Belle & Sebastian on How to Solve Our Human Problems

With the world around them more turbulent than they could have imagined in their 90s heyday, Belle & Sebastian return to the hometown that shaped them to record their first EPs since 2004, finding personal solutions to global issues in the process

Feature by Joe Goggins | 30 Jan 2018

Few bands have a history that can be split as cleanly down the middle as Belle & Sebastian’s. Everything that the Glaswegian stalwarts have ever done can be neatly placed into one of two eras; if we start counting from 1996, when they released their first two records (Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister), then we can call the former period The First Five Years and the latter one Everything After That. Many would consider the halcyon years of the late nineties to represent the peak of their creative powers, but the divide between that Belle & Sebastian and the present-day incarnation runs much deeper.

Stuart Murdoch’s rich vein of songwriting form in the early days of the group invites favourable comparison with the greats; indeed, speaking as part of a Pitchfork TV documentary on the band’s first two LPs in 2013, guitarist Stevie Jackson said of debut album Tigermilk that “it was like Dylan or Paul Simon – I actually thought it was on that level. I was staggered.” Purple patches like this one are genuinely unusual, but they always bear the same telltale hallmark; a prolific rate of output.

As the music spilled out of Murdoch, Belle & Sebastian couldn’t release records quickly enough, leading to a series of EPs between full-lengths; Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light and This is Just a Modern Rock Song all amongst them. Murdoch comfortably cleared his self-raised, intimidatingly lofty bar each time. The compilation on which they were collected along with similarly worthy B-sides – Push Barman to Open Old Wounds – stands alongside Oasis’ The Masterplan and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Pisces Iscariot as one of those exceedingly rare odds-and-ends collections that stands tall next to the band’s best material.

Murdoch’s midas touch, though, was just one of a few anomalies that have come to define that chapter in the band’s story. In the summer of 1996, whilst being courted by myriad record labels, they chose to join Jeepster, a London imprint fledgling enough that this was their very first signing. The method in the madness was quickly self-evident; the group wielded the sort of total creative control that ran well beyond the music. “There were a lot of conditions, and they were all on the band’s terms,” recounted the label’s co-founder, Mark Jones, to Pitchfork in 2014.

They didn’t want to release singles from albums. You probably could’ve counted on one hand the amount of interviews they gave at the time. They were reluctant even to appear in their own press photography. Not only that, but there was little prospect of them touring, given that Murdoch was still in the process of managing his recovery from M.E. and some members of the band were still at university. When they did manage to take the stage, the results were mixed, not least because, again, they insisted on doing things differently; their two shows in Manchester just after Christmas of 1997 were a case in point. They were held in the round at the Town Hall – not usually a concert venue – and were beset by problems ranging from technical issues to, at the second gig, a raging, Jack Daniel’s-induced hangover for keyboardist Chris ‘Beans’ Geddes.

By the turn of the century, some of the industry’s more familiar trappings were beginning to permeate the band, and not all of them for the better; burnout led to the first slip in their quality control, with fourth LP Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant meeting with a lukewarm reception. Plus, Murdoch’s divesting of his songwriting duties to other members of the group seemed less like a lightening of his own workload than it did a diplomatic move aimed at preserving harmony, with Stuart David and Isobel Campbell both eyeing solo careers. Both were gone by the end of 2002; the former amicably, the latter considerably less so, as her creative relationship with Murdoch collapsed under the weight of their failed romantic one; the group’s performance of I’m Waking Up to Us on Later...with Jools Holland in 2001 simmered with ABBA-worthy intra-band tension.

Belle & Sebastian returned in 2003 almost as if reborn as a new outfit entirely. Their fifth record, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, swapped Glasgow and the house engineers they’d worked with in the Jeepster years for London and Trevor Horn of The Buggles on production duties. It was their first release on Rough Trade, and one marked by both a sudden uptick on the touring front and a considerably more accommodating approach to the press. The album itself, meanwhile, was punchy and polished, scored through with a pop sheen that was a world away from the hushed reserve that had been the group’s calling card up to this point.

