Telling us a little more about the decision to release a trilogy of EP’s – echoing those the band released over 20 years ago in 1997 – Murdoch reflects on the band’s achievements over the last twenty years, the creative process behind the new EP’s and the recording of their latest project in Glasgow.
The new EPs see the band experimenting across a wide range of genres whilst still managing to create the bands idiosyncratic sound that juxtaposes joy and melancholy. One of the band’s most exciting projects in years, Murdoch describes how the band have lost none of their enthusiasm for making music. “Our life depends on it,” he explains, before telling us more about how the band still love touring, twenty years into their career.
DiS: Your latest project sees you re-embracing the short form EP format that you favoured back in 1997. Can you tell me more about the idea and decision behind this?
Stuart Murdoch: I can’t. You know, it’s funny, I think of a different answer every time somebody asks me that! There wasn’t really one reason: it just felt good. We only ever do things to suit ourselves and it just suddenly felt like the right thing to do.
To be honest with you, we just wanted to get into some ad-hoc recording really fast after we finished the tour for the last LP without much fuss. Without sort of having to build up to a big album project and get a big producer and go to Los Angeles to record it. [That’s] all the kind of things we’d done in the past – which were super fun – [but] we just wanted to drift into a sort of low-key recording project and get back to producing ourselves, like we did in the Tigermilk days.
The notion of the EPs themselves…I like the thought that they coalesced around single tracks which were the reason we originally did them back in 1998. We did a couple of LPs and then we still had lots of songs to record so we thought: "Well, let’s just [do] singles with some extra tracks. Let’s make it easy for people to listen." These days, people’s attention spans are pretty short, so I thought: "Well, I only ever listen to single tracks these days, so I would be a hypocrite to expect people to play through a whole LP."
Did you do all of the recording in Glasgow?
Yeah, we did it all in Glasgow and we could move quickly [with that] to some degree, but I think sometimes it’s nice to actually recluse a little. Because I'm in Glasgow, there’s actually not that much rush – it’s not like we have to get everything finished within the six weeks, which is usually what you have to do with an LP. You can actually leave a track for a while to percolate or you can rush into the studio with something you’ve just written.
Is there anything that links the EP’s thematically or stylistically or are they each to be taken as a standalone project?
We tend to let time and circumstance just take care of the way a group of music comes out. We’re sort of different people, there are different writers, and this time Chris has done a track and Bob’s been writing. It would be kind of nuts to sit down and say: "Right, we’re going to write about this" or "It’s going to have a common theme" – we just see what happens and anything goes. I guess the only prescription when we were actually making the track listing was to pick a single and then roughly put the tracks around it that complemented it music-wise. It’s pretty straightforward stuff, just like making a little mixtape.
Would it be fair to describe ‘The Girl Doesn’t Get It’ as one of your most political on the EP collection?
I probably reached my political peak – which wasn’t high at all – on the last record with songs like ‘The Cat With The Cream’, which was specifically about the Tories taking over when David Cameron got in. Since that time, my interest in trying to engage politics and music has kind of waned a little bit. But the one you picked, 'The Girl Doesn’t Get It', that’s definitely about the world [at large].
Your work has covered a lot of genres over the years and the new EP’s seem really dynamic in terms of the types of genres you cover. Are there any you still want to explore or are there ones you’re keen to veer away from?
It’s a good question. I think if we specifically sat down and thought about it, I think that way always disaster lies. We tend to let the music naturally grow out of where we’re at and what comes into our mind first thing in the morning. That’s not to say that we don’t embrace [different genres].
If I had to wake up with a reggae beat or a ska beat or something overtly classical, then I would probably explore it because that would seem like the right thing to do. All these different styles are in your blood because if you love them and listen to them, they come out naturally and eventually. We certainly wouldn’t force it and we certainly wouldn’t turn anything down.
You didn’t do much press in the early days of your career. Has that something that has become easier for you as a band over the years?
It was a delicate and a tricky job at the start, for the first sort of [laughs] four or five years almost, just trying to keep this unwieldy bunch of people together and keep them interested in a project they’d never really signed up for at the beginning! I realised how frail it all was. And just to exploit them to the sort of push and pull of the press at the time…it was just to kind of protect something delicate early on.
Oh, sorry, wait a minute…Sorry, I just wandered into a café to get out of the rain and I haven’t ordered anything…and I just hope he hasn’t noticed because I looked in my wallet and all I have is 1,000 Japanese Yen…
…Ah, you’ve just returned from Japan on tour!
SM: Yes [laughs] I know for a fact that they don’t take card so I'm just going to have to sit here until they yell at me.
Yes, anyway, there was an artlessness about it; we weren’t deliberately trying to stay mysterious. A lot of people thought that there was a tactic involved but honestly, if you’re in a group with so many people and it’s so chaotic, then there’s no time for tactics [laughs]: it’s just survival. It became a natural thing when a couple of the band members left and everybody gelled a little more easily. And then [I was] in particular, quite happy to engage with the press because we were on much more solid ground.
How does it feel now reflecting on the last twenty years together?
Well, the funny thing is, I feel I could answer that question in two completely different ways.
I was thinking about the past and I was thinking about the trip we just had to Japan recently and what a lovely thing it was. All of these 2-3,000 kids turning up on a Tuesday night to one of our gigs. We haven’t been there for years and [you wonder] why are they here [laughs]?
