Belle & Sebastian Aren’t So Shy Anymore

Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch on the soulful album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, how Spotify changed music, and crafting perfect pop songs.

Søren Solkær/Grandstand Media & Management

Belle and Sebastian have been turning out deliciously delicate and swirlingly beautiful albums since 1995, in the process becoming the band that would usher the word “twee” into the pop culture canon. Yet while 2010’s Write About Love certainly didn’t do much to shake that moniker, their forthcoming Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (out January 20) pulls the band’s sound away from shoegazing and on to the dance floor, delivering synth pop, funk, and even New Wave tinged tunes that seamlessly blend with signature symphonic harmonies.

Yes, Peacetime is a Belle and Sebastian album, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a fun, and, dare we say it, at times silly one, one that will make you bob your head while smiling at lyrics like “Perfect Couple’s” “sexual tension at the fridge / he makes for the organic figs,” a brilliantly snide send up of hipster nesting and culture. But while it’s not a departure from the band’s signature sound, it’s certainly an invigoration, a bold move for a two decade old band with a dedicated following. Luckily, it works. Peacetime is a complete package, excellently realized.

We caught up with singer Stuart Murdoch to discuss the new album, pop music, and how being a touring musician is the modern day equivalent of a career at sea.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a different sound for you. Maybe not “different,” but it’s an evolution, at the least.

Evolution is a nice word, and I think it’s accurate. We’ve never tried too hard to make everything radical or different sounding, it’s just the record that was in us at the time. The sound of most of the songs came to me pretty much preformed inside my head… It’s a soul album, and if the cynics laugh at me for saying that I don’t care. This is a gospel album, a soul album. There’s more of my soul that goes in to every song and every song is tinged with barely hidden spirituality, and that’s what drives a lot of these songs.

How do you write the songs? Is it flashes of inspiration, or do you adhere to Nick Cave’s technique of treating it like a job, going to the office every day?

This record, that was probably as close to the Cave method as I’ve ever had. I was so wrapped up in making God Help the Girl, the film, I didn’t have time in my head to think about Belle and Sebastian so much. As soon as the movie was edited it was time to write a new album. Luckily enough I have this dedicated flat that is just along from my house that I go to every day. I had a list of song concepts that I wanted to write, and I’d work at it every day.

I always used to say the best songs just sort of charge in. I’d get a melody, and would just sum up what I wanted it to say. It used to be mostly led by a lyrical concern or conceit. But as you get older, I find I get more tunes and I have to work harder at the words.

It’s interesting that you say the words used to come first. Do you think that as we get older our thoughts shift to the more abstract, the music, than the definite, the lyrics?

I think if you keep trying to do things the same way it becomes diminishing returns. You have to acknowledge your age and position in life, for me quite a lot of those emotionally fueled songs were hormone songs. Simpler, less nuanced observations. And that’s what pop music is for. Each little song is a short statement. It helps when you’re younger and your head’s in turmoil and you can put all that in a pop song.

You’ve released the video you made for “Nobody’s Empire,” and that’s been attributed to your childhood illness. What else about this album is autobiographical to you? How much of “you” is in your songs?

It’s a sliding scale. Certainly “Nobody’s Empire” feels like it was at one end of the scale, where although I’m still talking in metaphors it contains a lot of my life. The other songs go in to lesser percentages of “me” as you move along. I don’t know whether I write more or less of myself than I used to. I still do find it a tremendously useful device to invent a character and have the character sing the song.

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You’ve been around for almost twenty years. How do you feel about your level of success? Do you ever think you should be bigger, or more popular?

I’m not sure that we should be bigger. I think what we’re doing is a little bit esoteric and we follow our own devices, and we’re playing old style pop music in a time that’s fifty years later. We are retreading old ground, so there’s not a huge market for that. We’re not young and sexy! I’m not shitting you here, pop music is about a very basic thing when we’re talking about what the public wants.

It is pop music but it’s so much more sophisticated than a Katy Perry or Pitbull.

I’m not being a snob here, so much older pop music was at least as sophisticated as the music that we’re producing. I see no reason why that music can’t be possible again, but I look around and don’t see it. Sophisticated, nuanced, melodious pop music, that sweeps you away. Occasionally I hear something that’s great, but it’s very rarely in the pop charts. So I want to produce that music. I wish I was a young Carole King, working in the Brill Building. I’d love to be given that chance, when people were hungry for that music, or the record companies were willing and that was the flavor of the music. You can dip into any week in the sixties and look at the amazing singles that were in the pop charts at the time, and then think, now where are they?

Do you think that it’ll come back around to that?

Things have to evolve. There’s always been movements in history, and great times for music for art, and great times for writing, so I’m sure it’ll come back. And that’s the brilliant thing about pop music, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in the popular consciousness, it exists in the political and economic landscapes of the time.

There’s a lot of controversy with Spotify and streaming services. What are your thoughts on all that?

I think it’s a fantastic tool. What a dream! What an amazing thing to be able to listen to any music you want, a whole world of bands. To tell the truth, I wish we could just leave it at that. I remember all our music appeared on Spotify overnight, without anybody asking us. And I asked our label and they said, “Well, we can’t do anything about it.” And it did feel like a body blow. But, you know, you sort of got to go with it. So it’s fine. There’s always gonna be people ripping off other people, there always was in the music industry. I think the artists are more aware, and are stronger than they ever were, so I don’t think we should moan too much.

You have a family now. Is it hard to go on tour for extended periods?

It is. You know, my wife’s a little bit fed up with it. We try to avoid going away for too long, so we can check back in. It’s not like I can afford to take my wife or my wee boy with us, there’s just no way, and it’s not for them anyway. It’s gonna be hard, but you’ve got to do it. My dad was a sailor, and all through my childhood he was away half of the time at sea, and to an extent I have a similar job.