Local Current Blog

Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian on their new record, his love for female characters, and Rock the Garden

One of the biggest draws at this year’s Rock the Garden is Saturday’s headliner, Belle and Sebastian, who will be returning to Minneapolis for the first time in nine years. And it’s a fine time for the orchestral pop band to be playing a big outdoor show because they just released the danciest album of their career—the pulsing, buoyant Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

Ahead of their big gig on June 20, I caught up with Stuart Murdoch to talk about his love for female protagonists, how he prepares for big festivals, and what it was like to work long-distance with a local string arranger and string quartet to flesh out some of the quieter songs on his new album.

Andrea Swensson: I’m not sure how familiar you are with Rock the Garden, but it’s a pretty unique event. It’s outdoors, and here in Minnesota, being able to be outside for any part of the year is just a treat—people tend to be in a very good mood by that time of year.

Stuart Murdoch: That’s like Scotland, then. My wife would say that we sort of have autumn all the way through the year, but then when the weather’s great there’s no better place. Everybody comes alive. Everyone comes out of their houses and into the park.

When you’re on tour a lot of times you’ll be booked at theaters, but then you also play these big festivals like Coachella. Do you have a different way that you prepare for that kind of experience?

To us it’s all about the set. It’s a beautiful thing being on tour. It’s sort of like being in a circus. People think that you just line up and play the same songs every night, and that you just have to remember where you are. Like Spinal Tap: “Hello, Cleveland! But it’s not like that. It’s got a beautiful rhythm to it when you have good people booking your gigs, so that you have some nice indoor place, then you know you’ve got a festival coming up. And you have to have the set ready a couple days beforehand, and you look online to see what the vibe of the place is like, and then I like to get down there—we usually arrive first thing in the morning on our bus, and we’re sleeping on the bus, and I stumble out of the bus in my pajamas and into the venue or out into the festival to see what the vibe is like before I write the set. Like if it’s a Saturday night crowd outside it’s gonna be very up, up songs. Or if it’s a Sunday night in a sleepy town in a concert hall, then we’ll do more acoustic or more orchestral numbers.

That’s so cool that you have that much detail that you put into each and every show. With the new album out, it definitely takes on more of a dance vibe. Do you feel like that is more fitting at a certain kind of festival where people do wanna party and do wanna dance around?

I think it is fitting. It’s really handy. You’re up in front of 15,000-20,000 people, then it’s great to have a party tune up your sleeve. It’s great to have grooves that people can just get immediately, because traditionally we’re not that kind of band. We do have to rely on fans that know us because we’re not like KISS or something. We don’t have the huge gimmick when we come out and throw down; we can’t just rock the house. We’ve been genuinely excited to play this new record, and a lot of them are sounding good when we play them out.

And this record isn’t strictly dance; there are some really beautiful quieter moments. On songs like “The Cat With the Cream” you have these string players that are actually from Minneapolis, the Laurel String Quartet, and I know that you worked with a producer that was here, Andy Thompson. Can you talk about how that came together and what it was like to work with them?

It was terrific to work with them, but I’d never met them, and I’d never met Andy.

Really?

Yeah. It’s interesting because folks will probably be interested to know about the mechanics of making a record in this day and age, when music can get flown around the country very easily by internet. We were in communication—I spoke to Andy on the phone a couple of times—but I remember when we first went to Atlanta and we had a few arrangements to do, the producer Ben Allen, he gave us a choice. He said you can work with an arranger that you know, or you can work with my guy. And usually what is best is to take the producer’s advice, even if it means taking a leap of faith. Because usually the producer, he know what he’s doing, so we said no, let’s work with your guy. I remember hearing the first arrangement that Andy did, and I think perhaps it was on a demo version of “Cat With the Cream.” It was an early version of that, and he hadn’t recorded it yet. He’d done a digital mockup, and I walked around Atlanta listening to this arrangement, and it completely transformed the song. It was a bit of a blank canvas before that song. We left it blank, but this arrangement was very intricate and very thoughtful, and so after that I had no problems. I thought he was terrific.

That’s so cool that he was able to just send you everything digitally and that you never even had to really get in the same room in order to work together.

I’m telling you, because it could’ve been a disaster. We could’ve hated everything that he sent, because sometimes you do have to sit down and collaborate with an arranger, saying there’s too much here and I like what you did here, but actually with Andy there was very little, and he worked so quickly. There was another song, the one that we collaborated on most was one called “A Politician’s Silence.” It was an extra track on the vinyl version of the LP, and I remember I had specific ideas for a string arrangement on that, and he was very accommodating because a lot of arrangers would just say, “I’m not going to take your ideas because it’s going to make the whole thing a mishmash,” but he tried to accommodate my ideas with his own ideas, and did a really good job. I was sure he was superbly please with that too.

That’s so cool. I had another song that I was curious about: “Enter Sylvia Plath.” I’m a huge Sylvia Plath fan, I have been since I was a teenager. What was the inspiration behind that, and why did you choose Sylvia Plath?

It has a funny origin, that song. It took a while to get going, and then suddenly it just went. I was actually writing another song that didn’t have a very good tune, and I’d written about six verses, and the last line was something with “dadada, enter Sylvia Plath.” And I thought, this whole song is rubbish apart from that one phrase. So I kept that in my head and suddenly I got this big discussion in my head and I thought, I wonder if I combine it with the feel of the title, and I could write a song about a young person who’s life had changed by literature, which happens to a lot of people. It happened to me. Especially in pre-internet days, where we learned so much from books and we were changed by books at an influential age. And so I sort of painted that character of a young boy, and obviously I’m leaning a little bit on the legend of Plath and of her dramatic end, and imagining this young person who’s pondering the life of this artist and wondering if he could’ve in fact saved her. That’s the sort of premise of the song.

