LONDON – Belle and Sebastian are headed back to Japan, but are not quite as you remember them. For nearly 20 years the Glasgow indie darlings have been pigeonholed as producers of twee, lovelorn songs for corduroy-clad outcasts, but with their newly released ninth album, that stereotype is in danger of looking outdated: “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance” is as concerned with the dance floor as it is the state of the world in which it was conceived.
The quaint charm and quirky tunes that have wooed a community of loyal devotees remain in place, but this time they are augmented by a preoccupation with world events and expansive synth-pop that wants to move your feet as well as your heart. At times, like on “Enter Sylvia Plath,” the music has more in common with Scandinavian Europop than acoustic ballads about foxes in the snow, but it still retains Belle and Sebastian’s very essence: Plath is a dead poet, after all.
Speaking from Glasgow, keyboardist Chris Geddes, whose instrumentation has been unexpectedly pushed to the foreground, says that the “songs dictated the way the music went rather than any preconceived ideas about the style we wanted.” In other words, this was not a deliberate attempt by singer-songwriter and band leader Stuart Murdoch to finally shake off the twee tag.
“To react too much against that perception could be taken as a diss to that section of the fan base,” Geddes argues. “The fact is we have this loyal audience who’ve grown up with the band’s music has been important; you don’t want to diminish that. That has kept us going. For everyone that is put off the band by it, there is always people for whom the band mean an awful lot. Once an idea about the band is out there, there is often very little you can do to change it anyway.”
Those that care to listen to “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance” without prejudice will hear a band that has broadened its musical and lyrical horizons substantially. Recorded in Atlanta with producer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, CeeLo Green), it is the product of Murdoch ditching “concise writing and defined song structure” in favor of “more emphasis on the rhythm and kick drum, and the bass. We’d ad-lib in the studio, go in the morning and not know what we were going to come out with at the end of the day”.
The overall effect is invigorating, and when the music isn’t startling, the words do the jarring. From the album’s title to the summation on “The Cat with the Cream” that “everybody bet on the boom and got busted,” the album delves into the political as well as the personal. On occasion, it does both: On “Allie,” the lines “When there’s bombs in the Middle East / you want to hurt yourself / when there’s knives in the city streets / you want to end yourself” detail how a teenage girl’s disillusionment with the wider world leads to despairing self-doubt.
Geddes “wouldn’t quite go that far” in describing the record as overtly political, but accompanied by press shots of the band reading newspapers from the day of the Scottish independence referendum, it’s “undeniable” that Belle and Sebastian have fixed their gaze outward like never before.
“There are more political references than there have been in the past — closer to the surface and more specific. The stereotype of our lyrics would be that they are about the minutiae of characters’ lives rather than the wider world, but this is a reflection of Stuart being a bit older. He’s a dad now and he feels a bit of responsibility to talk about that stuff, looking at the world his kid is growing up in.”
The album’s opening track, “Nobody’s Empire,” is the anomaly, a deeply personal exploration of the onset of Murdoch’s myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), a chronic-fatigue disease that he has suffered from since his teenage years. Geddes didn’t initially appreciate Murdoch was referring to his own troubles — “he always sings about other people” — but says that once he realized, he saluted the “bravest song he’s ever written.” To this day, Murdoch’s ME still causes spells of inactivity for the band. “But it’s his band. The band wouldn’t exist without him, so we are happy to wait.”
The irony of Murdoch’s illness is that for all of its debilitating nature, it precipitated Belle and Sebastian’s existence. When he was first diagnosed at 19, Murdoch retreated into himself, taking solace from the guitar and his rudimentary piano skills. Through the isolation songs poured out of him, and when he returned to full health nearly seven years later, he did so armed with renewed dynamism and the songs that would make up the band’s debut album, “Tigermilk.”
