Belle & Sebastian - Biography
By Arrissia Owen Turner
The indie pop band that Scottish lifestyle magazine The List declared the best Scottish band ever was formed in Glasgow in 1996. Belle and Sebastian earned the honor after the magazine tallied public votes for three months. The band’s name was inspired by the children’s book “Belle et Sébastien” by French author Cécile Aubry. While the band has achieved limited mainstream success, Belle and Sebastian have become indie rock icons and critical favorites thanks to their wistful, dreamy lyrics and lush arrangements.
Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David started the band when they recorded demos (songs Murdoch had previously written) for Stow College music professor Pilar Duplack, which were attained by the college’s music business course. The class chose one of their songs to produce and release as their yearly single on Electric Honey Records, the university label.
Because they had many songs in the can already, the band was asked to record an entire album, Tigermilk (1996). The album was recorded in three days and originally only 1,000 copies were produced on vinyl, which are now hard-to-come by collector’s items fetching up to $500 online.
Tigermilk’s success led the duo to put together an entire band and make it a full-time gig. Added to the lineup were Stevie Jackson on guitar, Isobel Campbell on cello, Chris Geddes on keyboard and Richard Colburn on drums. The band was signed to Jeepster Records in August 1996. The band’s second release, If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) was later named by Spin magazine as one of the 100 greatest albums between 1985-2005.
Violinist Sarah Martin joined the lineup before the recording of Belle and Sebastian’s third album, Sinister, which has since been called the group’s most accomplished work despite its initial lukewarm reception. That lackluster start may have been due to the low key way the album was promoted—there was not much touring other than a few high-profile shows like at CMJ Music Marathon and the BAM Festival in Barcelona, Spain. On top of that, the band did not pursue and did not receive much media attention, instead relying on word of mouth and ardent fans. Rolling Stone called the band “eight layabouts in the secretive Scottish band” who were the “new kings of the kind of teen-innocence porn that makes indie-rock fans cry ‘mama’.”
On the heels of Sinister, a series of EPs were released, the first of which was Dog on Wheels (May 1997) with four demo tracks recorded before the official formation of the band. The next EP released was The Lazy Line Painter Jane (July 1997), recorded in Murdoch’s home, an old church. The EP features vocals by Monica Queen and it just barely missed cracking the U.K.’s Top 40 chart, peaking at #41. The last in the series was 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light (October 1997), which made Single of the Week in both NME and Melody Maker magazines and finally cracked the Top 40 at #32.
On the heels of the band’s EP frenzy, The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) dropped, reaching #12 in the U.K. charts and creating dissention among music critics. Rolling Stone and New York’s Village Voice gave the album rave reviews, while the music Web site Pitchfork panned the effort going so far as to call it a “parody” of Belle and Sebastian’s earlier releases. “Mediocrity is not a punishable crime,” said Pitchfork in its review, “but if it was, Belle and Sebastian would be enjoying their last meal.”
The Boy with the Arab Strap featured band members with lead vocal duties other than Murdoch, including Stevie Jackson on “Seymour Stein” and “Chickfactor,” Stuart David on “A Space Boy Dream,” and Isobel Campbell on “Is It Wicked Not to Care?”.
There was also some bad blood surrounding the name of the album with regards to the Arab Strap, also the name of a now defunct Glasgow band, which briefly toured with Belle and Sebastian. Arab Strap’s instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton was quoted as saying “We’re friends with them, but there’s a limit to putting someone else’s name on an album. They’re taking something away from us.” He also said that the album’s name created confusion, misleading mutual fans into thinking the album was the product of collaboration.
It was around this time that trumpet player Mick Cooke, who had recorded with the band as a featured session player on previous albums, joined the band as a full-time member, just as Stuart David was beginning his exit from the band to start his own side project, Looper. However, the upheaval did not slow down the band’s prolific releases, following up with the EP This is Just a Modern Rock Song (1998).
In 1999, three years after the release of Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian won the title of Best Newcomer at the Brit Awards, beating out more well-known pop acts including Steps and 5ive. The same year, the band curated their own sold-out festival, the Bowlie Weekend, with John Peel and Jarvis Cocker DJing and music performances by Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, Teenage Fanclub, Godspeed You Black Emperor and more. And Tigermilk was given a full release by their record label, Jeepster, before the band started working on the next release, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000).
In the interim, various band members worked on side projects: Stevie Jackson and Chris Geddes in V-Twin, Mick Cooke with The Amphetameanies, Isobel Campbell with The Gentle Waves and Richard Colburn with Snow Patrol.
But once the band got down to work, the result, Fold Your Hands, marked the first time Belle and Sebastian broke into the U.K.’s Top Ten, with a single released separate from the album, “Legal Man,” reaching #15, and the band performing the song on the long running U.K. TV show Top of the Pops. The song features The Maisonettes’ Jonny Quinn on congas and Rozanne Suarez of on vocals. The single also included the tracks “Judy is a Dick Slap” and “Winter Wooskie.”
