Belle and Sebastian: “We’ve never made a record as punchy as this”

Ahead of their Australian tour, Belle and Sebastian leader Stuart Murdoch spoke to DOUG WALLEN about the band’s ninth album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, recording in Atlanta and the dangers of setting out to write playful pop tunes.

The last time Belle & Sebastian made a dramatic grab for glossy, chart-friendly pop, it was with 2003’s Trevor Horn-produced crossover Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Well, the new Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is even more bubbly, breaking out ABBA-level hooks while flirting with klezmer, disco, ‘90s club jams and much more. It’s an ecstatic, emboldened, danceable album that might finally break the Scottish band’s longstanding image as cardigan-clad wallflowers.

Recorded in Atlanta, Georgia with producer Ben Allen (Deerhunter, Animal Collective), the album marks a dramatic return for Belle & Sebastian after taking a few years off for leader Stuart Murdoch to make God Help the Girl, a film musical he wrote, directed and wrote all the songs for. It also arrives close to 20 years after they first emerged as an adored cult ensemble with instant-classic early albums like Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister. Maybe that’s why Girls in Peacetime… feels like a new beginning, a bright new chapter that should see the perennial critic’s darlings become even more popular with fans worldwide.

Ahead of an Australian tour in January, Murdoch spoke to FL in a long, candid interview covering the new album, his songwriting process, his film detour, and the seven-year illness that shaped him and the band forever.

The lead single from the new album is ‘The Party Line’: it’s quite dance-y. At what point did that song arrive, and did it dictate at all how the rest of the album sounds?

It was just a song like any of the other songs. The difference was, actually, that this is the first song that Bob [Kildea, bassist] brought to the band. He’d sketched a couple of ideas before, but they never really became songs. But this is one he pretty much brought in fully formed in terms of music, and then he asked me to write words for it, although he had the title. I don’t think I myself would have ever come up with something that was so overtly clubby. Kind of ‘90s clubby.

There are a lot of unexpected moments on the album: ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ has a disco thing happening, and there’s a klezmer part in ‘The Everlasting Muse’. Were you aware of being more playful this time?

Y’know, I think you can get into trouble if you set out to be playful. We have kind of an unspoken rule where we don’t go out of our way to make stylistic changes. These songs all happened like that. I had those in my head like that; they came out like that, fully formed, and there was never a doubt that was what we’d do.

I remember playing ‘The Everlasting Muse’ to the band for the first time. We got up to the end of the verse and I said, “Now it’s going to do something funny here.” I slowed it down and then brought in that [section]. Stevie [Jackson, guitarist] rubbed his hands together and said, “We’re gonna be rich!” Which made me laugh. He never would have meant rich in terms of dollars, but I think he was just enjoying the direction in which the song was going.

Was that in demo form that you brought it to the band?

Oh no, I never bring in demos. I’m too lazy. I usually just have the words written down and then I walk into a rehearsal room and say, “Okay, it starts in this key. Let’s hash it out.” Because the band, in a sense, is my palette.

Was that one on guitar or piano?

I would have started with the double bass [that opens the song]. Then I’d maybe go over to the piano to show them a few chords. But they really don’t need much guidance. When you’ve been in a band with people for almost 20 years, they can follow you pretty quickly. They almost know the changes before you do.

Is it often that way where you hear so many of the different parts in your head?

Yeah, of course. That’s my job! I can remember developing that particular muscle. We have a song called ‘Judy and the Dream of Horses’ way back on our second album [1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister ] – I’d already written the song and it was finished. I walked around with it the next day, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I can hear all this stuff coming in. I can hear the trumpet…’ That’s a muscle that develops; it’s almost like a space in your head where you hear these instruments.

Who’s singing lead with you on ‘Play For Today’?

That’s Dee Dee Penny. She’s from a band called Dum Dum Girls.

The album bio talks about how ‘Nobody’s Empire’ is autobiographical, and how that’s sort of a first for the band. Is that right?

Well, not really. You’ve gotta take that with a pinch of salt. Don’t believe everything you read. [laughs] I can’t work out how that I got into the bio. I think I talked about it to Bob Stanley [author and member of St. Etienne, who wrote the bio]. I guess it does cover a bit of my life in my early 20s, but there’s hints of your own biography in many songs. To me it’s quite a personal song, and it’s probably the most I’ve written about being unwell. [Murdoch was housebound with chronic fatigue syndrome for years.]

From what I understand, that was a very formative experience for you before the band, just having all this time being stuck with yourself.