Recorded for a college project with bass player Stuart David in 1996, “Tigermilk” soon attained near-mythical status: Only 1,000 vinyl copies were pressed, and to own one was to be a member of an exclusive club. By accident, “Tigermilk” had spawned a monster, albeit a polite, cardigan-wearing one, and Murdoch soon enlisted Geddes, Stevie Jackson (guitar), Richard Colburn (drums) and Isobel Campbell (cello) to flesh out the project into a full band. Being virtual strangers didn’t hamper them initially: Follow-up “If You’re Felling Sinister,” widely recognized as one of the best albums of the 1990s, heightened their cult-phenomenon status and by the time the third of their ’90s trilogy, “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” hit the top 20 in the U.K., Belle and Sebastian, like their heroes The Smiths before them, had become the outsider’s outsiders.
But for a band that seldom did interviews and only sporadically played live, fame never looked likely to suit. Their flirtations with the mainstream were awkward. When a choreographed effort by hardcore fans allowed Belle and Sebastian to beat chart-topping pop acts Steps and 5ive in a public vote for the Best Newcomer prize at the 1999 Brit Awards, Murdoch was nowhere to be seen: Officially “in the studio,” the job of collecting the award was left to two reluctant bandmates who started their acceptance speech by saying, “Hi, he’s Belle and I’m Sebastian.”
Their one shot at something approaching chart success soon evaporated. Subsequent albums were patchy, created in a disparate environment with Murdoch’s ME becoming an increasing hindrance. With three songwriters now pulling Belle and Sebastian in different directions, by 2002 both Campbell and David had left. Campbell’s departure in particular was hostile and keenly felt, not least due to her half-decade-long relationship with Murdoch. The “collection of individuals” was imploding under the strain, and though a steady lineup since 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” has “come to terms with how we work best,” it is a state of affairs that causes Geddes regret.
“It did take us a while to learn how to be a band,” he says, “and it was unfortunate that in order to get to that point we had to lose a couple of members along the way. It’s a shame the band wasn’t able to expand the remit of what it did enough in order to incorporate their visions as well as Stuart’s.”
Perhaps remembering himself, Geddes counters, “but really if you look at what they have done since they left the band, it’s probably not possible to have a single band have three distinctive ideas and still be coherent. It’s only worked when Stuart is the leader.”
Yet it seems that the sense of commercial underachievement still festers. On new track “The Everlasting Muse,” Murdoch is told by the song’s protagonist to “be popular, play pop, and you will win my love”: It sounds like he is willing it to be true.
Geddes acknowledges as much, saying that “Stuart is a pop fan and he would first and foremost identify the band as pop group,” but the keyboardist is more circumspect about Belle and Sebastian’s lack of a transcendent breakthrough.
“You can see why what we do isn’t a massive pop success, because it is quite quirky and leftfield,” Geddes says. “And even when we try and make a song with a big hook, we always manage to throw something in there that makes it a bit weird or a bit odd. You can see why some people would hear our music and say, ‘It’s not for me.’ But we are what we are, aren’t we? You can’t say to Stuart, ‘Stop writing songs through characters and just write a song that people will understand on the radio.’ ”
Belle and Sebastian fans wouldn’t want that, and, in any event, if the slew of festival headline slots the band play is any indicator, such action isn’t needed, either. Next week they return to Japan to do just that, topping the bill at Hostess Club Weekender in Tokyo.
“Tokyo is an amazing city. The people just go out of their way to be really friendly: it’s a wonderful place to visit,” he says. “I see a Glasgow-Japan connection. The bands that we knew who had been, like BMX Bandits and The Pastels, said, ‘Wait until you go to Japan’ — and they weren’t wrong. It’s a nice thing to go halfway around the world and find people that connect with your music.”
And that, for Belle and Sebastian, is all that truly matters.
Belle and Sebastian play the headline slot on the first day of Hostess Club Weekender, which will be held Feb. 21 and 22. Also scheduled are St. Vincent, Caribou, The Thurston Moore Band and more. Doors open at 12:45 p.m. on Feb. 21 and 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 22. A one-day pass costs ¥7,900, a two-day pass costs ¥13,900. For more information, visit www.ynos.tv/hostessclub or www.belleandsebastian.com.