Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch on empathy, Morrissey, and the future of the band
Stuart Murdoch with Belle and Sebastian. Photo: Søren Solkær

The long-running and critically acclaimed Scottish band Belle and Sebastian has always been more of a world that lead songwriter Stuart Murdoch has wanted to live inside than a body of incredible songs. As a young man, Murdoch lost much of his youth while struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, which left him bedridden on and off for nearly seven years. During this time, he wrote songs and hoped to one day form a band to perform the music and stories he had played out in his head. 

After assembling friends and whoever was around in his hometown to round out the band that would make up Belle and Sebastian, he released numerous albums such as “Tigermilk,” “If You’re Feeling Sinister” and “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” that have all now been deemed indie-rock classics. Murdoch, an astute student of pop music, quickly stood out among songwriting peers of his generation and the band gained a devoted base around the globe for his empathetic portrayals of everyday people just trying to make sense of the world. 

“To quote our last prime minister [Theresa May], we have been ‘strong and stable’ for the past 10 or 12 years,” — Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian

Stuart Murdoch Belle and Sebastian

Stuart Murdoch (second from left) with Belle and Sebastian. Photo: Gaelle Beri.

When speaking on the phone with Murdoch ahead of the band’s upcoming tour through the U.S., we spoke about how to gain a sense of empathy in your lyrics when writing songs about complicated people.

“You don’t learn empathy from other singers. Unfortunately, you learn empathy from experiencing human life,” the ever-pleasant Murdoch explains. “I went through a more difficult experience when I was younger, and at the time I felt, ‘Wow, this is a great waste of time.’ I had spent seven years of my younger life just languishing. But then, I couldn’t have learned to write any other way. I guess that’s how you pick up that sort of empathy, so to speak. When you sit down to write, it’s not like you say to yourself, ‘Wow, I’m a super-empathetic guy.’ You want to write about these characters because it actually makes you feel better. You just want to write about people you see around you. 

 

Naturally, the conversation turns to one of the faces that may be chiseled off of pop music’s Mount Rushmore for championing the downtrodden, Morrissey. 

“He’s gone over to the other side of the political and emotional spectrum, which is crazy to me,” says Murdoch, whose music can certainly warrant its fair share of comparisons to The Smiths. “Because there is no other artist who really encapsulated that sense of getting what it was like to fall off the human railroad, in a sense. He managed to say that better than anybody.” 

Murdoch and the rest of his band, including longtime collaborators Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin, have been on quite a bit of a hot streak in recent years with the release of the dance-influenced “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance” in 2015 and the full-blown pop of  “How to Solve Our Human Problems” in 2018. The band just announced the release of 13 new songs for a soundtrack to accompany the film “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” directed by English actor and comedian Simon Bird. With such a solid band in place, Murdoch believes that the band is currently in a golden era in terms of creating with ease. 

“To quote our last prime minister [Theresa May], we have been ‘strong and stable’ for the past 10 or 12 years,” jokes Murdoch. “I think we’ve gone beyond that where we’ve started to loosen up a little bit. We’re confident. Whether it takes a single voice or a large rock arrangement, we feel confident in each other to get it right. To not have everybody having to play at all times. We’re really comfortable with each other. … That one was quite a nice relaxed record to make [the new soundtrack]. It is a good position to be in. We probably reap the rewards of being around the same people for so long. But as well, if people are relaxed about it, you can also bring other people into it. We have a working policy of anything goes these days.” 

Ever since regaining his strength following that horrible period of suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, Murdoch has never turned down the direction of his artistic muse letting his music and unique perspective of life lead the way for nearly 23 years. Now, at 50 years old, if Murdoch could have chosen a different path instead of music, what would his life look like? 

“I fantasize about public transport,” he says. “I’m a real geek about public transport. But also, going along with the saving-the-planet vibe, I wish someone would give me a billion dollars to transform the public transport systems of upcoming cities and make super-green train systems. I’d love to do that!”  

Head here for tour dates to see Belle and Sebastian this summer including their appearance at Pitchfork festival where they will be performing "If You're Feeling Sinister in Full". 

Check out the video for "Sister Buddha" from the soundtrack to the film 'Days of the Bagnold Summer' by Belle and Sebastian. 

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