DiS' person of 2014 (Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves) meets Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian...
Stuart Murdoch and I are happy to talk on the phone. We’re glad we can’t see each other. My hair is wet from the bath and plastered to my forehead and he is, by his own admission, a “periless slob.”
This is because he’s home in Glasgow celebrating the holidays (he bought his wife a faux fur coat and gold wellingtons for Christmas, which are cool and glamorous gifts, and I am admittedly jealous), preparing for a big tour, and getting ready for the release of Belle and Sebastian’s upcoming record, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance.
For those of us who grew up with Belle and Sebastian as the soundtrack to otherwise quiet bedrooms, heard through headphones at big empty tables in high school libraries or sneaking out on cruiser bicycles with baskets and bells racing up suburban avenues by the glow of street lamps to visit someone who wants to kiss us, melancholy afternoons at the bottom of a box of tissues staring at tear-stained rejection letters plotting alternate means of escape or simply letting the carpet leave impressions on our shoulder blades as we lay prone, staring at the ceiling, wondering when things will finally be sweet, this record will feel nothing short of alarming at times.
It is, in a word, surprising: it turns out the world of Belle and Sebastian is far bigger than the micro adventures of protagonists past. Girls In Peacetime... is largely about the state of the world and what we can do to help, while still focusing, in that way only Belle and Sebastian can, on the experiences of their sensitive, attuned narrators.
The most surprising thing about Girls: it is, at points, a dance record. Those whose positive reviews hinge on the emergence of another 'Fox in the Snow' will hopefully be taken aback when they hear 'The Party Line', a pop-ulist hit if there’s ever been one. It goes without saying that pop music is already capable of being revolutionary, but Murdoch and company’s radical departure from peoples’ expectations, sonically and thematically, feels downright anarchistic.
It’s not without its slow gems - 'The Cat With the Cream' is host to warm strings that come close, touch and then recede, gentle as holding hands at the movies. But even that rolls headfirst into 'Enter Sylvia Plath', a club banger that sounds like it’s destined for a second life as a beginner level on Dance Dance Revolution.
Stuart Murdoch is absolutely as kind as you would expect him to be, and smart. We talked for an hour about what went into making this record, whether or not it could be considered radical (it is, whether he wants to believe me or not), and what it’s like to remain cozily in the margins of music and culture. -MG
Meredith Graves: The new record is stunning. I have a ton of questions. It’s amazing, it’s the most radical departure short of you guys making a black metal album that you could possibly have made. It’s literally a dance record at a lot of points.
Stuart Murdoch: We never tried to make it radical. But the nice thing is you probably understand that, whereas a lot of folk, you know, when you’re in interviews, everyone presumes that you’re only doing something different to wake people up. Think about it for a second- why would you do that? Why would you spend time on this thing you’re passionate about for negative reasons, just to wake people up? That record is just the sound of our band in a room. That’s where we’re at just now.
MG: There’s been, what, four... or four and a half years since your last record?
SM: Something like that.
MG: Have you been writing consistently since then?
SM: No, not at all- I was so sidetracked by the film project [see below]. I came back to the band- it was a definite date where I was done editing the film. We came back, played some shows, and then we started writing. It was the first dedicated writing period the band’s had for years and years. And it was great fun for that reason, you know? We could afford a little bit of time to try out a few ideas, a few new concepts. It was fun.
MG: I know a lot of people that don’t think of the writing process as being 'fun.' And it’s amazing to me that after so many years as a band, you’re still talking about having fun and getting in the room together and writing. That’s very inspirational.
SM: Oh, it’s the most fun. It’s the real magic time. Obviously I do a lot of writing outside of the records. I do most of my writing outside of the room and I bring songs into the group pretty much fully formed a lot of the time. But that’s the magical moment, when you first bring a song into the room and you know what you want it to sound like, or maybe something unexpected happens. That’s definitely the greatest fun of being in a group. Everything’s pretty downhill after that.
MG: Thinking about the idea of an everyday practice of radicalism and how radical your band has been from the get-go — how non-adherent to industry standards, how dedicated to your sound and your vision and how cogent your aesthetics have been over the near-two-decades you guys have been around, and then all of a sudden for you to come out with a record that’s really heavy on dance songs… I was thinking of that Emma Goldman quote that I’m going to butcher, when she said, 'It’s not my revolution if I can’t dance'- so many of the songs on the record are socialist in a way, with titles like ‘The Party Line.’
