Words by Maria Bakkalapulo
For bands seeking success, refusing to do interviews, and sending snaps of friends as your press photos, may not come recommended. But it’s part of the charm that has solidified Belle and Sebastian as indie-rock favorites – with fans who are as dedicated as they come. “Our fans are always very enthusiastic. I’m delighted, dead happy about it, says the band’s guitarist Stevie Jackson. “I don’t take the good reaction for granted.” This year will mark the group’s 20th year. Their ninth and best album yet – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance – was released this year. Their music is in its prime, pushing boundaries, as they tour harder then ever to bring their quirky, engaging music to the world.
Sidestepping the stereotypical path to stardom, Belle and Sebastian’s home remains Glasgow, where they have developed their music amongst friends and family. “I don’t think we were staying here on purpose. Maybe in the late 80’s or early 90’s, you would move to London if you got a deal,” explains the band’s guitarist Stevie Jackson. “By the time we came along, none of our contemporaries – such as Mogwai and Arab Strap – moved out of Scotland. It became less important to do that. I don’t even remember the band discussing it.” In 1999, Belle and Sebastian won the BRIT Award for Best Newcomer, their first major industry recognition. Awards, though, don’t seem to drive the band as much as connecting to their loyal, loving fans. What Belle and Sebastian have built is a global cult following, filling major venues like the 18,000 capacity Hollywood Bowl. Their longevity is testament to success. “Maybe the songs just appeal to people all over the world,” muses Jackson. “Some sort of human thing that it doesn’t matter where we live, you’ll get the songs. The songs are character-driven stories. People relate to those stories.”
As one of Glasgow’s most eclectic bands, the members of Belle and Sebastian are masters of juggling musical and artistic projects, while readily working as a cohesive, creative unit. The current seven members includes Stevie Jackson (guitar and vocalist), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Richard Colburn (percussion), Sarah Martin (keyboards guitar and vocals) and Bobby Kildea (bass). At the core is the band’s leader and poetic lyricist, Stuart Murdoch, on vocals and guitar. Plagued with chronic fatigue syndrome for seven years, he dropped out of college and had to be cared for. Murdoch eventually pulled himself out of this dark place and by 1996 formed Belle and Sebastian. Murdoch writes about his illness in the deeply personal song Nobody’s Empire: I clung to the bed and I clung to the past / I clung to the welcome darkness / But at the end of the night there’s a green green light / The quiet before the madness. (excerpt from Nobody’s Empire on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance).
Belle and Sebastian are available to their fans, posting answers to their sometimes far out questions on their website, bantering with people around the world. Their songs are intriguing, touching lyrical descriptions of ordinary flawed lives, drawing the listener into their world – stories we can relate to. Fans dissect their lyrics, make song requests for live shows, invite them to weddings, even tattooing the lyrics ‘Colour my life with the chaos of trouble’ on their arms. “I love them (the fans) too. Yeah, I’m not adverse to a bit of analysis myself,” espouses the band’s guitarist Stevie Jackson. “I’ll hear a song and I’ll be like ‘wow’ that has hit me in different ways. I don’t ask Stuart about the lyrics, I like the lyrics to have their own sort of interpretation.”
Paul Fegan, Scottish film director, worked with the group while programming the Triptych Festival. Fegan went on to film Belle & Sebastian’s video for the song Come On Sister from their 8th studio album Write About Love released in 2010. He has known the members for years and has seen their popularity grow. “People who know Belle and Sebastian really like them. They have really cultivated a fan base to rival any indie band anywhere,” Fegan says. “There is a genuineness with the connection they have. The fans really feel an ownership, a part of the band.” Not giving into commercial pressures and producing music their way to the meticulously high standards has been key. “They have tread this line, not crossing into the mainstream, but retaining a large cult following. They are very in control of their careers, not controlled by their record label,” explains Fegan.
During a four year gap between albums, Stuart Murdoch wrote and directed his first film, God Help the Girl, while the others were active with their own projects. “I think we’ve always done things outside the group. It has become increasingly important to do that,” says Stevie. We don’t want to look at each other all the time. It’s good to look at other people from time to time.” When they reconvene, they push their creativity even further. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance was produced by Atlanta’s Ben H. Allen, who has worked with groups such as Animal Collective and Deerhunter. “The production is, in a way, more epic, in some respects,” describes Jackson. “As you go along, you go into different colors, different influences, you dig deeper. We tried hard on this record and we put ourselves out of our comfort zone. Our last album – Write About Love – had a more insular feeling to it, or more introspective perhaps. I feel this album is a bit more of an intense ride.”
The album looks outward at times to current events, including the politics of Gaza. Overall, the band are more upbeat this time around, taking inspiration from disco for the addictive song Party Line. “I am a pop guy. Back in the day, I’d be listening to Abba and the Bee-Gees,” says Jackson. One of his side projects is the band Disco Sharks. “I like Blondie, you know, just stuff you grew up on. Or Wham, Duran Duran. I am a pop music fan,” confesses Jackson. As one of Scotland’s most successful bands, Belle and Sebastian are likely coming to a venue near you soon.