Q&A: Stuart Murdoch On Belle And Sebastian’s New EP Series And The State They Are In After 20 Years
During the epochal period when Belle And Sebastian were making albums such as If You’re Feeling Sinister, Tigermilk, The Boy With The Arab Strap and winning hearts for their wistful melodies and lovelorn character studies, the Scottish indie pop group were also releasing EPs like Lazy Line Painter Jane and Dog On Wheels that allowed them to exhale a bit and offer up songs such as “The State I Am In” and “You Made Me Forget My Dreams” that were a bit more upbeat, shaggy, and self-deprecating than the finely wrought orchestral angst of their proper albums. When founding vocalist Isobel Campbell and bassist/vocalist Stuart David left the group, and Belle And Sebastian began touring more often and working with outside producers, they gradually began to focus less on EPs, but their upcoming release campaign finds them returning to their aesthetic roots.
The Scottish indie institution will release a series of three EPs titled How To Solve Our Human Problems. The first installment comes out on December 8, and the next two in the series will be out on January 19 and February 16. In addition to re-embracing short-form releases, the project finds the group exploring an off-the-cuff, anything-goes ethos, spanning from the strutting, R&B-like “Poor Boy” to the stripped-down ballad “There Is An Everlasting Song” to “We Were Beautiful,” on which the band pushes even further into the new-wave dance influences they explored on Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. We talked with lead singer and band founder Stuart Murdoch about why he decided to return to this format, how the band evolved from a reclusive outfit that once refused to have its photos taken, and that time when they accidentally left drummer Richard Colburn in his pajamas at a Walmart in North Dakota. And you can also check out new track “I’ll Be Your Pilot” right now.
STEREOGUM: What was the idea behind doing an EP series instead of going back and making another album right away?
MURDOCH: There was a number of reasons. One was that, I guess when the last LP came out… I think these days when an LP comes out, it’s kind of disappointing. Nothing seems to happen, and I thought, “we’ve got to do something different.” I hate just to tread water. I’ve been in this business now for 20 years, surely we can use our heads and do something that’s a bit more interesting that might actually pique some interest. But, you know, the main reason is musical, it’s about ideas. The main thing was just to come back to Glasgow and record in Glasgow for the first time in about a dozen years and also to sort of produce the record ourselves, and also to record in a different way, to go into the studio with a track barely written and, a little bit like James Brown’s style, just get the band in when you have a song and find a small studio that’s free and just go in there and throw it down. That was really different to the last four LPs, which have all been written and rehearsed and then recorded with one producer over an intense period of six weeks.
STEREOGUM: You indicated that you were kind of disappointed with how Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance was received. Did it just not sell very well? Or do you feel like there wasn’t any buzz about it?
MURDOCH: I think it was fine, I think it just was a “what I was expected to do” kind of thing. Sometimes you get bored of what’s expected and you want to shake things up a little bit. It seemed to me, to be honest, it was more to do with the current state of music. It feels like there’s hundreds of LPs, noteworthy LPs, getting released every week, whereas back in my day when I was really keeping up with music in the late ’80s or something like that, there was maybe one LP that everyone would focus on for a week, and then it would still be with you there at the end of the year, so it’s difficult to catch people’s attention these days. The other great thing is that the Smiths, another group that I love, they did this early in their career, which is to attach your hopes to one track in particular. The fun thing about an EP is we get to experiment, we get to do things that we don’t usually do in an LP, but we get to pick a single from each one and focus on that.
STEREOGUM: You were saying you’ve been at this for 20 years, your last album was your ninth album… I think a lot of bands these days talk about how there’s so much music out there that people often pay attention only to the hot narrative or whatever’s new and buzzy. Do you feel like it’s tough for a veteran band to get attention? People can be like, “oh yeah, another Belle And Sebastian album. I’m sure it’s good, they’re always good.” Do you feel like being a band that’s been around that long, people can take you for granted?
MURDOCH: Pop music, when I was growing up, bands would reach great heights, and then they’d disappear in two years. There’s nothing to say being in a pop band, being in a rock and roll band, had to be like a pension plan. You don’t just sign up for life and then play the same chords and turn away for 20 years and expect to be paid. We’re always trying different stuff and we go in, do our solo record, go in, make film, and we go in and write prose or something like that, and then we always come back to the music and keep it interesting. Nobody deserves it on a plate. So I think it’s good that we should be forced to make it interesting. Maybe the classic era of pop and rock as we know it is kind of passed, and it’s all about singles and R&B and music which we probably wouldn’t do so well at, so maybe we can evolve in different ways while still staying loyal to our followers.
