Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch on Parenthood, Cancelling Their Tour, and Giving Back Through Music

Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch on Parenthood, Cancelling Their Tour, and Giving Back Through Music
Photo by Anna Crolla

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Belle & Sebastian are a deeply important band to me, If You're Feeling Sinister was my Nevermind in high school and I've never fallen out of love with the band since. I was delighted to have Stuart do an interview for the newsletter, especially since I quite enjoy the band's recent one-two punch of last year's A Bit of Previous and the just-released Late Developers; the interview was already in the works before the band's North American tour was cancelled due to Stuart's ongoing myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) diagnosis, so we ended up talking about that too by the time we got on the horn.

How’s it going, Stuart?

I’m doing good, thanks. How are you doing?

I’m doing good. My cat just slept through lunch, so I had to pick her up and bring her to her feeder. Do you have any pets?

I was talking about this a minute ago. I visited a friend last night who has a new dog, Patrick. I really like dogs, and my wife would like to have one, but we have two young kids, so we might as well have another kid, to be honest. But my wife is impulsive—she would just get a dog, and it would be a big mistake. So, last night, Patrick bit me, and he peed all over me, and then he puked up twice. [Laughs] I was trying to put her off the idea with that.

You guys had your second kid in 2017, right?

[Laughs] I think so? Sounds about right. They’re six and nine. That’s about right, yeah.

What’s this stage of parenthood looking like for you guys?

If this was a major mainstream publication like The New York Times, I would temper my answer, but I think we can talk frankly. Parenthood is…tricky and difficult. Probably most parents at some point find it difficult, but I find it serially difficult. I love my kids, they’re both ADHD, Danny’s on the autistic spectrum, and I have a history with chronic fatigue, which is the reason we had to cancel a bunch of tours. As you can imagine, that is challenging. I don’t want to paint a bleak picture. My wife and I have been saying that it’s teaching us lessons in life and wisdom—about how to be patient—that doesn’t come close to anything we’ve experienced. I stood up in front of an orchestra with a band at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted the whole thing—and, honestly, it’s a different kind of stress.

Over the last decade or so, it seems like people are able to say that parenting is hard more openly now. I’m not a parent, but it seemed like previous generations just gritted their teeth and pushed through it. Now, people are able to talk about it more openly, which is good.

Of course it is. It helps people to talk and to be honest, and it helps people get the help they need—and people do need help. The great thing about people is that people want to help, if they can. If somebody has a problem that I can help them with, I’m gonna help them because it makes me feel good! It goes both ways with people helping us—and I’d hope that I would do the same for them.

Whenever I’ve listened to your music over the last two decades, I’ve always heard a voice of comfort to me. I’d be like, “This music is helping me.” I feel like, as a songwriter, you seem very keenly attuned to projecting a sense of empathy through your work. How conscious is that for you when it comes to your songwriting process?

If I am aware of that sense of empathy, it grew from being a fan of music. I remember reading fanzines in the ‘80s that were about a bunch of music that I became really fond of from Glasgow’s Postcard Records—bands like Aztec Camera, Josef K, The Go-Betweens. There was a letter by a woman who’d written about the experience of listening to Orange Juice’s second single, “Blue Boy.” It was such an honest letter, and it didn’t really occur to me that this was what peoples’ relationship with music was like. It felt so personal to her, she was writing about this experience of having a dark Saturday, and how buying this single and listening to three minutes of music was like a shot in the arm. There was a comfort to it, and it was thrilling.

I think that she was living in Glasgow, and the fact that Orange Juice were from Glasgow was a bonus to her as well. Growing up with the underground music scene in Glasgow, relating to those bands, gave me an awareness when I started my group. Although you’re not thinking of other people when you’re writing the songs—because that’s a flow of information that’s very personal—I did think that I had an awareness that there was gonna be people who could relate to that. And I liked that notion, and I wanted to be that person. It costs me nothing! If we can help out as a group, then surely we would.

Your music also typically finds younger people in a way that a lot of music that endures simply doesn’t. I grew up listening to you guys and R.E.M., but I have a hard time seeing young people who get into R.E.M. these days. But I feel like young people are always discovering Belle & Sebastian. Why do you think that is?

That’s amazing to me, I’ve never made that observation. I’m always encouraging people to listen to early R.E.M. It’s funny, I just did a big radio show on BBC Radio 2, and I had to pick a bunch of songs and talk about them. One of them was R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World” and what it meant to me. It felt funny to me, to think that R.E.M. hadn’t been around anymore, that they’ve dropped off the radar. There’s a large group of people who haven’t listened to R.E.M. for a long time, maybe they’ve never heard them. Particularly the first six LPs, I love them. So that would be a shame—but I think you’d be surprised, with the modern way of discovering music. There’s plenty of people who are probably still listening to early R.E.M.

I know the first couple of our LPs are touchstones for some people, and they keep going back to those—no matter how hard we try through our career, those first few LPs will always be special to some people. If people keep discovering those, younger people especially, it’s because, let’s face it, the subjects for some of those songs are about coming of age. They’re pretty raw. I didn’t really hold back on that sort of emotion, at a time in which those sort of emotions were probably frowned upon by the vast majority of the publication. To be a gentle soul was not, in the mid-90’s in the west of Scotland, a great look. [Laughs] But there’s plenty of gentle souls.‎

I’ve loved these last two records you’ve put out, and what’s amazing about the band’s career is that I’m always hearing new ideas being put forth on every record, even as there is that familiarity I have with your sound too. Tell me about what taking risks for you looks and sounds like.