In the fifteen years since, the band have continued travelling down that same road; it’s just that they’ve increasingly refused to stay in the same lane, which is a fault you could reasonably have picked with their Jeepster incarnation. Instead, they indulged their hankering for glam-pop on 2006’s The Life Pursuit, collaborated with A-list talent (Norah Jones, Carey Mulligan) on Belle & Sebastian Write About Love in 2010 and, with their most recent LP, adapted to the current trend of swooping, magpie-like, on anything they might deem to be musically shiny with the sprawling and diverse Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

They’ve toured around the world extensively in that time, with their only two extended absences from the road enforced by Murdoch’s dedication to his passion project, the musical God Help the Girl, which he wrote and recorded as an album between ...Pursuit and ...Love and turned into a film during the four-year layoff that ...Peacetime brought to a close in 2015. The Jeepster version of the band, meanwhile, remained trapped in amber; the records haven’t aged, but everything else seems almost of a bygone era; no group boasts that sort of autonomy these days, and as far as the work is concerned, Belle & Sebastian have never displayed much of an appetite to return to old habits.

On returning to EPs – and to Glasgow

That is, until now. How to Solve Our Human Problems is not a record but a series of three EPs, to be released in successive months – the band’s first foray back into the format since the Books EP in 2004. They were written and recorded, without a producer, in Glasgow over the course of 2017, making them the first meaningful output from the group to be entirely cut in their hometown since Storytelling in 2002. There’s songwriting contributions, as is now standard, from Jackson and keyboardist Sarah Martin and, as the title suggests, they’re a little more outward-facing and ambitious of concept than could be said of their classic EPs of the nineties. That aside, though, the nature of their conception feels like a homecoming, literally and figuratively.

Murdoch, in fairness, has remained Murdoch throughout the band’s existence, with his Twitter feed strongly suggesting that he continues to enjoy the simple pleasure of spending time out and about in Glasgow, just as he used to two decades ago when he wrote of riding on city buses for a hobby and turning tables round in Marks & Spencer. True to form, he calls in to talk through the EPs from a bike ride pit stop in a Govan park; he could give Limmy a run for his money for the title of the city’s keenest amateur cyclist.

“At the start of the process, there was a feeling of us having two distinct choices,” he explains. “Do we go back to London, or back to America, and do an LP? That would have been the same way we’d normally do it, where we’d prepare twenty-odd tracks, get a producer, and whittle it down to about twelve. In the end, we thought, 'we’ve been doing that for the past dozen years, so let’s go with the other option.' That meant going back to Glasgow and recording what we wanted, when we wanted, and just focusing on making the individual songs as good as they could be – we weren’t thinking about how they were going to be released at that point. It’s probably an old-fashioned way of going about things, but the crucial thing was that we were keeping it interesting for ourselves, if nobody else.”

“I think it was all a bit of an attempt to keep ourselves lighter on our feet,” adds Martin in a separate call. “We haven’t really had any extended breaks from the road in a few years now, even going back to before the last album was out, and we thought that we could maybe spend those shorter periods of downtime in between tours recording three or four songs and putting them out there and then, rather than going through the usual cycle of album, long tour and then long break.

“In the end, we didn’t announce anything until we had all the music together, so it might have ended up as [an] LP, but I think people have shorter attention spans these days anyway, so even with all three EPs coming out in quick succession, presenting the music in a more bitesize way than usual is no bad thing. It means it’s a bit more like a shotgun than a bullet, which I hope means there’s more of a chance of us hitting the clay pigeon, so to speak.”

Like ...Peacetime before them, all three instalments of How to Solve Our Human Problems feel disparate and wide-ranging in their stylistic approach; the band are generally used to writing and recording over a much more focused period than was the case this time, and the languid pace at which these EPs came together seems to have bred a sense of adventurousness amongst all three writers. Jackson’s Sweet Dew Lee, which involves a vocal back-and-forth between himself and Murdoch, is a slowly-unfurling epic, whilst Murdoch’s own We Were Beautiful – also plucked from EP1 – feels similarly grand. The track listing, across the three releases, is roughly chronological in terms of when the songs came together, but the sonic diversity of the tracks serves as the through-line – they are, after all, three parts of the same whole.

“It was maybe going to be a little bit more conceptual, in the early stages, than it’s ended up being,” says Murdoch. “I came up with the title pretty early on – I just had this notion that that’s what the next thing was going to be called. It seemed like a little bit of a gesture to use a title like that – as if there’d be some kind of answer on each EP to that question, to how we’d solve our human problems. There isn’t, obviously, but it is the name of a really good book, a kind of modern Buddhism textbook that I’ve been studying for the last three years.”

