City Paper is not for tourists
If you’re on this Web page, you’re probably kind of new to the coolest, prettiest band in the world, Belle and Sebastian, so I’ll try and bring you up to speed before you start pestering all the old fans. Maybe a friend of yours has If You’re Feeling Sinister (the red one) or The Boy With the Arab Strap (the green one), but you should get them yourself. Here goes:
1. Who are Belle and Sebastian?
Belle and Sebastian are characters in an old French TV show about a boy and his dog, but the Belle and Sebastian we care about are:
Stuart Murdoch (vocals/guitar)
Sarah Martin (violin)
Stevie Jackson (guitar/vocals)
Chris Geddes (keyboards)
Stuart David (bass/vocals)
Richard Colburn (drums/percussion)
Isobel Campbell (cello/vocals)
Mick Cooke (trumpet/French horn)
2. Where are they from?
Glasgow, Scotland (where we got the name for the site). They got together for a school project in a music-business class at Stow College in 1996. That’s how they put out their first album, Tigermilk. The class put out 1,000 copies on vinyl. I’ve heard of copies going for $800, but I don’t know if I believe that. I got a bootleg CD for around $20, and it has the B-sides from their 1997 EPs on it. Lots of people have it on tape. (News about this record later!)
3. What are their influences?
Everybody says Nick Drake, Tindersticks, Donovan, Love, the Smiths, and the Velvet Underground, and some people say the Go-Betweens, Jarvis Cocker, and Momus, but they don’t really sound like anybody else. They aren’t as serious as Tindersticks and Nick Drake (isn’t he a bit of a bore?) or as trippy-dippy as Love and Donovan. They don’t play anything near as loud as “White Light/White Heat,” they have way more melody than Pulp and the Go-Bs, and they aren’t such big wiseasses like Momus that they’re afraid to mean what they’re singing about.
4. Which is B&S’s best album?
That’s Sinister, their second out of three. I’m pretty sure all the songs are Stuart M.’s, and he’s the best songwriter. His songs are witty and smart, always beautiful, sometimes sad or scary. His darker lyrics can be a bit like Morrissey’s, but he isn’t so stuck on himself. You know how when you listen to a really good record a lot, first you have one favorite song, then another, then a different one? Sinister’s like that. Leave it in the changer for a few weeks and just about all the songs will be your favorites. He writes a lot about school and relationships, as well as death and stuff from church. He actually sings in a choir (I think he also cleans up the church and they give him his apartment for free or something), but he says he doesn’t follow any particular organized religion.
5. What’s all this he-goes-with-boys/she-goes-with-girls stuff?
I dunno. There’s several songs about it: “Seeing Other People” on Sinister, “The State I Am In,” “Expectations,” “She’s Losing It,” “Mary Jo” on Tigermilk. A couple of these mention school, so maybe it’s the British boarding school thing, but I don’t really think so. People get uptight about it. Look up Sinister on amazon.com and “A music fan from Tokyo, Japan” says, “I like Belle and Sebastian. This album is great. I am not gay.” Maybe he just shouldn’t worry about it.
6. Where can I get a copy of Tigermilk?
You can buy it—even if you don’t have a trust fund! It just got reissued by Matador. A friend of mine called othermusic.com last week, and the guy on the phone said it was Belle and Sebastian week there. Everyone was ordering Tigermilk. I just got my copy at Vinyl Ink, and it’s great. The sound is much better than the CD bootleg. If you don’t have it yet, you should. The band already had their sound together early on, and Stuart M. sings about all the things he sings about on Sinister, sounding sweet and fragile without being wimpy. The songs gallop along just like you like with that cooled-downed Loaded feel. Some people don’t like “Electronic Renaissance”—they say it sounds too early-’80s, but I think they are just getting ready for Arab Strap’s “Sleep the Clock Around,” which is their Another Green World moment. The black metal pole in my basement rings in the same key as “The State I Am In”:)
7. What are some of the other bands members of Belle and Sebastian are in?
They’ve played in lots of bands and on a lot of people’s records, including Mojave 3, Ex-Cathedra, Polarbear, Hefner, Snow Patrol, Camera Obscura, and the famous Arab Strap. Check out their Web site from the links page if you want to see who did what—or what an arab strap is.
