Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Illustrated Guide To... Belle And Sebastian

Truth be told, we were initially going to do an Illustrated Guide on the Smiths, given this new compilation is out, but... well, it's a well worn path, isn't it? So many books, papers, articles, thinkpieces, conference minutes and scrawled notes have been penned on the whole story from New York Dolls letters to Severed Alliance and beyond that by now you can probably come up with a decent explanation yourselves that references working class mores, prosthlytising, English poetry, gender roles, kitchen sink dramas and the significance of daffodils.

Belle & Sebastian, though... well, they're another matter. Their initial cross-sectioned core audience, the sort of people who'll snap up the newly issued The BBC Sessions compilation covering 1996 to 2001, are much the same people Steven and Johnny spoke to ten, fifteen years earlier, but they went about it in a markedly different way. Theirs is a land bred, like the Smiths, on paperbacks and filmic realism but also a certain other sub-coolness, one very much Scottish in its musical appropriation of Postcard and the first six years of Creation, of adolescent confusion and emotions often rather than sexual awakening. That, of course, it what makes manly male men hate their guts and write long thinkpieces about infantilisation, just before saying yes to carrying out a seperate piece that would embarrass Smash Hits' editorial staff, but at the same time enfranchises large groups of people searching for lyrical identification. In many ways, they were - maybe are, but definitely were - a knowing throwback to an earlier, less column inch grasping age. It's not as straightforward as all that, but that's how it often appears.

Stuart Murdoch was born in 1968 in Ayrshire, second son of a merchant navy officer and a nurse. A bookish sort from a young age, his first musical loves were, unrepossessingly, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy before a detour into Yes. A college amateur boxer and athlete, he fitfully studied physics at Glasgow University, where he discovered the local music scene of years earlier as well as the Smiths and Felt, before falling victim in his third year to an extended bout of M.E. and being forced to drop out. While housebound he started tinkering with the piano his parents had earlier pushed him into learning, and shorn of outside communication in his own words "I started writing songs because I had to".

Even those early songs rang like poems for the lonely, we suppose understandably, Murdoch's aim being to write intimate songs that touched people in the way those of Morrissey and Lawrence Hayward had touched him. When in recovery Murdoch formed a duo called Lisa Helps The Blind for open mike spots and in 1994 enrolled on a Training For Work unemployment course called Beatbox, designed to help budding musicians become familiar with the business, with the carrot of studio time at the end. It was here that he met Stuart David Black, a Tom Waits, Bowie and Japan fan who dropped his surname for pop nominature glamour reasons, and the pair bonded over music and Catcher In The Rye. The pair formed another band, Rhode Island, with David's flatmate Richard Colburn, a drummer and failed snooker semi-pro, and another member of Beatbox, trumpeter Mick Cooke. Colburn was enrolled on a seperate course that would change everything.

Stow College, Glasgow is traditionally an engineering seat of learning, but also runs a HNC (the Scottish equivalent of a university HND) in Music Industry Management. The central task sees the students run every aspect of the Electric Honey label, leading up to a single or EP, under the tutelage of the Associates' Alan Rankine. The label has a more than decent hit rate - the year after the album we're coming to the triumphant release was Starfighter Pilot by Polarbear, who after legal advice on signing a proper deal changed their name to Snow Patrol, while in 2000 the label put out the thekidswhopoptodaywillrocktomorrow EP by students students Ben and James Johnston's band Biffy Clyro. (Wake The President, who we've featured on STN in the past, have put out two 7"s through the label, the first band to be invited back for more) Colburn took in a Rhode Island demo, although Rankine had already come across Murdoch and David through Beatbox, and everyone was smitten with the results. The trio were summarily invited to a full recording session in 1996, although Murdoch decided they needed a proper name and chose Belle & Sebastian, a name he'd been toying with for a while and had had demos played on BBC Radio Scotland's alternative show under (Cecile Aubrey, who wrote the books the cartoon series was named after, only found out circa The Boy With The Arab Strap and according to Murdoch took some convincing to let them carry on with the name)

As 1995 drew towards its close devout Christian and former choir singer Murdoch took a flat above a church hall on condition that he also become church officer, cleaning, gardening and doing odd jobs, a position he held until able to become a full time musician in 2001. He also went about getting a full band together, the first person asked being guitarist Stevie Jackson, previously of the Moondials, a country outfit who had been earlier Electric Honey beneficiaries, and MC at open mic nights Rhode Island/Lisa Helps The Blind had played. Keyboard player Chris Geddes came on loan from local legends and briefly nationally lauded V-Twin, trumpeter Mick Cooke was hired (although he couldn't be named as an official member until The Boy With The Arab Strap as his other band Hardbody were signed to Epic) and on New Year's Day 1996 Murdoch was introduced by another V-Twin member to cellist Isobel Campbell, known as Bel to everyone. As he'd just written a story called Belle & Sebastian, with the Sebastian character loosely based on himself, and was toying with renaming his band after it you can't help feeling planets were suddenly aligning in strange ways.

