If You're Feeling Sinister 

Press those vintage corduroys: Belle and Sebastian finally play San Francisco

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!'"

Jeepster then signed B&S to record its second album, If You're Feeling Sinister, for which Murdoch was still the guiding force. "It was pretty much Stuart with the rest of the band backing him," says Colburn. "But after that it began to change; other people began to get involved in songwriting and it felt more like a band." One immediate benefit was that the haphazard live shows -- long a point of contention between the band, their fans, and the press -- have begun to gel into more cohesive performances. "Live, we've always been a wee shambolic, a bit different from the records," says Colburn. "At first, we didn't really know what we were doing. We always had this kind of attitude like, 'Whatever! We'll just do it in the way we want to, and if people like the music they'll buy the records.' We didn't want to throw it down people's throats."

As Glaswegians, the Belle bandmates take their success with a grain of salt. After all, in recent decades the once-depressed former industrial center has flourished as a British cultural mecca, in particular as the locus of an explosive indie rock scene. The catalog of well-known bands to hail from Glasgow is impressive: Orange Juice, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fan Club, Primal Scream, and the Pastels all preceded Belle and Sebastian. In their wake the Beta Band and Travis have climbed the charts, and dozens of other bands are waiting in the wings.

"Glasgow's an absolutely fabulous place to be in a band. You walk down the street and half the people you bump into are musicians. It's a nice community here; nobody's bigger or better than anyone else -- you're just in a band. Everybody gets on with everybody else, and helps each other out." Accordingly, after years of going to other people's shows and following their friends' success, Belle and Sebastian take their moment in the sun a bit philosophically. "There are a lot of bands that might never get a chance to make a record ... it's just luck that gets you there."

After winning the prestigious Brit Award in '99 and performing on the Top of the Pops, Belle and Sebastian became more aware of the public's heightened expectations, and they began tentative forays into touring outside the UK.

"Every gig we've ever done, we get these fans who are really, really intensely into the band. I remember we were playing Philadelphia and Isobel got sick and we had to cancel that night's performance. Later we found out that there were people who had traveled over a thousand miles to get there."

Recently Belle and Sebastian has focused on tightening up its live show and adding members (the band is now a 14-piece ensemble) to match the expansive feel of its albums. While not on the road they record voraciously, and this fall the band will put the finishing touches on the soundtrack for a new Todd Solondz film, Storytelling.

Now the band is coming to America's West Coast for the first time. Although several members of the group have visited here before (popping up on stage with the BMX Bandits and the Aislers Set), this is the first time the band as a whole has visited one of the early strongholds of its devoted fan base, San Francisco.

One fan who will be in line with the poly-sweatered and bespectacled hipster hordes for this weekend's Warfield shows is KALX radio DJ Nommi De Plume, who can honestly say she knew the band back when. "I met Stuart Murdoch at a Teenage Fan Club show at the Trocadero in 1994," recalls De Plume. "We were standing upstairs on the mezzanine and just started chatting. It turned out that he was living in San Francisco for a few months. Somehow the conversation turned to my having a show on KALX, and he was really enthusiastic about it. He said, 'Oh, I've been doing a little bit of songwriting! Can I come in and play guitar and sing on your radio program?'" Even though she had no idea what Murdoch's music would sound like, De Plume was all for it, figuring, "Hey, it's only KALX!" They exchanged phone numbers, and Murdoch showed up at the station's old studio on Bowditch Street, guitar in hand, eager to play a few new songs and spin a few of his favorite records.

Two years later, KALX's informal attitude toward the music industry intersected with Belle and Sebastian's, as Stuart Murdoch -- puzzling over what to do with the hundreds of extra press copies of the new Tigermilk album -- pored through his address book and mailed off two copies to Berkeley, California. One went to Nommi De Plume, and the other to the station itself. In typical KALX fashion, the LP languished on the music director's desk for a month or two before finding its way into the station's "feature play" record bin, creating the same buzz among KALX's DJs and listeners as it had among fans in the UK. In June of '96, Tigermilk topped the KALX playlist, charting at #1 well before the band was even a gleam in the eyes of Spin magazine or the NME.

And that semi-legendary radio performance? De Plume still has it on cassette somewhere, although she confesses that she's never gone back to listen to it. "The thing is, I have so many airchecks, and I'm not hyper-organized like some other DJs, so I forget to label them right away," she says. "As a rule, I just listen to my tapes in the car while I'm driving about and then they all wind up in a pile in my closet. But Stuart was a great guest -- very enthusiastic and sort of a little goofy." She pauses, laughing, then catches herself. "Hmmm. Maybe I should start labeling those tapes after all. You never know when the next Belle and Sebastian might come along!"


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