SM: That’s funny - Bob came up with that, it was the first song he’s really written for the band, and although they asked me to come up with the lyrics, he had all the music and the title. It’s a handy title because it has a political bent, it has a domestic bent— when your partner tells you you have to toe the party line, all that kind of stuff. I find myself being very fond of Eighties guitar music that has a socio-political sort of bent, particularly with female singers. The more obvious ones like the Slits and the Raincoats, but other ones that are more mellow like 10,000 Maniacs and Everything But the Girl. I’m just so fond of that stuff. These particular female voices who are actually saying something — that’s wrapped up in their portrait, something political they’re trying to get across. It doesn’t appear so often these days, especially in popular music, people tend to shy away from saying anything much.
MG: That makes that lyric, "be popular, play pop and you will win my love"- it makes it seem more ironic.
SM: There’s not much that we do that is ironic; I’m less clever, always, than you might think. The trouble with me is, I love the idea of bringing politicians weeping to their knees with the beauty of a song, and at the same time, I love pop music too much. I’d probably sell it all for a terrific number one tune.
MG: You’re talking about eighties references, and then there’s 'Perfect Couples,' which is an 80s pop song, absolutely— it’s a pop song in that it’s a popular topic, but also because the vocals at the end sound like Elvis Costello. And it’s bitter as hell.
SM: That’s a Stevie song. It’s definitely possible, and it was possible more in the Eighties, to have something which is true and can be bitter and can be pithy, but also would be number one in the charts. A track like 'Ghost Town' by the Specials, or 'Blue Monday' by New Order, which I hold in high esteem.
MG: The acts you’re citing that make melancholy or downer pop are UK-specific bands. What did we have over here in the Eighties, we had 'She Bop' — not that Cyndi Lauper isn’t amazing.
SM: Oh, I love Cyndi Lauper. I love her, I love her voice. The thing is, Britain is a smaller country and it was a brilliant country for pop music because the country could get polarized by certain songs very quickly and very easily, and it could throw some weird shit to the top of the charts. It could be terrific - The Smiths and The Jam, for instance - but at the same time we’d have these weird one-hit wonders. I’m always playing my wife, who is American, one hit wonders, and she’s like, really? Hits that were number one on the charts in the Seventies and Eighties, she’ll say, well, that would never happen in America. And I think your country’s so large, and the way that a hit builds up more slowly is a nice filter system, whereas we could really throw a lot of crap to the top of our charts.
MG: Right around the time that you guys were probably starting to play, we were robbing you guys blind on the Britpop thing. We’re working in big cycles, and we’re stealing from you.
SM: That’s a nice thing - it’s like the current in the ocean that goes from the Atlantic, it goes in a clockwise direction and it goes over to us and then back to you.
MG: But all your garbage washed up on our shores, apparently.
SM: Obviously we’ve been stealing ever since Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly and Elvis; that started the rock and roll thing here.
MG: But we took your Beatles and ran with them. And I’m glad you brought up The Smiths. I’ve been thinking about The Smiths a lot in conjunction with Belle and Sebastian, insofar as I feel like you guys have done everything right that The Smiths may have done wrong. You guys came about because The Smiths fucked up- God closing a door and opening a window. There’s a lot to be said about the relationship between Belle and Sebastian and The Smiths - a career with a certain amount of longitude where you guys have managed to not screw up, or come out and say something totally jarring and offensive.
SM: Well, you know, great pop stars are not safe. Morrissey is a great pop star and he’s not safe. If we did come out of the shadow of The Smiths, we’re like The Grateful Dead in comparison to the Smiths. I’d prefer to be The Beatles. You can’t deny The Smiths’ greatness, and it was all over in four years. If parts of it were a car wreck, that’s ok, because sometimes pop music is meant to be like that, with those kinds of dramatic spikes. I’m not one for looking back. I don’t know, maybe the Smiths were just meant to break up at that time. I kind of gave up on Morrissey’s records after a couple of LPs, I wasn’t too interested.
MG: Me either, I guess. The thing that most has me, because I’m looking back on it as a massive collective history— I feel like your fans are the same people in a lot of ways. Young people that listen to the first couple of Smiths records and connect with it and love it are the same people that will connect with and love your first few records. You’ve created a very positive fictional role model for a certain type of person and your songs end up reading like this really beautiful instruction manual — they’re similar to The Smiths in that they’re a self-referencing instruction manual that teaches listeners how to be like the people in your songs. You know who a Belle and Sebastian fan is.
SM: I did that before the group got together. What you said there was a very nice way of putting it - that’s not what I’m thinking about when I write the songs but that thing about the instruction manual was very nice. I must admit, I did feel like I knew who the fans for our band might be before the band got together. I find it difficult to get my bands together and I always made up fictional bands in my head, and we’d already written all these songs, fictional artwork, and then the real band came along, and then we went to work.