Stuart David has a side project called Looper with his wife, Karn. If you liked “A Space Boy Dream” on Arab Strap (I thought it seemed out of place there), you’ll like their new record, Up a Tree, which came out several months ago. There are more story-songs, Stuart just going on and on in that soft accent of his, and he mixes things up with some hiphop/electronica-style beats. It’s a little like Beck, but much more low-key. It starts out with some loops that sound like that midget that raps with Kid Rock, but there aren’t any lines about being “3-foot-9 with a 10-foot dick.” Instead they’ve got a wonderful story about how they wrote each other letters for years before they ever met or got together. They repeat it in the liner notes, but when you’ve got a story that romantic, you might as well tell it a lot.
I got the chance to see Looper last week when they played D.C. I had really high hopes. When B&S played there the day before Halloween, the Black Cat never sounded better. You could hear everything. But last week it was all back to normal. The bass was up so high (not Stuart’s bass—you could barely hear that—the bass on the rhythm loops) that you could barely make out the words, and the words are so important on his songs. Anyway, he wore this funny-looking light headset that made him look like one of those deep-sea fish so he could see the music stand where he read his stories. There were two screens where Karn showed her films and videos (on one) and slides (on the other). There was a row of TVs up front, but I wasn’t close enough to see them most of the time—I think they just showed what was already on the screens. The thing is, her stuff looked pretty amateur, sort of art project-y. I like it when Stuart sings about Dave the Moon Man lying drunk on the grass with the dew soaking through his jacket, but when you see someone doing it at the same time, it makes it seem less special. There were lots of baby pictures and park scenes, but a video of some guy dancing under a tree with headphones on always is boring if you don’t know the guy. There were also some pictures of that big thing in Brussels that looks like an atom—that was kinda cool. I liked the songs better when I was listening to them in the kitchen juicing key limes (yum!). I know Karn is Stuart’s inspiration and all, but her visuals really don’t add that much.
8. Are Belle and Sebastian twee?
No! Sometimes ignorant people who hate the band say they are, but they’re not. Looper can get a little close, and the Gentle Waves definitely are, but B&S are not. It doesn’t help that most of the B&S button designs (“badges” if you’re from the U.K.) and the early T-shirts make them look like a twee band, schoolbuses and kids riding bikes and stuff. I know Isobel did some of the designs.
Twee is what happens when liberal arts students flunk out and go back home to live. They can’t face the fact that they’ve got no future, so they pretend they are still children. Everything’s all candy and ice cream and stuffed animals and kitty-cats. Yuk. But it is possible to write about things when you were young without sounding like that. That’s why Stuart M.’s so great.
9. Why are you always so mean to Isobel?
I’m not always so mean to Isobel. I think she’s got a lovely voice and she’s a good cellist. But she’s a better backup singer than a singer-songwriter. Anyone who likes her leading a band can buy the Gentle Waves disc that came out this spring, but I don’t recommend it. There’s a fine line between gentle and precious, and she’s so far past it she can’t even see it anymore. Her melodies sound like she just started making up stuff when she should have been practicing more for her piano lessons. And she hasn’t learned much from Stuarts M. and D. about writing songs. “Evensong” sounds like she stole the tune from a 1970s game show, and she sings it like she’s pretending she’s got a harelip. It makes my skin crawl—between her voice and some mosquito bites I got at a picnic last weekend, I’ve been feeling like Dennis Potter during one of his “spells.”;)
She dedicates “Rose I Love You” to the guy who wrote The Little Prince, but she ought to be thanking the Penguin Cafe Orchestra for that arrangement. And she thinks trees need her to sing them lullabies. I actually think it’s good Isobel’s got an outlet. The songs she writes may seem like Belle and Sebastian songs, but only if you’ve got them on in the background. Maybe now they’ll be less likely to show up on the new record B&S is recording in the fall. If you’re worried your Tullycraft and Bunnygrunt CDs are getting lonely and you think they need a little company, be my guest, but is it wicked not to care?
Thanks for visiting!