February 24, 2006


"I want to bring people weeping to their knees": Once known as Britain’s most reclusive band, Belle and Sebastian have reinvented themselves as a sophisticated pop machine desperate to convert the masses. Their leader Stuart Murdoch tells Peter Ross about his ambition, and explains how his songwriting talent and religious faith were born out of a long illness (Peter Ross, Sunday Herald)

When does he feel he came of age? “I only started having fun when I was 31 or 32,” he replies. “To be completely honest, my adolescence probably lasted from the age of 12 until 32. It lasted 20 years. I had a great time when I was 12. I was on top of my game. I had a lot of interest in girls, I was really into music, and then everything stopped. I don’t think I felt completely comfortable with myself again until I was 32, and then I felt exactly the same as when I was 12.”

This prolonged period of not feeling at ease in his own skin was exacerbated by the fact that while studying physics at Glasgow University, Murdoch developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the beginning of “a nothing period that lasted for seven or eight years when I just dropped out of everything and had a shitty time”. He quit university and moved back in with his parents.

I mention that I have spoken to people who were ill as children, which turned them into outsiders and natural observers; although he sickened in early adulthood, was his experience similar? “Absolutely. It was the biggest thing that happened to me and will probably ever happen in terms of a crisis and change in personality. Everything changed within the course of a year. From being someone who was active in every way, suddenly I was not just observing, but fantasising about everyday life. Beforehand, I had been at university, I was running my own business – DJing and putting on clubs. Three years later, I’m sitting in a box bedroom in Ayr, unable to go out, and fantasising about going down to the shops or being able to make a cup of coffee for somebody. But these things were so far away from me, so all the fantasies became songs.”

What caused the condition? “I see it as a breaking down of your physical health due to long-term duress and stress, a physical manifestation of long-term mental stress and abuse of your body. That’s what happened to me. I drove myself into the ground.”

He was burning the candle at both ends? “Oh yeah, completely. All that stuff.”

Stuck in his bedroom, Murdoch brooded upon his favourite albums, films and books. “I would romanticise them, build them up and try to live inside them because it was a better world. I took the music of The Smiths or Felt or the Cocteau Twins and tried to live inside it, or the films of Hal Hartley, and just tried to exist. Then, happily, I started to write my own songs and that was a place to exist for a while.”

He could already play the piano, taught himself to play guitar, and discovered a talent for songwriting. As he wrote, he found he was becoming healthier. “Songwriting accompanied my coming back to real life. Spirituality and songwriting were my crutches.”

Murdoch began attending church for the first time since his childhood. His Christian faith and his music were all the more important to him because they both developed during the period when he was stepping back into the world. “If the songs have any worth at all it is because they meant everything to me at the time. It was almost like the fella in Lord of the Rings making his ring – he’s putting everything into it. The songs are my ring.”

With music pouring out of him, Murdoch was keen to go public; it was important that people hear his songs because he had a very clear sense of what they were for. “All this bad stuff had happened to me,” he says, referring to his illness, “and it seemed that it maybe could have been avoided if a certain figure had stepped in at a certain time – a mentor figure, a wise figure. You look around your friends when you are 18 or 19, and they are not really much use when suddenly you are in trouble and drowning. I felt that if I had had a mentor figure, some of the trouble could have been avoided or at least alleviated.

“So, to be quite honest, I felt that if I was going to do anything with songwriting, I wanted to be a mentor figure to whoever might be going through that same business and needing some help. That period in somebody’s life that we were talking about before, the cusp of adolescence into adulthood, there’s so much can go wrong and leave scars. It happened to me. So I wanted to write songs about that situation and put into somebody’s hand a record which is a guide on how to avoid the pitfalls. To some extent, I still do it.”

That desire to help, to guide, is of course a Christian impulse, and from the start, Murdoch’s songs for Belle and Sebastian contained references to religion, some very funny (in The State I Am In, Murdoch imagines himself upending tables in Marks & Spencer’s, a wry take on Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem) and others more sincere (“Reading the Gospel to yourself is fine,” he sings on We Rule The School).

“Do you consider your songwriting a gift from God?” I ask.

“Yes, absolutely,” he replies. “I think if you have a gift for anything, it’s a gift from Heaven, a gift from God. If you do anything good, that’s where it comes from.”

Over the years, as Murdoch has sung with his church choir, his voice has strengthened, which has helped the band. Conversely, as he has become more at ease as a songwriter, he has felt better able to state his faith in music, for instance in the rather evangelical song If You Find Yourself Caught In Love. “I think there has been a coming together,” he says. “In the church you get up and proclaim spiritual beliefs and sing songs to the Lord. I would never have done that so overtly when the group started, but as I have grown older, I’ve thought, ‘What the hell, I feel that way, so let’s do it’.”

Having once worked as a live-in janitor at his church hall, he now functions as an unofficial recruitment officer; it is quite common for Belle and Sebastian fans from overseas to turn up during a service, hoping for a glimpse of their idol. “We get couples from Japan and America putting their nose round the door. It’s nice, and the people in the church like a bit of fresh blood around the place. Visitors come from all over and some of them have chosen to stay. There is a girl called Andrea who came to see us in Toronto, and got up on stage with us and played one of her own songs. Then she ended up moving to Glasgow. She was sitting beside me in church this morning, singing tenor.”

From the start, Belle and Sebastian attracted devoted fans, drawn to the self-contained world of the lyrics, and the delicate music which, though always catchy, stood in stark relief to the brashness of Britpop. Also, Belle and Sebastian communicated directly with their followers via the internet, more or less bypassing the media, rarely giving interviews and releasing official photographs which, on those occasions when they did actually feature the band, portrayed them in disguise or in carefully staged tableaux. They were the first band since The Smiths that people actually venerated rather than simply enjoyed.

“It was a terrific time. I was high on it,” says Murdoch. “But I had prepared for it in my head for so long that it seemed like a natural thing. I had spent so much time making the records in my head, and the record sleeves, and knowing what sort of group I’d like to have that when it happened it just felt entirely natural. I knew we would touch a certain type of person because it had happened to me ten years before with the groups I loved. It was totally natural with the people that came to see us. It was akin to meeting your twin that you had been separated from at birth.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2006 11:39 PM