It was summer of 1998 and a typical drizzly day in Scotland when the elusive and publicity-shy songwriter for Belle and Sebastian, Stuart Murdoch, came to the phone. Speaking in the world's tiniest voice, he agreed to meet the next day. He balked at the idea of doing an interview, however. "Ah, noo," he said in his hushed Glasgow brogue. "There are, like, ten people in the band. I just wouldn't feel comfortable speaking for all of them." No problem. Casual coffee chat it would be.
The next afternoon was a dazzling, sun-drenched spring day, and hundreds of Glaswegians flocked to Kelvinwood Park, in the city's trendy, college-oriented West End. A brass band filled a local amphitheater, playing oom-pah versions of techno hits, and countless pale-faced Scots basked in the abnormally gorgeous weather. Back at the cafe-strewn hip strip on Byres Road it was time for an afternoon appointment with the lead singer for the most-talked about indie band in the United Kingdom.
Murdoch appeared quietly on the street: dirty blonde, rail-thin, and wearing a white T-shirt with light blue spray paint across the front. The band had taken advantage of the turn in the weather to shoot a handheld short film in the park, and behind Murdoch were a half-dozen other B&S bandmates, including cellist Isobel Campbell and bassist Stuart David.
What ensued was not a high point in rock journalism. The conversation initially stuck to small talk, and only gradually edged into discussion of the band itself. Campbell got bored and left inside of fifteen minutes. David chimed in enthusiastically about computers and the Internet -- he was the band's official Webgeek-- and then, gradually, Murdoch opened up and talked about how he started the band. It was back around the fall of '95 that he found himself enrolled in a music marketing course at a local trade school. "We were all the dole, actually, taking a class that was supposed to teach people how to make it in the music industry," he says. "Each year, one band gets to make a 7" single record and then try and sell it through the shops. I didn't really have a band together, so I asked whoever was around if they wanted to be on the record. It turned out that the recording engineer at the school also played an instrument, so when I asked him to play, he let us record a whole album's worth of material."
The product of those sessions was the legendary Tigermilk album, a fey and masterfully beguiling blend of lighthearted, electro-tinged glam, bouncy tweepop, and brooding, Nick Drake-like atmospheric ballads -- all anchored by Murdoch's whispering vocals and vaguely disturbing, vaguely uplifting, seemingly confessional lyrics. The record was pressed in a limited run of 1,000 copies. Half the albums were to be sent to the media, and the band was supposed to try and sell the other half. Ironically, what would later become highly sought-after indie fetish items simply languished on the shelves.
Eventually, a BBC radio host latched onto the record and began playing it. Audience response was immediate, and Belle and Sebastian became the (ahem) belle of the ball. Fans began a desperate scavenger hunt for the elusive Tigermilk LP, and collector prices shot up to hundreds of dollars. Tiny London-based label Jeepster approached the band to make a second album, and the phenomenon was in full swing.
"That's the funny thing about this band," said Murdoch in '98. "Amazing things keep happening to us -- recording the first album, being approached to make another ... but we never try and make any of it come about. It all just sort of happens around us."
Stuart Murdoch now refuses to do interviews -- which is, in a sense, a relief. His mix of charismatic reticence, disarming honesty, and über-hip cool make him either a delight or an interviewer's worst nightmare. By contrast, the band's newly-dragooned spokesperson, drummer Richard Colburn, is accessible, cheerful, and full of typical Scottish charm -- just the sort of fellow you'd like to hang out with in a club or pub and chat with for hours on end. The first five minutes of the telephone interview with him are taken up with an endearing apology. "I'm sorry if I sound a bit dodgy at the moment," he said, clearing his throat. "I'm fixing up my flat, sanding floorboards and stuff, and I forgot to wear a mask, so I'm a bit stuffed up."
Colburn confirms that all the members of the band have found their newfound fame both fun and puzzling. Clashing with the ever-catty British press has occasionally led the group -- Murdoch, in particular -- into turbulent waters. But it's also been exhilarating to become international pop icons, especially since their prolonged success has given other members of the band a chance to shine.
"Originally, Stuart was the band and the rest of us were just kinda picked up to play some instruments and help out in this bizarre little project. Jeepster Records said they really liked this album we'd done, and we were like, 'Well, it's only sort of a muckabout college thing, and not really meant as a proper record!'"
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