Murdoch’s faith has always informed his songwriting and has played a part in the band’s history as a whole; many of their early songs were recorded in the wooden hall at Hyndland Parish Church, above which Murdoch and drummer Richard Colburn used to live (the old minister there owns a white label copy of Tigermilk, given that the group could hardly present him with the mildly titillating artwork that comes with the standard release).

Murdoch’s now branched out into Buddhism, regularly attending meditation classes. Martin’s been to the odd one, too, “but it didn’t stick. It’s a big deal for Stuart, though, and I think he had the idea of doing three EPs based around two different belief systems, but it just became the sort of thing that would’ve been too contrived. It’s better that they’ve ended up more loosely connected. I think there’s still a few wee bits of Buddhist wisdom that have snuck into the lyrics, mind.”

“I think we’re in a much better place than we were in the nineties..."

It’s difficult not to think that the full-circle nature of the band’s return to Glasgow to work on a series of EPs might seem more profound to longstanding fans than it does the group themselves; similarly, it’d be easy to read too much into the fact that How to Solve Our Human Problems represents their first releases since they cast their gaze back to the nineties in the summer of 2016, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister with two full-album shows at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

“It’s not as if we’ve gone right back to that time,” Murdoch laughs, “because we’re talking to you! We haven’t clammed up and gone shy again. I think these things probably just tend to come in cycles. You get bored, and you want to do something else, and break away from the last thing you did. We actually might have done a ballet this time; we’d been talking about doing that instead of a record, and we really got quite into it before we ended up taking this left turn and deciding not to do it just now.” 

There were other possibilities on the table, too, including one that would’ve meant major collaboration. “We thought about maybe doing an LP with just guest singers, too – that was an option, but in the end, we realised that we still had songs bursting out of us, and that was the main thing: that we had something to say. It was nice to go in without a producer, and instead, just trust each other, that we all understood the direction we were heading in. The process is a lot less painful than it was twenty years ago, when there were eight of us kind of thrown together, and some of us didn’t even know if we wanted to be in a group.”

Despite the cascade of classics that the Jeepster-era Belle & Sebastian produced, they were clearly not as tight a band as the present-day iteration – both creatively and in terms of the deep friendships that bind the individual members together. “I think we’re in a much better place than we were in the nineties, in a lot of ways,” explains Martin. “A lot of the time, you felt as if you were being torn apart, because the people around you were pulling in different directions. Not everybody was sure if they wanted to be in a band, and the whole thing had come together by accident, really. There was no way we could go out and tour for a while when everybody had other commitments – it seemed a distant concept, at that point, and I think instead it was that things just picked up a certain momentum that kept everybody together.”

She agrees with Murdoch that there was never any chance of a wholesale return to the aesthetic of the early days, even if circumstances outside of the band did play a part in the decision to return to Glasgow. “I don’t think anybody was ever thinking, 'we’ll not tour this time, and we won’t do photoshoots, or we won’t talk to the press'; we’ve grown out of that by now, out of necessity in some respects. There was another incentive for being closer to home, because a couple of folk had kids last year. I think going somewhere else to make a whole album is great fun, and it’s really satisfying to consolidate your work and do a lot very quickly, but this way of working suited us much better this time. I think, in general, we’ve regressed in some ways and grown up in others.”

Murdoch was one of those parents that Martin mentions; he and his wife welcomed their second son, Nico, in November 2016, in the early stages of the writing of How to Solve Our Human Problems. Inevitably, it’s something that’s informed his work since, even if he’s characteristically tongue-in-cheek about it. “Plenty of songwriters have gone to seed that way! It’s not always been the healthiest thing for rock and roll, and there’s probably some artists where I won’t seek out the later records for that reason, you know? But it changes your life, and so your perspective will certainly follow, and I think it’s been for the better for me.

"Rock and roll is a young man or woman’s game, obviously, but I’m prepared to be a hypocrite and say that our group has still got something interesting to say. It’s just that it might be less of a shout and more of a whisper. More of an accompaniment to your morning walk to work than something you’ll be dancing to on a Saturday night.”

