Belle and Sebastian: Glasgow goes to Hollywood

Chris Mugan joins Belle and Sebastian as the Scottish indie band take the US by storm
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Last night, Scotland's premier indie outfit played to a sold-out Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles's most iconic venue. Now Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch is leading me to one of the city's hidden corners. We are winding our way up a scrubby, steep valley that leads through the hills. Ten minutes previously, in Hollywood Boulevard, it was easy to forget we were at the edge of a vast metropolis. This canyon-cum-park, where locals walk their dogs, jog or both, is a mere stone's throw from the 18,000 capacity amphitheatre.

Pleasant as it is to escape from the noise and smog, Stuart Murdoch seems to have forgotten California scrub may not offer as much leafy shelter as his native Kelvingrove Park. "We should have a park bench," he says in embarrassed disappointment, distracted by the canine procession wending its way up the dusty path. Still, hard to complain when the once reticent frontman has welcomed to us to what he calls his second city. Once the band had a reputation for being difficult, now veils are being pulled away as the Belles get used to being a fixture in the public eye.

Finally under reasonable cover, Murdoch is happy to talk about last night's performance. Not only had his band sold out the venue, but also arranged their music to be accompanied by the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. After an uncertain start, the group triumphed, with the singer in particular conjuring a party atmosphere by borrowing a dress from a girl in the audience, applying mascara and dancing with another lucky punter.

"I sat the band down beforehand and said just remember, everyone's going to be sitting tonight and the best plan is to just enjoy the sound of the orchestra. When we got up there that's precisely what happened, so I had an existential crisis during the first two numbers. Is this really happening?"

It makes you wonder whether artists can really enjoy a gig on that scale, with the months of organisation and people paying top dollar to sit in front of the stage. Murdoch believes otherwise, and compares the Bowl with a recent howler, the band's poor show at the Wireless Festival in London's Hyde Park, where they failed to connect with the crowd.

"I would give it up in an instant if it was something I didn't enjoy. Wireless depressed me for a week afterwards. I like the idea of city festivals, but it felt like a support slot to The Strokes and not like our audience."

Despite regularly using strings, a flute or even orchestras on their recorded material, the band had not thought about doing something similar before. "On the whole, they are against things orchestral. I've always liked it and the original idea of the band was to have a small orchestral palette that would be as important as the guitars and stuff. We'd been moving away from that, especially on record, because the group prefer to play as such and make their mark. So I would never have suggested it myself, but when someone else comes up with it, it's easier for the group to digest."

An obvious choice to arrange the group's songs with the LA Phil was multi-instrumentalist Mick Cooke. "He wasn't classically trained, he was a chemist at university, but he's certainly grown into this role. It amazes me that someone can finish a gig in Brisbane and then jump on a plane and start work on a laptop."

Certainly, this was a gig made for the band. Alongside their roots in a sound that owes much to Love's west coast sound, much of the group's recent work has been orchestrated, notably their work with big-name producer Trevor Horn on their 2003 album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Yesterday afternoon, though, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Soundmen and officials swarmed across the wide, deep stage and throughout the warren of backstage corridors, technical suites and green rooms. Through them, Stuart marched with a stern expression, while guitarist Stevie Jackson wandered with a concerned air.

Then bassist Bobby Kildea ambled by. You had to look twice to realise the wrist in a plastic cast belonged to the same guy. "Yeah, I've got to go to the hospital," he drawled in his Northern Ireland accent, shrugging off his repetitive strain injury. "I'll have an injection then I'll be fine." Indeed he was, though it was a sign that the band's mammoth touring schedule had taken its toll. Belle and Sebastian had recorded current album The Life Pursuit off the back of touring its predecessor, but now Murdoch admits the group are looking forward to a break. "I was back in Glasgow for two days and felt I was on drugs. The mere act of buying a loaf of bread was the greatest thing. Now we have this momentum going, you wonder how you'll stop it. There are so many people on the periphery it is like a juggernaut, but we need to do something else. We're going crazy."

Playing the Bowl does come with its own rewards. A massive after-show party on a paved area below the open-air venue welcomed Har Mar Superstar and Courtney Love, much to Murdoch's amusement. "The only thing I could say to her was that we met once when she was in Hole and I was a roadie at a student venue in Glasgow. Obviously she didn't remember me from then."

Last night's forays into the Californian crowd showed he was more comfortable pressing the flesh with fans. The band had developed a close rapport with the place, for it was here they recorded The Life Pursuit. Indeed, on stage Murdoch called LA the band's second city. "This is where we've spent the most time," he explains." We were here for a couple of months and I'd always avoided LA like the plague. The first couple of times we came here you couldn't get your bearings, you couldn't walk around. But for the album, we hired a car and made more of an effort. Because people do come and go, they are quick to take to strangers. It's kind of fun."

