For Whom the Belle Toils
Even now, especially in Europe, the first question we get is, 'Well, you're famous for not doing interviews, so why are you doing an interview?'" says Richard Colburn, drummer for dream-pop flag-bearers Belle & Sebastian. "That still stands today -- and we've done tons of interviews the past few years. I kind of like it that something like that can last and still be a popular myth."
The irony of this situation may not be quite as stark as Colburn believes. True, the men and women of Belle & Sebastian are infinitely more accessible than they were for the first couple of years after the release of Tigermilk, their 1996 debut, when they generally treated journalists and photographers like contagious-disease carriers. On the other hand, Belle's main man, singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch, continues to keep his distance from all but a few quizmasters, leaving the bulk of the talking to bandmates such as keyboardist Chris Geddes, guitarist-vocalist Stevie Jackson, singer/multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin, guitarist/bassist Bobby Kildea and trumpeter/guitarist Mick Cooke.
Despite this surplus of potential yakkers, Colburn is the most frequent spokesman for the group, and rightly so, since he's open and engaging, with an easy laugh and a manner that couldn't be further from Belle & Sebastian's reclusive reputation. Although he clearly loves to dish about the outfit's accomplishments, including Dear Catastrophe Waitress, its warm and inviting new disc, he believes the band's slow-and-steady approach to engaging the outside world has paid dividends. "The reason we can do things now is because we hadn't done them in the past," he allows. "If we'd gone straight into things without knowing what we know now, we wouldn't have lasted six months."
Instead, Belle & Sebastian is bearing down on a decade of existence with only a couple of major personnel shifts to date. Bassist Stuart David departed several years back to devote himself to a combo called Looper, while cellist Isobel Campbell took off to make recordings of her own, most prominently 2003's well-regarded Amorino.
The band's stability seems unlikely considering the haphazardness of its beginnings. Murdoch formed Belle & Sebastian as a final project for a music course he took at Stow College in Glasgow, Scotland; the other players were fellow students. The promising Tigermilk was cut in three days and released in mid-1996 on Electric Honey Records, a college imprint that pressed just 1,000 copies of the platter. Fortunately, one of them reached a talent scout at Jeepster, a rising British indie, which quickly signed the group and issued another first-rate Belle album, If You're Feeling Sinister, before the year was out.
At this point, most wannabe performers would have leapt at the opportunities that had unexpectedly presented themselves, but not Murdoch and company. They resisted the idea of becoming full-time musicians and eschewed a typical touring schedule in favor of widely scattered gigs staged close to home. "Early on, it was probably more of a hobby," Colburn says, "because the band kind of worked around our lives."
This equation didn't compute for long. Matador Records, which purchased the rights to promote Belle & Sebastian in the States, happily put out every recording the prolific combo assembled, and by the time 1998's The Boy With the Arab Strap came along, treating the band as a sideline on a par with stamp collecting or bird watching was no longer an option. Granted, Arab Strap divided listeners, with a sizable number knocking the group for its gentle arrangements and unabashedly sensitive lyrics. Take "Seymour Stein," which sports the lines "I've been lonely/I caught a glimpse of someone's face/It was mine and I'd been crying." The group's penchant for gentle melodies and emotional nudity enchanted plenty of others, however, and these fans have been extraordinarily loyal, because, Colburn points out, "Stuart writes great songs -- songs of a type that certain people really went toward because of the lyrical content and the stories. It might take a few listens, but you get there eventually. And once you're hooked, you're hooked.
"We've had an awful lot of luck on our side," he goes on. "When we first started, we kind of teased people by doing a couple shows a year or whatever. But people bought our records and they liked them, so it worked. We didn't really approach music in a normal kind of way. We had some crazy ideas, mad stuff, and we went ahead with it -- and people still stuck by us."
In the end, Matador didn't. The 2000 CD, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, earned the weakest notices of the collective's career, and 2002's Storytelling was hampered by the weak performance of the movie for which it served as a quasi-soundtrack. (The cinematic Storytelling didn't generate anything like the buzz of 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse or 1998's Happiness, the best-known films by its provocative director, Todd Solondz.) Afterward, Matador and Belle & Sebastian parted company, with the band landing at Rough Trade.
For their first recording under the new deal, the players took another unexpected turn. Rather than selecting a producer with an underground sensibility, they turned to Trevor Horn, a onetime part of the Buggles (that's him in the famous clip for "Video Killed the Radio Star") and Yes (he revved up "Owner of a Lonely Heart") who's gone on to work with the likes of ABC, Grace Jones, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and, more recently, T.A.T.U., which features a pair of Russian trollops pretending to be lesbian schoolgirls.
According to Colburn, working with Horn on the tracks that make up Dear Catastrophe Waitress "was quite daunting for us at first. We realized we shouldn't be working with someone like this. It was like, 'This guy's huge, and we're not that big at all!'" Nonetheless, Horn didn't try to impose an entirely new recording method on his latest charges. "The vast majority of it was letting us get on with the way we did things before -- putting down backing tracks live and then overdubbing," Colburn says. An exception was "Step Into My Office, Baby," a lively exploration of the boss-employee dynamic with an arrangement worthy of the late Elliott Smith. "On that one, everything was recorded more separately, and Trevor almost completely remixed it, so the structure of the song was different from the way it was actually recorded." Yet the biggest breakthrough, in Colburn's view, "was the way he worked with the singers -- Stuart, Sarah and Stevie. They spent more time, more takes, pushing things out a little further, and what they came up with was brilliant. It was a breakthrough live, as well, because now they have more confidence singing together in harmony."
Such skills have come in handy given Belle & Sebastian's performing schedule, which has transformed the former hermits into globe-trotters. As Colburn notes, "We've been to Japan, we just finished a twenty-day tour of Europe, and we're coming to the States, playing a lot of places we haven't been before," including Denver. Appropriately, the concerts themselves are bigger than ever. "The shows used to be very shambolic, and we more or less tried to do everything ourselves," Colburn says, "but now there's a big production in place, and that's a lot better. The usual entourage is, like, 25 people, including the band, and in Europe, we had two tour buses and two really massive, juggernaut trucks. It isn't all that cost-effective, but it's getting better as the profile of the band goes up. We never make a profit, but we've always felt, 'If we lose a pot of money, we lose a pot of money. What the hell.' You just want to enjoy it, and hopefully other people will enjoy it as well."
If sentiments like these seem bizarre coming from a member of a band once renowned for its low-key introspection, so be it. "When we started, we did what was comfortable for us -- not really touring that much, leaving a lot of space for ourselves, and then occasionally getting together to make a record," Colburn says. "Now there's an eagerness to make better records and to play them for our fans. It's new territory, but we're finding our feet."
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