Belle & Sebastian | Skipping Tickets, Making Rhymes—Is That All You Believe In?
“Ah, good timing! I just got some books And I’m now on my bicycle. It’s a really beautiful autumn afternoon in Scotland.” That’s the starkly cheerful answer I receive upon calling Stuart Murdoch—founder, lead singer, and creative director of Scottish indie-pop band Belle & Sebastian, seeking insight on the band’s new EP trilogy, How To Solve Our Human Problems. It’s 7am here in LA, and while I can’t quite share his joie de vivre at this ungodly hour, I’m happy to hear he’s enjoying an unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon in Glasgow.
Murdoch, with an urban-guru’s voice that mixes Deepak Chopra with Glasgow patter, projects a gravitas that lends a sense of importance to otherwise innocuous meteorological musings. I begin to suspect the recording artist has reached a heightened state of consciousness. Call it ‘Nirvana Punk’—an imperfect delineation of the Stuart Murdoch raison d’être, his guiding philosophy. It cannot fully explain why the recording artist seemingly places equal importance on both the weather and promotion of Belle & Sebastian’s new music, nor does it rationalize an effortless ability to talk a mile a minute while presumably peddling a few KPH slower than that. But it does allow him a certain peace, evident as he discusses a learned capacity to forgive “the assholes,” and as he elaborates on his superpower: mind control.
“They [by which he means we mortals] feel that everything that they read and see is in control, but they should maybe consider the thing that they have control over. And what they have control over is their own person. What they have control over, especially, is their own mind.”
Reluctant to slow the momentum of a boy-and-his-bike, joyriding parallel to a fictional boy-and-his-dog from the French children’s book Belle et Sébastian, I prompt Murdoch to provide background on the prescriptive title of his new album, How to Solve Our Human Problems. In conventionally unconventional fashion, the album is to be released in three parts, on December 8th, January 19th, and February 16th. The only constant in Belle & Sebastian’s sound is that it is always in flux, spanning acoustic multi-character lamentations as heard in “The State I Am In” off first-impression album Tigermilk to 2015’s happy-with-a-crooked-smile tracks from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. But despite the revolutions of wheels, genre swaps, and line-up changes, Belle & Sebastian have once again managed to get on the same page for the present project—literally.
“There’s a book by Kelsang Gyatso called How To Solve Our Human Problems: The Four Noble Truths,” Murdoch shares. It’s one of the books that we have been studying. It’s a really interesting read, and it changed my mind about some things in the past. If we were living in the times of the Second World War, we would feel crisis more deeply than we are feeling it right now,” he explains. “There have always been problems, and there always will be problems. And everybody has individual problems and the world has problems, so a way to tackle them is to come back to yourself and try to improve your mind, protect your mind, by learning patience and learning acceptance.”
“The Past” to which Murdoch refers is a blow-by-blow fight for his life. Since his twenties, Murdoch has suffered from a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME, a debilitating condition that blooms and abates depending on the severity of swelling in his brain’s stem. After battling symptoms for years, the tragic syndrome led to one of his greatest triumphs: the formation of Belle & Sebastian and their offspring, a realistic fictional cast of humans-in-struggle immortalized in the songs.
Twenty-two years later, Murdoch is feeling “all there” at age 49. And the bandmates of Belle & Sebastian are right there with him, beating both suffering and success into “We Were Beautiful,” a teaser track from the first EP installment released in July of 2017. A thoughtful music video by director Blair Johnson depicts vignettes of everyday people navigating the space between depressive moments and silver linings, intercut with shots of Belle & Sebastian jamming out like it’s 1996 again. “Blair was almost eavesdropping on everyday sort of problems, and obviously the characters right here in the city, so I’m sort of singing about them and singing about my own struggles,” he tells me.
Narratives of the quotidian, the familiar, and the local are where Murdoch’s expertise lies. He claims not to solve or speak to the lofty problems behind, say, the haunting portraits of the people who were invited to his North London studio for the EP’s cover shoot. From hundreds of raw snapshots, a vibrant 12 were selected to grace the EP’s covers, promoting Belle & Sebastian’s perennial interest in the seldom seen and heard. Still, the artist is quick to correct when the cure is oversimplified. All we need is love, right? “That’d be a perfect prescription for the world, wouldn’t it? If we could take care of one another and love each other, and there would be a wave spread around the world and the problems would be solved overnight, but it’s not necessarily going to happen.”
Acceptance, too, is mind control. An example: Murdoch is able to adopt a sunny fondness even for those unsavory characters in living memory. I’m of course referring to “the assholes.” Though we all love a good grudge, Murdoch has moved beyond such guilty pleasures. “I don’t know about other people’s memories, but my memories are always very warm, especially towards people. It’s a little bit like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Even though he had bad experiences with people, he misses people when he looks back and they’re the people who are usually assholes, you know?”
The explanation feels pointed at a lost generation of millennial Holden Caulfields, ghosting the present when a future opportunity promises false bliss, drowning in guidance but lacking direction. But wisdom isn’t automatically supplied with advancing age—it has to be earned, as is the melancholic message in “I’ll Be Your Pilot,” released from the EP’s second installment. Speaking to his youngest son, Murdoch promises to guard him against “quicksand” traps of the real world, while conceding that “adulting” should be taken with a grain of salt: It’s tough to become a grown-up / Put it off while you can / I tell you that when / You land in the real world / It’s like quick sand . . . I’ll be your pilot, he sings.
The grown up with a youthful spirit dismounts, sensing the interview’s end. The sunny Glasgow sky seems problem free at present, but Murdoch has had his unfair share of them in the past—ME relapses and resulting canceled tours, along with the daily challenges that come with bringing new music and lives onto the planet—and he knows the future will bring its inevitable difficulties as well. But he is prepared. On a particularly hard day during a painful month spent coping with the disorder, he jotted down a six phrase prayer.
That prayer is now a song, entitled “There Is an Everlasting Song,” from the EP’s third installment. Music, again, offers the strength to meet life’s slings and arrows: Winds will blow and storms will rage / The news is always sad / Money tends to disappear / Beauty crumbles with the years . . . But music is for us, he sings. “It was a little bit like a prayer. Your problems might feel out of sight and out of mind, and so you feel a little bit better. You know they’ll come again, but when they do you’ll be ready—there’s a bit of defiance in that song, and I like it.” While the rest of us tune in to the roar of radio’s most tolerable talking heads or painstakingly fish for depth in shallow pools, the Nirvana Punk calls off the search. He has found his truth.
Written by Kara Powell
Photographed by Paolo Di Lucente