Even the park we are huddled down in means something to him. "Surprisingly, I quite liked the geography as well. This five-minute escape into the hills I did pretty much every day when I went for a run. It became a spiritual balance." While the gig has not felt like a milestone for Murdoch, he was aware of what the venue meant to local people. "I knew it was going to be a big one. The rest of my summer's going to feel more relaxed now. We know the crowd, the city and knew that we'd have to come up with the goods. It was a community gig, because a lot of people come here because it's their place. They'll come for classical music and pop."

It is a far cry from the group's beginnings 10 years ago. Then, their debut album, Tigermilk, was put out by students on an HND production course, while Murdoch was on a music course for the unemployed. "I never thought of myself as a singer or an entertainer, someone that gets up in front of people like that."

For a while, the band were happy to quietly build up a following, a combination of sophisticated pop aficionados and diehard indie kids. The dynamic changed with the departure of various members, one of whom was Murdoch's ex-girlfriend Isobel Campbell, now nominated for the Mercury Prize for her solo album with Mark Lanegan. "For the first five years we were very introspective. We lived in Glasgow and wanted to make records for ourselves. Then we had a break and thought we should either do this properly or just leave it."

In the end, they left Glasgow imprint Jeepster for comparative giant Rough Trade. With such backing, the group felt they could take on all comers, and began to release singles from their albums, rather than EPs with different tracks. Also, the band agreed to work with a producer. Trevor Horn, switched on to the group by his daughter, approached them, though the band were already on the look-out for a collaborator. "We needed to take the focus away from me. That's what I felt, there's no use being singer, writer and trying to boss other people around. We just needed to be organised by an outside force. We needed a gaffer."

That relationship lasted for one record, putting the group in a distinguished line of acts that only worked with Horn once, among them ABC and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. While Belle and Sebastian have not seen their career nosedive like others that have broken ties with him, you wonder if they had had enough of him. "We had a great time, but it whetted our appetite for producers, so we wanted to try other people."

Through the same period, the group's sound has expanded from its original Phil Spector-meets-Lee Hazelwood template. Now you can hear shades of soul and rock, from the rumbustious Thin Lizzy riff of "I'm a Cuckoo" to the Isley Brothers' wild guitar solo on "We Are the Sleepyheads". Murdoch puts this down to experience rather than increased confidence. "It's in our blood, we just gave in to the music we liked when we were younger. It's quite a familiar pattern in groups. The songs don't quite burn so fiercely in you, so we can step back and look at what we are doing with production."

A perception has grown that without Campbell and other former members, the band has improved as writing has centred around Murdoch and Jackson, something the singer firmly denies. "On the surface, there are some songs that are me and Stevie to the core and we bring the whole piece, but there are many more that are based on ideas that come from the whole band."

He cites "Sleepyheads", an old lyric that Murdoch remembered when he heard Jackson's funky riff and became the finished article thanks to Sarah Martin's backing vocal and Bob's nutty solo. Hard to believe, but when this awkward squad enter the studio, they actually map out their ideas on a whiteboard as if at an office brainstorming session.

Once as secretive as Scott Walker, Murdoch has gradually opened up about himself. Given his portrayal of cross dressers and sexual adventurers in his songs, it was a surprise to find that he is a practising Christian, though this does help explain his affinity with misfits and outsiders. While he refuses to take on the role of pop icon, he is certainly fit for purpose as band leader. Murdoch has now moved out from his flat above a church hall, though his parish activities still have a bearing on actions today, as after the group's Independence Day gig in New York when he took a gaggle of fans to the aftershow party in Brooklyn.

"When you're on tour, my role as youth leader in the local church is very similar, one has prepared me for the other. After the show in New York, I ended up rambling down to Battery Park to watch some fireworks with all these people and I couldn't get rid of them. For once I gave into it, so I had to work out how to get this group of kids from the bottom of Manhattan across the river. We got there and I realised this kid was 14 and phoning his mum. I could hear her voice, 'You're in Brooklyn!' It was like a school trip."

Apart from chaperoning under-age fans, there are signs Murdoch may be flexing his agitpop muscles. Last year, he and keyboardist Chris Geddes visited Palestine with War on Want. From this trip, the writer came up with "The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House", available from the website of music biz charity Warchild, though it failed to make the organisation's actual album.

"If I'd gone and lived there for five years, it would have been more meaningful, but it was still quite intense. I was so glad I'd written a song from my experiences and that there was a perfect medium into which to put this song about kids in a war zone, but people scratched their heads. I guess it was too political for them."

While the band are happy to support such causes as Love Music Hate Racism, Murdoch won't be joining Bono or Chris Martin just yet. "I don't read newspapers and then write about stuff, it's just my experience," he points out.

Ten years in, then, Belle and Sebastian remain pretty much true to the ideals that led him to form the band. They can record in LA and play the Hollywood Bowl, yet remain the voice of disaffected Glasgow.