Sunday, 27 September 2009

On the road with Stuart Murdoch

Perhaps the biggest 'scoop' tasty fanzine got was when my friend Aline managed to interview Stuart Murdoch during a lift he gave her to a Belle and Sebastian gig in London in 2002. The interview was picked up on by a Japanese music mag, and they reprinted it. Which is perhaps the closest any of us involved in the fanzine will come to fickle fame.

Here's Aline's interview, anyway.

It is a sunny Saturday and I take the train to meet Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian's front man, who is on his way to London (sort of), where the band is recording their new album. I invite you now to be the passenger on this journey, which involved a trip to the seaside, a wedding, playing bowls (‘top leisure’), some fish and chips on the pier, and of course, a very nice, relaxed chat with him. While he was driving, he managed to answer some of my questions.

I was holding the map. We were heading towards south now; the sun was still up. He put on his sunglasses…

Aline -As I said, I hope you don’t find this a drag…

Stuart - No, no, you can ask whatever you want.

Which would you say is Belle and Sebastian’s greatest album? Why?

Well… my favourite album is probably ‘Tigermilk’, although I’m fond of ‘Fold your hands…’ because we put so much effort into it and had a hard time finishing it… that it’s almost like a piece of you… and although maybe people didn’t like it so much, we learned a lot during the making of that record. We learned so much because we had to scrap it, start again, because people were disinterested, the core of the group just wanted to get on with it, but we became quite strong.

You know how some of your songs tell a story, have characters in them… to what extent are they related to real people, people you know and other people in the band know?

Well, I think personally as a songwriter, it’s changed over the years. Some of the songs are quite open, you know, homage to a person, although veiled. In a lot of them, the characters certainly become fictional because they’re composite of people and they might be my ideas, or ideas of friends, or somebody you just glance in the street. Sometimes you can see somebody and in an instant you get a feel of what they’re like or what they happen to be going through at the moment. Sometimes this might inspire you more than knowing somebody all your life.

What about ‘Put the Book Back on the Shelf’? Any stories with that one?

S- That was a long time ago… it’s a bit of an unfortunate recording, that was, I hardly ever listen to it because we made some recordings that were quite ragged and that was one of them…

We’d like to play it, we played it live in Canada a couple times… Well, it features Sebastian. I’ll have to remember it… (starts singing… ‘Sebastian you are in a mess/you had a dream they called you king of all the hipsters/ is it true are you still the queen/). It’s an absolute bulk standard B&S song… what I mean by that is ... It’s pretty straightforward…it’s about feeling isolated, in a group of people but feeling isolated. Being in a club and… not feeling part of the situation at all uh… being bored with what other people are doing, looking for a way out, feeling depressed, looking for anything that will cheer him up

Can you tell us a bit about the new album? I heard some of the new songs at the Glasgow Concert hall and it seems that the band is expanding? It was great to see you, Sarah and Stevie singing together as in ‘Roy Walker’ …

That is a feature we’ve been trying in the last couple of years; we can make a more powerful sound with everybody singing. And Sarah’s got a really good ear for harmony so the three of us have really enjoyed working a harmony. It is a pity… I enjoyed singing with Isobel as well. I almost feel that the four of us were a good number… but… the three of us are pretty good. There are quite a few numbers on the record that features that eventual combination.

It sounds really good! Anything else about the new album… is it coming out in October?

Well, it’s funny. That’s about all you can say about when is an album coming out. We don’t even know that, as usual is going to be 12 weeks after it’s finished. But I think it’s funny because it’s a crunched time right now: we’re going back to the studio tomorrow. In fact when I get to London tonight there’ll be already some mix; it’s going to be interesting to see what has been done.

If the band would invite any musician to participate in a recording of an album, who do you think it’d be?

I think there would be a difference between the group supporting an artist or somebody coming in like Monica for instance, to sing with the group. So if you ask every member of B&S they will tell you a different thing, they’d have different preferences and maybe for that reason we don’t often collaborate in records. I’ve always wanted to do a record with Liz Cocteau, from the Cocteau Twins.

So, if it were up to you, you would maybe like to work with her?

Yeah, maybe produce a record for her.

Do you think there are any advantages or disadvantages of being in a band with so many members?