As the band’s profile rose the band’s music began making appearances in films and on TV. The film version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity makes mention of the band and features a clip from the song “Seymour Stein,” which was on the album The Boy with the Arab Strap. The album’s instrumental title track was also used as the them song for the U.K. TV program Teachers.
In 2000, Stuart David made his departure from Belle and Sebastian permanent so he could concentrate on Looper as well as working on his novels, including The Idle Thoughts of a Daydreamer and The Peacock Manifesto, published by I.M.P. Fiction. Bobby Kildea of the band V-Twin replaced David on bass in Belle and Sebastian.
The next single released was “Jonathan David,” in June 2001, with Stevie Jackson on vocals, followed in November with “I’m Waking Up to Us.” The latter single was rumored to be about his failed relationship with band member Isobel Campbell. Murdoch denied this on the album’s sleeve notes to 2006’s The Life Pursuit.
Other than the song’s murky inspiration, the single was the first time the band used an outside producer, Mike Hurst. (Up until then, the songs were made with Tony Doogan, within walking distance of the band members’ flats in Glasgow.) Arguably more telling than Murdoch’s defense was Campbell’s departure from the band during the middle of the band’s 2002 North American tour.
By 2002, Belle and Sebastian’s days of limited touring were over as the band crossed the Atlantic for the first time for international touring. The band hit the road big time, as well as writing music for the soundtrack of the movie Storytelling by Todd Solondz, a movie the New York Times called one of the best 1,000 movies ever made. Only a bit of Belle and Sebastian music made the soundtrack, but the creative outpour left enough scraps for the next Belle and Sebastian album, Storytelling (2002), the last recorded for Jeepster. Strangely, it was kind of a make-believe soundtrack to an actual movie.
That same year, Belle and Sebastian signed to Rough Trade records. As a farewell, Jeepster released Fans Only (2003), a DVD chronicling the band’s career from 1996-2002. The film included video footage, two short films outlining the band’s history, interviews, TV performances, live footage, a discography section with a sample of each track, as well as medley sequences combining films and stills.
Rough Trade introduced the band to another producer with pedigree. Trevor Horn, who had worked with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Seal and the Pet Shop Boys, and who was a member of the bands Yes, The Buggles and Art of Noise. The fruit of their labor was Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003), which was lauded for its polished, pop sound. The album was a critical and commercial success, and it was nominated for the 2004 Mercury Music Prize.
Also, the song “Step into my Office Baby”—the first single the band released that was actually taken from an album—was shortlisted for an Ivor Novello Award in the Best Song category, an award from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. The tour to support the release saw the band playing shows at Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Greek Theaters, and a hometown show in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens with more than 10,000 revelers celebrating their native sons’ success.
The album saw a return to Murdoch’s main man songwriting duties. The second single from Dear Catastrophe Waitress was “I’m a Cuckoo,” which achieved the highest chart position yet, reaching #14 in the U.K. The Books EP was next, a double A-side single lead by “Wrapped Up in Books” from Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the new Your Cover’s Blown.
On November 22, 2004, Belle and Sebastian performed at the Concert Tribute to Trevor Horn, their recent producer, in London at Wembley Arena. The concert also featured Yes, Seal, Lisa Stanfield, Simple Minds, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Buggles, ABC, Art of Noise and more.
Between albums, in April 2005, Belle and Sebastian band members visited Israel and Palestinian territories with the British charity War on Want. They recorded the song “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House,” inspired by the trip, later released as a B-side of 2006’s “Funny Little Frog” single.
Jeepster released Push Barman to Open Old Wounds (2005) to capitalize on the label’s former prodigies’ long-awaited success, a two-disc, triple LP collection of singles which Blender Magazine called “25 charming tales of shy girls dabbling in photography and bookish boys dabbling in shy girls.” The release gave the group’s newer fans a chance to play catch up and cemented the group’s status as part of the indy rock elite.
Next up for Belle and Sebastian, The Life Pursuit (2006), released by Rough Trade in the U.K. and Matador Records in the United States. The album, which was originally intended as a double album, was recorded in California with producer Tony Hoffer. By then achieving a more substantial audience, The Life Pursuit became the band’s highest charting release so far, hitting #8 in the U.K. and #65 on the U.S. Billboard 200, with the single “Funny Little Frog” debuting at #13 as the band’s highest charting single.
Ten years after Tigermilk cemented Belle and Sebastian as a real band, the group performed a stellar, sold-out show in July 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl, accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic—a long way from their modest beginnings in a class project. The 18,000-seat outdoor concert venue was sold out, with supporting band The Shins.
In October that same year, the band, particularly Mick Cooke, also helped put together a children’s CD called Colours are Brighter, which also included Franz Ferdinand and The Flaming Lips. More recently, in November 2008, Belle and Sebastian released a BBC Sessions album on Jeepster, which featured songs from between 1996-2001, which will include the last recordings with Isobel Campbell before she left the band. The band also released a second disc of a live recording from Christmas 2001.
Belle & Sebastian most recent release, Write About Love, was released on October 12th 2010.