Electric Honey was only set up to release EPs at most, but Rankine was so impressed by Murdoch's songs that he suggested a full album if they could record it in five days. Belle & Sebastian, as in a Murdoch/Jackson/David/Campbell/Colburn formation, played their first show at a house party in January, witnessed by Mark Jones of Jeepster Records, a young indie label whose A&R man was a Stow enrollee. What became Tigermilk, named after its cover photo starring an ex-flatmate of Murdoch's and a toy tiger, was recorded in March almost entirely as live and completed inside three days. A thousand vinyl copies were printed up - the most expensive eBay sale years later would clock in at £810 - as well as a good number of promotional issues, which attracted interest from a horde of labels as well as, at Murdoch's careful insistence, Morrissey and Lawrence, the latter replying and turning up to their first London gig. John Peel and Mark Radcliffe also received promos and were instantly smitten, Radcliffe inviting them down to Manchester for two sessions that year. Especially for the time, it reopened ideas and ideals nobody else seemed to be foraging at the time - Nick Drake arrangements on a budget, character studies more nuanced than Albarn's, dark humour, a delicately imaginative world arriving fully formed. From this blogged and torrented distance, it's hard to imagine an album, no matter how small its release, gaining such a fervour around what it might sound like.

The State I Am In (BBC session version)

Sarah Martin arrived along the way on violin through mutual friends in - a-ha! - V-Twin. Second being nowhere, Murdoch opened negotiations with Jeepster ahead of many a more revered and powerful label and by the summer of that year had a new set of songs ready. In August everyone reconvened at Ca Va Studios in Glasgow under the producer/engineer eye of Tony Doogan (also Mogwai, Delgados, Malcolm Middleton, Young Knives, Dirty Pretty Things) for If You're Feeling Sinister, nearly titled Falling Sentry Blades or, erm, Cock Fun (a title he reported to both Jeepster and Peel in correspondence). Treading much the same stylistic ground as Tigermilk, it feels more at home and of a piece, lyrically suggesting courtship confusion, religious anxieties and a general ambience again out of specific time and place. Although an audience favourite, it's never been popular with the band, most of whom consider it musically underdeveloped in relation to the quality of the songs (a 2005 iTunes only release, If You're Feeling Sinister: Live At The Barbican, went some way towards rectification) Q, who put it in their 50 greatest albums of the year, and Rolling Stone, who found room in their half-century of the decade list, felt otherwise. American college radio also slowly but surely picked up on it, necessitating a band trip to New York to sort out international distribution.

Like Dylan In The Movies (live at the Barbican)

At this time the band were famously operating a closed door policy to all press, Murdoch having felt he'd been misquoted early on and shutting off interview requests, deciding simultaneously to have fun with their publicity shots, never incorporating every member of the band. Or, on occasion, any. (Alex Kapranos, then of The Karelia, stars in one.) As they'd dragged themselves into this position without the weekly inklies' help, they reasoned, they didn't need them to come knocking now. The myth of the band, of course, only grew, aided by the rarity of gigs at this point - twenty in total by the end of 1997, and those were long put down as patience testing semi-shambles, although the band now claim this was more to do with the lack of rehearsal opportunities.

There was no album in 1997 but instead a series of EPs. The first was a red herring, the Dog On Wheels EP a Rhode Island semi-demo, featuring The State I Am In, recorded at Beatbox including only Murdoch, David and Cooke of the band. The second, which stalled at number 41, was led by Lazy Line Painter Jane, one of Murdoch's oldest songs given a Spectorish soulful power and a guest vocal by country-soul locals Thrum's Monica Queen, and included Stuart David's spoken word A Century Of Elvis. The backing for that was reused on A Century Of Fakers, lead track from the 3...6...9 Seconds Of Light EP and the one that finally cracked the singles top 40. All came with fine backup songs.

