“The Grateful Dead Of Glasgow!” Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch Interviewed

The songwriter on the quiet power of meditation, their new album, and penning his memoir...

Haven’t we all got A Bit Of Previous? Belle and Sebastian have returned with their first long player since ‘Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance’, distilling three decades of indie supremacy into a record that reflects on growing up, while showing off their mastery for bangers of every stripe.

Lockdown foiled original plans to record in Los Angeles, leaving Glasgow’s beloved cult favourites moored on hometurf – but they repurposed their rehearsal space (with trademark DIY resolve) into a studio and self-produced, like the old days.

It didn’t mean retreading old roads though. The first album they’ve recorded in their home city in 20 years, it’s as eclectic and authentic a mishmash as they’ve ever produced – sparked by writing contributions from more of the band than ever. It’s there on Talk to Me, Talk to Me’s pulse-quickening 140+ BPM pop (from violin player/vocalist Sarah Martin) and single ‘Unnecessary Drama’ (by guitarist/bass player Bobby Kildea) – with words by Stuart Murdoch, typically penned on ‘Mobile Office’ writing jaunts to coastal towns.

Though the pandemic deprived them of a live audience, “the Grateful Dead of Glasgow” were able to re-route the connection to their fans – with lockdown-inspired writing project Protecting the Hive and weekly Facebook meditation streams led by Murdoch.

Ahead of their upcoming tour, we met Stuart Murdoch to discuss spirituality, staying in and the greatest lyric he’s ever written.

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The new record makes knowing reference to growing up – how does it feel to be the elder statesmen of indie?

Well, it’s not like I wake up of a morning and think that! That said, you do lose touch a wee bit with what’s coming out. I’ve got two young kids now, so I don’t get out to see things as much as I did – and I used to, a lot. I miss that buzz, and I’m interested to see what’s happening. In the last fifteen years – it seems like solo acts, hip-hop, R&B and pop has become the central thing. But I love bands, and I hope that continues.

When we get back to playing in front of people, it’s going to be amazing. And it’s been great to get back to rehearsals. We’re changing the new set substantially. We feel the same sort of way that everyone would, coming back after two years of nothing. And we’re going to use the new LP as a backbone for the new set. It’ll be interesting – we haven’t done that for a while.

But that said, my shoulder froze up, and I haven’t been able to play guitar. I’ve had tendonitis – great timing! I’ve been getting injections to manage it. This is my karma for writing a song called ‘Young And Stupid’ – getting old, breaking bones!

Even by Belle & Sebastian standards, this album’s very eclectic. How do you continue to stay stimulated and curious when you’re songwriting?

Just by life, and loving music. It’s my escape, my consolation for all the rough stuff. In a dark room, it’s a small open window that’s there. It’s my escape route. I’ll always tend towards it, and when I open my mind to music to write – touch wood – it always happens.

It’s a form of communication. I always have this dialogue going on in my head. I do my meditations online, where I just sit and talk to the screen for an hour. Because I feel I’ve got something to say. When you open the music tap and you channel it into that in a concentrated way, certain songs come out.

At this stage, I realise most bands of the past that I’ve loved, are definitely past their sell-by date. It might seem hypocritical of us going along, but we’ve never had a huge chart success. Maybe that’s kept us steady, because it feels like we’re never having to outdo our own past.

For instance, there’s a new book coming out ‘Exit Stage Left’, about what pop and rockstars did after fame. I thought they’d be talking about one-hit wonders. But Robbie Williams is in there! Part of me thought we could’ve been asked.

But aren’t you the ultimate cult favourites?

We do OK, the crowds keep coming to see us. You could say we’re the Grateful Dead of Glasgow.

When you’re writing, are you influenced by the things you’re listening to at that point? In lockdown, say, did your listening deepen in a certain direction?

When we roll up our sleeves and come into an album project, I always make a playlist. – It’s about gathering a palette of sounds. I made a playlist of about 200-odd tracks – including stuff that I put in there because I love the harmonies on this, or the way the bass sounds on this, or the vibe of this. For inspiration. You put them all in a thing, and you send them out.

But when the songs come along, the song always dictates how it’s going to sound. What style you’re going to go in. That stuff’s pretty straightforward after all these years.

