Glaswegian indie-pop band Belle and Sebastian is something of a rare breed in today’s music landscape. The revolving cast of musicians—with frontman Stuart Murdoch and a handful of foundational members remaining constant—has released nine studio albums, several EPs and rare B-sides. They have garnered consistent critical acclaim (though not entirely met with commercial success) and have an ability to evolve their sound without losing the bookish vulnerability that won them initial success. Plus, the band got their start in the most unlikely of ways: as part of a college’s music business project. We caught up with indie OG and frontman Stuart Murdoch following the release of the band’s 2015 release Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance to talk creative risks and what it means for a band when nobody is buying music.
Far, far from his home in Glasgow, Murdoch is posted up in a hotel in what might be the world’s most remote major city, Perth in Western Australia, touring in support of the band’s new record. Having released Belle and Sebastian’s first album in 1996, Murdoch has a valuable perspective on the music business, in the sense that he started when album sales were the driving commercial force for musicians. “The fact is, we used to be able to sit in Glasgow and make records ourselves because there were enough people buying music that we didn’t have to tour,” Murdoch says. “We were free to experiment, we were free to make record after record to our heart’s content.” And that’s where the lion’s share of the band’s discography lies. A string of acclaimed and evergreen records that are as poignant today as they were 10 years ago were made seemingly back to back.
“At the time we didn’t know any other way and it helped that we had the music pouring out of us. I was pretty prolific back then and being in a band was quite a new thing; it was a great adventure. Everybody was really into making lots of records,” Murdoch says. “We would like to be able to do that now, but we have to tour so that the band can continue as an entity. There’s no chance that we can just sit in Glasgow and make the records we want to make. Again, that’s directly affected how we do business.” As record sales fell across the industry, the impetus to tour came in order to continue releasing new material. Playing into the need for greater publicity and exposure ultimately means a decreased output of creative material. “In all the time that I’ve talked about how this new record was made, if this was the past then we’d have already made another record,” Murdoch adds.
However, this rearrangement of priorities hasn’t taken away the joy of creating new material for Murdoch, who released his first feature-length film last fall, “God Help the Girl.” In fact, the band has grown increasingly bold in the risks it takes musically. Far from seeking to reinvent themselves or reach a new demographic, the band is simply following its creative instincts. “This time around we did what came natural to us and people perceived a change, which is nice you know, but I guess we’re just getting a little bit older,” Murdoch explains. “There were a couple songs there where we didn’t know if they would come off until we got to the end. Actually it’s debatable whether they did come off.” For Murdoch though, the most interesting aspects of music are the unexpected ones—when a folksinger takes a risk with a synth or a metal band goes for an acoustic ballad. “There’s still enough of the band’s sound in there or the philosophy and I’m usually still into it,” he says.
A listen to Belle and Sebastian’s discography reveals a wide array of influences. Literary lyrics mingle with NSFW-imagery and upbeat acoustic tracks run alongside full-on pop epics. However Murdoch isn’t one to name names when it comes to influences. “By the time you come to write an album, you’re not really consciously thinking of other music,” he explains. “You’re just sort of letting your own music flow out. I always sort of pause, because it’s kind of misleading when you name names.” Murdoch worked for many years as the caretaker of a church; spirituality is a major theme in the band’s works. “Not so much the church, but your own spiritual life influences the writing. The spiritual life that you lead day-to-day.” This influential period in Murdoch’s life has not waned in the power it holds over his music. Instead, time it seems has only served to heighten the importance of earlier experience. “Sometimes when I’m touching on influences or when I’m thinking about writing, it’s all from things I’ve read years and years ago,” Murdoch says. “Sometimes things loom larger from that time.”
Images courtesy of Matador Records