Belle of the ball

Belle and Sebastian comprise (from left) Stevie Jackson, Richard Colburn, Chris Geddes, Sarah Martin, Stuart Murdoch and Bobby Kildea.
Belle and Sebastian comprise (from left) Stevie Jackson, Richard Colburn, Chris Geddes, Sarah Martin, Stuart Murdoch and Bobby Kildea.PHOTO: FOREFRONT ASIA

Scottish band Belle and Sebastian have influenced many bands despite not scoring chart hits

Scottish outfit Belle and Sebastian do not have a No. 1 album or single to their name and their releases barely crack the Top 10 on the British charts.

Yet the sextet stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries of the mid 1990s in terms of influence and lasting appeal.

Their penchant for strong pop melodies, whimsical and playful lyrics as well as blend of 1960s pop and folk can be heard in the songs of many indie acts that came after them, including The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Architecture in Helsinki, Camera Obscura and Jens Lekman.

And for music fans who eschew rock 'n' roll brashness for sensitive and cerebral pop, their output since the 1990s is essential listening.

Rather than bask in the acclaim for their back catalogue, Belle and Sebastian remain contemporary by consistently putting out new material.

The band, who will be performing in Singapore at The Gathering on Saturday, recently released their ninth album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance.

It has been getting glowing reviews. The Guardian labelled it a "dexterous and witty" album, with lyrics written with

"elegantly wry wit". Q Magazine hailed it as a work from a "pop group with depth of talent and breadth of vision".

Contrary to their reputation as a tweepop outfit, several of the songs are actually funky enough to make one get up and dance.

In a telephone interview from Scotland, bass player Bobby Kildea tells Life!: "In terms of writing the songs, we didn't set out to make a dance record. It's slightly different from maybe what people were expecting our next move to be, but it wasn't so calculated that we went, 'This is going to be a dance song.'

"We always try to get the fans dancing, that's always part of our show - we always like to have a bit of a dance party."

The band have their fair share of fans here and their first gig here at the Esplanade Concert Hall in 2010 was sold out.

"Belle and Sebastian are one of those bands that have a lasting cult following," says Mr Nick Tan, owner of vinyl record store Hear Records.

He declined to give exact figures, but says the band's albums "sell very well" at his store.

"They have a wide audience here. The people who buy their albums are not just the older fans, who have been following them since the 1990s, but also young, teenage indie fans who picked up their recent releases."

Citing side projects by the band's members, such as God Help The Girl (see box below), which are also popular among his customers, Mr Tan says the band are "not stuck in one specific style".

Local musicians here also attest to the band's influence on them.

Ridhwan Malik, the 25-year-old guitarist and songwriter of indie band wyd:syd, says: "Belle and Sebastian have been an inspiration to me since my mid-teens, when I was first introduced to them by a close friend. I love how they are able to perfectly couple heartfelt lyrics with a strong melody in almost every track they release.

"They have influenced me in the way I compose my tracks with wyd:syd, in terms of conveying a story through our lyrics, matched with a catchy melody."

He adds that the band's retro vibes and precise musicianship have taught him to be meticulous about his own guitar sound.

Belle and Sebastian are the most prominent name at The Gathering, which includes indie acts Caribou, Temples and Tune-Yards and home-grown acts such as neo-soul/folk singer Charlie Lim and indie-pop outfit Pleasantry.

Kildea tells Life! he is looking forward to coming back to Singapore and remembers the last time they were here.

"I can't believe it has been nearly five years. I remember it was a very beautiful theatre we played in. The crowd was just fantastic, we came from the back of the theatre and I remember walking down the aisle from the back.

"I remember meeting up with the fans afterwards, we did a signing at the foyer."

Formed in 1996 by main singer, guitarist and songwriter Stuart Murdoch and multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Stuart David, who has since left the band, Belle and Sebastian took their name from a French children's book and television series. Within the same year, they released two acclaimed albums, Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister.