The Boy With The Arab Strap (live at Bowlie Weekender)

By the time the band convened for album three, Murdoch had seen a creative rut approaching and decided that as this was now a proper group rather than his songs and his musician friends he should encourage the others to get involved more. It was fraught getting there, nearly a year from beginning to end (unlike now Murdoch had entered the previous sessions with a tracklisting in mind, never mind a set of songs) and dividing band members. The Boy With The Arab Strap remains their biggest selling album; Pitchfork famously gave it 0.8 but clearly it's not a writeoff as that would suggest, more songs about love, celebration, anxieties and growing pains given a wider load berth. No, it doesn't all work - Jackson, its writer, now calls Chickfactor "atrocious" - and it's less cohesive and successful, but it's by no means ignorable.

Slow Graffiti

An EP headed by the seven minute partly self-referential This Is Just A Modern Rock Song EP came out in December 1998, arguably the last time they sounded so brittle on record. Afterwards came the side projects - Stuart David and his wife Karn's lo-fi loops and samples project Looper's debut album Up A Tree (on Sub Pop in the US) in March 1999, followed a month later by The Green Fields Of Foreverland by The Gentle Waves, Isobel's own dark, icy folk-pop songs with her bandmates on uncredited backing.

In early 1999 the band were nominated for the Best British Newcomer Brit Award (for their third album, yes), facing up against Five, Another Level, Billie, Cleopatra, Hinda Hicks and Steps, not to mention Gomez, the Propellerheads and Cornershop, the latter also on their third album. The vote was carried out through Radio 1's website, to which end Jeepster and the celebrated Sinister mailing list mobilised troops towards block voting which led to a surprise victory on the night, Richard and Mick the only band representatives picking the statuette up as two members was all Jeepster could afford to send. Sidelined in most of the reports by Robbie Williams and the Manics' multiple trophies, Kate Thornton on the following morning's This Morning surely unwittingly voiced the main set of the industry's feelings when asked for her view of events: "Belle and Sebastian won Best Newcomer, but other than that it was a good night." A day later the Sun realised what had happened and got quotes from Pete Waterman alleging the vote on the mainstream industry's big night had been fixed against Steps. It was borderline ludicrous. Even the band will admit so, although their idea of throwing the award back through a window of the BPI head office never came to pass.

But they had to follow it up somehow. Along with promoter friend Barry Hogan the band cooked up The Bowlie Weekender, at Pontin's holiday camp in Camber Sands in April ('bowlie' being a approving term invented by a friend of Murdoch's), which the band headlined along with a handpicked bill of available and affordable favourites - The Flaming Lips (the first show of their Soft Bulletin spectaculars, about which Stuart David was moved to ask on stage "did anybody have their lives changed by the Flaming Lips last night?"), Sleater-Kinney, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Teenage Fanclub, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mercury Rev, Mogwai, Cornelius, the Divine Comedy, the Delgados, Broadcast and so forth. The sold out weekender was a massive success, so much so that Hogan took the idea for both bill, curation and staging on and patented All Tomorrow's Parties.

Stuart Murdoch now admits there are "two periods of this band: everything up to Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and everything after that." Murdoch's intention had been to record that album within two weeks; when that failed everything was scrapped, the spark and inter-band communication comprehensively dulled, culminating when Stuart David walked out, his own Looper taking off (they were about to embark on a two month US tour, and released The Geometrid in 2000) Murdoch admits to coming close to a nervous breakdown over the finished product and has called the album, again named after some graffiti, "a salvage job", band members admitting that they like the songs but not recorded and arranged like that as an album; Stevie Jackson reckons he thought the band was ending. And yes, it doesn't work as well as even The Boy With The Arab Strap, but it's still identifiably Belle & Sebastian for all the good or ill that brings.

Don't Leave The Light On, Baby

In its wake, the band decided they might as well record a hit single. May saw Legal Man, inspired by Al Green and Jeepster's lawyer (and officially credited to Belle And Sebastian Featuring The Maisonettes, not the Heartache Avenue one hit wonders but a scratch vocal chorus of Isobel, Sarah and a friend), couches love in legalese and reached number 15, earning them a much desired Top Of The Pops slot, during which Murdoch was surprised to be attacked by Tony Doogan in a gorilla suit. Plans were made to capitalise, but Murdoch fell ill again and had to take time off, during which Richard and Mick joined Gary Lightbody's The Reindeer Section.

Stuart David was replaced by another Sectioneer, Bobby Kildea of - yay! - V-Twin, and the band did the previously unthinkable by committing to periods of touring, the first coinciding with June 2001 single Jonathan David, which Murdoch once claimed was the closest the band had come to their ideal sound since Tigermilk. The second single of the year was potentially more interesting. I'm Waking Up To Us, partly recorded by Mike Hurst, the producer and songwriter who discovered Cat Stevens, was a kissoff to an ex which arrived, although nobody knew at the time, just as Murdoch and Campbell's relationship was breaking up. Murdoch denies that it's flat out about Campbell - there is a version in which Campbell gets a spoken word right to reply - but that's not stopped most people. As for the tour, many noted a far tighter performance and a far more outgoing Murdoch, elements of fun injected by either pulling fans up on stage, unleashing unlikely covers or just in Murdoch's 'dancing'.