It’s never felt like taking risks to me. It just feels like being indulgent. We’ve always felt that we’ve been able to do whatever we’ve been able to do. I read a review—and I don’t read many reviews, but this one fell on my desk—of the last LP, and this reviewer was damning us with faint praise. “You know, this is a really nice record. There’s some really nice styles on this, and it’s subtle. It’s a little bit complicated, blah blah blah. This is the reason why Belle & Sebastian could never be a household name—for the past 15, 20 years, they’ve just spread themselves too wide. They never put themselves in a bucket that the general public could consume.” It was interesting and illuminating to me—like, it was teaching me a lesson. “That’s why!” That’s why we have to really work at it as a band, and why we can’t relax. But that’s made it fun for us.

It’s always an adventure, and we follow our hearts when it comes to the music. I don’t think the band would’ve flourished otherwise—because, people have to realize, the band isn’t just the project of one person. There’s seven people in our group, and the contributions writing and production-wise from the individuals was as large as ever. The writing was disparate, ideas were flying in from every corner. I would say to people, “This is just what you get.” If you want us to carry on as an entity, here it is. We would’ve stagnated a long time ago otherwise.

You were talking earlier about music discovery when you were younger. How good are you at keeping up with stuff now?

I don’t. I simply don’t. Especially now that I’ve got kids. Every time something happens in life, I take a step away from knowing what’s going on. Sarah and Chris, and everyone else in the group, seems to know more than I do, and I don’t really mind that. On a list of things I’m worrying about, it doesn’t even make the top 200. [Laughs] I don’t mean to sound dismissive. But I did my due diligence, and I’m writing a novel about it right now.

I keep glancing back to the ‘80s, and I call the ‘80s my glory years. When I was just consuming music in all different forms, and I was the one who could sniff out a new band before they knew what was going on themselves. I wasn’t a songwriter at that point, I wasn’t in a band, but I worked in the road crew in various venues around Glasgow. I’d be sitting onstage, night after night, doing security for all these touring bands coming in—Throwing Muses, the Pixies, Galaxie 500. Obviously, they were quite well-known. But later on, I’d be out night after night, and when I started writing songs, I’d be sitting in clubs and pubs in Glasgow, checking out what was happening and trying to track down other musicians, watching four bands a night.

Those are great times, and that was a stage for me. It was also, professionally, my job, because I was a DJ for a few years. I needed to know what the kids liked to dance to.

Belle & Sebastian’s music has always had a filmic quality to me. You’ve made a film yourself. What are some films you’ve enjoyed in recent years?

I was right on top of this question when I was making my movie. I took a break from the band and sat down and wrote a script for the first time. I really indulged my penchant for movies, I’d watch a movie every day and it would help me to write and imagine. Not so much now, I tend to watch movies with my kids. My favorite movie of the past ten years is Inside/Out. It’s nominally a kids movie, but it’s quite advanced. It’s got two sides to it. There’s a lot going on.

My horizons have shifted because of watching stuff with the kids, but there’s a genre of movies that’s been huge for the last 15 years: animated musicals—things like Sing, Moana, Frozen. These are huge movies and they’ve become the heart and soul for these audiences. Kids are brought up with these songs, and it might be the most musical thing they do now. Kids these days don’t seem to consume music anything like the way we used to. My kids are more likely to pick up music through the games they’re playing online, but also through these musical films—some of which are terrific and I really admire, like Frozen.

You mentioned earlier how you had to cancel the upcoming tour because of your chronic fatigue diagnosis. How have you been feeling about everything?

Well, there’s two sides, personally and pragmatically. Personally, it’s been a drag. Pragmatically, it’s been a fucking disaster for the group. Nobody wants to cancel tours. People get antsy, it’s difficult for the crew, everything falls apart, things are tricky for bands now anyway. We booked a bunch of stuff, and that stuff is a bit rotten. It’s our jobs, it’s how we make a living, so it puts us in peril somewhat. All the people I work with are amazingly supportive, and if it wasn’t me and it was someone else in the group, I guess we would try to carry on, but if it’s me, we can’t carry on without me.

We had to cancel the North American trip, which is quite a long way off, and perhaps people are thinking, “Wow, has somebody broken their neck or something?” I’ll have to work hard to get my health back to that level where I can take on a North American trip. We just felt that we couldn’t assume that I was gonna pick up in the next month and a half. It is a drag, the rest of the band are finding other things to do for a while. I’m so glad that the label managed to put out this record, though. I guess we did work pretty hard to put together both records, and I was a little worried that they would hold it until we were touring again. I didn’t want to do that, that wasn’t my plan. My plan was to stick it out. So now, psychologically, we can move on. I’m hoping I can work on my health and hopefully we can get back to some shows in the summertime.

Belle & Sebastian have become quite a live force over the past decade or so. If you told somebody in the late ‘90s that this is where the band would go, they’d probably be very surprised. How has your approach to live performance changed over the years?

I could write a book about this, and maybe one day I will. It’s so funny that you say it’s surprising that we’ve become a live force, because sitting here in my beleaguered state, it’s hard to imagine what happened just last year with the tour we had. These are some of the most uplifting experiences of my life. I feel like I get the wind in my sails. When you see me onstage, you’re seeing me at maximum Stuart. You are seeing me living my best life. [Laughs]

It is surprising, because when we started this group, I was a little bit of how I am just now: I had ME—low energy, my health wasn’t good—so I never planned or expected the group to stay together, or be a live thing. I just wanted to make a record. After a few years, when the group stayed together, and suddenly we decided to give it a go and tour the world, that was a real unexpected bonus for me. It’s something I never thought I’d get into, but it became a whole thing, and the group’s gone from strength to strength.‎

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Jamie Larson