I did imagine — because there were less bands around in 1996, and it seems like everybody’s in a band these days but there were just less bands around — I did figure that we had something, that I had this bunch of songs, and I knew who I wanted to sing to, who I was desperate to sing to, I was desperate to make this connection. I wouldn’t say it was twisted because I get as much back from them, or as much back from expressing what I’ve felt, as people get in listening. We very quickly made that connection.
And you’re right- I think the people who came to our gigs were like the early Smiths audience. I remember Morrissey saying when he showed up at the first few Smiths gigs, and the people in the audience were a lot cooler than they were — and we found that, when we started, the people who showed up to our gigs were a lot cooler than the people in the band. It’s a very nice thing. And also, there were as many women in the audience as there were men, at least as many women, and the Smiths had that as well. I think as the Smiths, or as Morrissey went along, it quickly became many more men than women; I always hoped we could retain a more equal balance as we went along and I think, perhaps, we have.
MG: So many of your songs are for girls. When I was 14-years-old, I got that immediately. They were for a certain type of girl. I love the idea of your wanting to make that connection— it makes the early records seem like old pen-pal classified listings, like, 'I wanna talk to someone who likes these bands, I live over here, write to me.' It felt safe for girls. Your lyrics allow girls to be smart and sensitive and go against the grain, but at the same time now you’ve gone and made this record that’s as pop as anything on the radio, and has taken the sounds from sexy dance songs that set up high expectations for women, and you’ve written about Sylvia Plath. Fourteen-year-old Meredith loves that one.
SM: I know, it’s a bit funny the way that one came about. You just have to let it happen, you have to follow your desires. I do write differently, obviously, than the way I used to write. Songs used to burst out of me when I was younger because I’d been through such a miserable time and had been in isolation for so long. When you first step onto the stage you have so much to say, and that was the first couple of albums. But these days, what I’m doing is inventing pop tunes in my head, almost like complete pop tunes, and they act as a constellation for me and a pleasure for me. The act of making pop songs is the thing that drives me, not so much this lyrical search but saying that, the best songs usually have a lyrical flow to them. I remember getting the feel of what was to become ‘Enter Sylvia Plath,’ having the tune in my head, knowing it was a big tune, a Pet Shop Boys song, this big Eighties thing. And then I had the title, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath,’ and it sort of evolved from imagining a person at a crucial age escaping from small town minds with literature. It could have been any of the big influential authors that tend to spark your imagination when you’re 18 and 19 or so, or 14 as you said, you must have been quite ahead of the game.
MG: No, I was just a nerd that stayed home and read Sylvia Plath and listened to Belle and Sebastian. You chose Sylvia Plath, and that was a conscious decision- like many of your good songs, it adds an unspoken context, because now there’s a femininity and a deep suicidal sadness in that dance song. There was a great article published a few weeks ago specifically about black women reading Sylvia Plath. So your record is temporal to that conversation— who reads Sylvia Plath, which women read Sylvia Plath?
SM: It’s true. I could have written about other authors there, but I am moved by my own desires in what I want to write about. Part of the reason that Sylvia Plath sprang to mind is that, because she’s become such a byword for a certain kind of female or a certain kind of femininity, when you say ‘Sylvia Plath’ you get a reaction, and it’s sometimes not a great reaction. It can divide people. But the fact is, her writing was terrific. She absolutely had something and it goes beyond the fact that she committed suicide. The writing remains amazing. It wasn’t a fluke that I chose that. The fellow in the story, he believes naively and impossibly that he could somehow save Sylvia Plath by becoming her disciple.
MG: I promise you I’m not harping on the Morrissey thing, but I think he might have had the same goal in mind with his extensive delineation of Oscar Wilde. The Plath thing is so amazing too because if you read back through her journals, she’s constantly writing about how great she is! She was aware that she was a great writer, writing great poems. Even though she was depressed and stuck in her house and in her weird little world, she knew she was inherently good— and I feel like that’s the impetus that drives the characters in your songs, too. The kids in your songs are what you might call the ‘stay at home club.’ It’s probably a lot of kids that are sitting around bummed, but who know for sure that they have something to offer.