The next Belle And Sebastian full-length was a special commission. Todd Solondz, best known for the black comedy Happiness, asked the group to record the soundtrack to part of his next film Storytelling. When they got to New York for recording in early 2002, however, they learnt that the film had been severely cut and Solondz didn't have the same vision as the band did for what was required. Only about six minutes ended up being used in the film, apparently also to the horror of the film's distributor, but on getting back to Glasgow, Ca Va and Doogan they decided to re-record what they'd come up with in NY as a seperate entity with vague filmic connections, a mostly instrumental record featuring clips of dialogue and only six vocal tracks, two less than ninety seconds long. The band promoted it with a Royal Albert Hall gig, hiring two friends to dress as Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets and locate themselves in the royal box to insult the band between songs. A North American tour followed with Jonathan Richman in support. After two years or so of being uncomfortable with band business, wanting to continue with her solo projects and of course after the love split, Campbell finally threw in her chips in May 2002, departing during a North American tour. She'd released an even lower-key second Gentle Waves album, Swansong For You in 2000, and followed it with Amorino in 2003, before teaming up with Mark Lanegan for the Mercury nominated Ballad of the Broken Seas in 2006, followed the same year by her own gossamer folky Milkwhite Sheets and this year's Lanegan redux Sunday At Devil Dirt.

At 2002's Coachella, the group met the housekeeper of Trevor Horn, apparently a fan, who later got in touch himself to offer them studio time. Having been dropped by Jeepster, reputedly over a lack of co-operation, Rough Trade were now behind them and could afford to pack them off for a proper pop album on their own terms. Breaking only for a celebrated extended Christmas Peel Acres session and for the videos and odds'n'sods DVD Fans Only, they spent quite some time working on Dear Catastrophe Waitress. A Technicolour pop journey, it's far more eclectic than before (not a Pyrrhic statement - think of Electronic Renaissance or A Space Boy Dream, even though nothing here would be that outre) touching on everything from ELO and 70s radio rock to SMiLE to The Left Banke to soul to Dylan. Nominated for both the Mercury Music Prize and an Ivor Novello, it might well under the circumstances of birth be the most surprising success of their career.

If You Find Yourself Caught In Love (John Peel Christmas session 2002)

In January 2005 Belle and Sebastian were voted Scotland's greatest band in a poll by The List magazine. Murdoch, you imagine, can't have been overwhelmingly joyous at the accolade. A little later Jeepster put together the singles and EPs released on the label on Push Barman To Open Old Wounds. As for forward motion the band shrugged off the adventures of the last time they went to America to record and this time headed off to California to work with Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air, Supergrass, Turin Brakes, Idlewild, Fratellis, Kooks) on what was nearly a double album and was clearly something that they felt needed a radio sheen. Released in February 2006 (oddly only three weeks before the band's Late Night Tales DJ mix album), The Life Pursuit indeed turned out to be a more AM radio friendly collection that took inspiration from all over pop and rock's past, chiefly fascinations with soul, glam and rhythm'n'blues. Reactions were either ecstatic or... shall we settle on 'mixed'?, but it ecaume their highest charting album on both sides of the Atlantic, single Funny Little Frog also the highest charting single, at 13. The tour to support it led them to the Hollywood Bowl, where they played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leading to a sound close to common touchstones Love and Bacharach.

Discounting Electric Picnic festival, a T On The Fringe gig at Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh on 26th August 2006 is the band's last gig to date. In October members put together a various artists CD of new songs for children, Colours Are Brighter, while over the last two years Murdoch, who this year got married and turned 40 (he looks good on it), has been working on God Help The Girl, the soundtrack to a mooted musical film of the same name which also involves members of other bands, including the Divine Comedy and Smoosh, as well as female singers auditioned over the last year. Whatever that turns out like, it'll doubtless prove fascinating.


Miles said...

1. Really nice piece.

2. "there is a version in which Campbell gets a spoken word right to reply" - Tell me more? Or perhaps even direct me to such a version?

Simon said...

They did it on Jools - - although there are bootlegs where you can actually hear her.

Miles said...

Ta muchly. I've been very much enjoying the BBC Sessions but wishing they'd done a Wedding Present style "Ever Radio Session We've Ever Been Near EVER" box.