Interview: Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch on Writing New Music and Solving Our Human Problems

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Interview: Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch on Writing New Music and Solving Our Human Problems

Stuart Murdoch doesn’t like the idea of his band “maturing.” He thinks the word makes Belle and Sebastian (pictured above) sound like an old stinky cheese that’s gone off, but the changes the Glasgow indie-pop sextet have gone though over the years can’t be denied. Since their debut in the early ’90s with Tigermilk’s subdued chamber pop tunes about young (mostly fictional) social misfits, the band’s sound has gradually gotten bolder, more orchestral, even danceable, while the lyrics have increasingly dealt with real life.

How to Solve Our Human Problems, a new three-part EP series, embodies that evolution more completely than ever. A multipartite yet consistent release of intricate prog-pop songs, it’s suffused with animated disco beats and wistful words about adult relationships, loss and some political material, like “The Girl Doesn’t Get It.” “I’ll Be Your Pilot,” is a song by an obviously besotted Murdoch to his young son. Taken as a whole, the EPs survey this present moment, often a little sadly.

“Fundamentally, any form of suffering or confusion can make people rethink their lives, and also consider the problems of other people. Then compassion arises in their hearts. That’s why trouble and pain and suffering aren’t always to be considered terrible things. That is the human condition. That is where we are.”

So, how do we solve our human problems? Murdoch suggests it has a lot to do with compassion, a perspective informed by his newfound interest in Buddhism. Speaking on the phone from a train hurtling through France ahead of Friday’s release of EP No. 3, the singer and principal songwriter expanded on that and other topics, such as the roots of the peculiar sympathy (or compassion) for underdogs that has been a hallmark of Belle and Sebastian’s music since the beginning. Maybe they haven’t changed so much after all.

Belle and Sebastian’s lyrics have become more personal over time, referencing life as a band or events in your own life. Is that because you have more life experience to draw from?

I think what happened is that, when I was younger, I spent a lot of time dreaming, because I wasn’t experiencing life. I was on the sidelines, and so I had to live my life vicariously, almost like looking through a window at other people. So, I wrote about other people all the time. It seemed very glamorous to me. Now I have a family and I have a band surrounding me.

When you say you were on the sidelines, you mean because of your chronic fatigue syndrome? Have you connected with fans who also suffer from chronic fatigue?

Yes, many over the years. I didn’t make an effort to contact them back then, because I was just recovering and I wanted to put it behind me. I didn’t talk about it much at all. I didn’t even tell fans for years and it was hard to understand what was going on. Recently, I think it is my responsibility to try to get back to people, because I have such an experience with it now.

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This trilogy of EPs marked the first time you recorded in Glasgow for years and the process was a bit more loose for this project than on your last few albums. How did you make the decision to do that? What did the recording process end up being like?

Half the band wanted to go away again and work with a producer and I said, “Let’s do it here.” I thought we should get our hands dirty and get closer to the music that we were wanting to produce. I was the pioneer, and I hoped that the band would follow me. We started looking around for smaller studios in Glasgow, because the scene has changed so much. We just started doing songs on a sort of ad hoc basis with a friend engineering. It felt less formal than an album. It just felt like we were compiling tracks, and trying different places and working with different people. That’s the way we used to do it 20 years ago. You know, sometimes we’d be a little more adventurous and we’d try different things, like recording with different singers, and then we’d put them out like singles or EPs.

You’ve said that the name for the EP series comes from a Buddhist text of the same name that you’ve been reading, and that it has had some influence on the material. On “The Girl Doesn’t Get It,” you conclude that more compassion would solve all of the problems in the world, which seems very much informed by Buddhism. Are we living in a moment that calls for more compassion than ever before?

Fundamentally, any form of suffering or confusion can make people rethink their lives, and also consider the problems of other people. Then compassion arises in their hearts. That’s why trouble and pain and suffering aren’t always to be considered terrible things. That is the human condition. That is where we are. We can either react to suffering or trouble in the world by getting depressed about it, or accept it and try to do something positive about it. The important thing is to do it with a peaceful mind. That’s what life is about, is trying to get through while keeping a peaceful mind and a compassionate heart.

What would you say “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” is about?

It’s got an unfortunate title. A better title might be “The Girl Actually Gets It Much More Than You Think She Does.” The song started of sort of like a conversation between a guy and a girl, but then it went somewhere else. It became sort of like an imagined conversation between me and a girl [activist Saffiyah Khan] that was in a famous picture that was in The Gaurdian last year. You might have seen this picture. She was at a demonstration of the English Defence League, which is a fascist organization that is anti-immigration. She was standing up to them, and she was doing it with a graceful look on her face, and the men were just ugly and angry. It inspired me.

So, in a way, the song is about wanting to talk to her?

Yeah, I wanted to have a conversation, but that’s why the title is misleading. I think if I could talk to her, she would know much more about the world than I would, really.

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Stuart Murdoch performing with Belle and Sebastian in 2017.

Your early music especially has a lot of very queer themes in it. Do you ever hear from LGBTQ fans who connected with that aspect of Belle and Sebastian?

I never really thought about that. We have a very open and very groovy relationship with our audience, where everybody is welcome. To be honest, because of my chronic fatigue, I felt like a second-class citizen when I was younger. So, I felt like I wanted to write songs for everyone, but especially people that felt like they were on the margins. I think it inspired most of the content of the songs, like “She’s Losing It” and “Expectations.” I still love doing those songs now. We played them last night. I’m not looking out at a bunch of kids in the audience anymore, but I still love those songs. They still do something for me.

Speaking of your songs, there was an essay on Pitchfork a few years ago titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” that made an example of your band. You expressed some dismay about it on Twitter and faced a backlash. Did you end up reflecting on that incident?

It kind of changed me. When I responded, I got a lot of criticism and anger. I would have been better not responding at all. It frustrated me at the time because I thought our group was quite the opposite. I thought we were all about being open to everybody and being inclusive. Over time, I realized that you have to just accept what people think. You can never change people’s minds really, and so it was up to me to accept what they said about me and the group. That was very hard for me and maybe why the Buddhism became so useful. There’s no point in being angry, and the only way you can change people is by example, by trying to be a good person. I think I responded badly back then. I think I would respond differently now. People are free to think what they are free to think. I tried to contact her, the journalist, and we came to some common ground. I wanted to have a chat about it, but at the last minute she wouldn’t meet with me. I think it was a conversation to have and, when I reflected, I agreed about the premise of the article.

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