February may well be the shortest month but – to both paraphrase and entirely misquote TS Eliot – it’s also the longest. It’s a time when the debts, both monetary and physical, from Christmas are weighing that bit more heavily, a time when the resolutions have been scratched off the page in an angry stupor.
Thankfully, Belle & Sebastian have hit upon a novel idea: group many of their fans together on a cruise, and sail across the Mediterranean. It’s simple, really.
“Well the funny thing is the kernel of the idea started in the late 90s with the original band,” Stuart Murdoch tells Clash. “We were just learning the ropes, and we were pretty hopeless at playing live – especially technically. We had cellos and stuff, so it was hard to play rock clubs. We had this notion: what if we travelled around the UK on a boat…? So we would just set up once, and then leave the equipment, and then we’d sail around Liverpool, and Cardiff, and bring the audience on board.”
As fate would have it both Murdoch’s father and brother work with P&O Ferries, and were on hand to offer some advice. “It was born out of laziness and wanting to do something different,” he chuckles. “We tried for about a year and a half and we just fell short. And that was it for a while.”
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Well, not quite. The band birthed the Bowlie Weekender, the prototype for some excellent holiday camp hi-jinks, before a promotions team got in touch, having previously scored success with cruise ventures in the Caribbean. “I mean… great!” the singer recalls.
And so the Boatie Weekender – see what they did there? - was born. Four days on the high seas with HMS Belle & Sebastian and a variety of support and complimentary acts. “Funny thing, I must admit that we didn’t have quite as much freedom as we did with the Bowlie weekenders,” he explains. “Simply because it’s a big boat. If it was up to us we might have had a much more catholic, a broader scope of different kinds of music. And we still might. We’re still booking smaller bands.”
Mogwai, Camera Obscura, Alvvays have all donned their water wings, with the musical performances set to be augmented by some wholesome adventures. “Because we’re caught on the boat for four days and four nights, there’s other skills that people will be able to bring to proceedings,” he smiles. “We’re just finding this out. The Vaselines are going to come on, and Frances is a yoga instructor, so she’s going to do yoga. There’s various things like that to keep the whole programme going.”
So, what’s your side hustle, Stuart? “Well, I like quizzing. I like being a quizmaster. We’re going to do a bands vs. guests quiz, a round robin. Finishing in a university challenge onstage, kind of thing. We’re just planning that, so that’ll be fun to do.”
“I can’t quite decide whether I want to be on the team or take the Jeremy Paxman, Bamber Gascoigne bit. So we’ll see!” he exclaims with a deep shrug of his shoulders. “We will also have a film programme that we’ll introduce, with various members of various bands picking their favourite films and introducing them. I think it’ll be a great time to catch up on films. I like the notion of people not just doing band stuff – like, we’re going to get speakers on board, people who have written interesting books, and TED Talk type things.”
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Stuart Murdoch is also bringing a friend on board – a Buddhist nun from Glasgow who will lead meditation classes, as well as lectures on Buddhist belief. It’s something he’s been open about on social media, recently discussing the health benefits – both mental and physical – on Twitter.
“I go to a class in Glasgow, and – fingers crossed – there’s an affiliated class round the corner from me tonight,” he says, nodding towards a busy West London road. “That’s the lovely thing about touring is that the particular centre I go to, they’re opening up everywhere. So I drop in all over the place. I love meditating with others. It’s not just the meditation, it’s the talk as well – it’s the life coaching, if you will.”
It’s curious, though, to hear the singer rhapsodise about Buddhist belief. After all, the coded Christian references on those early albums - “If you’re feeling sinister, go off and see a minister” et al – were much-discussed at the time, and it’s curious to see this intersect with more Eastern-centric spirituality.
“It’s a little bit comical sometimes,” he admits. “Maybe one day I’m gonna write it down. I haven’t looked into it but I think it’s quite an established thing – Christians and Buddhists, Buddhists and Christians. I was just talking to a friend last night who was enquiring to me about spirituality in general, and she was quizzing me about that. And I thought, look at the world now – we’re all connected, the jig is up! Seriously, how can Christians think they have a monopoly on wisdom when there’s as many Buddhists and as many Hindus? Everyone is going to be partly right, and the rest is a mystery to anyone.”
“There’s so much truth and so much crossover, and I find that if you explore people’s culture, religion, spirituality – or whatever – you can only learn. Your own faith or your own spirituality can only get richer. So I love it.”
To Murdoch, Buddhist practice hasn’t replaced his faith, but merely supplemented it; providing challenges, while also allowing for deeper understanding. “When I’m in a class I’ll go: wow, there’s a passage in the Bible that’s just exactly what you’ve just said!” he says. “I must say though, sometimes I think Christianity needs better PR. I think it’s harder to walk into a church than a meditation class. I think it’s assumed that you have a certain degree of faith or belief when you walk into a church, which shouldn’t be true.”
“Whereas you can walk into a class about addiction in a Buddhist place and then be hooked by the other stuff that’s going on, and that’s the way it should be. That’s how it should work. It should really be an open conversation.”