SM: Bedroom dancing. In the past we definitely made bedroom records because I existed in rooms, and the films I loved existed in rooms. We did bust out of that and we started touring the world and you’d hope that, I genuinely do hope that, maybe some of the songs that we’re producing now can exist on the dance floor. And even if they do end up getting listened to mostly in bedrooms, it’s the dance floor I’m aiming for. The Party Line and a couple of the other tunes — we did a lot of dancing in the Nineties and the Noughties, I love to dance and go to the club and dance the whole night, and you can’t help absorbing those beats and great tunes. You can’t help being affected by the way you hear those tunes come across and be jealous of every single great tune and tell yourself, that’s what I want to do. To this day, that does fuel me. It fuels some of the rest of the band as well. It’s not ignoble to want to move people with dance music.
MG: It’s normal to be jealous of dance music, I experience that every time I listen to Arthur Russell. What you’re saying about the first few records being bedroom records, diary records— you’re still keeping an active journal online, obviously that part of you hasn’t evaporated— it seems to the outside world that after what, ten records, people are still convinced that you guys are shy. Like, you’ve been around the world and put out ten records, and people are still emphasizing you as a band of collective overwhelming naiveté. Like you’ve been in your house for ten years.
SM: Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. That’s a quirk of modern music, that a band can actually exist for so long without actually breaking through into popular culture. Back in the day, bands as tremendous as The Left Bank or The Zombies would only last for an album and a half because they weren’t a commercial success. We’ve been flying below that commercial success radar for so long that in the common consciousness, we’re like a ghost or something. If there’s one idea about the band which exists, it’s the one that rose up after Sinister where we had a touch of a zeitgeist. So, you know, that stuff doesn’t bother me and it allows us to confound, still. It also gives you that thing, you wake up hungry or angry or wanting to make a tremendous record, which has a popular appeal.
MG: It’s wild to me that after all this time people might think you’re not aware of your impact. But you have to know at this point what an amazing influence you’ve had on popular music.
SM: Well, again, that’s nice of you to say - I think perhaps it’s underground and it’s also an American thing, which is lovely because we love to come to America, but we don’t live there. And so, it’s very easy to quietly to get on with your own life unnoticed back in Scotland. At least you can carry on making honest records. When bands become big they can still make honest records, but you know, we’re happy just to carry on. As long as we can do our work unfettered and we can actually afford to still produce the records that we need to and do the shows we need to, I”m happy.
MG: I guess that’s why I see this as a political record. When you said in an interview a few months ago that political records are what people make when they’ve given up on romance—
SM: It sounds like a good soundbite, I hear that back and I’m wondering what I meant.
MG: 'Somebody trying to make a political record is what people do when they’ve given up on life and romance.'
SM: I haven’t listened to your lyrics but by the style of music that you’re playing, I would imagine your lyrics aren’t just about romance. What do you write about?
MG: I mean, honestly, my intellectual development stopped around age 16 — I’m still writing diary records. I’m writing super romantic, very personal lyrics, they just happen to be over brutalizing, noisy music. Romantic in the sense of romantic literature, like dark and miserable, not Cinderella hearts and flowers.
SM: Do you like Hüsker Dü? It’s easy to make comparisons but their lyrics, with the music— when an idea can get used in a different way.
MG: A lot of us are doing the same thing. You, me, Bob Mould.
SM: I heard him, he was touring around Britain recently and playing solo on the radio, and at first I was thinking, oh no, bring your band! And then he started playing - it’s amazing how much his voice and guitar can fill out the airwaves.
MG: Some of the writing that Bob Mould has done — he’s such an historically important, incredible figure whose story needs to be acknowledged and whose work is consistently good, and who continues to produce amazing work. Same with you - I’m in awe of people who stick with it for a long time. It’s important that very young people have role models of people who are still making independent music, and experimenting and making music with radical themes.
SM: The word ‘radical,’ there’s not many people in Britain or in any kind of popular culture who would think that Belle and Sebastian are in any way radical. Quite the opposite. So it’s interesting to consider that for a minute in the context of popular music and it is more difficult to be radical - there are certain times and certain circumstances where it seems like music is radical. When punk rock first broke in the UK, it was a genuinely radical music. Partly because of the music that came before, but also because of the times. It was a truly disastrous time in the UK for the economy and the lives of young people in general and the music sprang out of that. To me, that was radical. But it’s almost harder to be radical if you live in the UK now or if you live in heartland America, what is there to kick against?
MG: Well, that’s the title of your record, isn’t it? For capitalist, western countries that aren’t at war on our home turf, we’re in peacetime, despite the global climate. If you’re living in a world power country like us, where there’s a problem with having too much and too many choices, we’re in peacetime.
SM: Absolutely. People get themselves so wrapped up in faraway conflicts and everybody’s got an opinion about everything that happens in every corner of the globe. That is one of the themes of the record— you’d be better off concentrating on being a nice person to your partner or your neighbour, rather than getting so hot under the collar about something that’s happening on the other side of the world that you can’t actually do anything about. To poke your nose into that is probably making the problem worse. That’s the news cycle we live in - that’s the internet, etcetera.