And then how did you choose how to arrange the song and its vibe? Because it’s very upbeat, which I think contrasts with how a lot of people see her.

That was an early decision. I was almost playing with the clash of the subject matter and the song, but I thought it went together quite well because there’s a melodrama about what happened to her obviously, and then there’s a melodrama about a young person leaving a small coastal town and aiming for the city. As soon as I had the tune in my head I could hear the arrangement. I knew it was gonna be what we would call a sort of Eurodisco number. And so I just let the tune go in my head and let the words ride on top.

The album title, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, a lot of your videos and your movie all have these female protagonists. I feel like your music and the way that you tell stories is very inviting to women in a way that a lot of rock and roll isn’t, and really kind of honors women as fully developed characters. Is this something that you think about when you’re creating, this inclusion of women in a really substantial way?

I think I’m just naturally inclined. I was talking to my wife—not about this, but just about other matters. We were just talking about sort of girl talk, and I kind of like—when you say “honor women,” I’m happy with that notion of honoring women. I’ve always liked women, and I like to be around women as well. I just prefer female company to male company in most of the time, and I think it kind of stems from long periods in my earlier life, like seven years of my youth, when I really wasn’t well enough to get out and about, and so I had no female company whatsoever. And so it’s almost like I’m trying to make up for it in my later creative life and try to gorge myself on that sort of company. So it’s not something I did deliberately, but it’s just something I’m drawn towards. The nice thing about it is that when we play our concerts these days I look out in the audiences, there’s a nice mix of female, 50/50 women and men. Which, for a guitar band that’s in its 40s, that’s a nice thing, because so many bands have very male audiences and a very male following. I don’t think I could put up with that. I would get very disinterested just playing to men every night.

It’s funny that you say that. I absolutely agree that I do think I’ve noticed that with your fans, and I do think that there might be a bit of a shift happening just kind of across the board, that maybe women are feeling more welcomed to guitar-fronted rock shows than they have in the past.

That’s a good point. I haven’t been to loads of concerts recently, but in the last few concerts we’ve played, just over in California and all up the Pacific Northwest, we just had such a great mix of people and such a great mix of ages and male/female, and it’s so nice to see after all these years.

You mentioned a little bit about your period of illness, and I know that the song “Nobody’s Empire” on this new record deals explicitly with that period. What was it about now, in writing this record, that made you want to address that in a song?

It was one of these ones that just came out. Like I said before, sometimes you don’t plan these things, and I think it was a hangover from working on the film God Help the Girl for so long. I’d been working on a feature film, which was a musical, and by the time I finished editing the film into playing the first concerts of Belle and Sebastian there was a space of about three days. I didn’t have time to think and then just suddenly I was back to work with Belle and Sebastian. And then it was time to write a new album, and so the film was still very much in my bloodstream, and the film—vaguely, two different characters cover the period of my early life, and the main character’s predicament is a metaphor for my own illness. But when I left the characters behind I think I had this urge to actually talk in the first person about what happened to me rather than couching it in characters, and so it all came out in a one-er and I just put down my own experiences of what happened way back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.

I know that you’ve done some journaling as well, and that there was actually a book out of your diary entries. Was this kind of a way of exploring what the diary would’ve looked like back then?

My diary would’ve been terrible back then. I did stumble on an old diary that I kept. It was so dark, in the way that young people just can’t seem to unravel their feelings, so I don’t know. I think if I’d been able to communicate better when I was that age I possibly might not have become so ill. I think I might’ve been able to seek the right kind of help. But so many people are wrapped up and incapable at that age.

You did an amazing interview with Meredith Graves not that long ago, and I noticed that you mentioned Bob Mould and Hüsker Dü. I’m curious, are you a fan of Hüsker Dü?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s maybe surprising to people, but I listened to so much of that SST stuff and American punky bands like Nomeansno and the Minutemen and Meat Puppets, and I used to work in a record store in the late ‘80s and that stuff was always on the turntable. Dinosaur Junior, obviously, and the Pixies as well. Pretty loud and raucous guitar music. So in particular, Hüsker Dü had that amazing sound that was so rough, but they were all about the melodies, too.

I guess it doesn’t really surprise me that you would be drawn to Bob Mould, because I actually see some similarities in the way that you approach melodies, and there’s an underlying tenderness I hear in both of your songs.

That’s nice of you to say. He’s so talented.

Yeah, he really is. As you know, this Rock the Garden show is going to be your first time back in Minneapolis in about nine years. Do you have any memories of visiting Minneapolis or playing here?

I remember the audience was terrific. I remember it was quite a cold time of year, so we didn’t have a day off, and it was overcast and I think I remember traveling in underground tunnels. Do you have—is there lots of tunnels?

We have skyways!

Yeah, the skyways, that’s right. It is quite a while ago now. And it’s not like we picked out Minneapolis or the Twin Cities especially for us to not go there. It just happened that making that film took up so much of my time that the band didn’t really tour much. But it’s great to get back, and especially I love the fact that we’re gonna do this big outdoor show, and then the next time we come back, which hopefully won’t be so long, we’ll play a nice indoor show. I like the yin-yang of the concert experience.

This has been great. Thank you so much for talking to me, and I’m very much looking forward to having you back in the Twin Cities. I know a lot of people are very excited. You’re gonna be headlining the first day of Rock the Garden this year, so it’s gonna be a really fun way to kick off the weekend.

We can’t wait. We’re looking forward to it so much.

Belle and Sebastian headline Rock the Garden at the Walker Art Center on Saturday, June 20, along with Conor Oberst, Courtney Barnett, Lucius, and thestand4rd. More tickets and info here.