Belle & Sebastian: Cult crooners who pack a creative punch

Belle & Sebastian's new compilation is just one of a diverse range of projects, they tell Craig McLean

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The Independent Culture

A sunny day in a swanky city centre hotel in Glasgow, and Belle & Sebastian – the city's most indie, if not its most famous, sons and daughter – are briefly back in their home base. The seven-piece have just completed a tour of America. It's but one of the multiple “territories” where the band enjoy a rock-solid and ever-rabid cult following, one firmly established in the near-two decades since releasing their debut album, Tigermilk.

On the horizon: a slate of European festival shows, climaxing in the UK with a near-top-of-the-bill slot at Bestival and a headline gig at End Of The Road. There's just time to sort their laundry, and to engage in some minor promotion for their latest release. The Third Eye Centre is a compilation of B-sides and rarities recorded since the band moved to Rough Trade from boutique label Jeepster. That was 10 years ago, a span of time which bamboozles the band as much as it may casual observers who continue to view the PR-shy Belle & Sebastian as eternal students, knock-kneed of gait, vague of purpose and at best, shambling of ambition.

The truth is wholly different. Belle & Sebastian have moved purposefully on from the none-more-cute simplicity of their beloved 1996 debut, while never sacrificing their melodic charm or lyrical bite. They freely admit, for example, that the new album's opening number, The Avalanches' remix of “I'm A Cuckoo”, was their attempt to crash the mainstream – a feat they memorably achieved in 1999, when they upset Pete Waterman and his Ken-and-Barbie-doll protégés Steps and stole the Brit Award for Best Newcomer. The maverick Australian producers promptly took one of the band's poppiest songs and turned it into what sounds like a giddy off-cut from Paul Simon's Graceland.

Recalls singer Stuart Murdoch, “I remember having a chat with [Rough Trade boss] Jeff Barratt: 'Well, the song didn't quite meet my expectations with the recorded version. Maybe if we give it to the boys from The Avalanches it'll come back sounding shiny and brilliant!'” He chuckles ruefully. “Then when I heard it I was like, 'O-kaaay, plan B.' But yeah, we were trying to get a hit.”

“Just not in Africa!” chips in drummer Richard Colburn, one of four members today joining Murdoch on interview duties.

The band have been bold on plenty of other occasions. There have been albums made with Eighties pop supremos (Trevor Horn produced 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress) and recorded in Los Angeles (2007's The Life Pursuit, made with Beck producer Tony Hoffer). Soundtrack work (2002's Storytelling for American director Todd Solondz) has jostled for attention with side-projects aplenty: the “ supergroup” Tired Pony for Colburn; a recent theatrical musical, Cannibal Women of Mars, for trumpeter Mick Cooke; a solo album, I Can't Get No, for guitarist/occasional vocalist Stevie Jackson. And there's God Help The Girl, the recently completed big-screen musical that Murdoch scored, wrote, directed and hustled to fund. The film grew out of songs that he wrote in the early Noughties. They didn't feel like Belle & Sebastian numbers; rather they suggested to him a screenplay.

“It's very Belle & Sebastian-esque!” admits the singer who, 45 this month and now father to a baby son, retains the boyish demeanour that made him an icon to an indie generation. “It's about a girl who's not well – she has a few mental issues. She's in a mental hospital, but she starts writing songs and that helps her rehabilitation. She absconds against her doctor's advice, and picks up with a boy and a girl. And they create music through the summer. Every time she writes a song she feels a little bit stronger.”

For Murdoch, who wrote the songs that begat Belle & Sebastian as he battled chronic fatigue syndrome in his mid-twenties, God Help The Girl is an intensely personal project. Not only did he have to teach himself how to direct a film, he and his producer partner had to raise all the financing. A Kickstarter appeal generated an initial £140,000, “which at the time was the third or fourth biggest amount worldwide”, says Murdoch with some pride. “But we ended up really needing that because we never got any money from anybody else. We thought we'd maybe get cash from the BFI or Film4 or somebody. But they all turned us down!” he laughs. “So we came back to Glasgow and thank God Creative Scotland came forward.”

The arts quango ended up being “our main sponsors”. But even with the further addition of private investment, the team's final budget of £1.2 million was short of the sum they had sought: £2 million. Accordingly, “at the last minute we had to lop a week off the principal photography and had to make some compromises. But you know,” the first-time director says with a philosophical smile, “it's all part of the fun.”

Murdoch wrapped filming at the end of last year, finished editing two months ago, and has submitted God Help The Girl to the selection committee of a film festival he declines to name. He's now hopeful of a spring 2014 theatrical release. There's a satisfaction at having finally wrestled what might have seemed like rock-star vainglory into “the can”, but also a sadness. “I am starting to miss having the characters around, having had them active for so long. I don't have anybody to write for now; I feel like I don't have so many mates, which is kind of a weird thing.”

Surrounding him at the table, Murdoch's flesh and blood mates don't seem put out by this comment. The members of Belle & Sebastian have been doing this together for almost 20 years and seem well-used to everyone's foibles. And for all concerned, summer 2013 seems to mark the start of a creatively functional new chapter for the band. “We've all started writing individually,” confides Jackson, who contributed a sizeable chunk of songs to their last album, 2010's Write About Love. The Third Eye Centre is a fan-pleasing, decks-clearing release, and Murdoch can, for the time being at least, park the (ahem) Hollywood dreams that have occupied him for the past seven years.

“Now we're established back playing concerts, having this little week off is the first time I've really sat down and thought, 'Right, what are we doing [about] new stuff?'” says Murdoch. “I'm driving [my wife] Marisa up the wall though. I keep coming in and out of the bathroom, going, 'I've got it! I want to do a big band jazz tune – but it's about social injustice!'”

Whatever Belle & Sebastian's next move, it's a fair bet it will be another intriguing left-turn.

'The Third Eye Centre' is out on 26 August on Rough Trade Records. Belle & Sebastian play End Of The Road Festival on 1 September and Bestival on 6 September