The legend of Scottish band Belle And Sebastian began with a college course designed to help students prepare for a music career through hands-on experience. Glasgow's Stow College released one record a year through a music-business course, and Belle And Sebastian served as one of its guinea pigs. Over the course of less than a week in 1996, the group recorded Tigermilk, its now-beloved debut. Only 1,000 vinyl copies were made, and the original pressings remain sought-after collector's items, even though a CD version came out 1999. Later in '96, the band followed Tigermilk with If You're Feeling Sinister, a transcendent collection of literate, witty, sophisticated, and exquisitely sad pop songs that won the group an intensely devoted international following. After that album came a series of EPs, and eventually The Boy With The Arab Strap, the enigmatically titled Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, and then the soundtrack to Todd Solondz's controversial Storytelling. For Belle And Sebastian's latest album, the ambitiously genre-hopping Dear Catastrophe Waitress (due out Oct. 7), the group enlisted producer Trevor Horn, who has worked with everyone from ABC to Cher to Barry Manilow to Malcolm McLaren. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Stuart Murdoch, Belle And Sebastian's primary singer and songwriter, about touring, publicity, songwriting, and the group's early days.
The Onion: A lot of Belle And Sebastian's songs deal with the emotions of childhood and adolescence. What was your own childhood like?
Stuart Murdoch: Run of the mill. I think it was pretty much the same as everybody else's.
O: What were you interested in as a kid?
SM: Football. AC/DC. It depends on what age I was. I'm sure I followed whatever the fad of the day was.
O: What led you to become interested in music?
SM: Well, my parents made me take piano lessons. It's the sort of thing that you get used to in childhood that you hate, but then you used to hate a lot of things. Now, I appreciate it vastly. I had a little group when I was about 11 or 12. It's actually quite funny, because if you see a picture of the group now, it pretty much looks like Belle And Sebastian. It's almost the same lineup, only there's more girls. It's the same kind of mixture. There were like four girls, two guys, two guitarists, a piano player–I was the piano player. It was pretty much set.
O: When you were in a group then, did you think about playing music professionally as an adult?
SM: Not really. When I was 11 or 12, I wanted to be an airline pilot. I went to get my eyes examined, and they tested me for colorblindness. It seems like kind of a trivial thing to happen, but they show you all these sheets with letters and numbers. It's kind of bizarre. But you have to pick out what number you see on the page, and either you see a number or you see nothing at all. I picked out nothing at all. The lady said to me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I said a pilot, and she said, "Well, you'll never do that." It was kind of cruel. It would be poetic for me to say that at that moment I decided to be a rock star, but it's not true.
O: What made you want to be an airline pilot?
SM: It's the kind of random job when you're that age. You never really seem to get beyond being a fireman or a policeman or an airline pilot, that sort of thing. One of the three. Actually, I don't like flying, so now it seems kind of funny to me. It would be one of my least favorite jobs now. Still, I would much rather be flying the plane than the steward. I mean, if I'm going to die, I'd rather have a hand in my own death.
O: How do you feel about the flying aspect of touring?
SM: It's just something you have to get through. It's actually improved recently. Valium helps.
O: What led to the formation of Belle And Sebastian?
SM: I started writing tunes, and songs started coming to me around the end of '92, the beginning of '93. By '95, I was looking for musicians to form a group, but not sure of what I wanted. I was in a kind of half-assed music course, and I was recording demos and songwriting. That's where I met Stuart David, our [former] bass player. I said to myself that by Christmas '95, if I couldn't get a gig together, then I'd go to San Francisco, because I'd been there. Just at that point, some people involved with the course got in touch with me and said they'd heard a demo and wanted to help make the album that became Tigermilk.
O: What was the recording process like? You did it in a week?
SM: Five days. It was very well-planned. It had to be. The setup was that the college took a band a year and made a record. They were like a dummy record company, and they ran a music course so that students could get experience with working for a record company. We were the dummy band. Usually, they put out a single by the band, but we went to the proprietor of the course and explained how much money and time we had. I thought, "In that time, I'm sure we could make an album." I wrote the tracks then and there, and we planned it really well. One of the tracks was already pretty much recorded. It was simple, because it was recorded live and based on me playing the acoustic guitar. All the arrangements were worked out for piano, violin, and trumpet.
O: Do you think recording it so quickly benefited Tigermilk?
SM: Yes, absolutely. There couldn't have been any other way. It was energetic and concise. I remember hearing the first three tracks after just a couple of days, and my adrenaline was going, because I couldn't believe it sounded so good.
O: When did you realize that Tigermilk would take off the way it did?