It wasn’t just formative to the band – it was formative to my whole life. People always experience events that shape their lives and move them, but maybe not as dramatically as this one. It was almost like a binary thing, where you change from one to zero. I was an active, normal person, and then my life turned completely upside down. For the next seven years I was in a wilderness. And to happen at the age of 19 or 20, obviously that’s going to shape you. [laughs]

And this was pre-internet, right? There wasn’t that way of connecting.

Absolutely. You were hungry for information and you were scavenging health food stores through leaflets and asking friends, because adults didn’t know what was going on [with this condition]. I had to try to find other people who had gone through this. It was difficult.

What were your methods for finding music then?

Well, there was a great network always in music. It was an important thing in people’s life, almost because there wasn’t the internet. There wasn’t so many videogames and all of that. When I was 18 or so, I worked in an indie record store and through that I ran gigs and DJed like three nights a week. I was pretty well connected. People would bring in music [to the shop] – I got a lot of tips from the older guys. A fellow used to come in and sell secondhand stuff. I was ultra modern at the time, and he had Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood and The Byrds and all the Beach Boys records. I was thinking, ‘What is the significance of this old stuff?’ And he said, “You should check out this record Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys.” So that was a nice surprise.

The record reminds me of seeing you guys live. I was surprised by how punchy it was, and how much like a party. To me this record reflects that upbeat energy.

Definitely. When you’ve been doing this job a while, one thing that comes out more and more is an element of dance and rhythm. It just helps. It helps grease the wheels. It helps you get through the day if what you’re producing you can actually move to.

You worked with producer Ben Allen [Animal Collective, Cee-Lo, Bombay Bicycle Club] in Atlanta. Why did you choose him?

It’s an interesting process and it’s slightly fraught, because you have to find the man or woman for the job. We already had the bundle of songs, and we knew roughly what sounds we were interested in. We met up with a bunch of people and they’re all great people, and we might go back to work with them at certain stages, but Ben seemed like the one who could take what we had and really see it through. Because it’s a difficult job. Especially with a band like us: we’ve never made a record as punchy as this, that could make people dance like this. I don’t think we could have done it on our own – we needed somebody who had a dance background, a hip-hop background, a slightly heavier background.

How did you find your time in Atlanta?

It was very accommodating. It had many of the things I look for in an album city. [laughs] We enjoy going away to record. You have an army mindset and focus on the record when you’re away together. It’s almost like a 24-hour cycle of working. But it was warm, which I love. They have lots of great trails to walk in. I always explore a city – especially when you’re doing a record, in the downtime when you’re listening constantly to mixes, I always go walking when I do that. The food was great – lots of great Tex Mex.

Do you already have some ideas for another movie?

I had one idea that I was certain I would work on. It was a woman who fell in love with the computer that ran her house and her whole life. Kind of a Jeeves character. Then the movie Her came out. It definitely was a good idea, but that’s what happened. Ideas have their time, and I missed the boat. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t get into it seriously. But I’m sure another idea will come along. You have to wait for a strong urge to come along, so you’re certain of what you’re getting into.

You collected your old blog posts for The Celestial Café. Are you planning to publish any more memoir-type things?

I’m glad we did end up publishing it at that time. A publisher came to me and it seemed like an unlikely idea, but it works. It covers a particular period of three or four years when I was blogging furiously. Then I got married and had a kid and all that went out the window. Also I started working on my film [ God Help the Girl ] and that took up a lot of cerebral space. Maybe I’ll go back to blogging one day, but it’s more likely that I might go on to another film project. And if I was going to write another book, I’d maybe wait until I was older and then I could look back on the quixotic history of the band.

I was wondering about your usual method of arriving at album titles.

Well, the usual method is that there is no usual method. Sometimes you have it beforehand and sometimes it’s the last thing and it doesn’t even go on until you’ve done the artwork. The first two records were not titled until the very last second, when the artwork was already done. The first record [1996’s Tigermilk ] was going to called Belle & Sebastian, but the tiger was getting its milk [on the cover photo].

With this one, the phrase “Girls in peacetime want to dance” was one of many song titles I had written down in the last couple years. I’m always writing down phrases that spring to mind. I had the artwork for this record and it took me about five seconds to decide [to use that title]. I never thought about it afterwards and I don’t really know what it means – it just gives me a sort of feeling. So I just left it.


FL presents Belle & Sebastian

Wednesday, January 28 – The Tivoli, Brisbane

Thursday, January 29 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Saturday, January 31 – Twilight at Taronga, Sydney

Sunday, February 1 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Tuesday, February 3 – Astor Theatre, Perth

Belle & Sebastian’s ninth album Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance will released on January 16 through Matador/Remote Control.