It’s obviously because there’s an absolute connection with the music and the feeling behind the music that goes beyond language – there’s a connection there. It’s such a priceless thing to have. Then the other extreme from that…I don’t complain, but I sort of wonder: "Well, we’ve never really broken through, and have always been this sort of underground band"…we will be sitting talking about it [and wondering]. But it’s great [because] it keeps you hungry – we’ve still got those to prove.
By three or four years in, The Beatles or whatever, these bands had done everything. We’ve never achieved anything like that sort of notoriety. It keeps you hungry.
When it comes down to it, what actually keeps us going is that we’re a group of six people that just love playing music – we love writing music more than ever, like our life depends on it. And sometimes it does, it really does. You know, we still take so much consolation from being able to get together and play our music and write about all the things that are bugging us [laughs].
In an interview last year, Chris and Sarah were talking about how Radiohead chose you personally to be on the bill of a festival…
Yeah, it was nice, I mean [laughs] the funny thing is that 20 years ago when the group first started (about 1990) Radiohead had actually asked us to come on tour with them. It was too much for us at the time – we hadn’t got it together enough, and we didn’t really want to support anybody because we were young. And now 20 years on they asked us again to be at the festival! It was nice to be asked but we really haven’t come that far in 20 years [laughs]. It was still the Radiohead support slot. I mean, it’s nice, it’s nice to be asked, but I did chuckle to myself.
But you have got a lot of new, young fans too, going back to the recent Japan tour, for example?
No, absolutely – it’s terrific. It’s almost, like, the third generation now where the traditional fans have grown up and then their kids have come along! It’s funny, you forget – time passes quite quick when you’re older, but we were at a festival in San Francisco recently and my friends were in the audience and it was great. It was quite a young festival, it was really buzzy and bands were playing great music.
Afterwards, my friend was laughing – she said she was standing behind two teenage girls, and we played something from If You’re Feeling Sinister, we played ‘Like Dylan In The Movies’ and one of the girls was excited and said: "I know this song from somewhere. I know this song… Is this somebody else’s song?" and then the other girl was like: "No, no, they wrote this song"…and it was just kind of funny.
There’s almost like a natural filter [at shows] where some of those old songs don’t work, but then a lot of them still do. I [still] look forward to playing them. We mix up the songs from 20 years ago with songs that we do now. I know that in a sense I'm slipping back to a bit of nostalgia and putting an old head on, but the feeling is still there.
A couple of years ago I guess we thought about doing a sort of Belle and Sebastian musical based around the existing songs…I wrote one musical a few years ago, but we thought about that for about five minutes and then quickly moved onto something else!
It sounds fun!
I think it would be great if somebody thought up a story and then did a kind of animated story to our music, that would be fun.
20 years on then, what is your proudest achievement?
I'm not really sure; it’s hard to say. I don’t ever sit down and listen to one of our albums, really, but because we still play the songs so often anyway and we play them better than we did, especially those early album – that’s part of the reason why I still enjoy playing them – because the band plays them better.
There are the odd tracks, the odd B-side or a song with Stevie Jackson, that I'll go back and think: "Wow, we were kind of out there with that track, it is kind of jazzy." I would hope that this bunch of songs that we’ve done recently, I hope [they] stand up in the long run.
Are you managing to keep the band members together after the Walmart incident?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah, I did notice there was a lot of head-counting going on while we were in Japan. A lot of extra security! I mean, we stopped short of having a special partner, like you do in primary school [laughs] accounting for the other person. But, no, we managed to keep together – we haven’t lost anybody recently.
We just got back [to Glasgow] yesterday and it’s very autumnal. I'm walking along the Kelvin river just now, after the café – I couldn’t stand the tension in the café anymore [laughs] – I'm out on a lovely river walk and it’s great to be home, actually.
And you have more dates planned for 2018 now I see…
We’re going to wait until all the music is out – the EPs come out, the actual physical ones come out, and then we kick off the European tour in February and then the UK in March.
You spoke recently about the difficulty of the logistics of touring recently, now most of you all have families…”
[Laughs] yeah, it’s an escape! No, it’s funny, yesterday my wife came to pick me up from the airport and I thought it was going to be her, maybe [she might] bring the baby along. I thought, you know, we’d been travelling for 29 hours and I was like: "It’ll be nice to see them and just go home and get some sleep!"
And so I turned up and my wee boy had to go to hospital that morning to get steroids because he has this condition with his chest, and he got out of hospital and then he stuck a stone in the car park up his nose, and he had to go back to hospital to get it out. When he turned up at the airport, he got so worked up with the steroids that he pissed all over the place…it was a disaster! [Laughs]
He’s fine, I mean, he was fine then, but it was just kind of…if you were expecting a gentle homecoming, when you have two young kids you definitely don’t get it – you definitely can’t plan things. But it’s a pretty nice thing too, it works out pretty well. We don’t go away for too long because a lot of the band have families. But it seems to work out okay. It’s a nice dynamic.
I imagine the tour can be a good escape sometimes then?!
It is, it’s lovely, it is a luxury sometimes, you know and I'm lucky to have them and the tour. The new song actually is kind of about Denny [his son].
Was he a big inspiration?
Yeah, well, he was my first, and I sort of wrote that song when he was two years old. The idea of the little prince and the relationship between the pilot and the prince is like me and Denny. So that’s kind of where the idea comes from. I hope that in ten or fifteen years’ time he’s thoroughly embarrassed when he’s a stroppy teenager.
How To Solve Our Human Problems Parts 1 and 2 are out now via Matador. Part 3 is out on 16 February. For mor einformation about Belle and Sebastian, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo credit: Gaelle Bari