Advantages is that if you have an idea, and everybody likes it, or if at least everybody approves it, then it’s bound to be okay. We’ve had disadvantages in the past… we’ve been crippled by indecision…We’ve been crippled by people not wanting to do the same things…and stuff like that… and logistical stuff about people wanting to work at other things and not wanting to go into… but that’s all become easier.

Do you ever feel limited in B&S?

Well, if I did feel limited then I could honestly, I could look at the group and sit down and say ‘I want to do this’, ‘I don’t see why we can‘t do this.’ Usually, the group should be able to accommodate your ideas. I didn’t get the group together to go off and demand things… I want to do things with the group, that’s what it is about, collaboration and stuff. Instead of feeling limited what I like to say ‘how can we do this’, ‘let’s get help’.

There’s a lot of sharing of ideas, then, between the group?

Yeah, absolutely, I think we’ve all become comfortable, just the way that the group has evolved. I don’t think anyone would feel shy about bringing anything forward. In the past we spent a long while getting comfortable with each other, because I used to write all the songs, people would be nervous to bring new ones. Now when we start, we start from scratch and we pull our ideas together and we try to develop songs between us.

What do you think is the band’s main source of inspiration? You mentioned that sometimes it comes from people you see in the streets… is it the same for other band members, you think?

Yeah, everything and anything…ideas-wise I’d say, you can get a spark from anything. If I told you what’s the inspiration behind certain songs, you either wouldn’t believe it or you wouldn’t be able to understand how I can get that from that. But that’s the process, that’s the way it happens. And also by the time seven people throwing their ideas together it sounds just like a mixture.

So life and music are definitely not separated?

No, no. But it must be said that pure music, melody and harmony don’t come from life; that comes from inspiration. When you wake up in the morning with a tune, you know, you dreamt the tune, it comes from somewhere else. You gotta wake up write it down; you gotta note it down. It might be in a dream when you listen to this music; the trick is you have to wake up and get it down on tape. That’s your idea and you can develop it later, make that dream real. That’s abstract but certainly a lot of other ideas come from life.

What was the best gig you played so far?

I've got quite a few favourites. It's difficult to say what's my favourite one .there's a few in the old days and a few in the modern times. I really loved the one we did in Coachella, in Palm Springs, in the States. It was the first time, I think, that we played outdoors and we were liberated with being outdoors and everybody was in a good mood, and the sunset and the palm trees, it was just great. We had a nice time, a good laugh. And as I mentioned before, I loved the two seaside ones we did in the British tour, Scarborough and Bournemouth. Also, there are some personal moments. For instance, the second time we played in Philadelphia. We were really relaxed and I was thinking about Rocky, cause Rocky is from Philadelphia and so. I dressed up as him: I got some boxing shorts.

And you did you do the Rocky steps?

Oh yeah, cause when I was jogging, I ran into those stairs and I realised where I was and I heard the music in my head and thought 'that's how we're going to open the show tonight!' (Sings the 'Rocky' theme song). So the string players picked it up straight away and they played that and I came on, with my trainers, it was actually Mark's trainers, he fixes the keyboards. it was just funny.

I bet!

I loved it. Because I don't think the kids would have thought anything like that . I think sometimes they expect you to come on with a walking stick and walk up to the piano and sit down and start wheezing and ' fox in the snow.' (starts singing) .It's kind of
funny, you look at the kids faces cause I still had my gloves on when we were playing 'sleep the clock around', with my guitar it must have looked like I didn't have any clothes on, you know, and I'm sweating.the kids are like ' What!!?'

That must have been really good. And how was the experience of playing in the Concert Hall in Glasgow?

Yeah, it was pretty good, it just enhanced our appetite, to speak the truth. It's almost like you're half way being a caterpillar and a butterfly. We're doing the record; we're not primed to play live, we haven't really done our new set. It was a little bit polite, but it was pretty good.

What do you think of all these new bands, that you see on NME, for example. and some that are not that new, for example. The Strokes, The White Stripes? The new 'scene' or whatever you call it.

I must admit I'm the last person you want to ask. I don't think the Strokes have done anything amazing, they're not a great new thing, but I really like them, you play that in a club they get you dancing. I think I like them more than the White Stripes. I quite like The Moldy Peaches, but they're not so hip like other bands. I haven't heard much of other bands, but I heard The Vines at Glastonbury and I didn't think they were very good.

What are your favourite, top five albums of all times?

