How Dance Music Saved Belle and Sebastian - Rolling Stone
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How Dance Music Saved Belle and Sebastian

Inside the Scottish indie-pop band’s new LP – and their secret love of disco, synth-pop and club

Belle and SebastianBelle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch spent much of his formative years at dance clubs in the U.K.

Søren Solkær

Dancing in clubs isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Belle and Sebastian, the Scottish masters of wistful melody and wry lyrical asides. So it’s a bit of a surprise to hear lead singer Stuart Murdoch, calling from his Glasgow apartment on a rainy winter evening, describe his youth as a string of late-night revels. “I danced all the way through the Eighties and Nineties,” says the singer, 46.

It wasn’t always easy: In the late Eighties, while he was at college, Murdoch fell ill with a serious case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He spent the next seven years too weak to finish school or hold down a steady job – but he still hit the local clubs whenever he could. “Even when I was too ill to work, if I had any energy at all, I would head out on a Saturday night on my own and dance at a club called Divine,” he says. “I’d have to spend the rest of the week recovering. It was kind of stupid.”

Now, nearly 20 years after Murdoch’s health returned and he co-founded Belle and Sebastian, he’s gone back to that early influence. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, the band’s aptly named ninth LP, is studded with glittering synths and pulsing backbeats – a sharp curve away from the warm, cozy indie-pop that B&S is best known for. “So many of our older songs were written around a strummed guitar or some chords on the piano,” says Murdoch. “This one is all about the rhythm. It starts with the kick drum, and the tune dances around that.”

The road to Peacetime is a long one, full of unexpected twists and last-minute miracles. It starts in the mid-Nineties, by which point an ailing Murdoch had moved back into his parents’ home in Alloway, a sleepy suburb about 30 miles from Glasgow. “I had spent time in hospitals, and by the time I came out I didn’t really have any friends,” he says. “It really set the clock back to zero. But I started working on some music, and over the years, I made a life by myself. I moved back to the city, and just sort of cracked around for a while – wrote songs, observed people’s lives.”

Back in Glasgow at last, Murdoch recruited friends and acquaintances to start Belle and Sebastian in 1996. He was the newly formed group’s dominant songwriter on their limited-release LP Tigermilk and their proper debut, If You’re Feeling Sinister — a pair of tender, funny indie-pop landmarks, both released that first year. “It was our honeymoon period,” Murdoch says. “Everybody liked hanging out with each other, and there were some nights when all eight members of the group would be out dancing at Divine or a Northern Soul night somewhere.”

For B&S’ third album, 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap, he invited other members of the band to contribute songwriting for the first time. “I didn’t even quite get it at first,” says guitarist Stevie Jackson, who wrote and sang two songs on the LP, including the fan favorite “Seymour Stein.” “Like, ‘What do you mean you want songs from other people? That’s a terrible idea.'” In the end, the process resulted in an album that, perhaps more than any other, distills the classic Belle and Sebastian sound to its purest, sweetest essence.

Looking back, Murdoch sees those first few years as a golden era. “We were trying to reinvent the wheel on every record, having this crazy adventure in kind-of-hi-fi,” he says. “We were based in Glasgow, deliberately separated from the music industry in London, and we were always looking back to the classic records of the past and thinking of the things we wanted to say right now. It was an intoxicating blend.” 

By the time they got to 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, though, “The fuel had started to run out,” Murdoch says. “That record went on for a while, and we had to re-record it a couple of times. I kept throwing so many songs at them, but they didn’t want to be stuck in the studio their whole life. Things started to get a little bit stale.”

Belle and Sebastian shook off their doldrums in 2003, when they recorded Dear Catastrophe Waitress with producer Trevor Horn, best known for his Eighties work with Yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Grace Jones. It was an unexpected choice, and it relaunched the band with a bright, bubbly new pop edge, heard most clearly on tracks like “Stay Loose” and the B-side “Your Cover’s Blown.” “That’s when we got our shit together,” Murdoch says. “We never looked back after that.” 

Their next album, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, doubled down on Catastrophe‘s hints of glam and funk, with production from Beck collaborator Tony Hoffer. The band was on a hot streak once again – but it didn’t last long before Murdoch got distracted by another long-simmering dream. “Every day up until 2006, I worked in a band,” he says. “And then suddenly I said, ‘Look, after this tour I’m going to go home and work on my film.'”

The film in question was a movie musical called God Help the Girl. Writing and directing his passion project and recording its soundtrack, with help from members of the band, took up the next six years. There was another Belle and Sebastian album along the way, 2010’s Write About Love, but Murdoch admits now that it didn’t get his full attention. “We did come back and make a record,” he says. “But my mind was still on the film, mostly.” (Jackson doesn’t disagree: “I like that record,” he says. “But it’s more low-key and reflective, less flying at the gates with an exciting new thing.”)

A year ago, around the time God Help the Girl premiered at Sundance, Belle and Sebastian decamped to Atlanta to work on their proper return with producer Ben Allen, whose previous collaborations include Animal Collective and Cee-Lo. “We hadn’t been together for a while,” Murdoch says. “We were thinking, ‘Wow, can we still do this?'” Allen encouraged the band to toss out their preconceived ideas of how to work together yet again. “That was quite rocky for me,” Murdoch says. “I felt I was out to sea without a paddle.”

The spark for their new direction came from Jackson. “I said, ‘I want to make a disco album’ – more as a joke than anything,” says the guitarist, who leads a Seventies cover band called the Disco Sharks in his spare time. “‘Do the Hustle’ is my oldest memory.”

He might have been kidding around, but the idea resonated with the rest of the band. Singer and violinist Sarah Martin brought in a raft of dance-y demos: “It sounded like she was playing a lot of Depeche Mode and Human League,” Jackson recalls approvingly. Lead single “The Party Line,” meanwhile, emerged from a Pet Shop Boys-style synth-pop jam composed by bassist-guitarist Bob Kildea, who challenged Murdoch to write lyrics to match. “He told me, ‘Just imagine you’re back in the Nineties at Divine,'” Murdoch says.

The album that resulted isn’t quite Saturday Night Fever, but it is Belle and Sebastian’s most grooveable set ever, and it has re-energized the band for another new era. “I wish we could stay in Glasgow and do another LP right now, but I guess we’ve got to tour,” says Murdoch. “We’ve got conceptual ideas for four or five LPs just hanging around.” (He mentions a possible all-instrumental “library record,” or an album with half a dozen guest vocalists taking center stage.)

Belle and Sebastian’s next tour, which hits the U.S. in March, will feature trippy visual projections of Eighties video games, and they’ve been talking about putting together a performance with a ballet company. When it’s done, Murdoch will return to the city he now shares not only with his bandmates, but also with his wife and their year-old son, Denny (“Like the diner,” he says). “He’s been dancing since he was about six months old,” Murdoch senior says of his child. “He’s really rhythmic.”

Like father, like son, then. “I love pop music more than ever, to a ridiculous degree,” adds the singer. “It saves my life every day. And it never gets old.”

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