STEREOGUM: When your band first started out, you were making almost as many EPs as you were albums, and I know plenty of fans whose favorite songs were on Dog On Wheels or Lazy Line Painter Jane. After a while did you start gravitating more towards albums because it was easier that way, or did you have less time to crank them out?
MURDOCH: We were on a label, Jeepster, and they were super independent and we were the biggest band on the label, and so it was a real partnership with them, and I think we got away with doing a lot of stuff that many other labels wouldn’t let us do, so we’ve got to tip our hats to those guys. Then we set that precedent, and when we signed to Rough Trade in 2000 or 2001, they were quite adamant that they wanted us to try and follow a more static commercial route for a while, or at least try and embrace that, just as something different. And that was fine, so we did that and we had new singles and LPs. But actually, to be honest with you, for the first five, six years, the band was all about recording, we didn’t really tour. Back then, also, you could make money from records. The records themselves made a profit and allowed for us to keep going and make more records. So we were just delighted to keep churning out these records made in Glasgow, but when we got serious about touring, we simply didn’t have the time. So we brought in producers, but that was fun too. It was fun to do that for a while. So this was like a little backwards step, but it’s been a completely justified decision to self-produce back in Glasgow, making EPs. It’s been great.
STEREOGUM: It seems like one of the nice things about doing it this way is you can kind of get songs out quicker after you make them, right?
MURDOCH: If you want to, you can drop them out. You can record them and stick them up online. We work great with the guys at Matador and they embrace the project and want to do a good job and do it right, with a bit of context. I’m into that. I’m into getting the artwork just right. It feels like everything has just come together. I’ve written a lot of tape notes this time, it’s taken me a while because there are three whole vinyl records.
STEREOGUM: The reason I say that is because I was listening to that song “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” which seems very political for you. It seems like it’s very much about the world and America going through this moment. But maybe I’m reading into it.
MURDOCH: Oh no, but it was, I guess that song was written… we recorded that last year. But when isn’t that stuff relevant? Just writing about angry white men and inclusivity and building walls, there’s always some prick that wants to go to war for some ludicrous reason, so it’s still as relevant as it was just a year ago.
STEREOGUM: I remember when I first started listening to you in the late ’90s, so many of your songs seemed to exist in an idealized, more nostalgic world. As you’ve gone on, you’ve written a lot of songs that directly relate to the world we’re living in today, such as “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love.” As your career has progressed and you’ve grown as a songwriter, have you felt the need to engage with the world around you and write directly about the world you see?
MURDOCH: That’s a good question. I think I felt as engaged as I ever would in the last record, and I think I’ve gone over the peak now. Personally as a songwriter myself, I don’t think I was ever overtly political, you know like Billy Bragg or the Clash or whatever. But I think I’m retreating into myself a little now. I think although there are some allusions to the outside world, maybe specifically on that track “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” my philosophy these days is when other people are getting angry, consider not getting angry. I often think anger is the cause of most of the shit that goes down, so sometimes the worst thing you can do is get angry. Sometimes you end up poisoning yourself. If you turn on FOX News and you get angry at the injustice in the world, it’s not helping anyone. To an extent in the songs, I want to console the listeners and take them aside and help. I really feel this sense of purpose that I just want to be the whisper in somebody’s ear that actually takes them away from their suffering.
STEREOGUM: You said earlier how you signed with Rough Trade and you started touring and taking the game more seriously. When the band started, part of the mystique of the group was that you didn’t give interviews, you weren’t in photos. When did that change for you? Was it when you decided to tour more often? When did you become a more outgoing guy who was more comfortable to assume the role of a frontman in a big band?
MURDOCH: I think when I’m on my deathbed and I think back on my life, I will consider that touring with this band is probably the greatest pleasure of my life. We were so lucky, because at that point, five years in, we could’ve fallen apart or just done what we did, which was get organized and shed a few people and then evolve and start touring properly. It really is a pleasure to get some gigs.