S- Well, I'm not going to be able to tell us because I'd have to think about it. I could tell you my top fifty films because I sat and worked it out before. I won't get it right. but how about. 'Poem of the river', by Felt, 'You can't hide your love forever', by Orange Juice, 'The Queen is Dead', by The Smiths. Give me a minute so that I can think about it.

Ok. are there any new bands that you appreciate?

If you asked me 10-15 years ago, I listened to a lot of music. It's funny, because I fill my head with music all day and all night. It's a protracted excuse but when I got free time to listen to music, I tend to go back to music I know I'm going to like. I don't have an appetite to listen to new music. When I was younger I used to eat it up, constantly getting new records. I really like seeing bands live in Glasgow, though. There's a band called Franz Ferdinand, for example, I was really impressed by them.

About the DVD that the band is going to release: will there be any new videos featuring in it?

I think a lot of stuff will be new to a lot of people. There are videos for every single, apart from ' I'm waking up to us'. We included a lot of stuff and we composed a kind of a video for 'The state I am in', which is new. We used a lot of footage and stuff. There's 'Waking up to us' from Jools Holland, there is 'Wondering Alone', from Jo Soares, ' I could be dreaming' from ICV, Scottish Television, from 1997, which is quite good because it's a LA documentary of the group. 'Dylan in the Movies', from New York.

Could you describe your way of dancing? Has anyone ever made any comments about it?

Somebody said they liked my dancing once. Sometimes you can really get into it. I know it's corny but if you're dancing and it's a great tune, if you know it so well, you know what the bass line is doing. Like a Stevie Wonder or a Jackson Five tune, it's almost like you want every part of your body to be playing a different instrument. There's no way to describe it, though, cause I think you dance the way you feel it.

What's the nicest B&S song to dance to?

S- I'd like to say the next one. It's an ambition of Stevie and I to make records that people can really dance to. There's one in the new record called 'If she wants me' that has got a good rhythm. It's pretty slow but kind of funky. If we get it right that might be okay.

Ping- Pong: whatever the word/idea brings into your
mind, just say it.
- Favourite cartoon: Top Cat
- Source of support: Religion, friends and family, not in this exact order.
- Meaning of life: this is a tricky one. I look around and I do think there is more to life than you can see. And if you keep thinking that then you start to think some interesting things. Why, what, that kind of stuff. Being lucky enough to have a backdrop of spirituality, it's great, it just gives another dimension to life.
- Favourite place: Glasgow
- Fans: I really like the fans. I want to put them to work. You know sometimes I feel a little bit of responsibility; you're in a little bit of a position of power. But it's the kind of power like having people around to your house, being a host. You can give people a good time, if you're a good host, and I want to be a good host. But at the same time if you have people around to your house, being able to help out and be part of the household amuses them. So I'd really like them to be part of the household as well, in the sense that you can get involved with stuff, things like treasure hunts.
- Woody Allen: I'd say genius but that's such a clich├ęd word. Woody Allen, for all his faults. you know, we were talking about meaning of life. if I'd name one hundred things on top of my head, he'd be one of the reasons why life is so great. he's just very, very talented.
- Favourite Book: the Bible
- Favourite food: I always love breakfast! When you're really in the mood for it, there's nothing like really good crispy fresh bread and a nice boiled egg and butter. with a good cup of tea! (But I wouldn't say no to a mission burrito, in San Francisco)
- Love: you're going to get a paragraph.

Go on.

When I used to study physics at university they used to be looking for a force, that they called a unified force. Modern physics is looking for a unified equation, to bring all these forces together, to explain how the universe works, to a simple reduction. I don't think they're ever gonna get there, the smaller they look, the more complex the problems are gonna get. I like that, because as more spirituality enters your life you want the mystery. If there was going to be unified forces. it sounds corny, but you could take a little step sideways, you might think that love is a universal force. I'm actually talking in physical terms here, if you believe in a God that created everything, you know I'm talking in abstract terms, but that's what I feel, that love is this unifying force.

Romantic love, is it 'ever' complicated?

Yes, and you wouldn't do it without it. When you get to a certain age, you got a little bit of wisdom; you got a little bit of experience. It could be a bad thing, cause you're never gonna get lots in the naivety so much, like you used to. But it's nice to sit back and see how things work between people and anticipate that kind of feeling going to happen all over again or be sad about that . if you're right in the middle of it, it could be hellish obviously but you couldn't do without it.

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