Belle and Sebastian on new album A Bit of Previous
Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch and Chris Geddes on A Bit of Previous, their first album since 2000 to see them reconnect with the city that made them
As a rule, Belle and Sebastian don’t look back. Stuart Murdoch could, if he’d chosen to, have solely retained the songwriting reins after penning the entirety of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister alone; justifiably so, as well, given that those albums are now seminal. Instead, he opened up the process to the rest of the group on 1998’s The Boy with the Arab Strap and, accordingly, the records that followed have found room for the influence of everything from Stevie Jackson’s love of 60s pop and rock to Sarah Martin’s preoccupations with synth, among myriad other diversions.
Their last full-length album proper, 2015's Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, slalomed through styles at breakneck speed, winding its way through the pulsating dance-pop stomp of The Party Line, the orchestral sweep of The Cat with the Cream, and the jazz-inflected The Everlasting Muse on its way to its closer Today (This Army’s for Peace), the closest the band have ever gotten to dreampop. And yet, now, their first LP in seven years threatens to be a disarmingly nostalgic affair at first glance; A Bit of Previous, which would make a good title for a best-of, opens with Young and Stupid, on which Murdoch yearns for his youth.
Add to that the fact that it was recorded entirely in their hometown of Glasgow, a city you can practically hear living and breathing on their early work, and that no touring was in prospect due to the coronavirus pandemic – just like in their formative years, when they seldom appeared live – and you begin to wonder whether an amble down memory lane was on the cards, when we might have had a record informed by California sunshine. Their best-laid plans to fly to Los Angeles to make this ninth studio album were nixed by COVID.
Instead, Belle and Sebastian remain the band we’ve come to know, with A Bit of Previous the kind of gleefully diverse grab-bag that’s elevated them to the status of elder statespeople of indie pop over the past 25 years. Those longing for the Jeepster years will be sated by Murdoch’s melodic turns on Do It for Your Country and Come On Home, but new ground continues to be broken with the quiet drama of Sea of Sorrow, the freewheeling Unnecessary Drama and deft electropop of Reclaim the Night.
Perhaps we’d have gotten a similarly diffuse album if the pandemic had never happened; fresh off their glorious traversing of the Mediterranean on The Boaty Weekender in August 2019, the band began work late that year on an album they’d planned to have finished as soon as April 2020. Instead, with flights booked and accommodation sorted, lockdown meant that their west coast jaunt was off. “You know when you see a line of ants, and they come up against a stick or a stone?” asks Murdoch over Zoom from Glasgow. “They just turn left, which is kind of what we did. Lockdown started, and we didn’t even entertain the notion of taking the record forwards. I went back to writing my book, which is a sort of biographical novel about the wilderness years between 1991 and 1993 for my best friend and I, when our ME meant that we couldn’t do much. It’s a document of the funny Last of the Summer Wine relationship we had.”
“I didn’t do much during that lockdown towards Belle and Sebastian, either,” agrees keyboardist Chris Geddes on a later call. “I didn’t do much of anything but practise piano and work with the local mutual aid group.” The uncertainty was such that it would be another six months until they’d finally concede defeat on the idea of heading to America, instead deciding to have Geddes, who admits to being “probably the techiest member” of the band, reconfigure their rehearsal space into a makeshift studio. Glasgow, not Los Angeles, would be the backdrop for album nine.
It makes A Bit of Previous the first Belle and Sebastian album made at home since 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. Perhaps surprisingly, this is something that seemed to suit Murdoch, whose lyrics are often scored through with wanderlust, just fine. It led to a reconnection with the city, one that had begun in that first lockdown with their Protecting the Hive project, which saw drone footage of the city's deserted streets backed by lyrics and music written in collaboration with fans.
It was not new territory for Murdoch; many of Belle and Sebastian’s earliest tracks were informed by a sort of childlike wonder about everyday minutiae, like riding around on city buses or strolling through Kelvingrove Park, because he was writing them at a time when his ME (or chronic fatigue syndrome) had left him borderline housebound. “And it’s something I’ve known about more recently as well,” he explains. "Because I’ve two young kids, one of whom is on the autistic spectrum, and that’s set us in a semi-lockdown for years now; it can be quite restrictive. So, my wee guys were quite happy to be away from school, and I’m kind of like that as well; I don’t need too much in my life, really. I don’t need the promise of a big party at the weekend, or to go windsurfing with friends. I basically just like making music and walking around.”
The two are intrinsically linked. With non-essential train travel discouraged, Murdoch instead “explored the four corners of our city,” for what he insists is an essential part of the creative process – listening to the day’s rough mixes while pounding the pavement or meandering through the city's green spaces, something he imagines his wife might not have understood: “She might say, 'I thought you were in the studio til late! Not wandering around bloody Yoker.'”
It led him to thoughts of past lives in the city that was the making of Belle and Sebastian, daydreams that were suddenly manifest when he penned the charming Young and Stupid in half an hour one morning. “Just for once, I was looking back,” he says. “And you realise that when you start pining for your glory days, it’s not just a personal thing, you’re kind of speaking for your generation; you look around, at pals and family, and realise you’re 53, and you’re at a point where it’s kids or no kids, but mostly it’s kids, pets or no pets, but mostly it’s pets, settled down or single, but mostly settled down. It was just a wee moment of being wistful, but there’s another song, Come On Home, that balances that out; that was a kind of stream of consciousness that ended up feeling optimistic about the passage of time."
'Give a chance to the old / Set the record straight on the welfare state / Give a chance to the young / Everyone deserves a life in the sun', is one particular thought train from that track. Belle and Sebastian have never been an avowedly political band, though the recent, TikTok-inspired revival of the twee culture they’re often associated with has also led to thoughtful analysis of the scene’s radical political outlook in 1980s Britain. “On the last album, The Cat with the Cream was about the Tories getting another majority and just feeling like we were doomed to be stuck with them for years and years,” Murdoch reflects. “And that was probably the most political song I’d written in 20 years, since I wrote Love on the March about the Orange walk in Glasgow.”
This time around, If They’re Shooting at You has taken on a grim new meaning in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the band having released a powerful visual collage as a video for the song with images sourced from photographers on the ground in the war-torn country. All royalties for the track are going to the Red Cross. “It’s a song that starts from a place of me reflecting on a world where you really don’t have to go far to hear stories of violent oppression,” says Murdoch. “And it’s really about faith, which I can imagine that for a lot of people in that situation, might be all they have; the thought that the most positive outcome for their situation is that this life is actually very short and, depending on what philosophies you embrace, there might be more lives after this one, hopefully better ones.”
The band will resurrect another past life of their own, that of a touring band, when they finally make it back to the stage in the US this month, with a long-delayed UK tour to follow in November. “What’s going to be really nice about that,” says Geddes, “is that it’ll be the first time we’ve all played together in the same room since 2019. We’ve been rehearsing in separate little booths, because it would have been too much hassle to change the space back to how it was before we turned it into a studio. So, it’ll be nice to see each other’s faces, let alone anyone else’s. I’m very much looking forward to seeing everybody’s reactions the first time one of us makes a big, stupid fucking mistake! If we can keep it going after that," he laughs, "then we’ll be OK.”
A Bit of Previous is released on 6 May via Matador
Belle and Sebastian play Doune the Rabbit Hole, Cardross Estate, Port of Menteith, Stirling, 14-17 Jul; Beach Ballroom, Aberdeen, 21 Nov; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 23 Nov