With its proven benefits for body and mind, meditation also seems to spur on creativity within the songwriter – often to the chagrin of those leading the class. “Quite often when I go to meditate – I mean, sometimes I get sleepy – but often when I start, and quiet my mind, I’ll get a tune in my head. And it’s just been there. So I’ll pick up my phone and sing it into my phone – which actually the Buddhists discourage. Because to them that sort of music goes along with the muck of the day. They really want you to empty your mind and focus on peace. But I really like to lift my phone during meditation!”
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Ah yes, the music. When not preparing a cruise or entering a deep state of being, Belle & Sebastian can be found at their space in Glasgow. Once a rehearsal room, and now fast becoming a sophisticated studio, it’s allowed the band to enter a kind of ad hoc, perpetually creative mode of recording – hence three EPs in the space of 18 months, collated as last year’s LP ‘How To Solve Our Human Problems’.
“We’re working faster, working ad hoc and recording songs where in the past you would have rehearsed them and got them into shape,” he explains. “It was a very different process. Being able to put out an EP and then put out another one. We’re carrying on that way. We’re recording music – a lot of instrumental music – right now just ad hoc. And it’s a lot of fun.”
The themes are influenced by library music, with Stuart mentioning five particular zones of activity. “I’ve always loved the idea of source music, library music, old 60s and 70s TV / BBC themes. Sometimes I love that stuff so much that I just want to do it for no reason… just pure music! And so that’s what we’re doing,” he insists.
“At the start of the school term or the band term I’ll say: this is the idea, this is what we’re working for. For some reason I had this idea – and I wrote it down on the sleevenotes of the last LP. It just so happened when I was writing the sleevenotes of the last LP I had this notion of five more records with the titles: Music For Meditation, Music For Consolation, and Music For… three other things. We had the titles, but I said to the band: Look, don’t be restricted, write whatever you want to write, bring in whatever you want to bring in. We’ll shape them into these records later.”
So that’s what they’re doing. It’s early days, but this free-flowing musicality seems to bearing surprising fruit. “It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a while. Because everybody in the band writes then a lot of people in the band are unrepresented. In the past pretty much all the songs have been sung, so I would write either the melody or the lyrics. Chris (Geddes) is always bringing in instrumental stuff just to start things off,” he insists. “Bob (Kildea) he had a great one, which ironically sounded like The Smiths – out of all the band he doesn’t like The Smiths and it really sounded very Johnny Marr. I wrote a lyric immediately and it turned into something. It’s fun.”
Able to work on their own terms, Stuart gleefully admits that the end result might not actually be so far away from what fans desire. “Definitely!” he grins. “Maybe when you put the needle down on one of these records it will actually sound very Belle & Sebastian. Or maybe it’ll sound more like music for the second series of Mr Benn that was never created.”
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A more modern TV reference guides the band’s next move, though. Belle & Sebastian have been invited to score a new film Days Of The Bagnold Summer, directed by Simon Bird of The Inbetweeners.
Based on the original graphic novel, the wheeze caught Murdoch’s attention at exactly the right moment. “It was just the right thing at the right time – even though we’d started our own thing,” he shrugs. “We immediately began to write songs for him, and pulled some old songs out from the past that I thought were appropriate. We’ve done that in parallel. We’ve finished the music for the film and now we’re finishing our own LP.”
It’s far from the first soundtrack offer to come their way, but something about the new project connected with the Glasgow band. “It just felt right,” the singer insists. “I read the whole novel in one sitting, and thought: this is great! I could hear the music already, so it was a no-brainer. We’ve had some odd offers which are easier to turn down, but this was a good one.”
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So there you have it: Belle & Sebastian’s next album will be informed by both meditation and the Inbetweeners, in an extremely roundabout way. But there’s also been another shift in Stuart Murdoch’s life, with his second child arriving in 2016. It’s been a formidable change in his life, with the songwriter adjusting to the constraints and pleasures of fatherhood.
He nods at the mere mention of paternity. “Even my mum said, look, this is the big one, this is the A-Bomb!” he exclaims. “Never mind marriage, it’s when your first kid comes along. I think it either makes or breaks you. Even when you were a kid yourself mums always seemed kind! I think you become kinder just because you’re looking after a baby. And that spreads out. I think you’d have to be pretty cynical if you didn’t become kinder to everybody… you learn a bit of patience”.
With parenthood, recording, and the small matter of a Mediterranean cruise to take care of, fans should perhaps show patience when waiting for the next Belle & Sebastian tour. As Stuart points out, though, they’re no slouches when it comes to playing live – and with two decades worth of material to work with, there’s always another challenge.
“We will do a handful of shows around Britain and in the States, but I think we’ll leave the heavy touring for another year,” he sighs. “And also... we’ve done quite a lot. We’ve done a lot of London shows in the past five years, and a lot in Glasgow so it’s alright to go a little lighter.”
“We’ve got so many songs these days that we can really… If you’re a fan of the band and you show up then you know you’re going to get something different. We check it out, we keep spreadsheets.”
“Oh yes!” he says before erupting into laughter. “We really do!”
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Belle & Sebastian's Boaty Weekender sets sail from Barcelona on August 8th. For more information see http://www.theboatyweekender.com
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