Stuart Murdoch is normally the frontman for Belle and Sebastian, one of the most acclaimed and adored bands in recent musical history. Blessed by Murdoch's amazing songs, the Scottish combo have released seven albums and countless EPs to the joy of their ardent fanbase, including the classic 1996 LP If You're Feeling Sinister. Murdoch has recently unveiled a new project, God Help the Girl, whose self-titled album is a 'story set to music,' with vocalist Catherine Ireton playing its heroine. Murdoch discussed it, and plenty more, whilst sitting outside a party in Glasgow.
Interview: 23 May 2009
You claim to have heard the song “God Help the Girl” playing in your head like a record, whilst you were out running. Do you think people will be surprised that you’re a jogger?
“I think people sort of know it. Maybe they’re even bored of it by now. I’ve made a couple of Belle and Sebastian videos where I’m running the whole time, where I try to look like I’m fit, but I’m not that fit. I do a lot of running; used to run marathons, half-marathons, things like that. These days I’m more into playing soccer.”
Have songs often come into your head via the rhythm and repetition of running?
“Quite often. Or moreso, I’ll take the start of a song out for a run with me, and there I can get a nice idea of the arrangements, or for the middle-eight, or something like that. But on occasion, like this one, I’ll get an idea for a song from scratch.”
How was "God Help the Girl" ‘different’ to a Belle and Sebastian song?
“The main thing was the girls singing. They were really going for it. And with a full orchestral sweep, it definitely felt like it was something different. Hearing something so fully-formed, at that stage you have to admit you’re the producer of that record. And I can’t be the producer of a Belle and Sebastian record anymore. Because I want to stay friends with these guys. We’re a gang. I don’t have that kind of authority. I can’t sit back and say: ‘this is exactly as I want it.’ But with this project, I could. I was the boss. It started and finished with me.”
Is making a sustained-narrative record a rebellion against the casual-listening digital era?
“It’s no rebellion, but it is swimming against the tide a bit, isn’t it? And you have to ask yourself: ‘is it worth it?’ Because you do feel like you’re making it, well, for yourself. I feel like this is more a gift for my wife’s birthday, or something, because she’s the only one who’s going to listen to it from beginning to end. If anyone else listens to the whole record in one shot, I’ll be surprised. That’s the way it’s designed, but, well, did you listen to it all in one go?”
I think the first time I got it I did. But I doubt I have since.
“D’you think it’s too long?”
All records seem too long to me. I wish more records were like [Nick Drake's] Pink Moon. It’s 27 minutes.
“I was very conscious of that. I picked some of my favorite albums, but I noticed some of them were longer than I thought. Like [The Smiths'] The Queen is Dead, that’s 33 minutes, but Marquee Moon, the first Television album, that’s 44 minutes.”
I was surprised when I was listening to [My Bloody Valentine's] Loveless last week, for the first time in a long time, that it was 48 minutes.
“I think they just snuck into the CD era with that one. But that was probably the last decent album that works as an album. I can hardly think of a decent album from the ’90s, because they were all just too long. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era, and that I should’ve been around in the late-’60s or early-’70s.”
But this album, and the last two Belle and Sebastian albums, are all too long.
“Yeah, but I always struggle with sequencing. I felt like [God Help the Girl] was definitely one song too long, but every time I tried to take out a song, it felt weaker to me. In that conceited way I felt: ‘I don’t want to take this song off because it adds this, and that song adds that.’ And then I’d decide and my wife would say: ‘you can’t take that song off!’ It’s a tricky thing. You have to make an album that’s better than the sum of its parts, but it’s hard to do. And I always struggle with that.”
Is there a Belle and Sebastian record that does that?
“I think the two early ones do. And they were actually really easy, because they were already sequenced before they were even recorded, and they were short. It got harder once we got to our third LP [The Boy with the Arab Strap], and it just keeps getting harder and harder.”
So, is this record a stand-alone ‘musical’?
“No, I’ve been writing a script for a film, and this is the music so far. I just reached the stage where I realized the music was ready to go out, and that the record had a nice enough atmosphere to just put it out, and the film will one day follow."
Are you worried about the narrative of the record trumping the film’s story?
“I don’t think you’ll get a concrete story from the record. You ought to get something from the record, but I don’t think it’ll be a sense of the story.”
Did you ever see the legendary, deleted third section from the Storytelling movie?
“Yeah I did. It’s only legendary because it never made it, just like Nick Drake’s only legendary because he died. I thought it was really good, and I really enjoyed it. But at the same time, I respect [director] Todd [Solondz]’s reasons for wanting to make the film shorter. At the time we thought he was a madman, like: ‘How can you do this?!’ But, what the hell do I know about films?”
How satisfying —or dissatisfying— was making that Storytelling soundtrack?
“I think the overall experience of making that record —meeting Todd, doing the work— was a good one. The results were only disappointing as far as the soundtrack was concerned. But that was a lesson we learned: don’t go into a film project when the film has already been shot. Work with your director if you’re going to be doing the soundtrack. Because he really didn’t want very much music at all, he just wanted ‘The State I Am In’ and a couple of other things. We just got so excited, we turned out more and more music.”
Next: "The whole first five years [of Belle and Sebastian] was just one long struggle to stay alive! It was one of the most traumatic times I’ve had personally in my life..."