it was time to find himself a church. He has reluctantly given up his church officer duties but he still sings in the choir - "my other band" as he calls it.

"I think the Church is fabulous," he enthuses. "It gets slagged off, but the Church is magic. The vast majority of people there are really kind, some of the kindest people I’ve met. They’ll accept anybody at face value. They will give you support and friendship."

But just as it sounds like Murdoch is gearing up for his own version of YMCA , he says: "People in the Church are supposed to have this great sense of mission but I don’t have the urge to shout my head off about it. I just think it’s great that it’s there and you can go. I’ve never actually joined the Church but I know what I believe in and I do have a strong conviction, it’s just maybe less aligned than strictly Church of Scotland."

He describes the Belle & Sebastian fanbase as resembling "a church guild or a rotary club" and it was with this in mind - but mainly because he thought it would be a laugh - that Murdoch has devised a treasure hunt surrounding the band’s forthcoming live dates in Edinburgh, Manchester and London. Clues will shortly be posted on the internet and in the relevant local listings magazines, leading to some as-yet-unspecified "treasure".

Belle & Sebastian are full of these idiosyncratic ideas, seemingly dreamed up on a whim which then acquire a life of their own. Three years ago, the band organised their own festival in a holiday camp. The Bowlie Weekender at Camber Sands near Hastings was partly inspired by northern soul weekenders and partly by Murdoch’s memories of the Butlin’s camp near Ayr, where he worked for a time. It proved to be the perfect embodiment of Belle & Sebastian’s innocent, almost nostalgic approach to their art (they are named after a kids’ TV programme, after all) - as well as a rocking good time for all concerned.

"You can really do anything you want, so why not do things you enjoy?" says Murdoch. "Quite often those are childlike things. The thing I enjoy doing most of all is playing football, that’s what the week revolves around. And I was doing that when I was ten."

Back in the grown-up world, the band’s next project will be the release of their soundtrack for the recent Todd Solondz film Storytelling - little of which ended up in the film. The completed album will eventually be released in May, even if their involvement didn’t turn out to be the Midnight Cowboy or Graduate-style experience they had hoped for.

"If you ask the group to do something, you’ve got to be prepared because there’s eight people giving it everything," remarks Murdoch.

I ask him if he wishes he hadn’t formed such a potentially unwieldy band. In the early stages, Belle & Sebastian seemed to acquire a new member every week.

"You can imagine there have been tortuous times in the band, and it’s been as much down to me as anyone else. I don’t know how some of the more passive members of the band put up with it - Richard and Stevie and Mick and Chris …" He trails off. "Actually that means you can work out who’s causing the trouble," he laughs. "It’s paid off just sticking together. I love it now when we go on tour and there’s even more people around, the fiddlers and the flautist. We hardly played until last year. Around our third LP, we learned to play. It’s no small part of what the group’s about now when you get on the road with 25 folk. I think it’s great that we have this quite Vaudevillian spirit about us. If you’ve not played well, you feel ashamed."

Spoken like a true team player. Instead of the awkward wallflower of distorted popular repute, Stuart Murdoch is in the thick of the game.

Belle & Sebastian play the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 1 April.