MG: There’s no internet and no iPhone in Belle and Sebastian songs. No references to Twitter in any of your songs.
SM: I think the girl in ‘Cat with the Cream’ or the girl in ‘Allie’- they’re kind of similar people - I wanted to write a little bit about the political circumstances we find ourselves in after 2008, after the big economic crash when nothing seemed to change, and then the right wing government got voted back into Britain, and I started off thinking about that. As soon as I imagined what a young person thought about it— typical for me, it was a young female person— suddenly everything started to flow a little easier. And that person would have the internet. I imagine this person sitting in a kitchen downstairs, maybe with a laptop out and surfing the web, wondering why she can’t really be part of it — having all sorts of feelings that you’re moved by all these forces which actually exist in the world, while really you’re just alone in the room.
MG: I write for Rookie and that sounds like a song for our readers. Politically enlightened teenage girls who sit at home with their laptops wondering what they can do to save the world.
SM: And I don’t mean it to be critical - people can be perfectly happy and then in years to come they can be perfectly useful as well. I guess sometimes you’re stuck writing about adolescent states. You said yourself that you didn’t evolve past the age of 16. I think probably you have, but what’s useful is hankering back to that time as a starting place to write from. Pop is so transient and pop is so emotionally raw that around about that age is a great place to write pop music from.
MG: You’re getting the 30-and-40-year-old iterations of those 16-year-olds to leave their bedrooms and meet out at the dance club.
SM: Something like that. I don’t think it’s a lie, because there’s still plenty of people who are my age who are, on the surface, surviving. They’ve had a couple of kids and it’s like a hurricane, like an A-bomb, and really they’re still existing with their 18-year-old heads on, wondering what the fuck happened.
MG: The beauty of your records is that they give all those people a safe space. That’s the bedroom thing - you can get safe inside your records. Because the characters are so open ended, you can see yourself in those characters and come into that room for a little while. But this is the first record that hasn’t felt like that. You’ve created a romantic, alive political record.
SM: The safe thing - I don’t apologize for that. For maybe two-thirds of the population the idea of art as safe is hideous. A lot of people say art shouldn’t be safe, that art should confront, and I personally couldn’t live my life like that because I don’t have it in me. The reason I do art is to create a safe space for myself sometimes. It’s for consolation. Again, I’m unapologetic about that. It’s a genuine thing. It might be pathetic, but it is a genuine thing and as long as it’s genuine, it has some validity. There’s no point in creating something un-genuine. To me that would be way more pathetic and un-useful, to go ahead with a lot of pretense. So I do want to create that safe space and I do want to bring people in. I always wanted to bring people into that safe space. That’s a function, that’s you supplying something that people need in maybe not such an unwholesome way.
MG: That’s super radical, actually — more radical than creating purposefully barbed art. How punk can punk get at this point? There’s that Morrissey lyric — "it’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind". It’s more political to be supportive in a world of miserable capitalist competition.
SM: At least it was certainly that way to start with. Talk about going back to 18-year-old clichés, but the feeling Holden Caulfield had when he described the kids falling off the end of the cliff, him catching them. That’s where the title comes from, the field of rye. In a sense, years later when I started writing for the band, I guess that’s what I wanted to do, was to catch these wayward kids that were heading down the same path I’d headed down. I wanted to catch them.
MG: I think it’s good you’re still keeping a public diary, too. Now that there’s a greater gap between albums, now that we’re seeing you guys on bigger stages and it feels less like sitting at the same table or sharing the same book, it’s amazing that you’re still making time to connect with people in that way.
SM: I hardly write the diary any more. I went through this period when I first got a laptop where I wrote all the time. I guess what happened is I got married, and instead of telling the B&S fans what I did with my day I tell my wife now. And that’s what happens! But I wouldn’t change that. That’s life.
We do play bigger stages but I do find that — we were in the States recently and played Phoenix and Miami for the first time, there’s a couple thousand people there but an intimate enough room still in that kind of place where you feel you can make a connection. Something happens around the 3000 - mark where you start to lose that connection with people. That’s what I do love about playing to that number of people, you can still see everybody’s face and you know that they can see you. It feels good.
MG: You can still catch them.
Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is out January 19th on Matador Records.
1) DiS meets Meredith Graves and names her person of the year 2014
2) Belle and Sebastian DiS takeover compiled
3) Follow @gravesmeredith and @nee_massey on Twitter.