How do you know when a song is a goer?

I quite often wake up with the melody, and then I’ll get an idea for the words and they tend to all come out naturally. Half of the LP came out that way. – But ‘Unnecessary Drama’ – that’s Bob’s, he wrote that. He had the song and the title, but he didn’t have any words. So I went away and wrote them. That’s a different process. ‘Talk To Me’, on the album, is Sara’s too. They were two different wee projects, that came up in a different way.

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Did that come for you in a different way, to respond to someone else’s idea?

Sure. In a way, it’s a more prosaic task. You let the tune sink into you, become part of you, and then you find the words. I need the tune to get the words going – I don’t like to write words without one. I couldn’t write a sonnet, it wouldn’t do it for me.

You recorded in Glasgow, not LA, because of COVID, recording in the rehearsal space you turned into a studio. How was it working that way?

Well, I loved it. Sara didn’t like it. She was pissed off, becase she likes to go somewhere and be completely focused on the record – getting the experience of a new city, working with a producer. Having the guiding hand of somebody who’s outwith the band.

I was the opposite. I was really happy producing my own songs. We did bring in a producer for some of her songs. I like navigating that myself. We have a great collaborator, Brian McNeill, who we’ve worked with a lot.

And we could take longer, because it’s our place. We didn’t need to pay for a big, expensive studio we’d rent by the day. We were in there for about nine months, recording loads of songs – about 27 or something.

How did you reach consensus on what to include?

To their credit, or folly, the rest of the band trust me. There’s nothing wasted. I said, “Guys – we’re not making a double album, but there’s a lot of good ones here”. I moulded the first LP into a playlist that I love, but we’ll release the other stuff eventually.

The record label used to say: you’ve just given us an album, don’t give us another record yet. There’s this three or four year period in between LPs, but in the last five years we’ve thought: this is daft. There’s so many ideas coming in from everyone now, we’re all writing – we need to get this all down or it’ll become stale.

We sort of made a deal with them, saying we’d record cheaply, play around with different formats – whether that’s streaming platforms, or an EP. But this time, they said,”Give us a proper LP.” And that works for us, because life is short.

Belle & Sebastian are musically synonymous with Glasgow. How does that feel?

Yeah, it’s fine. I never get bored of the place. I’m so into Glasgow – even geographically. I tend to explore the city every day. I do so much of my work when I’m out on the coast, or walking the hills in the North. I call it ‘Mobile Office’.

My wife asks, What are you doing tomorrow? Are you working? And I’ll say, yeah i’m working. Mobile office! And i’ll jump on a train somewhere. I go everywhere – on my bike, or walking. I was brought up in Ayr. I feel like the whole of the West Coast, from Ayr to Loch Lomond, is my patch that I’ll explore.

The album’s titled ‘A Bit Of Previous’. Buddhism’s a significant influence in your life – is the title a reference to reincarnation, or is it more of a nostalgia trip?

The title’s a wee bit of a joke. Bob was back in Northern Ireland with his dad. They were walking near his house, and his dad says when they walked past a place – ‘You’ve got a bit of previous’. I hadn’t heard that phrase for ages. But it means, ‘Oh, you’ve got a bit of history with a lassie in there’ type thing. But it’s funny, because he’s also a policeman – and a bit of previous can mean: you’ve got a bit of time on your record.

At that time, we were working on a song of Bob’s, and I was writing the words – and it was on the theme of reincarnation. And I said, that’s funny – I’m going to use that as the title. And then, in typical Belle & Sebastian fashion, that was one of the songs that didn’t make it on the LP. But we’ve made a video for it. The label were like, pffff – fucksake! We should call it Unneccessary Drama. But that’s too obvious for us.

There’s always been such a community and ‘fandom’ around B&S. How did you find during lockdown not being able to access or play to the fans?

It was fine. I’m used to switching between out and in. The minute they told us we weren’t going to LA, I was fine. You do that naturally when you make a record: you go into hiding. It’s yin and yang. They feed off each other. I was completely comfortable with not playing for a while.

When lockdown started, I did start my online meditation sessions which I found immediately appealed to the fans. That itself appealed to me, because there was a vibe, a communication. There were people joining from all over the world. I looked forward to it. And I still do it. That was the best in that early lockdown, to deal with what we had lost. And it was a bit of company!

