It’s true - the story of the band’s inception reads like the plot of a corny movie, but essentially Belle and Sebastian formed because by some coincidence all its members, and a few significant extras, were in the right place at the right time. Stuart Murdoch (main singer/songwriter) and Stuart David (original bassist) met in Glasgow in 1996, on a government training scheme for unemployed musicians. They started working on each other’s material and together recorded the demo for what would later become Belle and Sebastian debut Tiger Milk. Meanwhile, Stuart David was sharing a flat with Richard Colburn (percussion), who’d moved down from Perth to study a music business course at college in Glasgow. Each year students on the course would sign a band to their ‘Electric Honey’ label, put them in a studio, make a record and release it. Colburn gave Alan Rankine, director of the course, the demo and Belle and Sebastian were chosen for that year’s project.
Also on the course was Neil Robertson, who would later become the band’s manager. He’d started scouting for London-based label Jeepster, and it was through him that they got their first proper record deal. The rest of the band – Chris Geddes (keyboards), Stevie Jackson (vocals and guitar), Isobel Campbell (original cellist and vocals), Sarah Martin (vocals, flute, violin…) and Mick Cooke (trumpet) – were all playing in various projects across the city and met each other through going to the same clubs, gigs and parties.
Seven years on and Belle and Sebastian have recently released their sixth and arguably most accessible album yet, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, and completed a series of rare live appearances across the UK. DiS was lucky enough to speak to keyboard player Chris Geddes in Liverpool about his experiences of being in the band, and operating from Scotland.
It’s interesting that some of you met on a government training scheme. Some would argue that pop music is about rebelling against the establishment and so the State shouldn’t get involved with the arts. What do you think?
’If you want to make your living out of being a musician, you’re relying on people to buy your music anyway, so once you’re in that position, you’re directly or indirectly endorsing the whole consumer society thing. It’s in the public interest to live in a society where people are encouraged to be creative, so I don’t see any problem in being subsidised. Public money gets spent on a lot worse things…’
Were you influenced by other Scottish bands as you grew up?
’It was a while before I became aware of which bands were Scottish and which weren’t, but by the time I was in the last year of high school Screamadelica by Primal Scream, had just come out, as had Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub. I remember you’d go into Glasgow, go into a few record shops and if you walked past Norman Blake in the street it made your day. It still would! At the moment there are a few Scottish bands about, like Franz Ferdinand, who are doing amazing things. There’s also a band from Glasgow called Mutliplies who are doing sort of proggy, instrumental pop music’.
How do you think the Glasgow scene’s changed since you first started out?
’There’s always been a lot going on in Glasgow and there seems to be a crossover between art people and band people, between people doing clubs and people doing gigs. I think it’s quite healthy. If you go out in the city you’ll hear a lot of good music. Maybe people could be more engaged in the community. I think people who are lucky enough to make their living out of being musicians should maybe give something back’.
Do you think the Scottish music industry differs from elsewhere?
’It’s maybe different from being in London, in the sense that the ‘industry’ isn’t really in Scotland, so your dealings with it are always at arms length. There are a few ways that you can be totally self-sufficient – in Glasgow there are enough clubs that as Glasgow’s top DJ you could make a good living and not have to worry about anything going on outside. But if you’re a signed band with records coming out nationally and internationally then it does all go through London’.
So you’ve not found that you’ve had to relocate to London?
’No. I don’t really see any reason or advantage to do so. If you’ve lived in Glasgow for ten years, you know a lot of people, so if you’re doing something new for the first time, you can rely on your mates turning up! If you go down to London you’re just a nobody!’
Do you think coming from Scotland has hindered or helped your career?
’It’s obviously hard to judge, as we don’t have anything to compare it to. It’s certainly something that comes up a lot when talking to people. It seems like a country that everyone visits. You drive around Europe and North America, and everyone says “Oh I’ve been to Edinburgh”.'
But as a band is your Scottish identity important to you?
’In some ways, yeah. But it’s kind of subtle. We’re certainly not nationalistic, but it affects your outlook and….sense of humour. Most of the crew are Scottish, so its always nice travelling around with people who’ve got this shared cultural background. I don’t think the band sound Scottish. Stuart and Stevie don’t sing in Scottish accents. Out of everyone in the band the person whose accent you can her most is Sarah, and she’s from Lancashire. The kind of stuff we’re influenced by is unique to the time and place we got together, so maybe if you knew that you’d be able to pick out bits and bobs in our music. But again that’s imported culture rather than native Scottish culture’.
So the band who, some would claim, define the Scottish indie-schmindie sound, don’t even think they sound Scottish! Maybe after reading this you’ve learnt something new about Belle and Sebastian, the band who, until a few years ago, didn’t conduct interviews. Some areas of the press make them out to be pretentious and unapproachable, but I found them to be the complete opposite. Don’t resist the sound of twee! It is your friend!
Are you a Scottish band? Do you run a label or fanzine in Scotland? Or are you just a music fan living in Scotland? If you’re interested in answering a few questions about your experiences then email email@example.com.