Unlike the extroverted and attentiongrabbing tendencies of Britpop bands of the era such as Oasis and Suede, Belle and Sebastian took the less flashy route.

Murdoch anchored the group as members such as singer and cello player Isobel Campbell left and new musicians took over. Kildea joined the group four years after the band were formed. He came in at a time when they were transforming into a live touring band.

He recalls: "I think when I joined, the band hadn't really played live, they didn't do too many concerts. They decided they wanted to be a proper touring band, so we kind of went to places together that we've never been to before, like the West Coast of America, Japan, Australia, South America and Brazil. So we were discovering all this together for the first time."

Despite the early buzz about them, the group took a low-key approach in the early days, playing at nondescript venues such as libraries, houses and churches, and they notoriously shied away from interviews and photo shoots. This changed as the band members grew as musicians over the years, says Kildea.

Besides Murdoch and Kildea, the line-up today includes guitarist Stevie Jackson, keyboardist Chris Geddes, drummer Richard Colburn and singer and violin player Sarah Martin.

"As you get older, you hope to be a better musician, you learn how to project more on stage as well. We've worked hard on production instead of turning up at gigs with a cable and plastic bag, which was what happened last time," he recalls with a laugh. "We're still together and enjoying it, still alive, which is very important."

The band are very much aware of the seismic changes in the music industry in the years since they started.

Kildea says: "I know we don't make any money anymore and we didn't make much money to start with last time. It used to cost so much to tour, but you were gonna sell more records.

"Now that doesn't work anymore, you don't sell any records and tours still cost a lot of money. You just kind of leave that to the managers and agents and hope somebody can work it out. It's not me sitting at the kitchen table with a notebook and a pen."

While they have the new album to promote, he promises that long-time fans weaned on their back catalogue will not be forgotten.

"I hate it when bands at concerts go 'We're going to do a new song', but it keeps it fresh and interesting for us and I hope the audience will like the new stuff. We play old stuff as well, don't get me wrong, but it's exciting for us to throw in a few new ones."

dinohadi@sph.com.sg


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Belle and Sebastian's offshoots

GOD HELP THE GIRL

Stuart Murdoch had the idea to do Belle and Sebastian songs from a female perspective, so he came up with the God Help The Girl project, which comprises an album, singles and an EP, all released in 2009. While the band played the music, the vocals were done by singers such as Catherine Ireton, Brittany Stallings and Linnea Jonsson.

It eventually became a musical film Murdoch wrote and directed that won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year.

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ISOBEL CAMPBELL/ THE GENTLE WAVES

Singer and cellist Isobel Campbell was part of Belle and Sebastian from 1996, the year they formed, until 2002, when she left to focus on her solo career.

In 1999, she released her debut album, The Green Fields Of Foreverland, under the moniker The Gentle Waves. Critics loved the album and music website AllMusic called the tunes in the album "exquisite folk-pop gems". She switched back to her own name from her third album, Amorino (2003), and also released three albums with American alt-rock/grunge singer Mark Lanegan - Ballad Of The Broken Seas (2006), Sunday At Devil Dirt (2008) and Hawk (2010).

STEVIE JACKSON

Belle and Sebastian's lead guitarist Stevie Jackson released his debut solo album in 2011 that he titled (I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson, a pun on the Rolling Stones hit (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. Besides featuring his Belle and Sebastian bandmates, the recording also had contributions from members of fellow indie groups The New Pornographers and The Pastels.

It received mixed reviews - AllMusic Guide praised him as a "a pop craftsman in his own right", but PopMatters said he tried "too hard".

LOOPER

Co-founder Stuart David first released his own music using the name Looper while he was still part of Belle and Sebastian in 1998. In 2000, he left the group to concentrate on his solo music as well as to focus on writing novels.

As Looper, he has released three albums, including 1999's Up A Tree, which music website Pitchfork called "far fresher than pretty much anything you can hear on the radio today", and three EPs.

Looper's songs have also been used in Hollywood films Vanilla Sky (2001) and The Girl Next Door (2004).