Ultimately, becoming a father is just one of a number of things that coloured Murdoch’s view of the world and his way of working over the years; the seismic shifts in the music industry over the past couple of decades have inevitably taken their toll, too. “That’s something that’s always been rumbling away somewhere in the background,” he relates, “but I think now, more than ever, it’s impossible not to notice how things have changed. That was especially true this time around, coming back to Glasgow to work on new songs. There’s obviously nothing like as much money going around these days, because people don’t buy records any more, and that means you have to fall back on your own skills much more. For a lot of bands in Glasgow, that privileged position that we’ve been in, of being able to go abroad to make records, it’s something they don’t have available to them.”

There are, though, positives to the present state of play, to Murdoch’s mind at least. “What it does mean is that people have a lot more humility in the business now. I’m not saying that we were ever very rock and roll, but you can’t afford to be pretentious any more, which is a good thing. Younger bands are having to beg, steal and borrow to make music, so I think established groups like ourselves should be making more of an effort, too.”

On politics, #indyref, and solving our human problems 

One of the consistent criticisms that’s been levelled at Belle & Sebastian in the past, and specifically with reference to their early records, was that their songwriting was insular, that they were navel-gazers without much to lend to the conversation when it came to social commentary. It’s never been an argument that’s stood up to much scrutiny – after all, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister’s fascinations with the minutiae of everyday life can be traced back to Murdoch’s years of housebound struggle with the chronic fatigue he suffered as a result of his M.E. – but three years ago, on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, he began to dip his toe into political waters. There was talk of bombs in the Middle East on Allie, and The Cat With the Cream took aim at the Tories and the inequality that they revel in. No prizes, meanwhile, for guessing what B-side A Politician’s Silence might have been about.

That album was already in the can by the time the Scottish independence referendum came to pass in September of 2014; Murdoch, who considered himself a staunch unionist at the beginning of the process, had swung around to the pro-independence side of the debate by the time polling day arrived. “I didn’t exactly paint my face with the Saltire, but at the same time, it was kind of like the levee broke for a lot of people. They saw an opportunity for a new society. It seemed like England was lost, and that perhaps we could have it our own way, and have a more just society. I’ve probably pulled back from that a little bit since, because there was the realisation that we might have just ended up with the same divides up here. I think the moment’s possibly passed now.”

Still, it’d be putting it extremely mildly to say that there’s been no shortage of further material to be mined for political lyricism since then, and you’d expect that to be felt particularly sharply by Scottish progressives; the Tories that they had the chance to break away from winning a majority in 2015, and then the European Union that they were warned they might not be able to rejoin as an independent country being wrenched away from them in 2016 – a particularly sobering moment for Belle & Sebastian, given that the referendum result came the morning after their irrepressibly joyous second night at the Royal Albert Hall. The U.S. presidential election took place around the same time that work was beginning in earnest on How to Solve Our Human Problems, the title of which surely hints at a continuation of Murdoch’s lyrical study of the political landscape.

Not so. “I’ve had my flirtation with that now, I think,” he explains. “The whole thing of responding to politics, and the media, and what’s going on in the world around me; some people do it better than others. I’m no Billy Bragg, that’s for sure. At the end of the day, in terms of my own personal experience, it’s not like I’m going down the pits for a living. I’m not in the union, and I’m not living in a country that’s being bombed every day, so I’m not sure how authentic it’d be coming from me. Plus, if I’m honest, I don’t think it’s all that useful to stand back and start throwing volleys of abuse at politicians. They’re perceived to have done us a load of harm, but am I that much better a person than the usual targets you see in the news?”

How, then, to solve our human problems? As far as Murdoch’s concerned, it begins with tackling them on more of a micro level than a macro one, by recognising our own contributions to the world’s issues, by seeking to improve ourselves, and by putting kindness and compassion before all else. There’s a reason, after all, why the artwork for the EPs features “not models or actors” but ordinary folk who responded to an open call – it’s people like those that are the story here. “I was talking to my wife last night, and I was saying, if you looked at us – this couple living comfortably in a beautiful house in Glasgow – you could see us from the perspective of, “look at these wankers sitting around watching the telly, doing nothing whilst there’s people who are starving”. And I do think that we as a constituency – as voters, and as the general public – are probably as much to blame as anybody.”