STEREOGUM: It seems like it was around the time of Dear Catastrophe Waitress that you started touring seriously, and in a way it seemed like a career restart. Not that you weren’t taking it seriously beforehand, but it seemed like that was when you became the version of Belle And Sebastian that we all know about today.
MURDOCH: That’s nice of you to say, because there would be some people that can’t get over the Tigermilk, Sinister era, or the Isobel era. Simply, they saw us when we came out, and everything changed after that. That was our little zeitgeist moment. After that, they don’t know what happened. But that was nice of you to say. We kept working, we really went to work. There’s a whole live thing for us, that’s what we are now, that’s what we’ve become and I’m glad that you noticed.
STEREOGUM: This was a long time ago, but I was talking to one of your hardcore fans and I said, “I actually think Catastrophe Waitress is their best album,” and they’re a Tigermilk fanatic, they were upset with me for saying that.
MURDOCH: I think it’s fine, everybody is entitled to an opinion, and if anybody has an opinion on something we’ve done, we’re happy that people have noticed, that people still notice us. I think you’re right, at that time our momentum got going and we learned how to play live. We started really enjoying playing live, going to new places, and doing the things we hadn’t done before. We’ve carried on.
STEREOGUM: How much of a backlash was there? Were there a few very vocal fans who didn’t like it, or did you sort of feel that you had divided your fan base?
MURDOCH: To be honest, there’s nothing that we’ve ever done that has caused a big backlash. Our fans are the most… it’s not like they’re violent or anything, they’re pretty laid-back, civilized people, and if people have opinions, then you know maybe that’s the sort of thing they’d keep to themselves. We’ve never really had any trouble. But I do know, because I would be saying that, I’d be saying, “oh I loved the band, I loved the first LP and then they turned into a drag.” When I was 18 or 19, I’d be the first person to do that. That’s good, that’s OK, that’s what pop music is about. But the fun thing is those kids that followed us early on, some of them come back to us later, older, and you know maybe they check out something that we’ve done more recently. That’s allowed.
STEREOGUM: What sort of music do you listen to today as a fan?
MURDOCH: I’m not the greatest listener of music these days, I’m kind of unapologetic about that. I listen to 6 Music on BBC and I listen to my old records. When we’re recording, especially when you’re producing yourself, you listen to your own music so much that by the end of the day you don’t wanna hear new music, I just want to crawl up and listen to some old favorites.
STEREOGUM: Who was the last artist you Shazam-ed and really liked?
MURDOCH: Frank Ocean probably. You know that guy? I know he’s super popular now. That stuff’s great. And production-wise, it’s a bit of an eye opener. It’s pretty sparse, it’s very engaging. It’s very easy to listen to, but at the same time, he can throw something that you don’t expect.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys manage to lose your drummer in a Walmart?
MURDOCH: How did we lose him? Well, easy, he just sort of got away. You know there’s a lot of us and it was late at night. What can I say? It was North Dakota, crazy things can happen [laughs]. The journey when you’re driving right across America, and you’ve got to take a day off so the driver can get some sleep and there’s nothing going on and there’s nothing to do except drink all the booze that you picked up in California, then shit’s gonna happen.
STEREOGUM: I saw you were on social media trying to find him. Did any of your fans help find him?
MURDOCH: There was a lot of backwards and forwards on Twitter. We were trying, most of that was a contingency, because at the same time we were trying to find somebody who could drive him to the airport, but he didn’t have any ID so we thought he wouldn’t get onto the plane. So we had somebody ready to try to drive back to Bismarck and bring him over. In the end they let him on the plane.
STEREOGUM: I’m glad you guys are all back together.
MURDOCH: Absolutely. So is his wife.
The first installment of How To Solve Our Human Problems is out 12/8. Pre-order it here. The second EP is out 1/19, and you can pre-order that here. And the third EP is out 2/16, pre-order that one here. All are being released via Matador. Track lists for all three are below.
01 “Sweet Dew Lee”
02 “We Were Beautiful”
03 “Fickle Season”
04 “The Girl Doesn’t Get It”
05 “Everything Is Now”
01 “Show Me The Sun”
02 “Same Star”
03 “I’ll Be Your Pilot”
05 “A Plague On All Other Boys”
01 “Poor Boy”
02 “Everything Is Now (Part Two)”
03 “Too Many Tears”
04 “There Is An Everlasting Song”
05 “Best Friend”