When Belle and Sebastian released their first album, Tigermilk, in 1996, Travis were still trawling London's toilet venues, Coldplay were at university and Starsailor didn't exist. Since then, sad, sensitive bands have become hard to avoid. Yet Belle and Sebastian, who are probably the saddest and most sensitive of them all, have yet to reach the dizzying commercial heights of their peers.
I meet Stuart Murdoch, the band's singer and chief songwriter, fresh off the plane from Japan, where they've been on tour. When I say "fresh", I mean just that. Tidily dressed in a black polo neck, he looks unfeasibly alert. He's full of stories from Japan – about how he stood in the street during an earth tremor, watching people go about their business as if nothing was happening, and how, with true Japanese hospitality, the band were treated like kings.
He's a serious-minded and circumspect individual – he doesn't laugh much – but he's still good company. When I ask if he feels Belle and Sebastian have anything in common with Travis and Coldplay, he replies: "Well, we all have a crack at a tune." He pauses for a while, then continues: "I feel very lucky; I'm quite happy with my group. In fact right at this minute I've never been happier and I think we'll give them all a run for their money now. We'll give anybody a run for their money with the way we're playing."
You have to admire his optimism. The fact is that Belle and Sebastian have always been better, avoiding the empty emoting and formal rock structures of Travis in favour of a more subtle and pastoral sound. Songs such as "Fox in the Snow" and "The Boy with the Arab Strap" set flutes and shimmering strings alongside Murdoch's fragile vocals and splashes of acoustic guitar.
The band, who come from Glasgow, have eight members, none of whom is called Belle or Sebastian. When they go on tour, the numbers can reach 13 with the extra fiddlers and flautists. Murdoch is brimming with confidence about their live performances: "Playing live's been a bit of a pain in the past. I know we've sounded awful. But we're very organised now. We're learning all the time, but it's going like a dream."
Still, it seems the recording process hasn't become any easier. Murdoch says he came "close to a nervous breakdown" last year while trying to finish their fourth album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. The recording of their latest single, "I'm Waking up to Us" – a fabulously embittered song about a dissolving relationship – didn't exactly go off without a hitch either. They hired Mike Hurst, whose previous credits include Petula Clark and Cat Stevens, as producer. "He's a great guy but he didn't deliver the finished product," Murdoch explains. "We had to work very hard afterwards to polish it up. We really need a catalyst, someone who can harness the creative chaos of the group. I suppose we're dreaming of a George Martin figure, but it's not going to happen."
If Belle and Sebastian were ever to reach the levels of fame that Travis have achieved, you wonder whether they would cope. In their early days, the band were pathologically publicity-shy. For a long time they wouldn't have their photographs taken, going so far as to stick pictures of their friends on their albums' sleeves, instead of their own. Murdoch avoided giving interviews, leaving the talking to other members of the band.
"We didn't quite push away the limelight, as that suggests we weren't looking for it in the first place," he states. "But we weren't interested in that side of things either. There were other things to be getting on with. The band was developing, and for a lot of the time we were in a real mess."
Does he feel like an outsider?
"Yes – but then it's very easy to be on the outside where British music is concerned. If you're just yourself and you don't bow to the demands of the press and the music industry, then you're bound to be seen as an outsider."
They're certainly a hard-working lot. They've made four albums in five years, as well as a handful of EPs, and there are any number of Belle and Sebastian side-projects – the Gentle Waves, Snow Patrol and V-Twin, to name just a few. The band were also the brains behind the Bowlie Weekender, the springtime festival held at Pontin's Holiday Camp in Camber Sands, which later spawned All Tomorrow's Parties. More recently, there's their somewhat controversial contribution to Todd Solondz's latest film, Storytelling. At the mention of Solondz, Murdoch becomes visibly irritated. "To tell you the truth, it almost isn't worth it, what we did. We had lots of ideas, and Todd used very little at the end. I know he was having a really hard time finishing the film, but it was very disappointing for us. I'd really think hard about getting involved in something like that again."
Murdoch's musical aspirations arrived late in life. Whereas most musicians spend their adolescence listening to John Peel in their bedrooms, Murdoch preferred being outdoors and, for a while, harboured dreams of being a runner. In the end, he says, he just wasn't good enough.
After school, he tried a variety of jobs: as a caretaker, a farm-hand and – this one's hard to imagine – a barman at Butlins. He didn't even start writing songs until he was 23.
Murdoch and Stuart David, the band's bass-player, met on a youth opportunity scheme. "It was something the Tories cooked up to get you off the unemployed list," recalls Murdoch. "We were learning to be musical engineers or something like that." The pair then moved on to do a media business course at Glasgow's Stow college, set up by the part-time producer Alan Rankine. Every year he helped a group of students to make a record, usually a single, and put it out on the college label, Electric Honey. On recognising Murdoch and David's talent, he made an exception and allowed them to make a whole album.
"We had to do it quickly," Murdoch remembers. "In three months we had to get a full band together and make a proper record. We ended up recording it in just a few days. Obviously, we had luck on our side."
That record was Tigermilk. A thousand copies were released at the time – original copies now change hands for up to £400 – though, two years ago, because of popular demand, the record was re-released.
It was with "3.. 6.. 9.. Seconds of Light", the third in a trio of EPs released in 1997, that Belle and Sebastian finally troubled the charts, albeit at No 31. Greater success came with their 1998 album The Boy with the Arab Strap, which reached No 12. Just last year they played on Top of the Pops and performed a show at the Albert Hall. Those are landmark events in the lives of most bands, although Murdoch, as usual, is underwhelmed.
Then, of course, there was the notorious Brit award. Belle and Sebastian bagged the best newcomer prize in 1998, to the outrage of the other nominees. Rumour has it that Pete Waterman, the man behind Steps, called for a re-count.
"I didn't pay much attention," says Murdoch. "I certainly didn't know what a big deal it was until after we had got it. But I remember, we were recording in the studio the day after. All these television crews were coming in and out – the BBC, ITV, the lot. After we'd finished in the studio we bought a newspaper. Suddenly we were front-page news in the tabloids – one of them said "Scots Band Cheat At Brits" or something like that. At first we were really angry but later we saw the funny side."
Then he adds, with a sly smile: "Let's face it, it's probably the first and last time we'll ever be on the front page of a newspaper."
'I'm Waking up to Us' is out now on Jeepster. Belle and Sebastian appear tonight on 'Later... with Jools Holland' at 11.35pm (BBC 2). The band play Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow University, on 20 December and Mandela Hall, Belfast, on 21 DecemberReuse content