For his own part, he feels as if he’s making progress, even if his worldview continues to evolve as he moves into middle age. “There’s a track on the third EP, There is an Everlasting Song, that myself and Stevie wrote about a year ago, and that is pretty close to where I am at the minute in terms of my own philosophy. The ideas are in play all through How to Solve Our Human Problems, I think, but that’s where they’re clearest. I feel quite humbled to admit this, because I’m almost fifty; you’re supposed to sort your mind and your attitude out when you’re in your early twenties, you know? But my viewpoint changes all the time.

"I want to be a better person, and calmer, and more charitable, and even in the past three years, I feel as if I’ve made steps towards that. I know it’s the sort of thing that probably sounds obscure and obtuse to say, but if you can become that person yourself – if you can solve your own problems first – you can see the positive effect it has on the people around you. If more of us went down that route, it’d be really helpful. That’s the way forward.”

Belle & Sebastian: An Extended Play History

Dog on Wheels (May 1997)
The seeds of Belle & Sebastian's career as a recording band were sown when Stuart Murdoch met erstwhile bassist Stuart David on a course called Beatbox, which was the only musical option available from a range of training programmes for the out-of-work. David described it as "a refugee camp for unemployed musicians", but nevertheless, the two Stuarts used their precious time in the studio there to cut four tracks that would later become Dog on Wheels. An alternate take on The State I Am In joins the much-loved title track, String Bean Jean and a curio for the hardcore – a song called, simply, Belle & Sebastian.

Lazy Line Painter Jane (July 1997)
This EP's title track is a boy-girl duet that features a storming vocal turn from the band's friend Monica Queen, and only usually turns up on live setlists when there's somebody worthy to step in – the likes of Jenny Lewis, Honeyblood's Stina Tweeddale and Dum Dum Girls' Dee Dee Penny have all filled Queen's formidable shoes in the past. Elsewhere, Photo Jenny is a pop gem, whilst A Century of Elvis replaces Murdoch's vocals with a spoken word turn from David in the style of The Boy with the Arab Strap's A Space Boy Dream.

3.. 6.. 9.. Seconds of Light (October 1997)
The tracks on this EP can also be traced back to the very beginnings of the band – Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie, the lyrics to which are scored through with collegiate literary references, was the first song that they ever played as a fledging three-piece at the Halt Bar in Glasgow – the same place they met Stevie Jackson, who was the compere there. Quickly afterwards, they adopted the name Lisa Helps the Blind – presumably plucked from the words to the similarly early track Beautiful. A Century of Fakers, meanwhile, was penned on the train back to Scotland from London after one of the band's first meetings in the capital, and Put the Book Back on the Shelf comes with a mellow coda – Songs for Children – which effectively details Murdoch's vision of who 'Belle' and 'Sebastian' were in his imagination.

This is Just a Modern Rock Song (1998)
The quartet of classic Jeepster EPs is rounded off by this late 1998 release, the title of which is a self-referential epic that has Jackson admitting, in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, that 'We’re four boys in corduroys / We're not terrific but we’re competent.' It’s a Belle & Sebastian mission statement if ever there was one, and alongside that track is the beautifully hazy I Know Where the Summer Goes, which laments rather than celebrates having the season pass you by – a counterpoint, then, to A Summer Wasting. Slow Graffiti, meanwhile, was penned for the movie The Acid House but has become a cult classic amongst the group’s die-hard following in its own right.

Books (2004)
The first EP proper that the band had released since the Jeepster years – and their last, up until How to Solve Our Human Problems – ostensibly serves as the single release for a quintessentially Belle & Sebastian paean to shyness, Wrapped Up in Books. It’s actually more notable, though, for its two takes on another track, Your Cover’s Blown. The original takes the disco-stomp stylings of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and presents them writ large, whilst Cover (version) has keyboardist Chris Geddes lending his own groovy instrumental palette to proceedings. Incidentally, neither proves the defining version of the song – that would come later, when Miaoux Miaoux remixed it for The Third Eye Centrea 2013 compilation album.

How to Solve Our Human Problems Parts 1 & 2 are out now, Part 3 is released on 16 Feb via Matador; Belle & Sebastian play Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 24 Mar; SWG3 Galvanizer's Yard, Glasgow, 25 May