Is the practice of meditation a cornerstone of your life?

It should be more. Every year, I resolve to do it more. When I meditate, good things happen. To me, it means I’m more chilled and relaxed with the family. It’s a great thing – not only for everyday life, but it also helps with your spiritual life.

In Buddhism, they want you to head for a state called Emptiness, where you perceive things as they really are. But emptiness is far from empty. It’s a very peaceful place, somewhere that can set you up and make you very happy.

Is the emptiness around the loss of ego?

That’s part of the teaching, yes. Putting that aside. And that everyone just wants to be happy. And they deserve to be. And other people’s happiness is about way more than just yours. There are all these eye-opening practical insights that come out of it.

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What was your experience of lockdown? Was it challenging?

It wasn’t too bad. We were lucky, because we’d moved to a wee culdesac with a garden. My oldest, Denny, was struggling with school at the time. He was struggling with undiagnosed autism/ADHD – and so, he took to it like a duck to water. Loved not going to school. We’d try to get out everyday and get some exercise. That was the first real, concentrated, six months that I think of as lockdown. After, that’s when we decided to renovate the studio and get back to work.

How was it seeing the band after all that six months?

Great. We were in constant communication, but it was still brilliant to be back. It tuned out a bit different, because Stevie and Bob – they could sometimes only come in two or three days a week – whereas me, Chris, Dave and Sara were in all the time. We were writing – it gave us time to write, prep and use drum machines – all try out fun new things, which made it quite different.

We could flex our production muscles. If we were in LA, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.

And what about touring? Is that happening?

I think I’m looking forward to it. I’m in this weird yin and yang place, where I’m right on the line – you’re letting go of making the LP, videos, artwork and all that.

You’re looking forward and thinking – I need to learn these parts again. You can learn them to record, but you’ve got to learn them to perform them. I’m walking around Glasgow trying to memorise the words of these songs! I’m hopeless for that – maybe I’ll need a teleprompter. I remember the old ones better!

What, in your opinion, is the best lyric you’ve ever written? The one that when you’ve seen it you’ve thought: I’ve captured what I needed to there?

Maybe one of the ones we play night after night, that rolls off the tongue. We rehearsed it today – a song called ‘Piazza New York Catcher’. It’s about meeting my wife: our early days and flirtations. She’s from Florida, so it’s not like we were in the same city – and we weren’t for years.

We met in Barcelona, Boston, New York, Florida. Eventually, she moved to Glasgow after years. We were always having dalliances, and that song was based in San Francisco. I kind of wrapped up the facts in a tissue of fiction.

Would you ever consider writing longer-form fiction?

So, I have. I swear it was before lockdown! In 2019. I had a specific biographical fiction – about the year ‘91 to ‘93, which were some of my darkest years. But often, the struggle times give you the best stories. So far, it’s the story of the earliest lockdown years. It’s about me and my friend, who both weren’t very well when we were younger. We were put together because we both had chronic fatigue, but we became soulmates – but not in a boyfriend/girlfriend way.

It’s a funny story. I’m maybe about two-thirds of the way through it. I need a chunk of time away from the band to finish it, and then I’d love to turn that into a movie or a show one day. It’s all set round about the time I started writing songs, so I could pepper the thing with the unreleased, daft songs I was working on at the time. And I’d be honest about it – these songs aren’t very good, but here they are!

I had a go at directing, and I’d like another shot at it. But that’s a project for after the tour.

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‘A Bit Of Previous’ is out now. Catch Belle & Sebastian at the following shows:

13 Cardiff Great Hall – Student’s Union
14 London The Roundhouse
15 London The Roundhouse
17 Sheffield O2 Academy Sheffield
18 Liverpool Olympia
19 Hull Asylum, Hull University Union
21 Aberdeen Beach Ballroom
23 Edinburgh Usher Hall
24 Newcastle Upon Tyne O2 City Hall
25 Manchester Academy
27 Cambridge Corn Exchange
28 Birmingham O2 Academy
29 Southampton O2 Guildhall
30 Brighton Dome

Words: Marianne Gallagher

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