Formed in: 1995, Glasgow, Scotland
Key Albums: If You're Feeling Sinister (1996), The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998), Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Belle and Sebastian are one of the most acclaimed and adored bands in recent musical history. The Scottish outfit play a brand of exuberant twee-pop in which the impishly-intelligent, often funny lyrics of frontman Stuart Murdoch take center-stage. In their early days, Murdoch's lyricism and the cult-like following the band had lead to constant comparisons to The Smiths.
BackgroundMurdoch (born 25 August 1968) started writing songs at 23, whilst suffering through a bout of chronic fatigue syndrome that would last seven years. "When I was ill, I didn’t do much myself, but I saw people doing things," Murdoch recalls. "I looked out the window at them, and I wrote little hymns for them. And these became the characters in songs."
Early in 1995, Murdoch —then living above a church hall as its caretaker— felt his songs "took a swing to the good," and decided to get a band together. His first collaborator was bassist Stuart David, and they came together as a 'band' —taking their name from a French children's book by Cécile Aubry— at the urging of their friend, drummer Richard Colburn, who was studying music business at Glasgow's Stow College. Recording a set of demos for a class project, they ended up turning into the first B&S LP, 1996's Tigermilk, initially released in a run of only 1000 vinyl copies.
With the release of Tigermilk, Murdoch filled out Belle and Sebastian with other members: Colburn, guitarist Stevie Jackson, pianist Chris Geddes, violinist Sarah Martin, and cellist/vocalist Isobel Campbell, Murdoch's then-girlfriend. Though obviously, openly inspired by The Smiths, Felt, and Donovan, Murdoch was defiantly not reverent of other acts.
"I thought that my songs were good, so I thought: ‘F**k the past! My songs are here now!’" Murdoch admits. "I think you have to have that level of conceitedness, that pig-headedness, when you’re young."
"The naiveté and arrogance of the early days did produce interesting stuff," Jackson later opined, to Pitchfork. "We didn't let anybody tell us what to do, under any circumstances, and it was quite destructive in a way. But at the same time it produced interesting records."
Clearly the most interesting was their legendary second record, If You're Feeling Sinister, released late in '96. It was followed up, in swift succession, by three EPs released through 1997: Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line-Painter Jane, and 3... 6... 9 Seconds of Light.
By the end of the year, Belle and Sebastian had gathered a cult following, grown in the absence of any publicity, interviews, or photos. "At the start it just felt that everything was said in the records and it [wasn't] to do press," Murdoch said, to Drowned in Sound.
When the band began playing live, shows, Geddes recalls, "didn't really go well," and the band "didn't really enjoy playing" them. "I think, for a long time, we were more comfortable in the studio than we were in front of an audience."
With the addition of trumpeter Mick Cooke, Belle and Sebastian had swollen to eight members, with in-band relationships 'dysfunctional' at best. "Sometimes we’d play gigs and the loudest applause would be when we got on stage,” Cooke offered, of those days. "And, then, the applause would kind of diminish with every song. It was almost like the biggest achievement was for the band to make it on stage, with everyone there."
Belle and Sebastian released their third album, The Boy with the Arab Strap, in 1998, landing at #12 in the UK charts, and followed it swiftly with the EP, This is Just a Modern Rock Song. The LP found Jackson, Campbell, and David all taking lead-vocal turns; which presaged Jackson taking a greater role in B&S, Campbell going solo as The Gentle Waves, and David forming his side-project Looper, for whom he would soon depart for good.
In 1999, Belle and Sebastian crashed the mainstream when they won, absurdly enough, the 'Best Newcomer' gong at the Brit Awards. Though the band "didn't pay much attention," it became a tabloid scandal after pop-production-line guru Peter Waterman, manager of Steps, in a fit of sour groups, claimed B&S must have "stuffed the ballots" to beat his charges.
"Suddenly we were front-page news in the tabloids: one of them said 'Scots Band Cheat At Brits' or something like that," Murdoch recalled. "At first we were really angry but later we saw the funny side."
Belle and Sebastian unwittingly influenced an entire cultural movement when Murdoch assembled the 'Bowlie Weekender' festival in 1999 at the Pontin's Holiday camp in Camber Sands, inviting their friends and favorites —bands including Broadcast, the Flaming Lips, Cornelius, Sleater-Kinney, Mogwai, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor— to play over a camp-out weekend. The festival became the blueprint for the successful All Tomorrow's Parties concert series.
The 'Struggle' Years
In 2000, Belle and Sebastian released their worst album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, to mixed reviews. It was the EP that stood alongside it, Legal Man, that hinted at the band's changing direction: pillaging from old '60s records and dancefloor friendly.
After the heights of If You're Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian seemed to be falling victim to the law of diminishing returns: their singles "Jonathan David" and "I'm Waking Up to Us" and soundtrack to Todd Solondz's Storytelling all unsatisfying experiences. When Campbell quit the band in 2002 —leaving halfway through a North American tour, something likely motivated by the end of her oft-clandestine relationship with Murdoch— things changed."Once Isobel left it was like we just kind of woke up one day," Jackson told Pitchfork. "There was this feeling that everyone in the group wanted to be there. We had never really felt that before."
The band chose to work with a producer for their next record, and turned up a strange one: '80s production guru Trevor Horn.
Next: Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the revitalization of Belle and Sebastian...