SM: It's funny, you know, because it became a so-called underground classic and something to get, but that didn't happen for ages. I remember taking the records around to the shops to sell. We only made a thousand vinyl copies. We gave away about 400 of the things; the college sent out 400 copies as part of the unit. They had to act like a record company, so they sent copies out to other record companies, and to people in the music business. We only had 600 to sell, and I remember trying to sell the things, and people telling me to slog off. We had a launch party where we tried to give the records away. I had never wanted that goofy old "Tigermilk is hard to get" thing, especially since I remember when we took a copy 'round to the local record shop, and it sat there in the window for the entire summer. I got embarrassed. I was like, "My God, we can't even sell a thousand records. We can't even sell 600 records, and there's a copy in the record-store window whose sleeve is getting lighter and lighter." Its legendary status didn't come until much later.
O: You didn't begin writing songs until relatively late in your life. What was the catalyst?
SM: I don't know if it was the catalyst, but quite frankly, the biggest thing that's ever happened in my life was I got sick at the end of the '80s. I was sick for about seven years. That was a big desert at the time, a kind of vacuum in my life. From that, these songs started coming out, these melodies where I could express what I was feeling.
O: How much of your songwriting is autobiographical?
SM: I just got this image in my mind of a cake, of writing songs being like baking a cake. The autobiographical part of things is like the flour, and the romance side of things and the fantasy part are like the sugar and eggs. By the time you're done mixing it all together, it's hard to tell which is which. When you write a song, it just comes out. There'll be little strands of it, and some are of biography, and some are things that have happened or that you think about.
O: Do you find it easier to write songs from your own point of view, or from the viewpoint of a character?
SM: It's funny: I think I used to find it easier to write from the point of view of a character, and the only reason I think that is because I used to write a lot of songs from that perspective. Now, I think it's probably easier to write songs from an "I" perspective. Then again, maybe it's just a writer's conceit that the "I" they're writing from is actually them.
O: Early in your career, Belle And Sebastian was famous for being reluctant to do interviews or photo shoots. What was the impetus behind that?
SM: It was just sort of the circumstances. It's not really any kind of fascinating thing. It just seemed easier not to do press. It's one of those situations where music was important to us, and writing was important, arranging was important, practicing was important, as was playing gigs. When you've got a new band, you spend a lot of time trying to keep it together. It was a very large band, and things were all happening at once. It took a lot for the older members of the band to protect the younger members, to reassure them that songs would always have the upper hand. It seemed like the last thing we wanted to do was tell the world about it. It was all about trying to keep the family together. It was a dysfunctional band, and if I had a dysfunctional family, the last thing I'd want to do is go on Oprah and talk about it.
O: When Belle And Sebastian started to take off in the U.S., the group seemed enigmatic. Do you think that added to its appeal?
SM: You'd have to tell me, because I was on the inside, trying to hold things together and holding down a job on the side. I didn't really know too much about how people on the other side of the world think.
O: What was your job at that point?
SM: I was a caretaker at a church. It's still a part of my life, in that I made a lot of friends there, though I don't work there anymore. I was in charge of a lot of things. I did enjoy it.
O: Trevor Horn produced the new album. What led you to hire him?
SM: Well, he approached us. I don't know, it's all a bit vague. It just seemed to kind of happen. We were looking for a producer. I didn't want to do another record without a producer. A few names were kicked about, but with the other two people, the timing was bad. With him, it just seemed like good timing.
O: How do you think having him as a producer affected the way the album was made?
SM: It was just a lot more concentrated, having him and his organization. We were able to concentrate more on things that are meant to be concentrated on: playing, singing, arranging, and writing, rather than the production side.
O: Did he have a lot of amusing stories about the groups he'd worked with?
SM: He did. He kept us amused through many a spring and summer night with stories about Frankie Goes To Hollywood and ABC and Yes.
O: In an interview, you said you were living halfway between the '60s and the '70s. What did you mean by that?
SM: I don't remember saying that, but I think more and more that I'm a throwback, and that the band is a throwback. I think it's interesting how the stylings of the '60s and '70s and even the '80s can kind of set you off, how you mourn the passing of each decade and all the things that just aren't done these days.
O: One of the songs on Dear Catastrophe Waitress contains the line "If I could do just one near-perfect thing, I'd be happy." Do you feel like you've approached that kind of perfection in your career?
SM: That was an old song from well before this album, but I think the closest we've probably come was with Tigermilk. There was a purity to that that'd be difficult to recapture. Since then, I'd have to say "Jonathan David," the single.
O: How do you think the departure of [bassist and singer] Stuart David has affected the band?
SM: I think it's been good for the band. In my mind, him and Isobel [Campbell, cellist and singer] left at the same time, and I think it helped the group. I think it's made things more focused. They'd probably say the same thing.
O: A Hard Day's Night is on the list of your favorite films. If someone were to make a film about a day in the life of Belle And Sebastian, what would it be like?
SM: I think it'd be really boring. I'm not sure anybody would want to see it. It'd be a lot of us sitting around talking.
O: Would there be scenes of you being chased through the streets by your fans?
SM: I think it'd be just the opposite. We'd be chasing our fans through the streets.