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Interview With Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch

Saturday 4 April 2015


From US magazine The Stranger:


Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian
(Photo: Søren Solkær)

Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch Describes the Dance-Funk Transformation of the Twee Amigos

Related Topics Include: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the Eurovision Song Contest, Grits

By Trent Moorman

For their ninth album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Glasgow's Belle and Sebastian veer from their twee refuge into a groove, dance, and funk affair. Producer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley) appears to have pushed the band's book nook onto a dance floor and cranked up the Funkadelic and M83. P-Funk as twee-funk? There, I said it. The band used the Eurovision Song Contest, ground zero of European pop, as inspiration, trying to write songs that could pass for entries from throughout the contest's history—like the Morocco song from 1980, or Sweden's from 1988. The result is both disparate and unified. As Belle and Sebastian begin their latest tour, singer/dean Stuart Murdoch is doing battle with chronic fatigue syndrome. When we spoke, he was walking around Central Park in New York City.

What is the status of your chronic fatigue syndrome? It's absolutely ongoing. It's the biggest pain in the ass [laughs]. I can't believe, after all these years, it's raised its head again in the last couple of years. Every time I go out on tour, it's a little bit of a leap of faith whether I'm going to get through it. It's worth it, though. If I save up my energy for the shows, it's such a pleasurable feeling to be able to play shows. I think I'd be way more depressed if I had to give it all up.

What enables you to get through it? It's basically conservation of energy. When I'm on tour, and when I'm at home, I meditate. I use a lot of Chinese medicine. I take extremely long baths. It's a very slow lifestyle. I pray a lot, to be honest. I'm praying all the time when things are going badly for the grace to be able to get through the day.

Do you remember your dreams? I had a disturbed night last night, because I was preoccupied about needing to be up to travel. If we're about to be on tour, I'll dream about being onstage with the group. The keyboard will turn into a jellyfish, and I can't remember any of the words for the songs. General anxiety dreams.

I love the Eurovision Song Contest aspect of the new album. Contextualization to a place and time, it's such an interesting way to get a song going. It was a nice jumping-off point. Sometimes we use these things as exercises to get us into an LP. But some of these songs made it through with that Eurovision atmosphere intact. They wouldn't have gotten into the actual competition, but maybe it's our take on the competition. I truly love the ritual of the Eurovision contest.

What's a song where the Eurovision vibe remained intact? What country was it an entry for? What year? "Everlasting Muse" is one. And probably to an extent "Enter Sylvia Plath" is pretty Euro as well. I'd say Romania in 1973.

When you sing, your voice always sounds so goddamn demure and scholarly. Where does that come from? It's funny, I don't tend to consider my singing much. I almost don't consider myself a singer. I use my voice rather self-centeredly in the simplest way that I can, and I don't stretch myself too much. There's not much thought put into it. But maybe, in a sense, it's a direct extension of my thoughts and what's going on in my life. It's pretty artless, there's nothing much hidden there.

It's a subconscious thing. I hear your voice, and I feel calmer. And then my IQ increases. That's nice of you to say. If it is calming, that's an achievement. When I started the group, I was very keen to make a connection with people that I was unable to meet physically because of the situation I was in. I always imagined the kind of people I wanted to talk to, and meet, and warn about some of the pitfalls and perils of early life [laughs]. In a way, I thought of our records as being a one-way psychiatric conversation.

You recorded in Atlanta. What did you think of the city? Did you visit 2 Chainz? I loved Atlanta. I was thinking about it today, like half an hour ago. It was about a year ago when we showed up in that city to make this record and started on our Atlanta adventure. We didn't visit with 2 Chainz. I wasn't happy when I arrived there because I was struggling with a lot of issues, mostly health issues. I told Stevie Jackson I hoped that the LP was going to be a therapeutic process. The people there are warm, the air was warm, and I think the city itself helped nurture me back to some sort of health.

The Atlanta accent is slightly different from your Scottish accent. What Southern sayings did you pick up? You're practically a redneck now, right? Oh yeah, at the time we were talking like we were real Southern gentlemen. I liked that the engineer would call any kind of animals—dogs, cats, rats, pigeons—he'd call them all "critters." The main thing was "y'all." I kept the y'all thing going all the way through the Glasgow summer. People looked at me funny, but it's a useful and familiar phrase.

Did you eat grits? I didn't eat any grits, I don't think. Is that pork?

No, grits is crushed corn, sort of like a salty porridge. Grits get a bad rap—you have to eat 'em when they're warm. Oh yeah, now I remember. You know, I didn't fancy grits very much [laughs]. But we did eat foods like catfish and collard greens.

Did the dance, funk, and disco presence on the new album come from Ben Allen, or was that Atlanta? There's some nastiness happening on "The Party Line." It was definitely in the water. I mean, it was coming along anyway from us and from Glasgow. The songs were all worked out, but Atlanta brought it out. We had to go find Ben Allen, we'd hunted him out. We needed that sound, or else it probably would have sounded more like a regular Belle and Sebastian record. Ben really saw this thing through and took it to its correct conclusion. It's tricky. We're kind of just a rock 'n' roll band, a guitar band.

Did Ben lock you all in a room and make you listen to hours of Parliament-Funkadelic? Thankfully we weren't so bad he had to lock us in a room to study Parliament, but he certainly put us through our paces. He stood over the drummer and worked him pretty hard. And he had to do it. I think it helped as well that we had a new bass player for this album, Dave McGowan, who played phenomenal bass lines. Because if you have solid drumming, it's the bass that provides the groove. It's the bass that makes you dance like crazy.

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